October 07, 1991 12:00 PM

by Colleen McCullough

You can’t exactly saunter through the gates of McCullough’s ancient Rome. For starters there are the names to trip you up (Lucius Porcius Cato Licinianus, for one). Master those, and other hurdles follow—labyrinthine relationships, obscure rites, class exclusions. And yet, literary obstacle course aside, McCullough makes the journey enjoyable.

The second of the author’s planned five-volume fictional epic tracing the city’s rise and fall brings back many old favorites—the rugged warrior consul, Gaius Marius; his devious lieutenant, Lucius Cornelius Sulla; the clever feminist, Aurelia—while introducing dozens of new players, delightful, horrible or, most frequently, both.

Early on, for example, we meet the pagan King Mithridates, who thwarts his wife’s plan to poison him. Toward the end we encounter Pompey Strabo, a Roman general so ruthless he can sit contentedly surrounded by the still-dripping severed heads of his enemies.

Dripping heads are sort of a theme here—not to spoil the surprise—as war erupts with the Italians, who are agitating to become citizens of Rome. But more intriguing to readers of the series’ first volume, The First Man in Rome, will be the subtle shifts in moral terrain. As the years go on, the calculated, contained cruelty of Sulla pales beside the brutality of a Marius turned evil; the lovely Aurelia, in her coldness toward her son Julius Caesar, loses ground to hired killer Lucius Decumius, at root a softer soul.

McCullough treats these figures with wonderful familiarity—”Mad as a Gallic headhunter,” says one—and that familiarity pays off. These are characters we care about, historical figures so fully drawn they could walk into an office in Washington—or the average corporation—today. (Morrow, $23)

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