Up the greasy pole

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Imperium is the first of Robert Harris' novels charting the life of that most able of advocates and adroitest of politicians Marcus Tullius Cicero. He may have lived over 2000 years ago, but this tale of political machinations and of a decent man's attempts to both gain political power and stay loyal to his roots remain as relevant today as ever.

Harris' novel brings Cicero and his entourage vibrantly to life. Told from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero's trusted slave, friend, and amanuensis, the use of Tiro's voice brings the reader into the heart of the Cicero clan; while also holding them slightly on the outside of the circle. A view that I think would have been familiar to many of Cicero's admirers at the time, as he seems to have been essentially a man who found it easy to keep his public and private lives separate - not always that easy for a top politician.

At times the history can be stunningly arresting. There is one scene where it is revealed that Crassus (top Roman politico, responsible for vast amounts of illicit funding and vote-rigging) used to hide a secretary behind a screen and make him take notes of all conversations held in a particular room in his villa. I thought instantly "Isn't that what Nixon used to do?" - plus ca change.

As a novel it isn't perfect. There are moments of great excitement and political intrigue, and these are consistently well-written and unputdownable. The problem is that there's dead-time in between, where the Cicero family are living a fairly humdrum life. And although the politics and the thriller aspects are well-written, there's no real character development. The only character who is at all rounded is Tiro, himself; and as, by his nature, he is an onlooker, even he is not as developed as he could be. The problem with this is that the "dead-time" does become very dead-time, it drags until the next exciting event.

At the end I was left feeling that I knew more about Roman history than before, was shocked by how many similarities there were to 20th-21st century political history, thought that Cicero was on the whole a good guy; but I still didn't really care for any of these characters that greatly. As usual the bad guys - Catilina for example, were rather more rounded than the good-guys. Would I like to read the next two novels in Harris' Cicero trilogy? Yes - but I'm not going to expect to be hooked by them. A great read if you're interested in Roman history, or political life in general, but if you're expecting to get a more well-rounded view of life in Ancient Rome try Robert Graves or Lindsey Davis.


Shaz said…
Being a history major (who foolishly switched to an MBA program) I'm ashamed to admit that I possess only a general knowledge of Ancient Rome. Just looked up Lindsey Davis and discovered she writes historical mysteries! Now I don't know whether to thank you for introducing me to a new author or curse you for adding still more books to my lengthy TBR list! :)
Book-hound said…
Curses definitely in order, Shaz. Lindsey Davis' Roman mysteries are seriously good. Try and start from the beginning of the sequence if you can as they do read slightly better in order. She also wrote an historical novel set at the time of the English Civil War. I reviewed it on Bookhound (you can find it if you put her name in the Bookhound search engine - I've forgotten the title), that was the only book of hers that I didn't enjoy so stick with the Falco mysteries.

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