The October Horse – Colleen McCullough

The October Horse is the latest and last in an epic series chronicling the end of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Roman Empire. You can’t read The October Horse without being in awe of Colleen McCullough’s scholarship, attention to detail and painstaking historical acuman. You also can’t really read it without having read the previous five volumes (The First Man of Rome, The Grass Crown, Fortune’s Favorites, Caesar’s Women, and Caesar), so don’t start in on them unless you have a lot of time on your hands (total= 4,916 pages).

I started reading them about three years ago (blame Gladiator), without any real expectation of what I was reading, either in scope, granduer or involvement. McCullough’s Rome is not the Rome you typically find in historical fiction. Battles (although present and often filled with serious reprecussions) are not the driving force of the novels. It is personality that drives McCullough’s vision of Rome and the Romans within. Her vivid portraits of Marius, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Anthony, Cato and the countless others that inhabit her pages, are highly realistic, almost evocative personalities, reflecting the daily lives, ambitions, philosophies, obsessions, egos, emotions and respective madnesses of the historical personages.

The October Horse outlines the final phase of Caesar’s civil war with Pompey, his dalliance with the young Queen of Egypt Cleopatra, and his subsequent reforms of Republican Rome, setting the stage for an Empire whose roots still can be found today across most of the Western world. There are no surprises here – Caesar ends up dead in the Senate – and a new character dominates the final half of the book – Octavian, Caesar’s heir, who is intelligent, charismatic and ruthless by turns, jostling with Anthony and the Liberators to avenge Caesar and continue Caesar’s unfinished work.

Drawn from letters (literate Romans were inveterate and constant letter-writers), original sources, historical studies and her own interpretations of the world of Rome, the books are a must-read if you are interested in the era. If not, best to stay away as the sheer bulk of the volumes makes slogging through them a herculean task.

For more information online on Roman history, check out the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, LacusCurtius: Into the Roman World, and, as cited before, Caesar’s weblog.

If you are interested in Egypt and Cleopatra, be sure to check out The Theban Mapping Project, and find out about Cleopatra’s royal palace in Alexandia, recently uncovered by underwater archaeologists.

Read Shakespeare’s take on royal romance with Anthony & Cleopatra online. Enjoy!

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