Imperium by Robert Harris

August 2011

Imperium surprised us. It tells the colorful history of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s rise to political prominence in the last decades of the Roman Republic. There was probably never a time when fame, fortune and power were more intricately interwoven. We’ve all learned that democracy began in Athens, but the democracy we practice today — a representational system with its enormous capacity for shenanigans and hijinks — began in Rome and lasted 500 years.

Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, narrates the story, a talented slave given to him by his father at the very beginning of his public life.  We know Tiro did exist and is credited with creating the first shorthand, necessity being the mother of invention when it came to following Cicero’s career. There is also evidence that Tiro wrote a biography of his master which has been lost. Harris has filled in the gaps and created an intriguing historical novel in which ‘the majority of events did actually happen’ and he hopes ‘nothing demonstrably did not happen.’

Cicero was one of the great orators, a clever dick, who loved a political punch-up and gloried in defending the traditions of the Republic against many a puffed-up bully or greedy aristocrat.  He was first and foremost a brilliant lawyer and his defense of clients thought to be defenseless is a matter of record.  What Harris’ blockbuster technique adds is the drive and excitement, the pace and the personality. With uncomfortable parallels for a few recent politicians, we watch Cicero’s ideals mix with expediency as his ambition expands toward the supreme position of Consul.

Imperium was generally liked by our group. Even those who would never have thought to pick up a biography of an old Roman politician, found something of interest. The second part of Harris’ Cicero trilogy, Lustrum, is out now and the third is scheduled for 2012.

POINTS: 6-8-7-6-6-8-7-6½-7

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