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The October Horse
by Colleen McCullough
The October Horse was the sacrificial off-horse of the winning team on the Ides of October, and its head was contended for by men from the Via Sacra and the Suburra in a foot race. The October Horse in the title of Colleen McCullough's new novel is of course Gaius Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome.
This is the final volume in the Masters of Rome series and covers the time from Caesar's search for Pompey in Egypt to the battle of Philippi, which marks the end of the “liberators” and the beginning of the final rise of Octavian to Augustus. It is a book as much about Octavian as it is about Caesar.
Ms. McCullough is in her usual fine fettle, and the book does not loose any on a second read-through. Others besides the main characters of Caesar, Marcus Antonius and Octavian, such as Cato, are given their customary full space. The dictator is murdered halfway into the story, thus Lepidus, Trebonius, Brutus, Cassius, the brothers Pompeii, and others are nicely fleshed out.
The Caesar we meet is in some ways a worn-out man. I have changed out of all recognition, he writes to his friend Gaius Matius. When I crossed the Rubicon into Italy and marched on Rome, something broke in me… Now I am a god in Ephesus, and a god in Egypt. But, he complains, they are not my choice. He still harps on his dignitas, and he sees it his duty to complete what he has started. And so he carries on. He has met Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt, and mutual expediency of a sexual liaison grows into love, at least on her part. But he is determined not to give her a daughter, future wife of their son. A pontifex maximus cannot condone incest. And he continues his famous clemency, on a willing Brutus, and an unwilling but nonetheless ambitious Cassius.
A lot of space is given to Cato's “March of the Ten Thousand” west along the coast North Africa. McCullough has dug deep into the ancient sources and paints a fascinating journey of determination and endurance. The description of Cato's suicide in Utica is a harrowing one.
The scene shifts to Rome and the machinations of Marcus Antonius. Caesar has no illusions about his cousin and casts around for a more suitable heir, while he defeats the boni in a final battle in Spain. Thus begins the careful dance of speculation, planning, and deceit, which ends in murder and a battle for domination between two determined men. While Trebonius is cast as the prime mover in the murder conspiracy, ably supported by Decimus Brutus, Marcus Antonius is painted as a willing bystander who wants it all.
Exit Caesar, enter Caesar, divi filius. We already knew a lot about Marcus Antonius, and now we are invited to look into Octavian's plotting, cunning mind. Setbacks, which history makes much of, do not seem to mean much to him: He knows where he is going, he will be the final master of Rome. Caesar cried out to himself: But without rivals, victory is hollow, how can Caesar shine? The sting of winning is to be left the only one alive on the the field. Such thoughts will probably never cross Octavian's mind. One has to pity Marcus Antonius, despite all his loutishness. And Lucius Caesar complains to Piso: Here I am, Piso, between a wolfshead of a nephew and cousin for whom I find no comparison. Octavianus is a completely new creation. Asinius Pollio says to himself: I do hope to live long enough to see what he ultimately becomes. (And the author confesses: If I don't stop now, I never will! )
So the story moves to its inexorable end. Cicero, he of the Philippics, perishes, as do others. Atticus and Philippus, the fence sitters, survive. As does Servilia, her usual vicious self – and confidante to Cleopatra. Porcia is not so lucky. Brutus and Cassius are given their due in the description of the final battle, two flawed men, each doomed in his own way.
October Horse is a fitting ending to a fascinating series of books. Well researched, excellently constructed, they have given rise to a number of fans of Roman history. It's a novelist's view of Roman history of course, but at the same time educates the reader. Ms. McCullough offers a mailing address for obtaining her bibliography to any interested party.
One final word: The author, with her medical background, has endowed two of her main characters with useful diseases: It's not epilepsy, which plagues Caesar, but hypoglycemia due to a systemic illness. And since she can't reconcile Octavian's perceived cowardice in battle with his other actions, she has him suffer from asthma. Which, to this faithful reader, all makes sense!
© 2002 Irene B. Hahn
The October Horse
List Price: $7.99
Prior books in the series: First Man in Rome The Grass Crown Fortune's Favorites Caesar's Women Caesar, A Novel
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