Masters of Rome series (that, alas, I can no longer find) makes several trenchant comments about it. One is on the huge profusion of characters, all with three names each, makes it seem almost like a Russian novel. Another is the difficulty in exposition when you want to make a detailed portrait of Roman society. And yet another is McCullough's tendency to have her villains run around kicking every dog in sight. I agree, these three things are a good starting point in looking at First Man in Rome.
As for the profusion of characters -- the book has a glossary at the end. It really needs an index. I know indexes are not customary in works of fiction, but it is quite frustrating when you run across some Lucius Tiddlypuss (McCullough's fictitious Roman equivalent of Joe Blow) on page 350 who you are supposed to recognize from page 75 but can't quite place. It would be very helpful in that case to be able to look in the index, see where he first appears, and go back to see who he is, rather than to have to hunt blindly. As for the Russian novel feel, it is greatly increased because at the early time of the series, male characters are invariably addressed by their praenomen et nomen (first name and clan name), even though in the text they are referred to by their cognomen (which can either be a sub-clan name or title bestowed for some accomplishment). In this, the men resemble characters in a Russian novel, who invariably address each other by their imya i otetsva (first name and patronymic), even as the text refers to them by their familia (surname). In fact, sometimes I had to pinch myself to remember that the characters were Romans and not Russians, because Russians are the only people I know of who normally address each other by two names.* It doesn't help either that women have no praenomen, so all women of any given clan all have the same name (the feminine of their clan name), or that sons invariably take their father's names, and that all male members of a single clan keep recycling a handful of first names.
The reviewer I quote complains that exposition too often takes the form of conversation, with two characters telling each other things that every Roman of the time would have taken for granted. I actually thought McCullough handled the exposition quite well, at least in her first novel. She does a marvelous job, for instance, in having a character marvel at how life-like the coloring on a statue is. This is a useful but not at all blatant bit of exposition to remind us that, while we are accustomed to seeing statues in classical marble white, that is only because we inherited them with all the paint washed off, and in Classical times statues were painted to look like actual people.** Or having lots of retired gladiators running around serving as body guards drives home the point that gladiatorial combat was not as lethal at the time as it would later become. Or having characters receive a letter and struggle to decipher the writer's chicken scratch reminds us how much more difficult reading was before the invention of print.
Mostly, though, her exposition takes the form of letters to Marius (the hero and title character) from his best friend, Publius Rutilius Rufus (doesn't it just roll off the tongue?). Since Romans are allowed more than one cognomen, Rutilius in this novel really should be called Publius Rutilius Rufus Expositious because he role in the in the novel is almost entirely to provide exposition. Once he does this in public speech, as consul, explaining Rome's military situation. For the most part, though, he does it in his letters to Marius, to the point that, although First Man in Rome is by no means an epistolary novel, it can fairly be described as a historical novel with epistolary exposition. (That rolls of the tongue quite nicely, too). Which means, of course, that Rutilius has to be portrayed as an incorrigible gossip, since a large part of exposition is really just gossip, anyhow. This is pretty well justified in that Marius is an outsider, not part of Rome's political class, so he doesn't know all their ins and outs and all the pieces of gossip that any insider would take for granted, so Rutilius fills him in on all the latest news and gossip. He can be highly entertaining when he does so. And it fits well with his character on the few times we meet him in person, particularly at the family dinner party where his niece, Aurelia, announces her pregnancy with the future Julius Caesar (meaning, of course the Julius Caesar) and everyone gossips. Rutilius spends the whole conversation either trailing some juicy tidbit of gossip for the others to pick up on, or spotting that someone else has some gossip and eagerly asking to hear about it. The main failing here is that he really gives us more gossip than is strictly necessary to advance the plot and tells us about a lot of extraneous characters, as if we didn't have enough characters to worry about anyhow. (Some of these extraneous bits may be significant in later stories, though).
Finally, there is the author's tendency to have her villains run around kicking every dog in sight. She certainly does that. It is understandable to some degree, but overdone. Certainly I can understand why she does it. Consider. Rome's most famous villains are undoubtedly Nero and Caligula. If you want to introduce a young Nero as a character in your novel, well before he has committed any of his famous outrages, there is no need to have him run around kicking dogs. Simply introducing him as Nero is sufficient.
At the other end of the spectrum is, say Quintus Servilius Caepio. Most readers have probably never heard of him, but his record speaks for itself. He took the extortion courts out of the hands of the equestrians and limited members to Senators, who could be counted upon to protect their own. He was sufficiently arrogant about his patrician pedigree that when he was sent off to war against the Germanic tribes, he refused to take orders from his military superior, or even join his camp, because he considered him a social inferior. In fact, according to his Wikipedia article, it was even worse than that. His superior, realizing his military weakness from an insubordinate officer, started negotiating with the Germans and was on the verge of obtaining favorable terms when Caepio, unwilling to let a social inferior take credit for a favorable settlement, launched an unauthorized attack and got his army wiped out. Clearly, such a man need not run around kicking dogs to convince the readers that he is a villain. When McCullough portrays him as an arrogant, snobby jerk, it seems most plausible. When she treats him as the embodiment of everything wrong with Rome's elite, it doesn't seem too unfair. When she has him disdain Marius' proposal to enlist property-less men in the army and sticks to the dwindling ranks of small property holders, some kidnapped by force, many forced to mortgage their small holdings to buy gear and driven to destitution -- well, I don't know if this is historically accurate, but again, it sounds plausible. When he camps on the exposed side of a river, burns his army's boats to keep the from retreating, but secretly saves one for himself and uses it to flee when his army is wiped out -- well, that is starting to sound like dog kicking, but then again, he somehow survived when his army was wiped out. The most sensational charge against him of all involved a large cache of gold and silver he captured in Spain, more than Rome's entire treasury. The silver he shipped safely home to Rome. The wagon train carrying the gold was ambushed, its escort wiped out, and the gold disappeared, never to be seen again. After Caepio lost his army and became widely hated, the accusation arose that the bandits who stole the gold were working for him and turned the gold over to him. It sounds most implausible. (Let's get this straight. He hired a bunch of bandits to steal the gold and they stole it and then meekly turned it over to him?!?!?! On what planet?) In fact, it sounds a lot like dog kicking, i.e., people who hated him and wanted to believe the worst, as if the reality was not bad enough. McCullough accepts this far-fetched story. In her defense, although it sounds like dog-kicking, a lot of Caepio's contemporaries believe it too, so it is not purely gratuitous.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla, now, is a different matter. He was undoubtedly a villain, but not so well known that McCullough can count on all her readers having heard of him. And at the time of events in First Man of Rome, he hadn't actually done anything in his public career that would mark him as a villain. So how do you signal to your readers that this is a bad guy, if many of them have never heard of him, and nothing in his public career marks him as such? Well, having him poison all the other members of his household, kill a vanquished enemy in a gratuitously sadistic manner, and contemplate killing his wife*** with the most sadistic relish will probably clue in even the most obtuse reader that you are not supposed to like this guy. None of it has any basis in historical fact, you understand, but it does make for a good, juicy story, and it is some of the most entertaining part of the novel.
One final comment. I have peaked ahead at some of the future novels and seen enough to get at least one impression. There are various recurring motifs, various things you see happen again in future stories, introduced earlier on. I intend to keep an eye open for these things.
I will move on to the political aspect of the novel in my next post, or several, will be about the political side of the novel.
*Romans differ from Russians in other respects as well. In Russia, everyone has exactly three names, no more and no less. Romans were not so tidy. While the aristocracy invariably had cognomina, commoners often had only two names and no cognomen. (Gaius Marius, the hero and title character had no cognomen). Women had no given names, only the feminine form of their clan name and sometimes the cognomen. And there was no limit on how many cognomina any individual could have, or any strict rule about them being hereditary. Since the original cognomina were often unflattering, meaning something like cross-eyed or swollen feet, so their bearers were eager to win an important victory and get a new cognomen to commemorate it. Thus Lucius Caecilius Metellus Calvus' daughter was Caecilia Metella Calva, while his sons were Lucius and Quintus Caecilius Metellus. Lucius won an important victory at Dalmatia and became Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus and his daughter was known as Dalmatica. Quintus won a victory in Numidia and became Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, but his son, instead of being another Numidicus, became Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius for his championship of his exiled father. Oh, yes, and cognomina could keep piling up until there was one Roman named Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica. It makes you head spin.
** And to treat solid white statutes, even if nude as artistic, but statutes painted to look life-like as gross pornography. An Arab sheikh in California learned this the hard way when he painted his nude statues to look like actual nudes and discovered that he had unwittingly cause great offense to the neighbors.
***He married her after poisoning all the other members of his household, so she escapes his first round of murder.