The October Horse

by Colleen McCullough

Reviewed by David Maclaine

In The October Horse the career of Julius Caesar comes to its well-known culmination on the Ides of March, and his great-nephew Octavius achieves a surprising success as his adoptive son and heir. As in the preceding volume of her series on the Roman Republic, McCullough rises brilliantly to the task of retelling stories we know from the work of more famous writers. The early action in this novel takes place in Alexandria, with the famous coming together of strong personalities that Shaw brought to the stage in Caesar and Cleopatra. The climax of the tale is even better known from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Caesar himself wrote about the Spanish campaign that happened in between. Once again the novelist must find find a fresh and personal approach to familiar material, and once again she succeeds.

Writing about the long battle for control of Alexandria, McCullough shows her understanding of topography and the tactics of an urban civil war. Her portrait of the young Cleopatra gives that astonishing young woman her due as a political leader of remarkable intelligence. And the doggedness of Caesar's arch-conservative opponent Cato the Younger finally reveals itself as a virtue when he leads a remarkable trek across the wastes of North Africa. McCullough's detailed account of the conspiracy that led to Caesar's assassination and the complex maneuvering for power that follows reminds us how much rich material Shakespeare cut from his play in the interest of a fast-moving drama. Most impressive of all is McCullough's bold interpretation of the transformation that made Octavius into a new Caesar, allowing him to survive and force a partnership with a hostile Marcus Antonius that leads to victory in civil war. I've read more than a few accounts of his rise, and none convinces the way McCullough's does. The October Horse offers a superb set of portraits of the people who would soon bring the Republic to an end. (2002, 792 pages, including an extensive Glossary with informative and fascinating paragraph-long entries on the customs and institutions of Republican Rome)

More about The October Horse at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

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

Other novels about Caesar and Cleopatra:

The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor (2004), about a Roman investigator who brings his ailing wife to Egypt for a cure and becomes enmeshed in the struggle between Caesar, Cleopatra and King Ptolemy for control of Egypt; #9 in the Roma Sub Rosa mystery series. More info

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George (1997), about Cleopatra. More info

When We Were Gods: A Novel of Cleopatra by Colin Falconer (2000), about the Egyptian queen. More info

Nonfiction about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra:

Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman (2008). More info

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy (2006). More info

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (2010). More info


Caesar and Cleopatra in Egypt at the University of Chicago website

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