The First Man in Rome

by Colleen McCullough

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The First Man in Rome makes a lively start for Colleen McCullough's epic series on the final decades of the Roman Republic. The title character is Gaius Marius, the greatest military leader of his generation and a powerful political force for the party that favors the Roman people over the aristocrats who dominate the government. In counterpoint to the upright Marius is Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man of impeccable bloodlines and considerable charm and intelligence but no wealth. He begins the novel as an aimless bisexual wastrel, but events and his own complete lack of scruples soon change Sulla's life and he finds himself working in tandem with Marius as the Republic faces a series of crises. King Jugurtha of Africa wages war, a vast horde of barbarians destroys two Roman armies, and a reckless demagogue raises rebellion in the streets of Rome. The grand action of the novel tells how the unlikely duo deals with these threats. But the heart of the novel lies in its myriad of political subplots and its droves of secondary characters.

Among Marius' key allies is a man named Gaius Julius Caesar, who becomes his father-in-law and by the novel's end has an infant grandson of the same name: the Julius Caesar. The baby Caesar lives in an apartment complex in Rome's slum, the Subura, cared for by his magnificent mother Aurelia, who is in turn looked after by a sometime assassin named Lucius Decumius. The complex strands of the story involve many others - the list of main characters in the front runs two and a half pages - and the political action, full of votes for office or laws, bribery to win those votes, gang intimidation, and prosecutions, is equally rich and detailed. The First Man in Rome can be justly called Dickensian: a tale in which the dramatic social issues facing a great city are brought to life through unforgettable characters. (1990, 896 pages, including an extensive Glossary with informative and fascinating paragraph-long entries on the customs and institutions of Republican Rome)

More about The First Man in Rome at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

The First Man in Rome appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History

Other novels set in Rome before the time of the Caesars:

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor (2007), a time-sweep novel about ancient Rome from its earliest founding as a settlement on the banks of the Tiber into the time of Caesar Augustus. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden (2003), about Julius Caesar as a youth, when he chooses the losing side in the struggle between Marius and Sulla to control Rome; #1 in the Emperor series. More info

The Pillars of Rome by Jack Ludlow (2008), about two young patricians during the time of the Roman Republic who swear loyalty to each other and to Rome; #1 in the Republic trilogy. More info

Nonfiction about Marius and his time:

Gaius Marius: A Political Biography by Richard J. Evans (1994). More info

On the Wings of Eagles: The Reforms of Gaius Marius and the Creation of Rome's First Professional Soldiers by Christopher Anthony Matthew (2010). More info

Swords Against the Senate: The Rise of the Roman Army and the Fall of the Republic by Erik Hildinger (2002). More info


Marius and Sulla at

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