Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Book Review: The October Horse

El Jefe has recently finished reading Colleen McCullough’s excellent The October Horse, last of her “Masters of Rome” series. The six books in the series (each VERY large) chronicles the doings of Rome’s great, good and not-so-good, from the time of the great general Gaius Marius, in about 110 BC, ending, in October Horse, with the murder of Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and the chaos following his death leading to the Battle of Phillipi in late 42 BC.

The interesting tale of the collapse of the Roman Republic has found its bard in Ms. McCullough, an Australian, (living in the exotic locale of Norfolk Island – look it up) whose first career was as a neurophysiologist. McCullough introduces us to all the important Romans of the time, and makes their thoughts and actions both believable and comprehensible – no mean feat because this involves exploring the motivations and beliefs of persons who are not in any way influenced by a Judeo-Christian culture.

The Roman Republic was really an oligarchy where a very exclusive club of insider nobles and notables shuffled offices, cash, perks and favors among themselves. McCullough’s previous books tell this tale well and engagingly; what’s a little bribery and corruption among friends ?

“Republic” in our sense of the word is a misnomer if there ever was one. This republic was not radically different from the monarchial Empire that Julius and Augustus Caesar replaced it with, the difference being that the late Republic was not getting its work done: Rome was attempting to govern an empire consisting of the entire Mediterranean basin with the same methods used to run a city-state 150 years previously. The end-result was a slow political and ultimately military revolt of the outsiders symbolized and led first by Gaius Marius and then his political heir, Caesar. This struggle is well-chronicled in Ms. McCullough’s books.
The end of the Civil War (49-45 BC) and the final demise of the Republic is the subject of October Horse. In the first third of the book Caesar books all over the Mediterranean basin chasing the defeated Republicans, seducing (or getting seduced by) Cleopatra, fathering a king, trying to restrain his more corrupt and self-seeking followers (paging, Mark Antony), pardoning too many no-goodnicks (Brutus and Cassius, call your office), and wondering what on Earth he’s going to do with the world now that he’s conquered it.

October Horse feels different than the earlier books, chiefly because so many of the movers and shakers we have met in the earlier books, together with their causes, feuds and preoccupations – are gone or irrelevant. The world, probably to Caesar, as well as the readers, seems emptier. Caesar himself is almost the last of his breed; and his world, that of the Roman aristocrat acquiring glory and dignitas by contending successfully against his contemporaries, has, mostly because of the defeated boni, (the dominant insider-faction) committed suicide.

Most hard-core Masters of Rome series readers, like El Jefe, probably like Caesar and dislike his enemies, the purblind, prating, witless, corrupt and tiresome boni, even more than he does. (Confession, El Jefe rather likes McCullough’s Pompey, the tool of Caesar’s enemies, who, although ruthless, is not unlikable and without his good points, but El Jefe spent three books and hundreds of pages wanting John Gotti and some of El Jefe’s elite goombas to pop out of a time machine and whack Cato, Bibulus, Cassius, that milquetoast Brutus and crew – plus Mark Antony for good measure).

If you share this perspective with El Jefe, the first part of October Horse is pretty melancholy because the reader knows a Bad Day in the Senate House is a’comin. The conniving boni couldn’t beat Caesar in a straight-up fight, so their heirs decide to get together with some jealous hangers-on in Caesar’s own crew and rub him out (15 March 44 BC). The misnamed “Liberators” are at least as stupid as they are murderous, and instead of restoring liberty, the Assassins unleash chaos and ensure the definitive end of the Republic and cause nearly thirteen more years of civil wars – ending, after thousands more were dead, in a much more absolute monarchy then Caesar probably had in mind.

October Horse is really two books, and with Caesar’s death, the second volume -- and the best part of the story -- finally begins. The latter part of the book concerns the crazy free-for-all power struggle between the treacherous, ruthless and utterly corrupt Mark Antony; the treacherous, equally ruthless and super-smart Octavian, (Caesar’s 19 year old heir and adoptive-son); the rapacious and incompetent Assassins; and the hapless and incompetent Marcus Cicero’s senatorial faction.
Ms. McCullough’s retelling of the rise of the inexperienced and sickly Octavian (known to us as Augustus) and his construction of an ultimately victorious faction right under the noses of legions of more experienced and (apparently) more powerful opponents – is alone worth the price of the book. Watching Octavian in action is such great fun: 19 years old and the kid’s got moves ! It’s like The Godfather on steroids.

The book ends with the defeat of the Assassins at Phillipi in 42 BC, and this is perhaps the book’s only real defect, because Ms. McCullough states that there will not be a badly needed sequel carrying the story through to Octavian’s final victory over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium.
In any case, this is a great book. If you enjoy, as does El Jefe, historical fiction, don't miss October Horse, or any book in this series.

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