Thursday, May 6, 2010


Caesar is the fifth novel in Colleen McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series of historical novels which describe the events leading to the downfall of the Roman Republic. The series opens in 110 B.C. and proceeds to chronicle the careers of Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and the early life of Gaius Julius Caesar. This is, of course, a drastic understatement of the scope of the series--these novels are extremely thorough and well-researched. McCullough has made a concious effort to remain as faithful as possible to primary sources when writing her own account.

This installment opens in 54 B.C. when Julius Caesar is in the midst of his years-long campaign to subdue Gaul. Nearly all of the first half of the novel describes the tactics used by Caesar to break apart the alliance of Gauls cobbled together under the leadership of Vercingetorix with aid from the Druids.

Particularly interesting is the description of Caesar's tactics at Alesia (52 B.C.), a hilltop town where Vercingetorix had holed up in an attempt to avoid giving battle. To prevent any sizable Gallic force from escaping Alesia, Caesar completely surrounded the town in about three weeks time with a series of ditches stretching for over 14 kilometers. When word came that a Gallic relief force had been dispatched, Caesar incredibly built a second line of fortifications facing outward, thus encircling his army between the two defensive lines! Both Gallic forces attacked the Romans simultaneously over the course of two days but were repelled each time. In the climactic battle, a weak point in the Roman lines was nearly breached by the relief army 60,000 men strong. Recognizing this to be the critical moment of the battle, Caesar personally led a desperately small force of cavalry around to attack the Gallic army in the rear which broke into a headlong retreat. Vercingetorix, still in Alesia on the brink of starvation, was forced to capitulate, essentially marking the end of organized Gallic resistance to Roman rule.

The latter half of Caesar chronicles the events in Rome where the boni faction, led most vocally by Cato, is attempting to strip Caesar of his army and send him into exile. Following the death of Caesar's daughter, the personal relationship between Caesar and Pompey the Great is fractured irrevocably, thus ending the First Triumvirate that had dominated Roman politics for a decade. When Caesar crosses the Rubicon, bringing his army onto Roman soil, a state of civil war is declared by the senate. The novel closes with the rather anti-climactic Battle of Pharsalus where Pompey's force is easily defeated, and he is forced to flee to Egypt. On arrival, he is assassinated by the ruling Ptolemy king in an effort to make peace with Caesar. Though the remains of the boni faction have fled to western Africa, Caesar now stands the undisputed master of Rome.

I absolutely loved the book and give it 4.5 hamsters. McCullough really shines when describing the inner working of Rome's broken political system. The characterization, whether true or not, is brilliantly pulled off. However, I do have some small reservations about the way Caesar and Pompey are portrayed. McCullough veritably deifies Julius Caesar throughout the whole series. His failures, granted few and far between, are definitely downplayed in the narrative. On the other hand, Pompey is portrayed as a rather weak man who allows himself to be easily used. I can't believe that someone who had risen to such heights in the Roman Republic based nearly completely on his prowess commanding an army could have such a spineless nature. A very small quibble about a novel that is truly a masterpiece of historical fiction!

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