You can look at the novel Imperium two ways – the way the publisher sees it, “In the deadly game of power, one man will risk it all” – or the way it feels when you read the book – Marcus Tullius Cicero of Rome was a good guy who had an interesting career.
In the Senate of republican Rome Cicero got off some punchy lines. He destroyed his opponents in court with nothing more than documents and shrewd speeches. Very little in the way of knives and blood in this particular deadly game of power.
This is a good historical novel, crammed with real incidents and actual intrigues, informed by a careful study of Cicero’s own words and deeds. Some readers will not find this particularly exciting. For gripping courtroom drama you might better turn to writers such as John Grisham.
Author Robert Harris specializes in novels set in ancient Rome – we enjoyed Pompeii a few years ago, following an aqueduct engineer as he puzzled out why water is not flowing along the enormous Aqua Augusta. Something’s wrong on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius – it smells like sulfur – and in the deadly game of power, one man will risk it all.
A substantial part of this story takes place in ancient Sicily, and no doubt that’s why I discovered a discarded copy of Imperium in a hotel in Taormina last week, just in time to help kill ten slow hours flying home. Under other circumstances – such as being able to stand up, walk around, stretch – I may not have mustered the patience to read this book.
We seem to be flying over some frozen section of northern Canada and already I’m on page 321 and I can’t feel my feet any more. Deep vein thrombosis is setting in...
Imperium can also be read as a bruising critique of our own times, from the perils of democracy to the response to terrorists. The story is told as a memoir written by Cicero’s amanuensis – a slave named M. Tullius Tiro, who actually existed, and who was indispensable to Cicero’s success. Always at his side, able to record the great man’s utterances on small wax tablets using a shorthand he invented, Tiro recalls “at first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous... I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words...”
Imperium appears to be as true to what we know of Roman history as any novel could be. The people are real, the events are real, the decisions are final – no, wait, that’s Judge Judy – and the author has to invent very little.
Cicero, while personally ambitious, was consistently honest and dedicated to democratic principles, against great odds. That kind of person was enormously rare in Rome, as he would be today in Washington DC. Considering the powers arrayed against him – the wealth of Crassus, the cunning of Pompey, the ridicule of the aristocrats, the conspiracies of Julius Caesar – Cicero emerges as a people’s hero, someone to admire and emulate.
Because Cicero was an orator, not a soldier, Harris has a problem here – not enough blood and guts for some readers. With grace and cunning based on unceasing hard work, Cicero managed to counter the misdeeds of corrupt officials and in court convict even the most powerfully connected criminals.
Harris is brave to tell the kind of story that could easily cost him his popular audience. The fact that his novels have been consistent international best sellers speaks well for modern readers.
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris. Pocket Books paperback $15.
The sequel to Imperium is Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris.
Pocket Books paperback $16. ISBN 0743266110 EAN: 9780743266116
Pompeii by Robert Harris. Random House Trade paperback $15. ISBN 0812974611.
"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly. But the traitor moves among those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not traitor, he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their garments, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared." - Cicero, 42 B.C.