Robert Harris - Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

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Politics, personality and Ancient Rome in Harris' Imperium

Jan 20, 2007
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Lots of detail, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader.

Cons:Rather slow going in the first half.

The Bottom Line: Great fun for fans of ancient Rome, historical novels. It may look obscure, but it's a fine novel and worth taking in.

Ancient Rome has the power to still enthrall us, even after fifteen hundred years after it fell as a political power. And the modern world has used the symbols of ancient Rome in architecture, politics and language, giving a haunting familiarity to it as well.

Author Robert Harris, a longtime journalist, returns to the Romans again for the setting of his new novel, Imperium. Set in the tumultuous times just before the collapse of the Roman Republic, it's a story of one man, and his family, as remembered by a remarkable slave, Tiro, who tells the story in a series of memoirs.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is a rising young star in the legal system, known for skill in defending various petty criminals. He's married into money, but his proud wife, Terentia, is too smart to let him use it. Cicero has managed to amass a credible client base, a move that may bring him success in the future, but only if he's very lucky. Outside the walls of his modest home, there are massive political forces at work -- and Cicero is about to find himself caught between two of the most powerful men in Rome.

Crassus is returning to Rome after crushing Spartacus' rebellion, and crucifying more than six thousand slaves on the Appian way as an object lesson to the servile classes. It's sight that horrifies both Cicero and his secretary, Tiro, a slave that grew up beside Cicero, and has become his confidant. Crassus is more than willing to help Cicero climb up the political ladder, but despite his hunger to become famous, Cicero is smart enough to be wary of the offer.

But luck is about to provide an unexpected turn. A bedraggled man arrives at Cicero's door, pleading for the advocate to take on a corruption case that involves the former governor of Sicily. Verres has murdered, enslaved, looted the island's farms and temples, and made the lives of the inhabitants a living misery. Will Cicero take on the case? The lawyer isn't so sure, after all, there's little evidence beyond hearsay, and Verres has the backing of powerful men. But the Sicilian begs him to think of the justice involved, that at the heart of things, Verres has done wrong, and Cicero takes it on.

Unhappily, one of Verres friends is the very successful general, Pompey, who is vain, very fond of the grand gesture, and has a tendency to force his own way in things. Needless to say, he and Crassus are deadly enemies to each other.

The first half of the novel is taken up with the prosecution of Verres, and Cicero and Tiro gathering up evidence. Through their eyes we witness the plight of the lowest, greed of the highest, and Cicero's own rise to power. For Cicero is one of the greatest orators of all time, able to turn a scathing comment at a second's notice, and not even his wife is immune to his barbed attacks. Terentia -- who is one of the more surprising characters in the story -- gives back as good as she gets.

When the surprising outcome happens, Cicero sees an even greater prize on the horizon -- a chance to make his name shine forever in Rome by being elected consul, one of the two leaders of the Senate, and the gateway to more power. But will he and his family survive the stresses of seeking high office?

I would have thought that a story about political mudslinging, backroom deals, and generally very unpleasant people would be dull as dishwater. Politics usually leaves me with a strong desire to take a very long, very hot shower to get the muck off, but I found myself fascinated by this story that gently untangles one of the more interesting people to inhabit Republican Rome, and make sense of the story. One of reasons why this works so well is Harris' attention to detail, and his use of Cicero's own speeches and letters, many of which were transcribed by Tiro, who had invented a means of shorthand to take it all down.

And Cicero's own words are amazing in and of themselves. It's stark, damning prose when he's chasing down corruption, or when he is trying to charm someone with the trick of sweetness. While the story does stop abruptly, it does have a completed feel to it, and I suspect that Harris has a sequel or two in mind. His other novel set in Ancient Rome is about a massive earthquake that devastated the city of Pompeii about ten years before the eruption of Vesuvius, and is as much a mystery novel as one about adventure, entitled simply Pompeii.

Fans of Colleen McCullough's massive series about the fall of the Roman Republic will probably enjoy this one. Many of the characters that appeared in those books are here as well, but in rather different guises. Harris' depiction of Pompey, Julius Caesar, Crassus and Cicero are not as detailed, perhaps, but just as compelling.

And that's what it all really comes down to. It's cracking good story that had me up for most of the night reading, and I happily recommend it to any one.

Robert Harris
2006; Simon & Schuster
ISBN 0-7432-6603-X

Recommend this product? Yes

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