Colleen McCullough, Historical Fiction Books

Mistress of Rome

Without a doubt, Colleen McCullough is one of the great writers of historical fiction books. While her writing career began with the novel Tim and it was The Thorn Birds (1977) that made her name, her real legacy is the series Masters of Rome.Written over a span of nearly 20 years (1990-2007), the series, set in ancient Rome, depicts the last days of the old Roman republic.

Chronicling the lives of Marius, Sulla, Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar and Augustus – with Antony and Cleopatra – it spans the period from 110Bc to 27 BC.

Quite simply put, it is a brilliant body of work that is both scholarly and accessible to ordinary readers. Her prose is deft and the content incredibly detailed.

As I love historical novels set in Italy, this series just suits me – but it is her storytelling craftsmanship that keeps my attention. Her talent as a writer puts her work among the authors of top fiction books – well, in the historical fiction novels genre at least.

At first sitting it may seem that there is TOO much detail – including the confusing Roman practices of adoption, naming conventions – cognomen, praenomen etc – to the resulting confusion of family lines and connections.

Then, there is the confusion over the roles and different political and administrative or governmental offices – Consul, legate, tribune, Pontifex Maximus, Knight – added to this the varying levels of societal ranking – aristocratic down to – well, basically the scum of the suburbs.

However, do not despair if you get confused – McCullough provides plenty of guidelines and explanations if you have a bent to really grasp it all. I didn’t try that hard – just went on reading and enjoying the overall unfolding of the drama – and drama it is! It is the detail that makes her novels realistic fiction at its best and such great books to read.

It is amazing that Rome achieved the level of conquest and civilisation that it did when you discover in the series the slew of self serving, venal and rapacious men who held office in the Senate and plagued leaders like Caesar and Augustus. But then that makes it so interesting.

The result: the birth of an imperial monarchy and a radically different organization of power……… that even today we are the legatees of.

McCullough has also brought her incredible power of masterly story telling to one of the oldest and most favoured tales – that of the destruction of Troy (The Song of Troy).

It is told anew through the perspectives of many of the lead characters in the story – making it come alive again – especially after the Movie (Troy) unnecessarily altered the story too much.

The movie was good – as far as it went – but would have been far better if it had stuck to the ‘facts’ – well .... as Homer saw them anyway. The Iliad did not need re-doing.

First Man in Rome

Rome 110 BC: the story of Gaius Marius & Lucius Cornelius Sulla, men of vision and ruthless ambition who helped lay the foundations of the later empire …….a mighty struggle for power and glory – the ambition of both men: to become First Man in Rome.

The Grass Crown

Continues with Marius, the general who saved Rome from barbarian invasion and became consul an unprecedented six times, fallen into decline.

Sulla, his closest associate, has withdrawn himself from his commander's circle in preparation for his own bid for power. As a deadly enmity develops between the two men, Rome must fight its own battle for survival.

Fortune’s Favourites

Fortune's Favourites witnesses the power, mastery and cunning of two enigmatic Rulers of Rome - Sulla, returning from exile, and the 22-year-old Pompey, who designates himself Magnus The Great. And in the background is the young soldier, Caesar, who begins to show the expert qualities that will one day culminate in him becoming the unparalleled leader of ancient Rome.

And, at the heart of this sumptuous tale is the unforgettable story of Spartacus and his doomed slave revolt - the true story, as no modern reader has ever before encountered it.

Caesar’s Women

Love is just another weapon in Caesar's political arsenal, for the key to political glory lies with Rome's noblewomen: powerful, vindictive Servilia, whose son (Brutus) resents his mother's passionate, destructive relationship with Caesar, Rome's revered Vestal Virgins, & even Caesar's own daughter.


Rome's leaders are frightened: the brilliant, ruthless Gaius Julius Caesar must be crushed before he can overthrow the government and become dictator.

This magnificent novel opens in Gaul, scene of Caesar's magnificent victory over fierce people. His conquest is in the name of Rome, but when the senate refuses to give Caesar his due he marches upon his own country, an army prepared to die for him at his back.

The October Horse

Rome, 48BC: Scene of one of the greatest political battles - and one of the most passionate love affairs - of all time. Julius Caesar is in the prime of his life and at the height of his powers. But behind the myth lies a man beset with contradictions. Happily married, he is also the lover of the enigmatic Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. A great general, he wishes to bring to an end Rome's endless wars. Conscious of his own power, and contemptuous of lesser men, he is determined not to be worshipped as a living god or crowned emperor.

But Caesar is a man whose very greatness attracts envy and jealousy to a dangerous degree, and as the political intrigues which surround him reach their climax, his destruction becomes inevitable.

As the Ides of March approach, one of the most powerful stories in history reaches its dramatic conclusion.

Antony and Cleopatra

The epic story of two of the world’s most famous lovers - and the forces of politics, intrigue and ambition that shaped them - told as only Colleen McCullough can. Antony and Cleopatra compellingly chronicles the events that inexorably led this star-crossed pair to their fate. Undying love, unquenchable hate, the bitterness of defeat and the exaltation of victory march through the pages as Antony and Cleopatra pit themselves against Rome and Octavian.

Passion and power, love and death, fortune and fate collide in a mighty conflict that shaped the world for centuries to come.

I got the distinct impression that McCullough didn't much care for Cleopatra - and this was hinted at (broadly) in the October Horse too.This disappointed me a little as I still have a more romantic image of Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, through McCullough is probably correct.

As far as great books to read go, you can't fail with the Masters of Rome series and Troy.

My sadness is that Colleen McCullough's health and eyesight is deteriorating - but she is a great fighter and I wish her all the best - and thanks for many years of great reading...... I had hoped she would write the definitive book on Alexander the Great.

The Song of Troy

This novel is Colleen McCullough's retelling of the tragic and terrible saga of the Trojan War, a 3000-year-old tale of enduring love, abiding hate, vengeance, betrayal, honour and sacrifice. I believe, unlike the recent Movie "Troy", McCullough captures the spirit of Homer's epic and is basically faithful to it - as told through the eyes of the main characters.

This is an interesting literary device considering the many books about on Troy. It makes the familiar story fresh again - it is a story that be can be told and re-told over and again.

So haunt your used book sellers or go on line to Borders Books and Music or WH Smiths and start the series - there are lots of used paperbacks or the early series around - Masters of Rome are among the best books to read, anywhere, anytime.

Click for Sharon Kay Penman, another great historical writer

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