Saturday, July 5, 2014

First Man in Rome: The Question of Historical Accuracy

Finally, I wanted to look at Plutarch and see just how well First Man in Rome fits with the historical record.

First, Sulla.  The account of Sulla's early poverty, including living in lodgings that rented for 3,000 sesterces is from Plutarch, as is the portrayal of him as dissolute in his youth, associated with theater people (considered disreputable) and had a long-standing gay affair with the actor Metrobius.  Also from Plutarch is that he was the lover of a rich but common woman named Nicopolis, who left her fortune to him, as did his step mother, "who loved him as her own son."  Nothing in Plutarch suggests that he killed either woman for her fortune (which makes up a large part of McCullough's novel), or that his step mother loved him otherwise than as a son.  They also disagree about Sulla's appearance.  McCullough describes him as very handsome and so light in color as to be a semi-albino.*  Plutarch describes his coloring as splotchy, with a mixture of red and white, which doesn't sound handsome at all.  McCullough's description of Sulla's role in the Numidia war matches Plutarch's well.  Plutarch does not say much about him in the war against the Germans, other than that he captured the chief of the Tesgosages.  Plutarch also clearly confirms the impression I got from the novel -- that the real cause of the falling out between the two was not over ideology, but pure power.  And confirmed: During the events of First Man in Rome, Sulla had not done anything in his public career to show himself as a villain.  If McCullough wants to convince us that he is a villain, she has to give him dogs to kick for our entertainment.

As for Marius, Plutarch's treatment surprised me.  Given Plutarch's general distrust of populist politicians and the ghastly end to Marius' career, I expected him to portray Marius, like Sulla, as a straight-up villain.  Instead, he portrays him rather as McCullough portrays him -- a man of distinguished military and political career that ended up very badly.  He begins with the comment that Marius' cognomen is unknown.  He describes Marius' parents as poor people who lived by the labor of their hands, and Marius as uneducated in Greek.  McCullough makes his parents country squires -- big fish in a small pond, and has Marius' enemies accuse him of not knowing Greek (meaning that he lacked culture), when actually he knew Greek, but not standard Greek, speaking it with an Asian accent.  Plutarch then describes Marius' early political and military career in respectful terms.  These events take place before the novel begins and therefore leave no point of comparison.  The novel roughly begins with Marius fighting the war against Jugurtha in Numidia (northern Africa) under the command of Quintus Caecilius Metellus.  McCullough is not able to conceal what Plutarch makes clear -- that Marius deliberately set out to undermine Metellus' authority and replace him.  McCullough makes excuses, mostly that Marius was the better general and would be able to win the war instead of the endless stalemate that was the best Metellus could manage.  But I am inclined to agree with Plutarch -- the episode does not reflect well on him.

Plutarch appears not to approve of Marius' populist style, or his enlisting poor men in his army.  To McCullough, of course, the enlisting poor men was an essential achievement to be applauded.  Plutarch does not give Marius credit for eventually winning the war in Numidia -- he attributes it to Metellus' previous successes and Sulla capturing the king.  He dates the rivalry between the two to this event.  McCullough gives Marius credit for winning the war and has Sulla give him credit as well.  McCullough's account of the German war matches Plutarch's for the most part, though adding some details and omitting others, with one significant difference.  Plutarch treats Marius' rival, the conservative Catulus, with considerable respect, saying that when his army marched up the Alps to confront the Germans and then panicked and fled, he was able to turn their flight into an orderly retreat, placing himself at its head so he would incur the blame for it.  McCullough portrays him as arrogant, overbearing jerk who was well on the way to leading his troops into an ambush when Sulla (acting on Marius' orders) overrode him and managed an orderly retreat instead of a massacre.  While Plutarch gives both generals equal credit for victory and says Marius was unfairly given full credit, McCullough naturally gives full credit to Marius, with some going to Sulla for keeping Catulus from making any foolish mistakes.  In short, she is back to making Marius' enemies run around kicking every dog in sight.

As for his political career for the rest of the novel, suffice it to say that Plutarch as a deep bias against populist politicians and McCullough a bias in their favor, which makes it hard to tell what conclusion to draw.  Marius got a law passed giving land to his soldiers, with a requirement that the Senate take an oath to uphold it and never to change it on penalty of exile.  The reason for this provision is clear. Experience with the Gracchi brothers had proven that a grant of land is worthless if the next assembly can simply take it back again.  Forcing an oath to respect the grant forever is the only way to make it valid.  A good deal of decidedly grubby sausage making also went into passing the law.  Marius' old superior, Metellus, refused to the the oath to it and went into exile, to Plutarch's great approval and McCullough's grudging admiration that he had principles, even if they were foolish ones.

I will make one more comment, regarding the execution of King Jugurtha of Numidia.  It was the usual custom of the Romans to lead a conquered foe in a triumph, in which the vanquished enemy would be paraded through the streets to be mocked and then taken to the Tullianum (a pit used to hold state prisoners) and strangled.  Upon occasion, however, the prisoner might instead be thrown into the pit and left to starve.  This cruel alternative appears to have been the fate of Jugurtha, at least by Plutarch's account:
[W]e are told that when he had been led in triumph he lost his reason; and that when, after the triumph, he was cast into prison, where some tore his tunic from his body, and others were so eager to snatch away his golden ear-ring that they tore off with it the lobe of his ear, and when he had been thrust down naked into the dungeon pit, in utter bewilderment and with a grin on his lips he said: "Hercules! How cold this Roman bath is!" But the wretch, after struggling with hunger for six days and up to the last moment clinging to the desire of life, paid the penalty which his crimes deserved.
There is nothing, however, to suggest that Sulla was responsible for this bit of gratuitous sadism. Naturally, McCullough blames Sulla, and has Jugurtha face even so grim an end with great courage.

All in all, a comparison to Plutarch makes clear that McCullough has an ax to grind.  (As does Plutarch, though a different one).  And it suggests that she does, indeed, have her villains run around kicking dogs.

So, I have now covered a 781 page novel in four posts plus an introduction.  Compared to some of the reviews I have done, this one is a model of brevity.
*He can't be a complete albino because his hair is red-gold rather than white.  But he can never tan no matter how much sun exposure he gets, and light hurts his eyes, both signs of at least partial albinism.

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