Imperium, by Robert Harris

Here is another fruit of my dalliance with Simon & Schuster: a novel of Ancient Rome. To be precise, it’s a novel about the political career of the Roman orator Cicero from his early adulthood until his election as one of the two consuls of Rome. It is filled to bursting with political skulduggery, along with a fair dollop of historical detail. It takes place at a fascinating time in Roman history, when the forces which would bring down the Roman Republic were starting to build. All of the players are here: arrogant Pompey, great general and lousy politician, bound (and determined) for glory; Marcus Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, who pursues the worst government money can buy–if it suits his ambitions; mad, bad, violent Catilina; a certain puppet master named Julius Caesar. And, of course, Cicero himself: the great speaker, the consummate politician, the man for whom winning the next election is sufficient reason to deal with any number of devils.

It all ought to be fascinating, and indeed there is much here that is good. I’ve done a fair amount of reading about ancient Rome, in both historical fiction and straight history, and (bearing in mind that I Am Not An Expert) I didn’t see anything that was obviously wrong in the historical details.

Still, something isn’t quite right. It’s a vibrant, violent era, and yet the book seems oddly bloodless. This may be the fault of the narrator; the book purports to be a Life of Cicero written by Tiro, Cicero’s private secretary. Tiro’s a genuine historical figure; he’s remembered chiefly because Cicero speaks of him, and because of his invention of a new species of shorthand that let him transcribe his master’s vast speeches verbatim. Unfortunately, as Harris draws him he’s rather a dull stick–the sort of viewpoint character that exists only to watch the protagonist. He’s not a complete cipher, but there isn’t much to say for him either.

Then there’s the language–Harris is no Robert Graves, and this is no I, Claudius. Graves did a fine job of producing a book that sounded like it might have actually been written in ancient Rome. Tiro’s vocabulary is sometimes strikingly modern; the worst howler is when Tiro describes one of Cicero’s rivals in the consular election as a “religious fundamentalist”. We all know what he means, but it’s not a term that Tiro could possibly have used–even if it really meant what Harris uses it to mean. (Note for the clueless: properly speaking, Fundamentalism is a particular school of Christian thought based on dispensationalism. Using “fundamentalist” to mean “religious conservative”, “fanatic”, “zealot” is ignorant; applying it to members of non-Christian religions, as the media so often does, and as Harris does here, is simply absurd.) Another modern term that shows up is “Special Prosecutor”.

One gathers (not least from the blurb on the dust jacket) that Harris is trying to draw parallels between the Rome of Cicero’s day and our own recent history; if so, Harris’ manner of doing so is ineffective.

If you want to read about Rome, there are better books out there; if you want to read about Roman politics, there are still probably better books out there; if you want to get a handle on that slippery fish Cicero, this might not be a bad starting point. Cicero always struck me as a political opportunist, and so he is here, in spades.

It’s by no means a bad book, and I’m not sorry I spent the time with it; and I might even cock an eye at the sequel that Harris is clearly planning to write. But I didn’t cordially love it, either, and it lacks some breath of life that I can’t quite put my finger on.

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