1990 - The First Man in Rome
Have you ever accidentally read a 1200-page book? Well, now that I've finished The First Man in Rome, I can proudly say that I have, in fact, accidentally read a 1200-page book.
In my excitement to create The List, I gleefully plucked books from my to-be-read list with abandon. I figured they were on my list for a reason, right? They were bound to be good editions to the project.
What I didn't think to do was check the page count. I wrapped up Beloved and ordered the next set of books. A few days later, I was surprised to find a brick wrapped in an envelope on my front porch. My stomach sank as I opened it and realized what I had committed to read. A 1200-page (sorry to keep repeating that number, but come on!) behemoth of historical fiction about some of the oldest, deadest, and whitest old, dead, white men.
As circumstances had it, my spouse was away for work for the entire month of October, giving me more uninterrupted reading time in the evening. So slog I did through the lives of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gaius Marius, and myriad other Roman politicians during a revolutionary time in Rome's history. Gaius Marius, it turns out, is the maternal uncle through marriage of Julius Caesar, whose full name is actually Gaius Julius Caeser (just about every man in this book had the first name Gaius; I gather it's the ancient Roman equivalent of Joe or Bob. But I digress.). Marius is an immensely wealthy member of the Senate though he doesn't have the pedigree to gain favor with Rome's aristocratic elite. Sulla is one of those highborn Romans, though his father squandered the family's fortune and with it any chance Sulla had to rise in power. When the two come together, a powerful revolution is ignited.
It seemed especially fortuitous to be reading this political treatise during what is a decidedly ugly election season. It was uncanny how similar the conservative rhetoric of today mirrors the sentiment of ancient Rome, where power was concentrated in the hands of few and deliberately withheld from the lower classes, including the sizable but politically powerless Head Count.
"This House must do whatever it can to limit the power Gaius Marius has just given the Head Count. For the Head Count must remain what it has always been--a useless collection of hungry mouths we who are more privileged must care for, feed, and tolerate--without ever asking it for any service in return. For while it does no work for us and has no use, it is no more and no less than a simple dependent, Rome's wife who toils not, and has no power, and no voice. It can claim nothing from us that we are not willing to give it, for it does nothing. It simply is." (p. 341).
I suppose it should come as no surprise that misogynist and elitist attitudes were pervasive back then when one of the current major party candidates is actually holding on to a chance of winning with a similar platform. But since I'm not sure I can take one more minute of my life thinking about politics right now, here is another lovely quotation that illustrates the epic writing of this book. In this scene, a woman, Livia, has just been told by her brother that she will be forced to marry against her will. She refused, so he locked her in her room indefinitely. Seriously.
"A strong consciousness that she was in the right coupled with a burning indignation had sustained her for the first three days and nights, and after that she had taken solace from the plights of all the heroines she had discovered through her reading. Penelope's twenty-year wait came top of the list, of course, but Danae had been shut up in her bedroom by her father, and Ariadne had been abandoned by Theseus on the seashore of Naxos....In every case, things had changed for the better. Odysseus came home, Perseus was born, and Ariadne was rescued by a god...
But with her brother's words still echoing inside her thoughts, Livia Drusa began to understand the difference between great literature and real life. Great literature was never intended to be either facsimile or echo of real life; it was meant to shut out real life for a while, to free the harried mind from mundane considerations, so that the mind could holiday amid glorious language and vivid word-pictures and inspiring or alluring ideas. At least Penelope had enjoyed the freedom of her own palace halls, and the company of her son; and Danae had been dazzled by showers of gold; and Ariadne had suffered no more than the pinprick of Theseus' rejection before one far greater than Theseus espoused her. But in real life Penelope would have been raped and forcibly married and her son murdered, and Odysseus would never have come home at all; and Danae and her baby would have floated in their chest until the sea drowned them; and Ariadne would have been left pregnant y Theseus, and died in a lonely childbirth." (p. 500-501)
Perhaps this quote also serves to illustrate just how this book got to be so long. In the tradition of Homer, this author loves giving space to the thoughts of a tertiary character. If you've got forty hours to spend immersing yourself in a sweeping, well researched historical fiction, I'd recommend any of the three below. The first two continue on the Roman trend, while the third--and my favorite of the three--follows the construction of a cathedral in medieval Europe.
- Julian by Gore Vidal
- I, Claudius by Robert Graves
- Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet
And with that, I've just doubled my page count. Oof.
Keep turning the page,