Tales from the Roman Republic

Rome’s messy transition from republic to principate has been well-documented by ancient authors and often revisited by modern ones. Since 1990 there has been a veritable explosion of historical fiction set in this era. I’ve devoured a good part of it, so here are some recommendations for your reading pleasure. The authors generally keep to the historical records where available, and reserve their imagination for filling in missing details.

Colleen McCullough — Famous for her 1977 novel The Thorn Birds, McCullough later wrote the Master of Rome series (1990–2007). The seven 1000-page bricks cover the last century of the Roman Republic, from the rise of Gaius Marius (110 BC) to the end of Marc Anthony (27 BC). Consequently, there is no single protagonist but rather a labyrinth of (more or less) famous names that might overwhelm those not already into Roman history. You should also be aware that McCullough loves explicit sex scenes, although they don’t dominate the narrative. Otherwise connoisseurs are in for a treat, in terms of both quantity and quality. This is the best and most comprehensive novelization of the Roman Republic.

2015-01-30: Sadly, Colleen McCullough just died after years of declining health, aged 77. Her Masters of Rome series is a proud legacy; I have almost finished it by now, and the high level of quality is sustained throughout. Turns out Razib Khan is also a fan.

John Maddox Roberts — Author of numerous historical and fantasy novels, Roberts is a renowned pulp fiction specialist. His thirteen SPQR mysteries (1990–2010) expertly merge the hard-boiled detective genre with the decline of the Roman Republic. They cover the years 70–46 BC through the eyes of a fictional protagonist, Decius Caecilius Metellus, who investigates crime on the side while pursuing a Roman nobleman’s political career. As you would expect the stories focus more on Decius’ rowdy adventures than historical events. Whether you find that acceptable is a matter of taste, but rest assured the swashbuckling is immensely entertaining. Here’s a typical quip from The River God’s Vengeance:

Marcus Porcius Cato was the enemy of all things modern or foreign. These things included sleeping late, eating well, bathing in hot water, and enjoying anything beautiful. He studied philosophy and even wrote philosophical tracts, but he was naturally attracted to the Stoics since they were the most disagreeable of all the Greeks.

Steven Saylor — Best known for the Roma Sub Rosa series, comprising ten main novels (1991–2008) and several short story collections and prequels. Similar to SQPR, this series also mixes the modern mystery genre with a Roman Republican setting (80–46 BC). The fictional protagonist Gordianus is rather less illustrious than Roberts’ Metellus, and conducts his criminal investigations for money rather than fun. Although Saylor seems to be more highly regarded than Roberts, I cannot share that judgment. His books are decent enough but the narrator has a bad case of modern American liberalism stuck in a Roman body, the prose sometimes veers off into stilted attempts at artfulness, and some of Saylor’s seemingly historical scenes are flat-out wrong. One example that stuck in my mind is his horrifying depiction of Roman galley slaves slowly dying in their own filth which he presents as normal for the era… except that ancient navies almost never used slave rowers. If they did it was in times of emergency, usually with the promise of freedom. Roberts correctly points this out, which is one reason I prefer his work to Saylor’s.

Robert Harris — Journalist and historian turned novelist, Harris recently started the Cicero trilogy (Imperium 2006, Lustrum 2009). Note that Conspirata is merely Lustrum retitled, not the third volume which remains to be published. The story traces the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, narrated by his secretary Tiro who invented the first recorded shorthand for taking down speeches. The writing is somewhat dry compared to the preceding authors but that did not diminish my enjoyment. Cicero is easily the most fascinating man in the late Republic, provided you approve of his focus on law and politics rather than leading armies and beating up Gauls. As with McCullough’s novels, however, you should probably bring some knowledge of the general situation to appreciate the finer details.

2016-02-20: Last year Harris published the trilogy’s final volume, Dictator. Having finished both this and McCullough’s series, I can also recommend Harris as an antidote to McCullough’s final books which were rather heavy with girlish adulation for Caesar and his allies. Harris seems more even-handed regarding both Cicero and Caesar – who was, judging by the historical record, highly intelligent and energetic but also a scheming sociopath without discernible ethics.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the splendid 1976 BBC TV series I Claudius, covering the antics of the early emperors (44 BC – 54 AD). Perhaps the BBC’s best production, the series is based on Robert Graves’ eponymous 1934 novel and its sequel. Anyone who hasn’t seen it yet should certainly get the DVD box set. I cannot honestly recommend Graves’ books which I found rather boring, but then again I also hated Moby Dick.

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