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  • Writer's pictureK.P. Gresham

Colleen McCullough and the Roman Empire

by Renee Kimball

Reading is like swimming.  Sometimes a novel is like a wading pool, low-level, light, humorous.  Then there are others thattake you to the big pool but keep you in the shallow end–sitting on a cement step, water to your waist, but not really in the pool.  However, when a story takes you to the deep end and the water covers your head, and you tread water because your toes cannot touch the bottom, then that is when you sink or swim –it is either give up or keep going.   .


I found McCullough’s Masters of Rome series searching for information about the Roman Empire.  The series was highly reviewed, and although it was a commitment of several months to read the massive seven-book series, it was well worth the effort.  When I finished, was in awe of McCullough and wanted to know more about her and her work. 

McCullough was born in 1935, in Sydney, Australia.  She went on to become a neuropathologist establishing the department of neurophysiology at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.  She left after many years to become a researcher and teacher at Yale Medical School where she stayed for ten years.  McCullough left Yale, and moved to Norfolk Island, in the South Pacific, where she lived and wrote until her death in 1977 (Amazon). 

McCullough released her first novel, Tim, in 1974.  It was well received, but it paled in comparison to the response to the publication of her second novel, The Thorn Birds, in 1977.  McCullough became an overnight sensation. 


The Thorn Birds is an Australian romance novel.  The riveting characters, a young Australian woman and a Catholic priest, are caught between an illicit passion for one another and the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.  The book eventually was turned into a miniseries, and McCullough’s path was clear; great things were expected of her for the future—and she delivered. 

McCullough is a versatile writer comfortable writing across multiple genres: contemporary novels, mystery series, and historical fiction.   It took ten years for McCullough to research and write the Masters of Rome series beginning in 1997 through 2007. 


Writing historical fiction requires accuracy, particularly when real-life characters and events are incorporated within the overall story. McCullough’s scientific training as a neuropathologist is evident as shown by her meticulous detail of both historical events and characters drawn from ancient sources. She brings her characters to life, people become real, not wooden historical abstractions.

The timeframe of the Masters of Rome series begins in 110 BC with the rise of Gaius Marius as temporary dictator, the rise of Sulla his protégé/ dictator, and before the birth of Julius Caesar; the seven-book series ends with Caesar’s heir, Octavian, defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator at the Battle of Actium 31 BC. Octavian seizes power and is declared Augustus. (Photo Wikipedia Commons).

McCullough’s series also includes her own hand drawn detailed maps of the Empire showing territories, various campaigns, as well as, multiple portraits drawn from actual classical statuary, and included within each volume a glossary of Latin terms.


While McCullough published the last book in the Masters series in 2007, she went on to write a variety of detective/mystery and standalone novels till 2013.  McCullough passed away in 2015.   While she is primarily remembered for The Thorn Birds, I would argue, McCullough’s greatest achievement is found within The Masters of Rome novels. She is greatly missed.  

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References:

COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH BOOKS IN ORDER. https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/colleen-mccullough/

Image of swimmer via Pixabay.

Book 1, The First Man in Rome, photos courtesy of Amazon

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Publication Order of Masters of Rome Books

The First Man in Rome (1990)

The Grass Crown         (1991)

Fortune’s Favorites     (1993)

Caesar’s Women         (1996)

Caesar (1997)

The October Horse (2002)

Antony and Cleopatra (2007)

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, writing, and animal advocacy [RK1] .  She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.

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