Imperium by Robert Harris

Imperium  - Robert Harris


Tiro, Cicero's slave, recounts his master's political career, starting with his case against Verres and ending with his being elected consul...



I first encountered Marcus Tullius Cicero when translating his speeches against Verres and Catilina and later on his philosophical entreaties at school. Up until now he remains my favourite Latin/Roman author/orator, and when I find time I still enjoy translating his works. But quite frankly, I didn't care at all to learn more about his political career back then. After all, he lived more than 2000 years in the past...

But lately, I rediscovered him as a political figure, not just an author whose texts I enjoy, only to find out that political systems, be they from 2000 years ago or contemporary, are not that different after all. Cicero's social standing as a "new man", meaning he's the first of his family to pursue the consulship, the highest political position in ancient Rome, often puts him at odds with the aristocrats who have held power in the republic since virtually forever and are loathe to relinquish it - and who maybe fear being replaced by those "new men". And Cicero poses a threat to them. He is the (reluctant) mastermind behind Pompey's grasp for power, he puts the governor of Sicily, Verres, an aristocrat, on trial for his misdeeds in office, and he's quite popular with the common people as an orator and lawyer.

But as Cicero advances in his political career he's forced to strike up deals and compromises. He gets caught up in a net of conspiracy, corruption, and... well... politics, and only chance helps him achieve his goals as he uncovers a plot to essentially overthrow the political system which secures him the unhoped for support of the aristocrats in the elections practically at the last minute. It's a fitting end to the book that Cicero doesn't boast his victory, that he isn't giddy with glee - but rather contemplative and aware of what he had to sacrifice along the way.

But it's not just Cicero with his witty remarks and high morals that are challenged at every juncture (with the latter sometimes even put aside) that makes this book a fascinating read. Rather, Harris manages to breathe life into the Roman society surrounding these more or less historic events. The basic story, Cicero's career, is based upon his speeches and letters to friends and Tiro's actual account of events, so the facts in this book appear historically sound. But it's much more than a mere biography. It's a glimpse into a Roman republic that is on the eve of its demise, it's ripe with corruption and the pursuit of petty self-interests. Caesar, Crassus and Pompey are already secretly spinning their nets, and one understands at the end, even as Caesar and Crassus' plot is revealed that this would only be a minor road block in their plans - even more so, because the reader of course knows what would happen just a few years after the events depicted in this novel. Caesar would declare himself dictator, and the Roman republic would finally meet its end... This knowledge, and the knowledge about Cicero's eventual fall from grace and cruel death, adds a rather bitter-sweet note to a very satisfying book.
review originally written in 2008.