(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The First Man in Rome marked a stylistic departure for McCullough, as well as a new genre to explore. It is the first of a series of novels, something new for McCullough. Also new is that the primary characters are male. Finally, as a historical novel rather than a romance with a historical setting, it adheres to historical fact. Of necessity, a historical novelist knows the large events of a story before beginning to write. The historical novelist’s only literary freedom lies in details such as personality and domestic life. Such details are McCullough’s chief strength.

Gaius Marius is the primary character of The First Man in Rome. He is an aristocrat from the far provinces, a man of wealth but little social standing in a society that values ancestry highly. Through marriage to a daughter of the Caesar family and a brilliant military career, he obtains prestige and fame, becoming in time the first man in Rome. This is the accepted title for a man whose natural attributes allow him to outshine all others.

More than in any other work, except perhaps The Thorn Birds, McCullough uses setting as a major character in the novel. The aristocrats of her Rome devote themselves to their country. They are expected to be politicians and military generals, and they are reared with a sense of duty to value Rome above all. The women also are bounded by well-defined and rigid rules of duty to home and family. Their adherence to...

(The entire section is 443 words.)