Monday, August 11, 2008

And what are you reading?

Lately I've been on a Roman history binge. It all started with a book lent to me by a friend, The First Man In Rome, the first book in the 7-volume Masters of Rome series by Colleen McCullough. McCullough is an Australian novelist best known for The Thorn Birds, but this series may well be the work that assures her place in literary history. The books are comprised of deeply researched history, which McCullough then novelizes and brings to vivid life for readers like me, who are interested in this ancient culture whose influence is felt today virtually everywhere on the globe, but have neither the means nor the inclination to delve into the original Latin.

The books keep your interest simply by virtue of the river of history that they navigate. They cover the period from the fall of the old Roman republic to the rise of Empire, roughly 110 BCE to the 20s BCE. I now know who Marius and Sulla were, and what military and political maneuvers of theirs kept Rome together; this period also covers the entire life of Julius Caesar, the love affair between him and Cleopatra, his assassination and the subsequent rise of his adopted son Octavian, who styled himself Emperor Caesar Augustus and became the first of the Caesar emperors. You get a strong feel for the the political chaos left in the wake of Caesar's murder, and also Marc Antony and his connection with Cleopatra--all very juicy stuff.

For all the excitement, the books can be something of a slog at times. McCullough adopts a stentorian "Masterpiece Theater" voice that takes some getting used to, and the prose can be a bit thick in places. For authenticity's sake, and because she is taking the reader to the streets and houses of Rome as a contemporary visitor, she uses only the ancient place names when describing the various battles, for example, by which Rome either fought off invaders or extended its influence around the known world. This for me was a minor but constant irritation that often sent me to a gazetteer to get a better idea of where, exactly, some pivotal historical event occurred. Such shortcomings are more than compensated for, however, by McCullough's rich observance of everyday life for the Roman ruling class. A detailed glossary at the end of each book is a handy reference, and extensive illustrations, including contemporary maps, and even pen-and-ink portraits by McCullough herself of the main characters, add texture to the narrative.

After reading all seven novels over a period of about two years, I was left bowled over by McCullough's tenacity and scholarship, and hungry for more. I've just finished a very readable factual biography of Caesar: Caesar: the life of a colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy, 2006. Goldsworthy is at pains to present the facts as they have been handed down to us and then offer insightful commentary and context. Despite the subtitle, there is no hint of hero worship.

I'm now digging a bit deeper into the details by reading the life of the great orator Cicero, whose patronage was sought by all factions of the Rome government and who was more often than not a thorn in Caesar's side. Cicero, the life and times of Rome's greatest politician, by Anthony Everitt, is another extremely readable book that gives yet more context to my McCullough-based prelimary knowedge. It provides an excellent overview of the basic flaws in the Roman constitution, flaws that gave rise to the political mayhem that ruled toward the end of Caesar's life and after his death.

All of these books are filled with characters and events that resonate strongly with the follies of our own time: the foolishness, the hubris, the venality--and the very occasional heroism--that frustrate or inspire us today have direct antecedents in these ancient intrigues of two millenia ago. For better or worse, the characters of he two eras would feel very much at home with each other.

I'm also in the middle of another bit of really fun contemporary history: Postively 4th Street, by David Hajdu. It is the ultimate insider's account
of the rise of the 60s folk movement seen through the careers of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Richard and Mimi Fariña. It's full of intimate detail and a must read for anyone enthralled with the music of the time and its various kings and queens. The book has been a sensation for several years now and I know I'm a little late to the party--if you are, too, I urge you to pick up a cheap used copy or check it out at the library. It's a very fun read. (I happen to be listening to the book, actually--my library only had the audio version. This is a new experience for me. I miss holding the book in my hand and all that leads to, but I'm an excellent listener and am enjoying the ride.)

Happy reading.


Kat said...

You slog through tomes, and I whiz through Robin Cook and Clive Cussler. I keep slogging for winter reads.

One of my favorite programs is always NPR's summer reading. My favorite line from one a few years ago is that no summer is complete without a book about Nazis.

Ralph said...

Kat, I tend to just pick up whatever happens to interest me at the time without making a distinction between a heavy tome and a quick read. The fastest and most pleasant reads I've had in a long while are all Ruth Reichl memoirs. She is a dream of a writer who makes interesting stuff as palatable as bubblegum.