Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris is an entertaining look at the rise to power of one of Rome’s greatest orators â€“ Marcus Cicero. The book is written from the perspective of his household slave Tiro, a personal secretary for 36 years.
Here is a brief summary of the book from Publisher’s Weekly:
â€¦[T]his fictional biography follows the statesman and orator from his early career as an outsider – a “new man” from the provinces – to his election to the consulship, Rome’s highest office, in 64 B.C. Loathed by the aristocrats, Cicero lived by his wits in a tireless quest for imperium – the ultimate power of life and death – and achieves “his life’s ambition” after uncovering a plot by Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar to rig the elections and seize control of the government. Harris’s description of Rome’s labyrinthine, and sometimes deadly, political scene is fascinating and instructive. The action is relentless, and readers will be disappointed when Harris leaves Cicero at the moment of his greatest triumph. Given Cicero’s stormy consulship, his continuing opposition to Julius Caesar and his own assassination, readers can only hope a sequel is in the works.
From a historical perspective, I found the book interesting because I did not know much about Cicero before reading it. His life was one of constant strife with the aristocrats. According to the book, he was always striving to prove that he belonged with the power elites of Rome. Although the book is a fictional account of conversations and details, it appears to follow his rise to power.
I don’t agree with Publisher’s Weekly that the action is “relentless.” The political action may have been relentless, but the physical action is sparing. To a person such as myself who is used to reading about physical action, this book was lacking (but, I suppose that is what you get when you read about a Roman statesman â€“ words, not action).
In any case, I did enjoy reading about Cicero’s political maneuverings. For example, it is fascinating how he came to be Rome’s top orator and lawyer by beating the top lawyer at the time – Hortensius – in a trial about a corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. Harris’s use of Cicero’s political wit is superb. Many of Cicero’s quotations can be transferred to today’s political world. Here are some examples of Cicero’s quotations: “Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them” and “Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating only on one thing at a time.”
If nothing else, the book tells a good story.
Harris is a good novelist. Unfortunately, his knowledge and understanding of actual history leaves more than a bit to be desired.