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Colleen McCullough, R.I.P.
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I was aware that Colleen McCullough was ill, so sadly it is no surprise that she has died.

To many McCullough is known for her Masters of Rome series. I particularly think that the first two books in the series, The First Man in Rome and Grass Crown were exceptional. The later novels cover the career of Julius Caesar and his heirs (both Augustus and Antony), which are rather well known to us. In contrast the life and times of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla are not familiar to many modern people. In fact it is likely that their names would not ring a bell with the vast majority of people due to the decline of the classical education (which was the province of a narrow elite in any case when it was in vogue). But these were significant figures in their time whose influence echoes down the generations. For example, the Marian reforms depicted in The First Man in Rome arguably laid the foundations for the professional Roman legions which were to serve as the basis for the empire of the first few centuries A.D. Caesar nailed the republic’s coffin, but Marius built up much of its superstructure, making the armies loyal to their generals by opening up recruitment to those without other means of support. And Julius Caesar is a less surprising character if you are aware of the precedent of Sulla, whose vicious dictatorship he managed to evade.

Finally, of the peculiar things I recall about Colleen McCullough is that she wrote her massive novels in longhand (or at least her first few ones).

• Category: History • Tags: Colleen McCollough, First Man in Rome 
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  1. German_reader says:

    “In contrast the life and times of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla are not familiar to many modern people. ”

    Probably this is also partly due to the problems with the sources that have come down from antiquity. Sulla’s and Marius’ time (and the subsequent period down to the 60s BC) is much less well documented than the end of the republic for which even contemporary sources (Cicero’s letters and speeches) have survived. Which is a pity since undoubtedly many very important developments took place during the earlier era (not just the Marian reforms, but also the Social war and the subsequent spread of Roman citizenship to most of Italy).

  2. Yea, I was looking a few years ago for fictional treatments of, what for lack of a better name I’ll call the “early Late Republic”, the Gracchi brothers and than Marius and Sulla, and was surprised how little there was. Seems like a pretty rich story for some screenwriter out there. Instead, we seem to get endless rehashes of Julius and Augustus Caesar.

  3. How good are her books if you’re a Roman history buff? I’ve always shied away from them for fear of either being either turned off by historical inaccuracies that I do catch or being misinformed by inaccuracies that I don’t.

    Good historical fiction is a delight but I’d rather read generic fantasy that something that alleges to be historical but distorts it enough to mislead or misinform.

  4. @#1: what is this I don’t even

    Was this a post you let through for humor’s sake, Razib?

  5. The affair of the Gracchi started when Tiberius Gracchi was tribune and he noticed that the farms and villages that the Roman census/muster roll said were to provide legionnairies did not exist because rich patricians had created slave staffed latifundi out of the ager romanum in Italy and as tribune he wanted to distribute all this land to roman proles to recreate the traditional yeoman class that could afford it’s own arms to fight in the legions. Who also would have as it’s first loyalty the Roman state itself, being able to sit and vote in the various assemblies that being in the army entitled a roman of the republican era to do. He and his brother failed at that, though there was a lip service paid to it to fixing the problem after both Gracchi’s were dead, but it obviously was not since 20 years later when the Cimbri and the Teutones showed up, Marius had to draft urban proles since the muster roll was useless and the only bodies around were the urban proles, and it was viewed at the time as a desperate measure and it was. Then he beat the Teutones and the Cimbri with them. Marius’ reforms happened basically because of upper class decadence made them necessary.

    Not to belittle the author, who as a stylist probably is an easier read, but Plutarch, who wrote a life of each of the entire cast of characters from the late republic was most likely the major source for her books, and they have translated Plutarch into English, one need not read Greek. Plutarch is actually a pretty good read, depending on the translator I suppose.

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