Thursday, December 07, 2006

The October Horse by Colleen McCullough

(Book Review)
Now that I’ve read the last book in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, I first want to say how much I’ve enjoyed this series. In my review of the previous book, I mentioned several quibbles I had, and I stand by those, but they are after all only quibbles. On the whole this is a fantastic series.

Granted it’s not for everyone. Hard as it may be to believe, there are some people who have no interest in history, and I imagine they would lose interest in this very fast. But if you have even the slightest interest in history, if you’ve ever enjoyed a good historical novel, I can’t recommend these books enough. They’re well written with vivid characters. You’ll learn a ton about Roman history, and you’ll have fun doing it. They are long books, but you don’t have to read them all at once. I took a 10 year break in between books 4 and 5 in the series, and had very little problem getting right back into it. Because these are historical novels, and not straight histories, the characters and events of the previous books remained vivid enough in my mind even after 10 years. Which is the beauty of learning history through novels. It sticks in your mind a lot longer.

My only complaint is that McCullough has ended the series here with the formation of the second Triumvirate. The true end of the Republic wasn’t until Augustus defeated Antony and assumed power. It would have been nice if she would have continued just a little farther to bring closure to her series on the fall of the Roman Republic. But I guess if we want to get technical about it, she really should have started the series 50 years earlier with the Gracchi brothers. (Actually according to Wikipedia, McCullough has relented to fan pressure, and is currently writing one last book in this series. So at least I have that to look forward to.)

Now onto the specifics of this particular volume:
Because this book deals with the assassination of Julius Caesar and the love life of Cleopatra, more so than any previous book in the series it deals with events already very familiar through Shakespeare and Hollywood. McCullough presents a different view of these events than the one we are accustomed to. She defends some of her choices in the afterward to her book.

For instance, Julius Caesar never utters the words “Et Tu, Brute?” According to ancient sources, Caesar was silent at his death. Cleopatra is not the exotic beauty she is often portrayed as in Hollywood, but an awkward gangly teenage girl. Marc Antony is depicted as originally being in on the plot to assassinate Caesar. Brutus and Cassius are not the charming men they appear as in Shakespeare, but men who are perfectly content to loot, pillage and burn Greece and Asia Minor in order to fund their war against Marc Antony.

I remember one of my Latin professors at Calvin once made a big deal of the fact that, contrary to popular conception, Brutus and Cassius were not in fact killed in retaliation for the murder of Julius Caesar. Rather after the assassination, a general amnesty was offered to all the conspirators. It was for other reasons that the uneasy peace collapsed and civil war began. The reasons for the collapse of peace can be pretty confusing, but McCullough does a good job of thoroughly covering this step by step in her book.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"Julia" was written for John's mother Julia Lennon, who was struck by a car driven by a drunk policeman in 1958. It was also written for his wife Yoko Ono, whose first name, which literally means "child of the sea" in Japanese (洋子), is echoed in lyrics such as "Oceanchild, calls me."

Link of the Day
Antiwar Vietnam Vets Mentor Next Generation of Resisters
About 8,000 soldiers have gone AWOL since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and many of them are looking to their predecessors for support.

The October Horse by Colleen McCullough: Book Review (Scripted)


Anonymous said...

I've not read the books, but I would be interested in your interpretation of McCullough's primary thesis as stated in the Wikipedia article on "The Masters of Rome" series. Look it up when you get a chance and I'd love to hear your reaction.

Joel Swagman said...

First of all Tom, you would love these books. I highly recommend you at least start in on the first one. I suspect once you get hooked you won't be able to put it down.

As per wikipedia's theis: "The series has a thesis: as Rome became more powerful within the Mediterranean world, the old ways of doing things -- through the deliberation of various interests, mainly aristocratic and mercantile -- became impossibly cumbersome. It became more and more difficult to govern an empire with institutions originally designed to administer a city-state. Certain powerful leaders (especially the dictators Sulla and Caesar) tried to reform the old ways -- and to do so in a manner that would be consistent with Rome's basic character as a republic. But the conservatives (called the optimates by classical historians, though they themselves preferred the title boni or "good men") opposed reform so fiercely that they made inevitable the death of the Republic they claimed to cherish. The result was the birth of an imperial monarchy, and a radically different organization of power."

i guess there are two questions here. 1) Does this accurately reflect the books and 2) is it an accurate thesis.

1st question: I'd say close but no cigar. to even say that these books have a thesis might be a stretch. McCullough is obviously approaching these books with a history nerds love for history first and foremost above any axes she has to grind. How else to explain all the various digressions she goes on that have nothing to do with her "thesis".

These books are very pro-populare in bent, and pro Gaius Marius and Caesar in general. Wikipedia does a bit of a diservice by including Sulla as one of her powerful men, because he emerges as one of the series villians. However McCullough makes the point repeatedly that Caesar did not view himself as ending the republic, but rather as the next Sulla: a strong man who does what needs to be done at the time, but whom afterwards things revert to the republican state. And she does definately take the view that civil war was forced by the Boni against Caesar's wishes.

As for question number 2: I guess you're thoughts are as good as mine on this (or maybe even better). My impression, although I don't claim to be as well read as you, is that this is a view that could be defended. And one could just as easily argue otherwise. I have read biographies of Caesar on either side of this.