Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Masters of Rome Continued: The Grass Crown

I have by now read the second book in the Masters of Rome series, The Grass Crown.  This book details the falling out between Marius and Sulla.  It requires a much greater understanding of Rome's political institutions than the first book, but that will be addressed later.  I want to start here with some purely literary comments.

First, as I commented before, there are certain recurring motifs one sees throughout the series.  The earliest ones are already appearing in the second book. Consider:

In First Man in Rome, Marcus Livius Drusus keeps his sister prisoner in their (large) house, mostly to keep her from bringing dishonor on her name, as their mother had done.  In The Grass CrownMarcus Aemilius Scaurus locks up his wife, Dalmatica, for being too fond of Sulla.  Just for good measure, in The Grass Crown, Drusus also locks up his sister's daughter, Servilia, though with better justification.

In First Man in Rome, Drusus forces his sister to marry Quintus Servilius Caepio by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water until she submits.  In The Grass Crown, Sulla beats his daughter to force her to marry Quintus Pompeius Rufus, Jr.  (She wants to marry Marius' son). Interestingly enough, although Sulla is undoubtedly a villain and Drusus may fairly be called the hero of the second novel (more on that later), Sulla ultimately comes out better in this regard than Drusus.  Recognizing the problems that go with a forced marriage, he asks his friend Publius Rutilius Rufus for advice.  Rutilius says that if the daughter actually gets to know Pompeius and Young Marius, she will recognize that Pompeius is the better choice, as it indeed turns out.  Things might have been quite different if Drusus had shown a similar sensitivity to his sister.

In First Man in Rome, Publius Rutilius Rufus makes some comments about sons resembling their fathers, but not perfectly, and how glad many unfaithful wives are of that, and how they go out of their way to assure their husbands that really the boy looks just like Uncle Lucius Tiddlypus.  In The Grass Crown, Livia Drusa has an affair while her husband is away and then assures him that her son got his red hair from some obscure uncle.

In First Man in Rome, Julilla (sister of Marius' wife and aunt of the future Julius Caesar) develops a deep crush on the handsome Sulla, follows him around, writes him love letters, and starves herself to force her family to let him marry her.  They end up marrying,  In The Grass Crown, Dalmatica develops a deep crush on the handsome Sulla and follows him around, pining after him, until her husband locks her up.  They end up marrying after her husband dies.

In First Man in Rome, Julilla sinks into alcoholism and kills herself as her marriage to Sulla falls apart.  Her mother has to take over bringing up the children.  In The Grass Crown, Drusus brings his mother in to bring up the children after his wife and sister both die in childbirth.

And finally, this one called for some unfair peeking ahead, but in The Grass Crown, Drusus runs himself ragged fighting for Italian citizenship, growing thin and haggard as he neglects to eat and sleep.  Finally, confronted with evidence that all the Italians have sworn to be his clients if admitted to citizenship, he keels over.  He remains unconscious so long, turns such a ghastly gray color, and has such a violent fit that everyone around him fears (or hopes) that he is dying.  His wife and sister being dead, he is taken home to the care of his mother, who is quite confident that his is not dying, he just passed out because he hasn't been eating.  Some honeyed wine will revive him, and good food will make him good as new.  It turns out to be true.  As is well known, Caesar was an epileptic. Several books later Caesar has a fit and people fear for his life, but a wise doctor recognizes this is simply an attack of hypoglycemia and revives him with some sweet wine.

Another point I gave more thought to this time than last is what one would cut out if one wanted to shrink the books down to a more manageable size.  In First Man in Rome, I would definitely cut out the description of the migratory patterns of the various Germanic tribes, and also some of the more gratuitous and extraneous gossip in Publius Rutilius Rufus's letters.  I would not cut out the descriptions of how Roman soldiers build a fortified camp, or how they maintain guard while doing it because these descriptions are important to understanding Roman military dominance.  In The Grass Crown, there was a whole lot more I wanted to cut.  I could definitely have done without a lot of the descriptions of the various places Marius visits while touring the East.  A lot of the pedigrees and genealogies just made my eyes glaze over.  There is also a lot of background on minor characters that is not strictly necessary.  And there is one scene where a lawyer is arguing for his client as a war hero who gave his blood for Rome and suddenly turns around and strips off his toga, then tears open his tunic and leaves him standing in his loincloth to show off his war scars.  Our main characters snicker at the whole thing as obviously staged.  And the scene is staged -- it's sole purpose appears to be to give the author an excuse to include a section in her glossary about why Roman men definitely did not wear loincloths when they had their togas on.*

And then there is the matter of names.  As discussed before, Roman men all had at least a given name and a clan name, and the aristocrats had at least one cognomen, sometimes more.  Women had no given name, only the feminine form of their family name(s).  Cognomina could pile up fast.  We meet Pompey the Great's father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (Gnaes Pompey the Cross-eyes).  His bloody record during Italy's civil war soon wins him the name Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo Carnifex (Gnaeus Pompey, the Cross-eyed Butcher).  He appears to mind Strabo more than Carnifex.  And then there is Quintus Varius Severus Hybrida Sucronensis, Quintus Varius, the Cruel Halfbreed of Sucro.  Sucro was a place in Spain and "Sucronensis" in this case did not mean victor at Sucro, but merely born in Sucro, i.e., not in Rome or even Italy.  Hybrida (Halfbreed) of course meant that one of his parents (presumably his mother) was not Roman at all.  Sulla refers to him as the Spanish cur (mongrel), Spanish (i.e., non-Roman) being every bit as insulting as mongrel.  Unsurprisingly, he preferred to be known as Quintus Varius.

At the time, men were usually addressed by their praenomen et nomen, i.e., their forename and clan name.  The practice of addressing by the cognomen occurred later, but was well established by Caesar's time.  One sees the beginning of it in this book, interestingly enough applied mostly to women and children.  To address a man by his cognomen was considered insulting.  But when Livia Drusa (sister of Marcus Livius Drusus) has two sons, one purportedly by her first husband, Quintus Servilius Caepio, and one by her second husband, Marcus Porcius Cato Salonianus, they are simply known as Young Caepio and Young Cato.  Likewise, the soon-to-be famous son of Gaius Julius Caesar is known as Young Caesar.  The daughter of Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus is properly named Caecilia Metella Dalmatica, but everyone just calls her Dalmatica.  And Young Caesar ends up marrying the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who he addresses as Cinilla.

We do see the vague beginnings of addressing men by their cognomen.  When Drusus is angry at his brother-in-law, he rudely refers to him as Caepio instead of a more polite Quintus Servilius.  And then there is the matter of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and his rival, Lucius Cornelius Cinna. (They are distant cousins).  For them to address each other as Lucius Cornelius would be confusing, so they call each other Lucius Sulla and Lucius Cinna instead.

One final remark.  When the main character in a novel is not particularly heroic or admirable, he is called the protagonist or the anti-hero.  What is the name for the most heroic and admirable character in a story who is not the main character?  Because whatever the name for such a character is, it applies in The Grass Crown to Marcus Livius Drusus.

*Because the toga kept one arm completely immobilized and when men visited the latrine, they had to part their togas, lift their tunics, and whip out their potato peelers with one hand, something they could not do if there was a loincloth in the way.  The author said she personally experimented with this, although she was a woman with nothing to whip out.

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