Watching transfixed as Rome topples

November 08, 1993|By Maude McDaniel | Maude McDaniel,Contributing Writer

Fortune's favorites in Republican Rome are a dinarius a dozen in this book, but the fickle deity only takes a few of them seriously. Colleen McCullough, up to her old tricks as a one-woman show, tells us their stories with no visible letdown in this third volume (after "The First Man in Rome" and "The Grass Crown") of her five-book series about the fall of the Roman Republic.

If possible, it's even better than the first two. Or maybe I'm just getting used to all those ponderous Roman names (Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius); the sentence fragments ("Needed to hear."); and the anachronisms ("kids," "buzz off," "what a hoot") that used to annoy me.

"Master of terror and suspense," Lucius Cornelius Sulla becomes dictator of Rome and sets up a police state. He destroys the lives and estates of hundreds of knights and senators by duly legislated proscription, and incidentally does readers a favor by considerably cutting down on the cast of characters. After engineering a revamping of Roman law, he voluntarily steps down to end his life in a welter of pleasure and orgy.

Another favorite of Fortune, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) seizes the stage -- all Fortune's favorites make their own luck -- as a military dreamer whose fantasies sometimes come true, and who throws tantrums when they don't. On the other hand, Gaius Julius Caesar, emerging from a highly restricted life as a priest of Jupiter, bides his time as a sort of Roman Peter Wimsey, self-effacing and fearsomely brilliant at law, soldiering, public relations and love.

Many reviewers, including this one, have leaned so hard on the obvious parallels between "ancient Rome and contemporary America" that it's probably time to point out that, while we have much to learn from the fate of the Roman Republic, there are differences, too. Rapacious venality is not yet actually expected of those in public office, and Congress has avoided the strategic murders and wholesale slaughters that periodically blot Roman political history. So far.

Something of a creative colossus herself (she personally produces all these books' maps, drawings, calendars of historical events, glossaries and synopses), Ms. McCullough somehow manages to highlight the individuals caught up in the hurricane of history without trivializing its scope or halting its momentum. She even makes political speeches and military movements fascinating, although here she is surely assisted by the drama implicit in Rome's annals.

Commendably, she resists embroidering the riveting, often horrible stories: Caesar cleverly and lethally getting the better of his pirate captors; Crassus' literal decimation of cowardly Roman troops; the rebellion of one of Fortune's less lucky favorites, Spartacus, and the fabled punishment; and crucifixions all over the place. They range from that of a hapless slave girl who displeases her mistress to a ritual involving nine dogs every year for 400 years as punishment for an ancient lapse.

In the midst of international military maneuverings and arcane political intrigue, Ms. McCullough scratches the human underbelly of history: as the country folk watch Pompey's most splendid parade, "Toddlers were held out to [urinate] on those below them, babies howled, children dived this way and that through the masses, gravy dribbled down tunics in a nice contrast to custard cascades, fights broke out, the susceptible fainted or vomited, and everybody ate nonstop. A typical Roman holiday."

For her readers, Ms. McCullough has imposed a permanent gloss on the classics, including Shakespeare. The famous names will assume her faces and her personalities, whether or not they are authentic.

I'll admit it -- I'm addicted to these books. I can't wait for my next fix, to be called "Caesar's Women" and scheduled, I hope, for publication ASAP or sooner.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Fortune's Favorites"

Author: Colleen McCullough

Publisher: Morrow

Length, price: 878 pages, $25

Maude McDaniel is a writer who lives in Cumberland.

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