Book Review: The Grass Crown *****
The second book in McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series, The Grass Crown picks up where The First Man in Rome leaves off, chronicling the slow decline of Gaius Marius, the main character in the first book, and the rise of his aristocratic colleague and rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Several other Romans, famous, infamous and obscure, also make an appearance, including the young Pompey, Cicero, and of course Julius Caesar, already charming, intelligent to the point of genius, and utterly ruthless.
With the impeccable research that made The First Man in Rome such a joy for lovers of historical fiction, McCullough also provides a richly detailed background for the careers of these well-known men. Roman history is such a vast subject, usually concentrating on the expansion of the empire and dry politics, that it is a treat to get an intimate glimpse into the Romans’ personal lives, alliances and rivalries, as well as the larger but often overlooked conflict with the other Italian tribes known as the Social War. The strong women who helped make Rome great, although their political power was virtually non-existent, are not neglected here either. Marius’ wife, Julia, and Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, are two exceptional women who made their first appearance in the last book; introduced here, as a child, is the treacherous Servilia, who will eventually become the mother of Brutus. In addition, we get an extended look at Rome’s great nemesis Mithridates, king of Pontus, and a glimpse of Egyptian dynastic politics before Cleopatra.
Although sometimes the details of troop movements and political maneuvering can be a little hard to follow, McCullough’s real forté is characterization. As with the characters in I Claudius, they can take such a hold on the imagination that it can be a little disconcerting to read non-fictional accounts and find that for all the research and loving detail, her interpretations of personalities, motivations, etc. are just that, interpretations. To me, this is a mark of truly excellent fiction - to make the us forget that it is fiction and that we are not actually there, eavesdropping on history.