Monday, June 28, 2010

The October Horse

The October Horse (2002) is the sixth book in the 'Master of Rome' series that chronicles the people and events surrounding the downfall of the Roman Republic.  True to its predecessors, this is a massive tome (1120 pages) that, while remaining fiction, is firmly rooted in primary historical sources.

The book is rather aptly named after a custom held after a particular chariot race held each year in Rome on the Ides of October.  The strongest horse from the winning chariot team was sacrificed to the gods.  Afterwards, its head was flung into a crowd consisting of two teams of plebeians who fought for its control.  You don't have to be a classical scholar to realize that the October Horse is a thinly veiled allusion to Julius Caesar.

The book opens in 48 BC just after Pompey the Great has been treacherously murdered in Alexandria at the hands of the ruling Ptolemy.  Julius Caesar lands in Alexandria and, upon discovering the circumstances of Pompey's death, immediately sides with Cleopatra who is embroiled in a civil war against her brother Ptolemy.  After a short campaign, not only does Cleopatra solidify her rule of Egypt, but she also falls desperately in love with Caesar and will eventually bear him a son, Caesarion.

Of course the crowning moment of the entire series is the fateful event that took place in Rome on the Ides of March in 44 BC.  McCullough does a fantastic job of building the conspiracy against Caesar that arises first from the grumbles of his discontented former legates.  The pacing of events in this section of the novel is truly fantastic, and McCullough keeps the suspense taut until the final act of Caesar's life is played out.  I can only imagine it must have been a difficult scene for her to write, as she has practically idolized Caesar from his earliest appearance in the series.

At this point, I should mention that I strongly feel that The October Horse should have been split into two separate novels.  The death of Julius Caesar, without doubt the central character of the entire 'Masters of Rome' series, would have been a natural place to stop action.  After the assassination, I wanted to take a break and come to grips with Caesar's death, and indeed that of the Republic, but felt I never really got the chance.

Instead, the remainder of the novel (we're talking hundreds of pages here) are left to deal with wrangling between Mark Antony and Octavian (Caesar's adopted son) for the control of Rome.  We find Octavian to have many of the same outstanding qualities of Julius Caesar but also lacking his intense sense of fairness and scruples.  Overall, Octavian comes off as a quite unlikable character in my estimation, although I suppose you don't get to be the emperor of Rome being nice!

Despite a few small quibbles, I was wholly satisfied with the novel, which was originally intended to end the 'Masters of Rome' series at the Battle of Phillipi, the point at which McCullough considers the Roman Republic to have died for all time.  Luckily for us, she relented and wrote a seventh book to carry the characters through to Actium, where Mark Antony is defeated decisively and Octavian ascends to the throne as Augustus Caesar.  Rest assured I'll be reviewing this last novel sometime in the near future!

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