"The First Man in Rome" is a saga of life in ancient Rome during the eight years between 110 B.C. and 102 B.C. It's an exciting story of entangled lives and epic events that fill the 781 pages of narrative and spill over into the 113-page gossipy glossary of biographical information and historical tidbits provided by author Colleen McCullough at the end of the book.

I can't believe I read it all. Normally I avoid a book that takes more than a week to read, especially if it's about an era so different and distant from our own. But this novel really grabbed me after a few pages.Republican Rome may be distant in time, but through McCullough's talent for storytelling and intimate knowledge of the Roman lifestyle, that world becomes alive and pertinent to the contemporary reader.

McCullough has been fascinated with Rome since her college days more than 30 years ago. In the 10 years since "The Thorn Birds" made her a rich woman able to live comfortably on Norfolk Island near her native Australia, McCullough has accumulated what she calls "the best private library on Republican Rome in private hands anywhere in the world."

And the Romans left behind an enormous body of written material in which is described everything from political conflicts and personalities, religious rituals and celebrations, architecture, crafts and - in letters - lots of gossip, scandal and details of everyday life.

The saga begins on a cold windy New Year's Day in 110 B.C. as the family members of Gaius Julius Caesar leave their home on the Palatine to join the procession heading for the capital to witness the inauguration of the year's two new consuls. The father and two sons move into the places in the procession prescribed by their status; mother and two daughters and a slave escort walk to a high spot where women can view the ceremonies.

The comments among the women as they see acquaintances, and the inner musings of the father on the state of Rome as he walks along, throw light on the event and begin the portraits of the novel's characters.

Among the most noticeable in this Roman panorama are Gaius Marius, a brilliant and charismatic military man who is frustrated from attaining political leadership because of his non-patrician background; and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a handsome patrician who is similarly frustrated because of his disreputable lifestyle and his lack of the fortune necessary to run for office.

Along with following the lives of these men, their families, enemies and lovers, McCullough provides a panorama of Roman life. The battle scenes are as bloody, detailed and exciting as any contemporary war story. Personal vignettes of all classes range from stories of marital devotion to gay dalliance, from soldierly cowardice to heroism, from female oppression to a spark of feminist liberalism.