Today I am broken-hearted. Colleen McCullough has died.
I throw a lot of love and attention towards Dorothy Dunnett, and often tell people that she's the pinnacle of the genre. But Colleen is probably the author who most changed my life. It is safe to say that huge swaths of my present existence would simply not be here without her influence.
I discovered historical fiction through listening to the audiobook of THE FIRST MAN IN ROME on a road trip with my dad when I was 18. I was very "you've got to be kidding me, dad," but he insisted, and within minutes I was absolutely enthralled. She made me love history, Rome, and the genre all at once. She even made me regret dropping Latin in high school, and forced me to go back to supplement my meager rememberings. She gave me a sense of American history, through the eyes of Rome - our Founding Fathers were obsessed with Rome, and the Republican model. But most of all she made me see what could happen if you take real people and just write. Her Caesar is flesh and blood. Her Marius is so utterly tragic and brilliant, even at the end. And her Sulla - my god, I love her Sulla.
When discussing our favorite Romans, someone once remarked that I loved the butchers. I suppose that's true. Because she made me love them.
Her MASTERS OF ROME books are a touchstone for me. I return to them often, they on a shelf just behind my head. I even got to meet her a dozen years ago. I wasted my question, and now I'll never get to ask the one I should have, which is "Who do you read?"
If Dunnett amazes me for her plots, her words, and her twists, McCullough amazes me with her detail, her research, and her willingness to tell everyone's story. And her sex. My god, her sex scenes! I'm a fade-to-black kinda guy, and Colleen makes me sweat.
Today the world is a little less perfect. Caesar would disapprove.
To steal from two of her funeral orations - Caesar's for Julia, and Sulla's for his son:
"I say to you, people of Rome, mourn for her! Mourn her as I do! Mourn for her fate and for the sadness of an undeservedly sad life. Rome will be the poorer, as I and all my family are the poorer. We bury her now with great love and greater sorrow, and offer you gladiators for her funeral games."