Harris, Robert. Imperium.

NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

You would think an author who decides to write an exciting novel set in ancient Rome would pick someone like Julius Caesar or Mark Antony as his protagonist. But not Harris. He focuses on Marcus Tullius Cicero, the greatest orator of the late Republic, a canny lawyer, and a very astute politician.

It was Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s recorded orations that kick-started the Renaissance and even today there’s considerable disagreement on whether he was really a great man or simply an unprincipled, self-interested hack. The story is told here from the viewpoint of Tiro, the senator’s slave, private secretary, and close confident. (He also invented the first scientific system of shorthand and lived to be 100 in an age when 60 was considered old.) The Cicero Harris shows us is indeed a politician first and last, being willing to come to an arrangement with his worst enemy if it suits his campaign to get elected to the next higher office. He’s often not a likeable person. (Politics never change, nor do politicians.) At the same time, though, being a novo homo from the provinces, and no friend of the hereditary aristocrats who essentially ran the Republic, he’s also willing to take appalling personal risks in order to protect the state from subversive influences. And that’s exactly what happens when he discovers that Crassus (the richest man in Rome) and Caesar (the quintessential man on the make) are plotting to take over all aspects of the government through a program of huge bribes. Harris’s historical fiction is especially known for the trouble he takes in his research, a near mania which is very evident here. I know something about this period and I spotted no egregious errors. He also likes to mention in passing various weirdnesses in the Roman way of doing things. In fact, given the penchant the big players have for judicial murder, it’s also pretty clear that the Romans weren’t that different from the “barbarians” they loved to denigrate, certainly not by 21st-century standards. This is the first volume in a trilogy about Cicero and I’ll be reading the rest of the story, . . . but I’m going to wait a little while. I can take only so much of Cicero at one sitting.

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