Review: First Citizen by Thomas T. Thomas


  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Baen; First Edition edition (December 1, 1987)

First Citizen by Thomas T. Thomas

Julius Caesar is one of the few figures from Ancient History to be recognisable almost everywhere, although most of what people know about him is wrong. At base, Caesar was a mass of contradictions, often caused by Republican Rome’s deeply personal approach to power. He was a ruthless general who preserved and pardoned his (Roman) foes; a reluctant warlord who waged war against his own government; a brilliant man of letters who failed to see the ultimate consequences of his actions. In the end, he died – and Republican Rome died with him.

The Founding Fathers loved the Roman Republic – and, indeed, comparisons between Rome and the United States of America are commonplace. Such comparisons are, I think somewhat overblown. One might see comparable patterns in politics – mass media as bread and circuses, long-serving political dynasties as Senators – but the fine detail is very different. The loser of an American election does not rally a section of the military and plunge the country into civil war. Nor, for all of its terrible glory, was the Roman Republic a decent place to live. The concept of human rights was non-existent.

First Citizen (published in 1987) explores the possible life of an American Caesar. (Unsurprisingly, the book is effectively alternate history by now.) Granville James Corbin – “Granny” to his friends and enemies – grows up in the chaos caused by the decision of the American Government to repudiate the National Debt. The country becomes privatised, the military is largely replaced by mercenaries and privately-raised armies … and, after Washington is destroyed, the Speaker of the House becomes the effective Dictator of the nation.

Granny, in the meantime, starts working his way up through various businesses, a privately-raised military force and eventually into government. His career matches Caesar’s, although the author does have to work hard to make the comparison work. Eventually, Granny and his allies have a falling out and civil war begins. Granny’s victory is followed by – unsurprisingly – his assassination.

The book is split between Granny’s viewpoint and the viewpoint of other characters in the same world, providing their own view of events. Granny’s certitude is matched by the more nuanced opinions of others. Overall, it is an interesting experiment in writing.

I don’t see the world as particularly realistic, sadly. Many of the conditions that shaped Rome simply don’t exist in modern-day America. Granny’s war in Latin America isn’t really as spectacular as Caesar’s war in Gaul, while the analogue of the Battle of Carrhae (where one of Caesar’s two main allies died fighting the Persians) simply makes no sense from a military point of view. And then the rush to civil war doesn’t really match the events that led to the Fall of Republican Rome.

On the other hand, Thomas does get one point right; Caesar was quite definitely pushed into the Civil War. His political enemies (and Granny’s) wanted to render him powerless, bring him to trial and then execute him before he could react. He was given a choice between fighting or surrendering to almost certain death. Unsurprisingly, he fought. It is quite sobering to realise that the closest American analogue to Caesar is Benedict Arnold. The moral of the whole affair, perhaps, is that one shouldn’t back someone into a corner without either making sure that they are powerless first or giving them a honourable way out.

Overall, First Citizen is a good piece of speculative fiction and well worth a read.

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