- The First Man in Rome (1990)
- The Grass Crown (1991)
- Fortune's Favourites (1993)
- Caesar's Women (1997)
- Caesar (1998)
- The October Horse (2002)
- Antony and Cleopatra (2007)
Set in Ancient Rome (between 110 BC and 27 BC) this epic seven book series covers the fall of the Roman Republic and ends with the rise of Octavian (later known as Caesar Augustus). Noted for their intricate research of Roman life and McCullough's use of Deliberate Values Dissonance with even clearly sympathetic characters. Also sex, quite a lot of it.
While there are hundreds if not thousands of named characters in these books, broadly speaking several major if unrelated story arcs stand out. The first two books are dominated by the friendship and later rivalry between the brilliant general Gaius Marius and the icy but cunning aristocrat Lucius Cornelius Sulla while most of the later works focus on the careers and lives of Pompey the Great, Marcus Licinius Crassus, Cicero, Cato, Marcus Junius Brutus, Octavian, Cleopatra VII, Mark Antony and above all Julius Caesar whose pivotal life makes him the central character of the whole story.
Provides examples of:
- All Men Are Perverts/All Women Are Prudes: Fascinatingly inverted with Brutus and his mother Servilia; one of the (many) reasons Servilia has difficulty comprehending her son is that she has a very strong sex drive while Brutus is naturally prudish and much more sentimental than lustful.
- Analogy Backfire:Catulus Caesar: It reminds me of Thermopylae. This is the ideal place to hold the Germans back until they give up and turn north again.
Sulla: The Spartans holding Thermopylae all died.
- Army of Thieves and Whores: Marius's legion, as the usual pool of eligible soldiers is so depleted that he resorts to recruiting from the urban poor of Rome.
- Arranged Marriage: Just about every marriage in the story. Some turn out fairly well, others disastrously; but the only two fathers that allow their children to marry for love are regarded as crazy by everyone else.
- When given her choice of suitors Aurelia Cotta is appalled, it's un-Roman!
- Author Appeal: McCullough evidently has a thing for fair-skinned blonde and red-haired men: Sulla and Caesar are constantly described as being extremely good looking, as to a slightly lesser extent are Pompey, Octavian and even Cato.
- Badass Bookworm: Bookworm might be pushing it, but Cato is a character who is almost never seen outside a political or social context so it is easy to forget he is an incredibly strong and tough ex-soldier. On one occasion he effortlessly separates two armed veterans who have come to blows, on another he knocks a far taller, heavily built man unconscious with a single punch breaking his jaw in the process.
- Caesar is a good example, too. People tend to get so focused on his military career they forget he was a brilliant lawyer first.
- Octavian (Augustus) is consistently underestimated by his opponents because he is a bookish youth and not a manly man. Anyone with a knowledge of the period knows how well that worked out for them.
- The Big Damn Kiss: Sulla lays one on Metrobius in the middle of his retirement procession, while a group of senators looks on in shock.
- Brainless Beauty: Pompeia Sulla, whose own mother describes her as 'absolutely ravishing' but 'abysmally stupid'.
- Break the Cutie: While not technically a cutie, Sulla was always noted as being extremely handsome... until he gained and lost two hundred pounds, lost all of his teeth, his hair fell out and his face almost got sunburned off. All in about three months. (It's implied that he was suffering from diabetes.)
- In the previous book, his son died, his country was torn apart in a civil war he fought to avoid, he had his triumph and his counsulship ruined by his old friend Marius, and he was ultimately forced to march on his homeland (an act which, being both conservative and a patriot, he utterly detested). His life was deemed so hard that Aurelia, the woman who never wept, ended up weeping for him.
- Broken Bird:
- Cato. And a very masculine one, at that.
- Metella Dalmatica is broken as a young wife by her much older husband, who reacts to her public and embarrassing crush on Sulla by keeping her confined to the house for years. Her marriage to Sulla does nothing to heal her. Sulla loves her but as he himself admits he's not good for the women in his life.
- Broken Pedestal: Cicero suffers this when Pompey threatens his life to keep him from giving Milo's defense speech, leading to a public breakdown when he tries to make the speech anyway.
- Bus Crash: The end of Mithridates VI of Pontus is a little disappointing considering his importance and big role in The Grass Crown; not so much his actual death, which is a matter of historical record, but the way we hear about it in a letter.
- Camp Gay: Nearly every gay/bisexual man in the series aside from Sulla and Atticus is also described as effeminate. Antony and Curio, who would be other exceptions, are actually engaged in Faux Yay.
- Casual Danger Dialogue: In Caesar a besieged Quintus Cicero manages to smuggle out a message for help to Caesar. In the ensuing exchange of urgent missives both men take time out to compliment the other on the quality of his Greek.
- Child Prodigy: Caesar was one, and as a result he judges his son with Rhiannon by unrealistic standards. Caesarion, his son with Cleopatra, takes after him far more in this respect.What was the matter with him, that he had no interest in the Greeks on the beach at Ilium for ten long years, in the rivalry between Achilles and Hector, in the madness of Ajax, in the treachery of Thersites? Had he asked these things of Rhiannon, she might have answered tartly that Orgetorix was not yet four years old
- Dead Guy on Display: The enemies of Marius and Cinna have their heads hung on the walls of the Forum Romanum when a deranged Marius returns to Rome after his forced exile. Sulla follows suit once he gets back to Rome. Much later (40+ years and four novels later) the enemies of Octavian and Antony suffer the same fate.
- Death by Childbirth: The elder Servilia Caepionis, Livia Drusa, Aemilia Scaura, Caesar's daughter Julia...
- Death by Despair: Catullus "just [goes] out like a lamp" after Caesar compels him to stop writing satires. The hitherto-unshakable Aurelia loses the will to live after her granddaughter Julia dies.
- Death by Materialism: Caepio Junior, lured into a trap by the prospect of getting his hands on the Marsic treasury.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Selling your daughter for political pull and cash, murder, crucifixion, slavery, murder, adultery, murder, arson for profit and of course murder.
- Depraved Bisexual: Sulla will have sex with anything.
- Didn't Think This Through: Pompey intends to make a splash by riding a chariot drawn by elephants during his triumph, then discovers the day of that the elephants can't fit through the city gate.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Servilia slaps a maid she sees cuddling the infant Brutus — and when the maid drops him as a direct result, Servilia has her flogged and then crucified.
- Distinction Without a Difference:Drusus: Be quiet! Do you ever do anything save fight?
Young Cato: Yes! We argue!
- Doorstopper: Seven books, of which the shortest is 576 pages, and three are over 1000 pages long. A good example of their length is that it takes 270 pages before Marius and Sulla are even introduced to each other, even though their interaction is the main story in the first book.
- Dying Alone:
- Young Caepio despite the desperate efforts of his brother Cato, who is too late by only an hour.
- After a frightening omen, Sulla has his terminally ill wife removed from the house and refuses to see her again before she dies, due to her illness making her "unclean."
- An injured Clodius insists that all of his friends leave him to go for help, which — deliberately or not — means that they're not there when Milo breaks in and kills both Clodius and the only remaining witness.
- Embarrassing Nickname: They abound, with examples like Metellus Piggle-Wiggle, his son Metellus the Piglet, their relatives Metellus Billy Goat and Little Goat, and Ahenobarbus Tiny Dick (Pipinna).
- Enemy Civil War: From the viewpoint of outsiders, the multiple Roman civil wars look like this, and they try and take advantage accordingly. It doesn't work.
- Epic Fail: King Mithridates's naval invasion of Rhodes, from him losing control of himself when two of his ships collide to the ignominious collapse of his floating siege engine.
- Eunuchs Are Evil: The Alexandrian palace cabal.
- Even the Guys Want Him: Both Sulla and Caesar are so beautiful as youths that more than a few male characters openly lust after them.
- Evil Albino: Sulla has very, very pale skin and very pale eyes.
- Evil Is Petty: Servilia's detested half-siblings are afraid of spiders and beetles, so she employs a slave to sneak vermin into their homes.
- Evil Matriarch: If you thought Servilia was warped on Rome wait 'til you see the Masters of Rome version.
- Evil Redhead: Sulla. Cato is also a redhead, but while he has an antagonistic role, you can't really call him evil.
- Exact Words: Publius Rutilius Rufus teases Marius in one of his letters by writing that his niece had a suspiciously red-haired child. This leads Marius to think that Rufus's favorite niece, Aurelia Cotta, has been involved with the notably red-haired Sulla. It's not until Marius gets back to Rome that Rufus reveals it was actually his other niece, Livia Drusa, who had an affair with a Cato.
- FaceHeel Turn: Marius after his stroke, Pompey after Julia dies.
- Fiery Redhead: Porcia Cato, and many of the Catones. The Ahenobarbi, who are named for their red beards and seek out red-haired women to marry in order to maintain them. Caesar's Gallic mistress Rhiannon. And subverted by Caesar's actual wife, Pompeia Sulla, who is a redhead in hair colour but a Dumb Blonde in personality.
- Fire Forged Friendship: Drusus and Silo, as two of the few survivors of the battle of Arausio.
Cato: It might happen yet.
- When Sulla meets the chatty young Cicero, he imagines his unusually large head falling off and rolling away, still talking.
- Servilia and Cato arguing about Cato's hopes of marrying Porcia to Brutus.
Servilia: If that happened, I'd feed the girl hot coals for supper!
Antony: You're very tall, but you don't look all that strong to me.
- Caesar meeting his young cousin Marcus Antonius:
Caesar: One day you'll encounter a tiny little fellow who slaps you flat on your back before you can move a finger.
- Forgotten Fallen Friend: Lucius Decumius, a near father figure to the young Caesar in the earlier books. In Caesar, after failing to prevent Clodius's murder, he commits suicide by running into the burning Curia and is never mentioned again. Underscored by the facts that A) Caesar charged him with protecting Clodius and B) at this point was quite willing to see the latter dead to prevent him from being elected praetor and further disrupting city politics.
- Gladiator Games: A relatively mild portrayal; Spartacus, a trained soldier, gets in serious trouble because he actually kills someone during a match.
- The Greatest History Never Told: Partially averted. The series covers the familiar era of Caesar and Octavian, but the first three books cover things like the Cimbri invasion and Italian War that are very rarely depicted anywhere else.
- Hard Work Hardly Works: Cato, though not very bright, learns through sheer diligent stubbornness. He's still outshone by the likes of Caesar's natural genius.
- Heroes Want Redheads: Caesar's Gallic mistress is a redhead, and her magnificent hair is the thing he finds most attractive. On the other hand, his own wife, Pompeia Sulla, is also a stunning redhead, and he is completely cold towards her because she's an shallow idiot.
- Hero Antagonist: It's difficult to call Vercingetorix or Quintus Poppaedius Silo anything else, since they are fighting for their peoples' respective freedoms against Roman domination.
- Historical-Domain Character: Nearly all the main and most of the minor characters are real people.
- Historical Fiction
- Historical Villain Downgrade: Marius's nephew Gaius Lusius, described by Plutarch as an attempted rapist killed in self-defense by one of his subordinates in the army, who then had to defend himself alone against multiple accusers taken in by Lusius's prior good reputation. Here he's a Camp Gay held in general contempt, who doesn't escalate to rape but is killed when a soldier becomes fed up with his constant sexual harassment. The part where Marius extravagantly praises and rewards the killer stays the same.
- Honor Before Reason: Cato is made of this.Cicero: No doubt you'll be doing your duty and arraigning some poor wretch while Rome sinks beneath the Tuscan Sea!
Cato: Until the moment the Tuscan Sea drowns me!
- The Horde: The Cimbri and Teutones.
- I Call Him Mr Happy: Caesar needles other senators by holding one-sided conversations with his "battering ram."
- Impoverished Patrician: Literally the case with Sulla, and to a lesser extent, with Caesar.
- Ironic Echo Cut:
Julia: (to Marius) King Nicomedes is far from a poor man.
- In The Grass Crown:
King Nicomedes: Alas! I am a very poor man, Gaius Marius!
Bibulus: The tribunes of the plebs will veto you.
- In Caesar's Women:
Cicero: Under a Senatus Consultum Ultimum, they can't veto.
Rullus: What do you mean, Marcus Tullius, I can't veto?
- Karma Houdini: The elder Servilius Caepio is responsible for the deaths of uncountable numbers of people through his malice, greed, and incompetence. When he's finally called to account he goes to a comfortable exile in Smyrna, where he lives off his ill-gotten gains.
- Knight Templar: Cato about conserving the old Roman ways and his hatred of Caesar. There's a good chance that the civil war wouldn't have happened had he not been around. Also Octavian, whose determination to see Brutus and Cassius pay pushes Rome into another civil war.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Quintus Varius hires the assassins who stab Marcus Livius Drusus, leaving him to die slowly in agony. After his own Kangaroo Court turns on him, Varius also dies slowly and painfully from a Bungled Suicide.
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- Long-Lost Relative: Sulla's nephew Publius, the son of a hitherto-unknown brother adopted out to an knightly family (who died in fear that Sulla would have him proscribed). Also his half-German son Cornel, who Caesar happens to encounter decades later.
- Lovable Rogue: Lucius Decumius, the leader of the crossroads brotherhood based in Aurelia's apartment building, contrives to be this despite being an extortionist and occasional assassin.And Aurelia found that an awful thing was happening to her; she was starting to like Lucius Decumius! Which was manifestly ridiculous. Yet a fact, nonetheless.
- Love at First Sight: If a marriage isn't arranged for political reasons it's likely to be the result of this; Cato and Marcia Philippa for one example, and Octavian and Livia for another. Octavian especially can't believe something so irrational has happened to him of all people.
- Love Martyr: Marcia remains devoted to Cato despite his best efforts to reject her and his feelings for her — up to and including giving her away to another man.Marcia: I understand, Marcus. I do understand. I love you. I will love you beyond death.
Cato: I don't want you to love me! I want peace, I want to be left alone, I don't want anyone loving me, I don't want to be loved beyond death!
- Magical Realism: Martha's prophecies and a few other, minor aspects.
- Malicious Slander: The young (and beautiful) Caesar successfully negotiated an alliance with the old, Camp Gay, and lecherous King Nicomedes of Bithynia. In the novel, the two are presented as forming a real and non-sexual Odd Friendship (and while Nicomedes finds Caesar attractive, he doesn't try anything). But from then on (in the novels and in Real Life), Caesar's enemies accused him of having prostituted himself to Nicomedes to secure the alliance.note
- Murder by Inaction: Sulla sits back and watches his mistress gather and eat mushrooms that he knows are poisonous.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: Pompeia Sulla. After Publius Clodius crashes the women-only Bona Dea festival (being held at Caesar's residence), Caesar divorces her, even though all parties concerned, including Caesar, agree that she was not responsible and that Clodius hadn't even touched her (he barely even got past the door). Caesar's explanation: "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion." This is also lampshaded when he speaks about his last wife, Calpurnia. This despite the fact that (on his mother's advice!) Caesar slept around, with particular attention to cuckolding his political enemies, to quash any rumor that he is homosexual.
- Soon afterward, Servilia's husband dies and she expects that Caesar will marry her, but Caesar refuses on these grounds, since if he divorced Pompeia over that then he can't very well proceed to marry a confirmed adulterer whose love letter to him was literally passed around the Senate.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Clodius, who is often selfish and vindictive under a guise of altruism, ends up in a position to be murdered first because he takes a trip out of town to do a favor for a dying man, then because he refuses to abandon his bodyguards to Milo's.
- Nobody Over 50 Is Gay: Averted by Sulla, who is sexually active with his male lover Metrobius until his death at the age of 60, as well as by the even older King Nicomedes.
- Not So Different: Sulla and Caesar's similarities are frequently pointed out. Both are patricians, both have good looks and cold blue eyes, both of them become dictators illegally. The main difference between them is that Caesar is much less ruthless than Sulla, that Sulla belongs to the optimate (conservative) faction while Caesar belongs to the populares, and that Sulla eventually resigns the office of dictator, while Caesar continues to hold it until he is killed. Sulla himself comes to see Caesar as a younger, less damaged version of himself.
- Odd Friendship: The young Pompey and Cicero. Marius and Sulla too, in a way (until it ends in tears). And the young Caesar and King Nicomedes.
- Many in Rome considered this true of Gaius Marius and Publius Rutilius Rufus, but justified given their military service together in their youth.
- Oedipus Complex: Part of Servilia's Troubling Unchildlike Behavior involves her idolization of her father Caepio and contempt for her mother Livia.Servilia: Tata, if you won't kill her, leave her here! She's not good enough for you! She doesn't deserve you! Who is she, after all? Only a plebeian—not patrician like you and me! If you leave her here, I'll look after you, I promise!
- One Steve Limit: Averted due to historical necessity; there are are at least three important characters named Gaius Julius Caesar, for instance. In the books they are generally distinguished by nickname based on age, in this case 'Caesar Grandfather', 'Caesar' and 'Young Caesar.' In most cases these all belong to the same family (Caesar Grandfather is, well, Young Caesar's grandfather). Sometimes it is more complicated; the consul Gauis Octavius (an important supporting character in The Grass Crown) is only distantly related to Octavian.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Rhiannon, known as the "Wronged Wife" she introduced herself to Caesar as because her real name has "too many x's."
- Out of Focus: Mithridates, a major POV character in The Grass Crown, is frequently mentioned in the next two books but doesn't appear 'onscreen' again.
- Overly Long Gag: In Pompey's enthusiastic letter to Sulla.I won a great battle and my men hailed me imperator on the field. But Ahenobarbus and three thousand of his men escaped unharmed. My men were still hailing me imperator on the field, but I stopped them by saying they could do that later. My men saw the truth of this and stopped hailing me imperator on the field. We all rushed to Ahenobarbus's camp and killed him and all his men. I then allowed my men to hail me imperator on the field. [...] I will then march up the Via Appia to Rome, where I would like a triumph. My men have hailed me imperator on the field, therefore I am entitled to a triumph.
- Parental Favoritism: Of his two oldest children, Sulla clearly prefers his son over his daughter.
- Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Gaius Marius and Julia like each other at first sight and rapidly fall in love. Pompey the Great has a habit of falling madly in love with the wives he's married for purely political reasons (with the notable exception of his first wife, as he married her to swing a court case and is brutally frank about his intention of trading her in for a more aristocratic model). The Gaius Julius Caesar is devastated by the death of his wife Cinnilla, married to him when they were both children for religious reasons. Caesar's client Vatinius is equally brokenhearted over the death of his wife Antonia Cretica, a plain and stupid but highly born woman Caesar married him to for purely practical reasons.
- Please Spare Him, My Liege!: Aurelia leads a group to ask Sulla for her son Caesar's life. He ends up literally stage-managing their plea for maximum drama.
- Prophecies Are Always Right: The prophecies concerning the greatness of Marius and later Sulla prove to be true; both become the leading soldier/statesman of their day.
- Purple Eyes: Aurelia's remarkable eyes are quite a plot point.
- Queer Romance: Sulla's relationship with Metrobius, which lasts from book 1 to book 3.
- Rage Quit: When command in Sicily is taken from him by an opportunist intending to mop up the remains of the slave rebellion and take the credit, the elder Licinius Lucullus systematically dismantles his progress and his army before he goes, leaving his successor with just as big a mess to deal with.
- Revenge Before Reason: Octavian. After the assassins of Caesar have already been defeated and killed, he's sufficiently murderous to have Cato's (totally harmless) best friend killed for the 'crime' of being friends with Caesar's old enemy.
- Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves:
- Caesar's historical reaction to being presented with Pompey's head in Egypt.
- Decades earlier, Gaius Mutilus's wife throws him out after hearing of the defeat of the Samnite army. When he commits suicide on the doorstep, she has his head cut off and sent to Sulla to ingratiate herself. Sulla is not impressed.
- Sertorius's lieutenant Perperna assassinates him in hopes of claiming the money and land offered by Pompey and Metellus Pius. Pompey refuses on the grounds that the reward offered was for information leading to the death of Sertorius, not for actually doing it, and ends up decapitating Perperna later.
- Running Gag: The hypothetical "Lucius Tiddlypuss," a quintessential Upper-Class Twit.
- Self-Made Man: Marius, and in a very different manner, Cicero.
- Sexless Marriage: Not completely sexless but Octavian and Livia much prefer to cuddle together in bed and talk politics. Octavia thinks this is pitiful. YMMV.
- Stuffed into the Fridge: Rhiannon is murdered to get back at Caesar.
- Tall Poppy Syndrome: Invoked by name in the book itself and in the author's notes.
- Sulla instructs Cethegus and Verres to "lop off the head of every tall poppy" in Samnium.
- A large part of the boni vendetta against Caesar. The young Bibulus, specifically, immediately detests the young Caesar for his all-around greatness.Just the look of Caesar had been enough to set him off—the face, the body, the height—and then, to cap those physical advantages, the fellow had produced a spate of fluent, beautifully chosen words! Not fair!
- Troll: Sulla trolls all of Rome when he installs Metellus Pius as Pontifex Maximus; Metellus has a severe stutter, and the slightest error in a religious ritual means it has to be done over again.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior:
- The Twink: Metrobius, Sulla's lover.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: Due to Loads and Loads of Characters and Loads And Loads Of Pages all the books have multiple interweaving storylines.
- Unfriendly Fire: Lucius Cato openly states it's better for all of his soldiers to die than to retreat. Young Marius promptly stabs him in the back.
- Unwanted Spouse: With the ease of divorce, there are numerous instances of husbands putting wives out with the garbage once a better prospect comes along; if they're nice about it, they'll give her a settlement to go on her way. Examples include: Marius divorcing Grania for Julia, Sulla divorcing Aelia for Dalmatica, Pompey divorcing Antistia for Aemilia Scaura, Brutus divorcing Claudia for Porcia, Octavian divorcing Scribonia for Livia.
- Values Dissonance: In story: Cleopatra is shocked that Mark Antony would starve his people in order to get back at his political enemies, but Antony is equally shocked that Cleopatra wants to murder her sister.
- Villain Protagonist: Sulla. He's willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, and his proscription in Rome was despicable as well.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Octavian is beloved by legionaries because of his charm and resemblance to Caesar and also enchants Cicero amongst others; he is also hideously cold-blooded about killing or ruining anyone who gets in his way, or tarnishes the legacy of his beloved adopted father.
- "Beloved" because Octavian was using his adopted father's good publicity to promote his own political career in the eyes of the Romans. Anything that would slander Caesar would slander Octavian, as the latter tried to rub himself with as much Caesarian clout he could think of, including deifying Caesar and having people call him Divi Filius: Son of God.
- We Named the Monkey "Jack": Queen Oradaltis of Bithynia's lapdogs, Sulla and Lucullus.
- Wild Card: The oily, yet strangely likable Lucius Marcius Philippus, Rome's most honestly corrupt politician - that is to say anyone can buy him but he stays bought.
- His father/grandfather, also Lucius Marcius Philippus is bribed by Marius in the first book, and offers his service for life. He later becomes a political enemy of Marius, which costs him the consulship when Rutilius Rufus points out he should be bound by his bribe a decade previously. Though this might be the same Philippus mentioned above. Most families have only one character kept through the generations.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Several. Marius after his stroke seizes Rome and kills most of his friends and enemies. Subverted with Sulla who had perfectly rational reasons for seizing power and killing a whole lot of people.