Certainly, Caesar is portrayed as very talented, but then again, he was. Cicero and Pompey are two upstarts, ambitious, but outsiders without pedigree. Cicero is brilliant, learned, cultured, an outstanding lawyer, orator and scholar, but physically clumsy and timid in the face of danger. Pompey is a brilliant general, brave and athletic, but uncultured and crude. Caesar is as cultured and polished as Cicero and his match (or nearly so) as an orator and lawyer, but also as brave and athletic as Pompey and an even better general. And he's a brilliant politician. And he has super human sexual prowess. And he has the perfect pedigree, coming from the cream of Rome's aristocracy, a descendant of the kings of old and (according to legend), from Aphrodite* through her son, Aeneas. (He often brags that he is not just a patrician, he is a Julian!) And it is pointless to criticize the author for all of that. It is historically true. But how morally decent is he?
Plutarch and Seutonius agree that Caesar was flamen dialis (high priest of Jupiter) and was married to Cornelia (Cinilla), daughter of Marius' right hand man, Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Seutonius says Caesar was appointed to the job by Marius and Cinna. Plutarch says he ran for it in defiance of Sulla. McCullough decides to give her story greater drama by having Marius appoint Caesar to the office against his will to thwart his ambitions. (The High Priest of Jupiter was subject to a wide range of taboos that precluded any sort of military or political career). Plutarch and Seutonius agree that Sulla ordered Caesar to divorce his wife and, when he refused, saw the spark of Marius in him and stripped him of his office, his property, and his wife's dowery. Caesar fled for his life, moving from house to house, sick with malaria, and had to bribe his pursuers to spare him. Plutarch says he then fled to Bithynia. Seutonius says that Sulla pardoned him upon the intercession of friends and relatives, and that Caesar then went to Bithynia on military assignment to raise a fleet.
Either way, the story is made for drama, and Caesar comes across as heroic. McCullough gets to it the right way. She has Sulla concentrate first on purging his enemies and placing his supporters in office. He then turns to reforming matters of religion and has some doubts about the young priest. His supporters give the opinion that Cornelia Cinilla is not a citizen because her father was proscribed and that Caesar must therefore take a new wife. (The flamen dialis could not hold office without a proper wife because she also had an important ceremonial role). When Caesar refuses the order to divorce her, his bravery is extraordinary, but his motives are selfish -- he wants out of the job so he can pursue a political and military career. His flight is less dramatic than one might hope because he is soon stricken by malaria and put altogether out of action. Others protect him and his mother organizes a group to intercede for him. Caesar is sullen and resentful that his illness denied him the chance to be heroic and relegated him to a mostly passive role. His mother tells him not to be so full of himself, and that the gods sent his illness to teach him a lesson in humility.
And, indeed, Caesar, though very accomplished (he was) comes across as insufferable. Not as bad as Pompey, but supremely arrogant nonetheless. As for being morally decent -- well, sometimes he is and sometimes he is not.
Seutonius says that Caesar lingered so long in Bithynia that it led to rumors that he had a gay affair with King Nicomedes. McCullough has the king, aged 80, fall in love with Caesar, while Caesar loves the king as a grandfather and takes about as much carnal interest in him as he would in his own grandfather. The king is so infatuated that he gives Caesar his fleet right away at a very reasonable price. Caesar makes the mistake of being arrogantly boastful about this seemingly impossible achievement, which leads everyone else to believe that he convinced the king by sleeping with him. Seutonius says he won the Civic Crown, a military award for holding his ground and saving fellow soldiers, but does not give any details. McCullough is therefore free to make them up. After Sulla died, Caesar returned to Rome. Seutonius says he considered joining Lepidus' revolt, but decided against it when Lepidus did not appear up to the job.
Both Plutarch and Seutonius agree that he prosecuted Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella for extortion and/or misgovernment of his province and failed. Seutonius says Caesar was forced to withdraw to Rhodes because of the "ill will" he incurred, implying that the charges lacked merit. Plutarch says that many cities of Greece came to attest to it, implying that the charges had merit. A leading member of Dolabella's staff was Gaius Verres, who Cicero later prosecuted for extortion of Sicily. Verres is known mostly through Cicero's prosecution speeches, an obviously biased source, but his extortions are generally believed to have been real enough. I don't know if Cicero also alleged misconduct in the East, but it seems likely enough. And was Dolabella his accomplice? Who knows?
McCullough, in any event, uses this as an occasion to show Caesar being morally decent. Nicomedes sends him to watch and see what Verres and Dolabella are up to. Caesar is appalled, but is not powerful enough to stop them. In particular, a leading man of the city has a daughter he keeps secluded and never allows anyone to see. Rumor has it that she is of such outstanding beauty and virtue that he has to hide her away lest she drive men to desperation. Much is made of Verres trying to get in and see her by force, the girl's father trying to stop him, Roman officials being killed in the fight, and the father put to death for it. But Caesar has figured out that daughters of such beauty and virtue that they have to be secluded are a romantic fantasy, and that if her father won't let anyone see her, it is probably because she is deformed. And so she is. When Verres unveils her and discovers, Caesar laughs. When Verres leaves, Caesar weeps for her. He also persuades Nicomedes to leave his kingdom to Rome and helps him and his wife catalog all the valuables so he can prosecute any Roman governor who steals. None of this is historical, of course; McCullough made it up to show her hero to best advantage.
Plutarch says that Caesar also prosecuted Gaius Antonius Hybrida and was thwarted only when the tribunes exercised their sole remaining right to deliver him from the magistrate. Nothing in Plutarch suggests one way or the other whether the prosecution had merit. Wikipedia quotes other sources as saying that Gaius Antonius plundered his territories and was rumored to have tortured and maimed the local population, and that Hybrida did not mean halfbreed in the sense that his mother was not Roman, but half-beast. So this prosecution appears to have had merit as well. Just for spice, McCullough also has Hybrida torture and kill his slaves (not a crime; a Roman slave holder had the power of life and death over his slaves, as the book emphasizes elsewhere) and has him bribe the tribunes. Another chance to show off her hero's moral decency. But she undermines it in other ways as well, large and small, historical and fictitious.
Small and historical: Caesar's unsavory reputation with women, which was real enough. The author actually has his mother suggest it, as a way of dispelling these rumors that he was gay. She says that instead of sticking to women of low estate, he should prey on the wives of his political opponents. (But no virgins! That would be going too far!) She even says that Sulla was a fool not to sleep with his rival's wife when he had the chance because it allowed his rival to maintain the more dignified position. Caesar is shocked that such a virtuous woman would give such immoral advice. But he soon learns to relish the role of predator, and to like ruining women for their husbands. Jerk!
Large and historical: The pirates. Plutarch and Seutonius agree that he was captured by pirates, and that they demanded a twenty-talent ransom for him, the going rate for a Senator, but he insisted he was worth fifty. He had good times with them and often said he would crucify them if he got the chance. They thought he was joking, but as soon as he was freed, he led an expedition against them and did just that. McCullough shows this in really painful detail. We think of the Stockholm syndrome in terms of pathology, but really at its root is just the normal, healthy urge to form emotional ties with the people around us. Caesar has good times with the pirates, laughs and jokes and sleeps with their women but never ones who belong to another man. Everyone is sorry to see him go. Some weep for him. To have formed no emotional ties, to go back and kill them in cold blood is the act of a sociopath. Furthermore, Plutarch says, Caesar applied to the governor to crucify his prisoners, but the governor preferred to make money selling them as slaves. So Caesar proceeded without his authorization. This is included in unflinching detail. Indeed, McCullough makes it worse than it was. Seutonius says that when Caesar crucified the pirates, he at least had the decency to cut their throats first. He includes this in a chapter on Caesar's general mercy to his enemies, including that when one of his slaves tried to poison him, Caesar killed him without torture. The modern reader might not agree that these show any special mercy! But it does suggest that cruelty and sadism were not part of his makeup. But McCullough has him crucify some 500 pirates. And although he breaks the legs on the others, when the pirate chief attempts to joke with him, Caesar punishes him by letting him linger. It really makes you hate the guy!
Large and fictitious: Plutarch and Seutonius agree that upon returning to Rome, Caesar was elected military tribune. Although neither mentions it, this appears to have been around the time of Spartacus' revolt. Neither author says anything about what Caesar did as military tribune or his role in the revolt. Presumably this means he did not do anything of significance. But McCullough has him serve as Crassus' chief adviser and thereby fully implicates him in Crassus' atrocities. He gives no sign of finding them even mildly distasteful.
He ends on a better note. Seutonius says that Caesar was a major supporter of restoring power to the tribunes and recalling people banished by Sulla, and so he is shown to do. Both biographers agree that he gave a magnificent funeral for his aunt Julia, wife of Marius, and for his own wife. Plutarch also says that he reintroduced the images of Marius at Julia's funeral and proved that, despite his reign of terror, Marius remained popular.
So in the end, our impression of Caesar is mixed. He is very accomplished but supremely arrogant, capable of great decency but also great cruelty and sometimes outright sociopathy. And perhaps it is right that he should be portrayed that way, as he remains deeply controversial to this day.
*The Romans call her Venus, of course, the the legend originated with the Greeks.