The fourth in the ‘Masters of Rome’ series, covering 10 years from 68-58 BC, chronicling the rise of Gaius Julius Caesar, with most of the narrative set in Rome itself. Despite being part of the book’s name, the first half of the book does not really focus on Caesar himself. Much of it is spent on building up the rest of the cast who would play an important role in Caesar’s life during this period – from his allies like Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus to enemies like Cato and Bibulus, and even those who, in modern terminology could be called frenemies like Cicero and Clodius. However, the author remains true to the title by delving into the minds and lives of the various women who essay a key role in Caesar’s life – his mother Aurelia, his lover Servilia, his daughter Julia and even the non-influencer – his wife Pompeia, whom he later divorces – though to a minimal extent.
Cicero, in this book, is shown in poor light, and the author does say in her notes that his peers didn’t think too much of him, as per the documentation available from that era. The other important character who makes an extended appearance is Brutus, originally betrothed to Caesar’s daughter Julia.
It then follows Caesar’s political career covering his curule aedileship, his election as Pontifex Maximus, governorship of Further Spain and his first consulship. The book also highlights possibly the only chink in Caesar’s otherwise impenetrable armour – an indifference towards money – though he manages to learn his lessons in that respect towards the end of the book.
The book not only chronicles how Caesar uses various tools, even marriage (his own as well as his daughter’s), to out-manoeuver his enemies and further his rise to prominence, but also manages to give a good idea of how Roman society functioned, in terms of culture, belief systems and hierarchy. It minimally shows Caesar’s military genius but quite elaborately showcases his political and legal brilliance, aided in no small measure by his mother Aurelia, and which culminates in the formation of the triumvirate with Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.
The book sets quite a lively pace though it does require concentration to follow the various alliances that are made and broken at regular intervals. As in the previous books, and probably more so because of the new characters, the large secondary cast is not easy to follow. The final pages of the book point to a change in Caesar after his year as consul and sets the stage for the next book.