Monthly Archives: July 2023

What is a republic? A Roman aristocratic perspective.

Colleen McCullough was a well-respected mainstream novelist (The Thornbirds), with a background in neurology, and a personal interest in Roman history. I found out about her on a Reddit thread when I was looking up terms for Roman military commanders for my in-progress book on Spinoza.

McCullough seems to have been mainly trying to make sense of the late Republican period and the transition to the Imperial model. Some things in the secondary sources didn't make total sense to her, so she resorted to the primary sources, and reasoning. She used the idea that everything happens for a reason to infer events not explicitly recorded, when they were the best explanation for the historical record. The sorts of inferences she permitted herself include reasoning backwards from their words and actions about the likely character, motives, and unobserved circumstances of the people involved. For instance, she infers from Marius's occasional incapacitating fits, and changed, erratic behavior late in life, that he suffered a series of strokes. And she infers from the signs of an unlikely friendship between Marius and Sulla, connections between Sulla and the Dictator Julius Caesar, and some extant marriage records, that Marius and Sulla married into the Julius Caesar family and thus became friends. She also considered the possibility that the record could be distorted, so long as that was consistent with the motives, circumstances, and characters producing that record. For instance, she has to alter the date of one of Cicero's speeches for the purposes of her story, but permits herself to do so because it was a speech that would have been embarrassing for Cicero, but less so if its date were misrecorded, so he had a motive to get the date wrong.

Masters of Rome is her attempt to lay out what she thinks actually happened, in the form of a series of historical novels. And while the series has some literary flaws*, especially in the first book, it's also by far the best vampire story I've encountered.

More precisely, it seems like an attempt at a realistic, historically accurate account of the kinds of people and events that very obviously would have inspired a vampire myth.

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