Robert Harris


Historical Novel


Date Reviewed:

Febuary 25, 2007

mperium is a terrific book. This novel is the story of Cicero, a self made man in ancient Rome, during the last century before Christ. I heard of Cicero and knew his reputation as a master orator, but that was the extent of my limited knowledge of him. My understanding of this era of the Roman Republic, before Julius Caesar declared himself emperor, is also limited. Harris does a terrific job of bringing to life the Roman politics and civilization of that era. Rome had already existed as a Republic for 620 years since it's founding at the time of this novel, which is something to reflect upon when you consider that democracy in the United States as survived only a little over 200 years so far.

Cicero is a politician, but he is not of noble birth. Nor is he a wealthy man, nor does he have a history of military success. All Cicero has going for him is his ability to speak. The aristocrats despise him, they call him a "new man", because he is not one of their class. Nonetheless, Cicero is ambitious, he loves politics and desires to be elected Consul, which is the highest office in the Republic.

This novel is told from the point of view of Tiro, who is Cicero's slave, and also his secretary. Tiro claims to be the inventor of short hand, allowing him to rapidly and accurately record everything that is said in a conversation. This makes him invaluable to a lawyer like Cicero. Tiro is present at most of the major events in Cicero's life, which makes him a convincing narrator of Cicero's life.

Although he is a politician, Cicero does have some principals. In the beginning of the novel, he is summoned by Crassus, the richest man in all of Rome. Crassus has been in Southern Italy, brutally suppressing the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Now Crassus is returning to Rome with 6000 prisoners, whom he is crucifying along the length of the Appian Way - this will serve as a warning to any other slave who tries to rebel. Crassus wants Cicero to use his extraordinary speaking gifts to argue in the Senate that Crassus should be awarded a triumph for his victory. With a triumph, Crassus can ride a chariot through the gates of Rome, he can hold a parade in his own honor, which will further his political ambitions. But Cicero does not want to be Crassus' man, Cicero wants to advance his own career, and so he turns down Crassus and makes a powerful enemy.

One way to get a seat in the Senate is to prosecute an existing member, and take his seat. When a noble from Sicily comes to Cicero begging for help, Cicero decides to take his case, even though the man who robbed Sthenius is none other than the governor of Sicily, the powerful and corrupt Verres. It is almost a hopeless cause, because the powerful Varres has enormous wealth to bribe Senators on the jury, and Varres hires Hortensius, the best speaker in Italy to be his lawyer. The story proceeds like an modern courtroom drama in an ancient setting. Hortensius and Varres have numerous ploys for blocking Cicero, they intimidate witnesses, delay the trial, etc. I wonder how closely Imperium follows the events of real history (looking on Wikipedia, Cicero did launch a prosecution against Varres.) It is exciting reading, and Cicero's skill and oration must be perfect if he is going to have any chance of winning.

The trial of Varres covers most of the first third of the novel. Later portions deal with the rivalry between Pompey and Crassus, and Cicero's attempt to get himself elected consul. Harris does a terrific of describing the violent politics of Rome, the ambitions and power stuggles of the aristocrats as everyone tries to be the first among equals. Julius Caesar is portrayed as a dangerous and cunning man. It is no surprise that this novel is such a great read, I really enjoyed Harris' book Pompeii. My only complaint is that I wished it had gone longer, I wanted to know a lot more about the life of Cicero (the novel ends when Cicero is 43) and the events of the Roman Republic before Caesar declares himself emperor. But perhaps Harris chose to focus on the most exciting parts of Cicero's life, and his later career is not as dramatic. This is a great book. Highly recommended.