Book Review: Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell

Taylor Caldwell was born in 1900 and was one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed novelists. She published forty books during her 50 year career. She was a favorite of my mother, but, although her books were certainly available in my high school library, I somehow never chanced to read any of them. When I recently learned that she had written a novel of Cicero, Pillar of Iron, I was eager to read it.

Caldwell was a masterful novelist and, Pillar of Iron is, indeed, a tour de force. She starts with the hour of Cicero’s birth and ends with his assassination, covering a vast amount in between. Cicero was born in 106 B.C. at his family’s estate near Arpinum. His father, also named Marcus Tullius Cicero but referred to in the book as Tullius, was a member of the equestrian class and his mother, Helvia, came from a patrician family. In Rome, Cicero was considered a plebeian and a “new man.”

In Caldwell’s novel, Cicero’s relationships with both Julius Caesar and Lucius Sergius Catalina go back to his childhood. Cicero is enrolled in a school and becomes a friend and confidant of the younger Julius Caesar, already a prodigy. At one point he protects Caesar from the bullying of Catalina. Catalina, whose patrician ancestry is unquestioned, despises Cicero as a Novus Homo. The two are bitter enemies from an early age. While Cicero is fond of Caesar, he has no illusions about his character, integrity, and ambition. While attending the school, Cicero also becomes friends with a Jewish boy named Noe Ben Joel, who influences him in Jewish spiritual ways. This fictional character is a major presence throughout the book.

Young Cicero has little interest in military affairs, preferring to leave such concerns to his younger brother Quintus. He becomes apprenticed to Quintus Mucius Scaevola to study law, and soon becomes a rising star in the Roman law courts. Among his most notable successes were his defense of Sextus Rocius on a charge of patricide, and his brilliant prosecution of Gaius Verres, former governor of Sicily on charges of extortion and corruption.

All during this time Cicero interacts sporadically with Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, and Catalina. Caldwell presents these four as the core of a cabal whose purpose and ambition is to completely dominate and rule Rome. Catalina holds great sway with the dregs of the city, and it becomes clear to Caesar, Pompey and Crassus that he has become a madman. Cicero experiences an attack on his life where his attackers attempt to drown him to make his death appear as an accident. Caldwell portrays Caesar as Cicero’s protector thereafter, not from any altruistic motive but because Caesar has use for the honorable and uncorrupt Cicero as a front for his ambitions.

Cicero becomes a politician and rises in the hierarchy of Rome. In 63 B.C. he is elected Consul with the tacit consent of Caesar. Pompey and Crassus, as they fear the mad Catalina more. Catalina forms a conspiracy with a number of senators as well as disparate unruly elements of the Roman population to, according to Cicero, burn Rome, massacre the Senate and take complete power. Cicero exposes the conspiracy and Catalina flees. Several of Catalina’s co-conspirators are arrested and, at Cicero’s urging and with consent of the Senate, are executed. In so doing, Cicero made two very powerful enemies, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and young Marc Anthony, the stepson of one of the executed conspirators. These enmities will make the rest of Cicero’s life difficult.

Caldwell is a writer of great power and eloquence and the work is infinitely absorbing. At the same time, her religious and political agenda are clear and I think detract from the authenticity of the work. She presents Cicero as a sort of “proto-Christian” who maintains theistic beliefs in an “unknown God” and is obsessed with the notion that a “Massias” or savior is soon to come. The fictional Noe Ben Joel is her vehicle for imbuing Cicero with these notions. Cicero was esteemed by early Christians, as was Cato Uticensis whom Dante admits to Heaven despite his suicide. I think Caldwell would desire that Cicero be admitted to Heaven as well. In any case the novel has a decided pro Christian slant that I felt was inappropriate in a work about pre-Christian Rome.

While Caldwell has obviously done a vast amount of research on Ancient Rome, there appears to be some gaps in her knowledge. For example, she has war chariots present at the battle where Catalina and his rag-tag army are destroyed. While the Romans loved their chariot races and triumphant generals rode through the streets in chariots, they never employed them in combat.

Pillar of Iron is a magnificent novel with much to recommend it, but I suggest it be taken with a pillar of salt.

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