Collen McCullough's Masters of Rome
August 28, 2009 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series: suitable for young readers?

My 12-year-old has gotten into Roman history and wants to read these books. I haven't read them but have been through through I, Claudius and watched the Rome HBO Series, and am concerned about the levels of sex and violence. He's a sophisticated reader for age 12 and isn't daunted by length. Suggestions on appropriateness, or on other historical fiction about Rome for a smart pre-teen?
posted by stargell to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I read some of them a few years ago and remain impressed by her research on the background and the details of daily life. I don't remember anything very explicit in terms of sex scenes or torture scenes, although there's no glossing over some incidents like the mass crucifixion that followed one of the slave revolts. It's a reasonable introduction to the history of Rome leading up to Caesar, the dialogue's a bit wooden but it's readable enough.
posted by zadcat at 6:18 AM on August 28, 2009

Between all the wordy senate debates and battle dispositions McCullough does like to get quite gory: I think the sex is actually quite explicit here and there, and there are definitely sexual jokes and insults, plus the Roman attitude to sex in general, incl. the contempt for homosexual acts, might take some explaining. I think Lindsay Davis's Falco series, or I,Claudius and Claudius the God, if he hasn't read though yet, are a safer bet.
posted by runincircles at 7:21 AM on August 28, 2009

I'm re-reading this series right now - there are lots of beheadings, murders, etc., and I also remember the sex to be quite graphic in parts. I would recommend it for a 15+, but probably not 12.
posted by ukdanae at 7:40 AM on August 28, 2009

If the McCoullough's series is too racy, Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth series is pretty inoffensive, but beautifully, beautifully written and a stalwart of historical fiction for early teenagers.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:00 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I read the first couple of books when I was that age. My parents were quite laissez faire about what I read though, their belief being that I could judge what I could cope with and they'd be there to talk about it (which turned out to be true and probably what I'll do with my own children). That said, a kid growing up in Pakistan in the early 90s was probably more exposed to death, violence and displays of cruelty than those in most Western countries today. And despite this, I did notice and was repelled by McCullough's fondness for copious and detailed descriptions of death, lovingly tabulating each the fate and trajectory of each body fluid.
posted by tavegyl at 8:05 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

ooh seconding the Rosemary Sutcliff for gorgeous atmosphericness (Also her Dawn Wind for what happened after the Romans left Britain)
posted by runincircles at 8:14 AM on August 28, 2009

Not a book recommendation, but the History of Rome podcast is amazing. It's appropriate for all ages, and very entertaining and informative. I'm addicted to it!!
posted by just_ducky at 9:32 AM on August 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Age 12 is when I began seeking out literature that maybe wasn't appropriate for my age, but was actually really good for me, because while 12 may be officially "pre-teen" the hormones don't know that. I lived a sheltered life compared to tavegyl, but I think I would have been dangerously naive if it weren't for learning through literature which was very similar to MacCollough's books. I don't know that I would lead him to such books, but if he finds them on his own, I think the best approach is to talk about the mature themes in them.

That said, I'm a massive fan of the History of Rome podcast - it is excellent.

Also, you might consider getting him some well-written non-fiction instead of fiction, because if he is really interested in the history he might prefer to know what really happened (and what limits there are to what we know about what happened) than to read an author's interpretation. I'm a historian - I love historical literature, but it's not that good for learning actual history because history is as much about how we know what we know and how much we don't know as what we think we know (the History of Rome podcast was good at noting some of these restrictions for the early Roman history). When I read fiction about real figures, I'm always wondering what is based on history and what is coming from imagination. I don't have any specific suggestions for Roman history (I could give you some nice early modern), but if he's a good reader then he might enjoy a highschool or university level textbook. The kids market would probably be too simplistic for him (it's sad that they basically do little kids books, and then adult - and not a lot inbetween).
posted by jb at 10:30 AM on August 28, 2009

So much of the "age appropriate" books are so painfully dry and poorly written that it is no wonder that most kids don't read. I actually found McCollough kind of boring but if he can get through them, he'll actually learn something. My kids are ten years younger, so we'll see if I walk the walk in ten years.
posted by mearls at 10:43 AM on August 28, 2009

why not just skip straight to the source (or the compilers of sources, so to speak)? Suetonius and Plutarch are pretty accessible, and the penguin classics translation/abridgment is fairly bowdlerized (from what I remember).
posted by rye bread at 10:49 AM on August 28, 2009

Suetonius can get pretty raw indeed. You will definitely want to check rye bread's memory. I would sooner go to Tacitus.

Another writer to check out is Alfred Duggan, who did a bunch of historical novels back in the fifties. They vary in quality but the violence is not grotesque and the romance is not lubricious.

For the lighter side, is he familiar with Asterix? Very silly, better in French than in English, but not bad. My eight year old daughter loves them.

Kind of hard to write about that period without sex 'n' violence, really. I would go for Graves over McCullough when the child is ready, mostly for the prose. Be aware that Graves is tendentious indeed.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:30 PM on August 28, 2009

Thanks for all the comments and suggestions. I will look into Davis, Sutcliff and Duggan. Not sure he'd go for Seutonius or Tacitus just yet. (And FYI, he has listened to the History of Rome podcast, which I downloaded thanks to a previous MeFi thread!)
posted by stargell at 5:10 PM on August 28, 2009

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