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Imperium by Robert Harris
A Novel of Ancient Rome
My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters, and his literary works, even his poetry …
In the decades after his death, I was often asked, usually in whispers, what Cicero was really like, but always I held my silence. How was I to know who was a government spy and who was not? At any moment I expected to be purged. But since my life is now almost over, and since I have no fear of anything anymore—not even torture, for I would not last an instant at the hands of the carnifex or his assistants—I have decided to offer this work as my answer. I shall base it on my memory, and on the documents entrusted to my care …
And it is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power—what we know in Latin as imperium—the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual. Many hundreds of men have sought this power, but Cicero was unique in the history of the republic in that he pursued it with no resources to help him apart from his own talent.
With this, Robert Harris lays out the course which his novels about Marcus Tullius Cicero will be taking. Imperium is the first of two volumes of a fictional biography about the Roman orator, lawyer, statesman, New Man.
Mr. Harris uses the often successful formula of relating the life story of a historical figure through the eyes of a confidante, and he does not disappoint us. The author’s research tells us that the real Tiro indeed wrote a life of Cicero, though no longer extant.
The narrator, here a somewhat priggish and bland character, concentrates on the major events in Cicero’s life, beginning – after a brief excursion to the East to read philosophy in Athens and learning oratory from the famous Apollonius Molon in Rhodes – with Cicero’s prosecution of Verres, the corrupt former governor of Sicily. The next event is Pompey’s war against the Pirates, and the book concludes with Cicero’s successful campaign for consul. (One wonders whether a single sequel will be sufficient to do justice to the remaining major events in Cicero’s life.) For some reason, the pivotal defense of Roscius early in Cicero’s career has been left out. But this may be because the novel largely concerns itself with Cicero’s struggle with his real or perceived adversaries, the aristocrats who disdain the New Man, and the favorite villains for most novelists writing about the late Roman republic, the first “triumvirate”, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar.
Tiro does his best to show his master warts and all, while still maintaining his loyalty to him, thus creating a fairly complex character of Cicero, and to this reviewer at least, a reasonably approximation of the real man himself as we know him from his extensive writings, especially the letters.
That does not mean that Mr. Harris does not create his very own universe of the era and the man. The villains, mainly the triumvirate, try their outmost to wreck the republic. It is by now fairly well known that he likes to draw the analogy of the Pirates’ War and the events on and after 9/11. That is his novelist’s privilege, of course. Unfortunately, the three men, and especially Crassus and Caesar, often are drawn close to caricature, as are the younger Cato and Catilina. (Plutarch is a convenient source here.) This of course, is one of the dangers when the narrator is largely an outside figure as here, where he is a slave – albeit an exalted one – in the world of high society. So he can only observe from a distance. On occasion, this borders on the bizarre, such as when he happens upon Caesar “bonking,” as another reviewer phrases it, Pompey’s pregnant wife Mucia, in close proximity of her husband. Naturally, to some extent, Tiro cannot but echo his master and the latter’s close associates.
Characters more sympathetic in the narrator’s – and presumably the author’s – eyes, such as wife Terentia, brother Quintus, and the idealistic cousin Lucius, fare better, as does the potential villain Caelius.
That said, the novel is a good read, bringing Rome and the late republic vividly to life. The uncovering of Verres’ horrendous excesses in Sicily is masterful. The reader gets a good introduction to Roman politics, and Cicero’s work habits and his love/hate relationship with Terentia indeed do not strain one’s imagination. Tiro’s well known invention and use of stenography is being put to good use and on occasion does make for a nice suspense. As in the only other book by the author which I have read so far, Pompeii, the prose is excellent.
There are some anachronisms, indicative maybe of the lack of a good reader, but not to the point where they could become annoying.
I give the book three stars and look forward to the sequel. However, I cannot agree with Allan Massie, who wrote that, “Reluctantly, I must admit that Imperium is better than [my six novels].” He is much too modest!
© 2006 Irene B. Hahn
Read chapter 2, chapter 3 and an interview
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
by Robert Harris
Hard Cover, 320 Pages
Simon & Schuster 2006
List Price: US$26.00 / £17.98
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
b y Robert Harris
Paperback, 320 Pages
Pocket; Reprint edition
(August 7, 2007)
Pompeii: A Novel
by Robert Harris
Paperback, 304 Pages
Random House Trade Paperbacks, Reprint Edition 2005
List Price: US$13.95 / £10.99
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