The October Horse

Written by Colleen McCullough
Review by James Hawking

This final volume of a series of six novels about republican Rome brings the story from Caesar’s pursuit of Pompey after Pharsalus through the final vengeance on his murderers (48 BCE to 42 BCE). The title comes from the ritual of sacrificing a prize racehorse and the subsequent fight over the remains.

McCullough’s expert command of the historical facts from a broad range of ancient and contemporary sources makes this the kind of novel that tests and expands even an expert’s knowledge of Roman history. Her work is very specifically grounded in Roman law and political practice, yet her specific stories of Senate intrigue are universal in their portrayal of the role of friendship, family and faction play. All good historical novels can teach us history; McCullough’s novels also teach us politics.

Like most political writers, McCullough is a fierce partisan, damning the Optimates and praising the Populares, at least those allied with Caesar. Caesar comes across as the best in a number of categories: strategist, soldier, engineer, poet, prose writer, priest, politician, lover, philosopher and anything else he chooses. The villains are, as always more intriguing: Cato, usually drunk on cheap wine; Brutus, spotty and greedy; Antony, disloyal and oafish. The October Horse opens with Caesar’s pursuit of Pompey after Pharsalus, takes us through Cleopatra’s Egypt and returns to Rome where we see the formation of the Kill Caesar Club. After the Ides of March, attention turns to young Octavian and his fight to consolidate power and avenge his adoptive father.

As usual, McCullough adds maps, drawings and a detailed glossary providing historical background. In her afterword, she announces that she has now decided to end the series she began in 1990, but her fans can still hope she changes her mind. I would recommend a reader unfamiliar with the series to begin here with the last volume and to work his or her way back through First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown, Fortune’s Favorites, Caesar’s Women, and Caesar.