LeAnn's Reviews > Caesar's Women

Caesar's Women by Colleen McCullough
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's review
Jul 19, 09

really liked it
Read in July, 2009

In Caesar's Women, McCullough finally hits her storytelling stride. Caesar really comes to life, and what a life that is. McCullough is a sympathetic biographer who persuasively fills in the historical outline for Caesar's political career in the fourth novel in her Masters of Rome series, covering roughly ten years. The novel reflects the important women in his life, his mother Aurelia, his daughter Julia, and his mistress Servilia, with minor roles played by his last two wives Pomponia and Calpurnia. The title also alludes to Caesar's prolific female conquests, which McCullough imagines came about due to a marriage between Caesar's strong sexual appeal to women of all classes and his political need to take his rivals down a notch (as well as to prove that he wasn't gay, which was whispered by his envious rivals to a homophobic Roman society).

McCullough admits in her author's note that this novel has the richest historical source material, thereby being much covered by modern writers but also allowing her to detail the patrician Roman woman's life better. It's rather telling that McCullough has convinced this modern woman, who disdains powerful philanderers and suspects sexual psychopathy in individuals who hurt others through repeated casual use, that Caesar not only cared for the women in his life, but that they fully accepted who and what he was. Roman wives of the pre-Christian era expected their husbands to be incontinent; sex was a male bodily hunger that had little to do with marriage. Moreover, marriage was a legal relationship that didn't require fidelity on the man's part.

Besides showing Caesar's domestic relationships, which underpin his political life, McCullough weaves a story of his increasingly hostile interactions with the boni, a group of ultra-conservative Senators who oppose anything Caesar does out of personal animosity. Caesar intends to be the First Man in Rome, to enlarge his personal dignitas until it is synonymous with Rome's, but he wants to make Rome greater in doing so. The boni, however, are quite determined to prevent any man from being greater than his peers. They simultaneously acknowledge Caesar's greater ability while insisting that he can't be greater than they are. They fear that he will make himself a king.

For modern political junkies, reading the ever-increasing dysfunction of the Roman Republic's last days is quite eye-opening. Roman government grinds to a standstill as powerful Senators maneuver to block one another, or bribe electors and jurists, or interpret law to suit their exigencies, or manipulate legal calendars to take advantage of magistrates' short terms in office. Caesar, while a catalyst for some of the filibustering and gridlock, is also capable of cutting the Gordian knot and ruling with a firm, brilliant hand. Although it takes years, decades even, to bring Caesar to his breaking point, McCullough painstakingly lays the groundwork for his famous ride over the Rubicon and his eventual assassination by his implacable, envious enemies.
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