Vikas Datta says the ancient Rome is almost like ours
Picture a metropolis where citizens live in multi-storey buildings, throng streets teeming with people from all over the world, eagerly follow and gossip over the foibles of the rich and famous, are keenly involved in governance which however is a preserve of a professional breed of squabbling politicians focussing on public works, food subsidies, corruption et al…. Sounds familiar? Well these attributes don’t only fit our world but are also a description of ancient Rome.
Republican Rome (4th-1st century BC) was a milieu that is closest to what we are now, with its polity a curious mix of oligarchy and democracy – but so are most of present-day democracies. And like today, the common people were as swayed by sops and entertainment spectacles.
The Romans’ influence survives – in language, governance, architecture and engineering, law, and of course, culture. And not only for the West, it echoes in the Indian ethos too. As it became a power, Rome had the credo “….imponere morem pacis, parcere subjectis et debellare superbos (Spread peace, spare the subdued, vanquish the arrogant)”, a sentiment quite in line with Lord Krishna’s admonition in the Bhagavad Gita: “Paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya cha dushkritam dharma-samsthapanarthaya….(help the good, destroy the wicked and establish just order on earth)”.
Cultural depictions of the Roman times are always popular and frequent – think of movies like “Spartacus”, “Ben-Hur”, “Quo Vadis”, “Cleopatra” or Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, the Asterix series and fiction by Colleen McCullough, Robert Harris, Howard L. Fast, Steven Saylor, Conn Iggulden, Ben Kane and so on. But it is McCullough who brings the late republican epoch into vivid life with her Master of Rome series.
The Australian author, also known for “Thorn Birds”, wrote six books in the series, spanning from 110 BC to 42 BC. On popular demand, she wrote a seventh, taking the narrative down to 27 BC, when the Roman Republic segued into the Roman Empire.
A template for the historical novel, the series displays meticulously research, the plot follows the line of actual happenings, and though McCullough does use her imagination to fill in the gaps, she is as far as possible on the side of probability – and goes on to discuss her reasoning in an afterword.
The result is a magnificent, multi-layered account bringing to life the 1st century Mediterranean world, as well as a considerable part of contiguous Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as a range of remarkable men – Julius Caesar, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony for the modern world), Brutus and Octavius – and women too – Aurelia, Servilla, and Cleopatra chiefly.
“The First Man in Rome” (1990) traces the careers of Gaius Marius, who gets into the ranks of the ruling elite by his marriage into the Julius Caesar family, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an impoverished nobleman in the dregs of society, who becomes Marius’ trusted aide. The book ends with Marius being told his Caesar brother-in-law has had a son (the Julius Caesar we know).
“The Grass Crown” (1991) carries forward the tale – the transformation of Marius and Sulla’s friendship into enmity, which also embroils Rome into a civil war, Marius’ ascendancy and madness – which leads to a massacre – and eventual death. “Fortune’s Favourites” (1993) sees Sulla, back from the wars, gaining power, and unleashing a massacre of his enemies. But it is Caesar, who is trapped into a religious role by Marius to prevent him from eclipsing his glory as warned by a soothsayer, who comes into his own here and dominates the rest of this book (after Sulla’s retirement and death) as well as the next three books.
“Caesar’s Women” (1996), “Caesar” (1997) and “The October Horse” (2002) see Caesar take centre-stage as they focus on his exploits and his rift with the conservative establishment that leads to another civil war. The affairs of his contemporaries are not ignored and continue simultaneously. The last sees a finally triumphant Caesar’s dilemma in choosing his heir and his assassination – the Ides of March in 44 BC. From then, it takes on with Octavian’s efforts to take up Caesar’s legacy and punish the conspirators, done with the death of Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC.
“Antony and Cleopatra” (2007) continues the story down to this duo’s eventual defeat and suicide in 27 BC at the hands of Octavian, who becomes the sole power.
The series may deal with a specific epoch but has a wider relevance – Julius Caesar was a man who would have been a glory to whatever epoch he was born in and the book gives a balanced account of his accomplishments and life after the disservice by
Shakespeare. Also the cause of the Roman republic’s decline – the conflict between elite and the populist over which course of action the state should pursue is an issue of today too. That should teach all those who deride history as a useless pursuit.