Thumbs way up for The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough. Historical fiction.
It takes a hell of a great writer to keep me reading through 931 pages, and then right on through the 122-page glossary because the book’s still so good I don’t want to put it down. In brief, The First Man In Rome is about Gaius Marius and his brother-in-law Lucius Cornelius Sulla, as Marius rises to ascendancy in Late Republican Rome. Over a thousand pages it may be, but it’s a brilliant page-turner, with really heroic (if not always good) heroes and worthy antagonists. No stone of human activity is unturned: it has love, sex, murder, war, friendship, gossip, family drama, comedy, social and political maneuvering: all of it related with a kind of wise humor that made me fall passionately in love with McCullough. This book is based on masses of research, and it’s all in play, but everything is explained so clearly and straightforwardly that you feel McCullough is a friendly force on your side going “Yeah, I know this is new to you. Here’s how it works. Don’t forget you can always check the glossary!” (And how could I not fall in love with a writer whose glossary includes X-rated cusswords right next to a toga pattern right next to the best explanations of Roman government I’ve ever read?) All history lessons should be this riveting. My love for this book can best be expressed by my desire to immediately read the next volume – all 818 pages of it.
There was a sudden reflexive stir and murmur among the crowd of senators; the senior consul, Marcus Minucius Rufus, was about to offer his white bull to the Great God, only it wasn’t behaving itself, must have had the presence of mind to avoid its last manger of drugged fodder. Not a good year, everyone was saying it already. Poor omens during the night watch of the consuls, a miserable day, and now the first of the two victims was snorting and plunging, had half a dozen sacerdotal underlings hanging on to his horn and ears – silly fools, they should have put a ring through his nose as a precaution. Stripped to the waist like the other attendants, the acolyte carrying the stunning hammer didn’t wait for the raising of the head toward the sky, followed by the dipping of the head toward the earth; it could always be argued successfully that the beast had lifted and lowered its head dozens of times during its fight to survive. He stepped in and swung his iron weapon up and down so quickly its shape was a blur. The dull crack of the blow was followed immediately by another, the noise of the bull’s knees hitting the stone paving as it came down, all sixteen hundred pounds of it. Then the half-naked axeman brought his double-bladed instrument down into the neck and the blood was pouring everywhere, some of its caught in the sacrificial cups, most of it a streaming sticky river coursing off to nowhere, melting and thinning amid the rain-soaked ground.
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