The Grass Crown

by Colleen McCullough

Reviewed by David Maclaine

In The Grass Crown Colleen McCullough's ambitious series on the final century of the Roman Republic takes another step forward. So packed with characters and major events is this novel that the author's own synopsis, provided at the beginning of the next novel in the series, runs over thirteen pages. The two figures who dominated the action in The First Man in Rome return. The champion of the people, Gaius Marius, strives to attain an unlikely honor foretold for him by a prophecy, little suspecting that the summit of his accomplishment will become a scene of horror. Meanwhile the charming, unscrupulous Sulla finally emerges from his sometime ally's shadow to become a major player in the struggles for power that convulse the Roman state. Both men face the growing threat in the east posed by King Mithridates of Pontus. Both shine after a political assassination thwarts the Italian people's hopes for Roman citizenship and indirectly sparks a bloody civil war. In that war a brutal Roman general named Pompey Strabo earns a new nickname, "the Butcher," and his teenaged son takes care of a young friend named Cicero who utterly lacks the qualities required for a military life.

Among the other young people whose lives are entangled in the action is Julius Caesar, whose prospects for future success seemed cruelly nipped in the bud by the novel's end. Despite a crowded cast and wide-ranging plot, at its core The Grass Crown is the story of Sulla. He is a deeply flawed but riveting protagonist of a type that has dominated cable TV dramas during the last decade and a half, a worthy companion to Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, Vic Mackey, Patty Hughes, and Walt White. The Grass Crown ends with a crucial conflict still hanging in the balance, which means that fans of McCullough's "Masters of Rome" series will simply reach for the next volume in the series and read on. (1991, 894 pages, including an extensive Glossary with informative and fascinating paragraph-long entries on the customs and institutions of Republican Rome)

More about The Grass Crown at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

The Grass Crown appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History

Other novels set in Rome before 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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