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Ancient Rome is back in vogue, maybe this stems from huge success of the film 'Gladiator' a few years ago but more recently this fascination has spread to TV and books. The highly enjoyable TV romp Rome presented us with the more common vision of the ancient capitol featuring plenty or orgies, assassinations and torture... an adult Roman soap opera if you like. In the sphere of literature there have been many historically based fantasy fictions such as the Emperor series by Conn Iggulden or the books by Valerio Massimo Manfredi one of which 'The Last Legion' has also been made into a film. Some authors however has attempted to bring a more realistic vision of ancient Rome to us and Robert Harris in his previous book 'Pompeii' and in this book 'Imperium' has given us a literary version of the docu/drama, blending real life historical characters, details and events with fictional drama.
In 'Imperium' Harris has decided base his story largely based on actual events around the legendary Roman politician and orator Cicero who was one of the last great Romans of the Republic before the rise of the totalitarian emperors. Narrated through the eyes of Cicero's most trusted slave and confidant Tiro we get a portrait of Cicero rising from humble beginning to reach the very highest echelons of roman society without the benefit of family patronage relying instead of his superlative skills as an public speaker and his indefatigable networking and machination in the cutthroat world of the Roman political elite. The use of Tiro as the narrator is a good device since it allow for an appraisal of Cicero from close quarters but still from an outsiders perspective thus allowing for elements of his character to be beyond our understanding and maintaining an element of mystery around the man. This I believe is preferable to having Cicero as the narrator.
Due to the insights of Tiro we get a surprisingly candid and believable view of the great man. Great because of his political skills but at the same time flawed, often showing vanity and self-interest at the heart of many decisions he made.
It has to be said that if you are a fan of the 'sword and sandal' depictions of Rome mentioned above then you are going to be disappointed by 'Imperium'. If however you are looking for what I suspect is a fairly accurate view of Roman political life filled with scheming, treachery and betrayal then 'Imperium' will more than oblige.
After setting the scene and giving us enough detail of Cicero's youth to explain his current position in Roman society the story pans out more like a John Grisham courtroom drama than a tale of ancient empire.
What Harris has always been good at is building up the fabric of the story paying great attention to detail in order to create a rich backdrop to the events. Using the fruits of extensive research based on the contemporary accounts of roman life, Roman law and the life of Cicero he brings the ancient city to life. To this end he is fortunate that Cicero is one of the few figures of that period that we have considerable amounts of personal information about. From personal correspondence that was released in the public domain by the real life Tiro after Cicero's death we have an accurate, honest appraisal of the man, and Harris has built on this foundation to create his own version of Cicero.
For anyone interested in ancient Rome it is especially fascinating to learn of the hierarchy that existed in Roman society and how a citizen's social class and family ties made it possible or impossible to achieve certain kinds of elected office. I had never quite known the difference between Senators, Tribunes or Consuls but these things are all explained not in a cumbersome way but as part of the natural unfolding of the plot.
Rome is presented as an organised society ruled by laws prosecuted by elected officials however corruption and class bias lie at its heart. The noble idea of the Republic is always under threat from ambitious individuals who believe they have earned the right to be above its laws and despite his self-publicizing and naked ambition Cicero takes on the mantle of the Republic's defender a man of the common people waging war against the corrupt aristocracy. As he prepares to pit his skill and wit against the formidable Hortensius 'The King of the Law Courts' the only man in Rome whose abilities as an orator are equal to Cicero's, the case becomes more than simply an isolated struggle between two ambitious men or even the prosecution of corruption on a grand scale but a battle for the very principles of the rule of law in the Republic. At stake is the existence of the Republic itself.
Cicero comes across as the ultimate conviction politician and very much in a modern context. He is principled and honest to those principles but he is also pragmatic. He will cut deals with opponents and play the system to his advantage. I suspect Cicero would do very well in today's political world. One of the most surprising aspects of the story is the similarity and parallel that can be drawn between ancient Rome and our modern western democracies. One often has this image of the Roman Republic as a ruthless military machine subjugating and controlling its people and land by the use of military might. While the military pre-eminence of the roman army was important in keeping peace and expanding its boundaries the main reason that Rome ruled for so long was its political organisation, its laws and its bureaucracy. The thousands of taxmen and local administrator were as important to the Republic as the great generals and the well trained foot soldiers. The harsh realities of Roman politics were that while votes get you elected, money gets you votes. This might seem like brazen corruption of the political system but then again how many millions of pounds do political parties in today's system need to spend in order to secure election victories. We only have to look at the USA the largest modern western democracy to see that a presidential candidate has to be a millionaire or backed by millionaires in order to even fight the campaign. Now just and then in ancient Rome money talks and it is in this world of dealing and double-dealings that Cicero navigates making some very important and dangerous enemies along the way.
The story is fast paced and like in any courtroom drama unexpected events are just around every corner to keep you guessing as to the outcome of the trial. Of course the biggest problem any author as when dealing with actual events and real life people is that at least some of his readership will already know the outcome of the story but to his credit Harris still manages to inject real tension into the proceedings so that knowing the ending doesn't matter it's how we get there that counts.
What does disappoint is that the book in some ways ends prematurely only covering a part of Cicero's life and leaving out the perhaps better-known parts dealing with the rise of Julius Caesar. However I was not surprised to read that a sequel is planned so our appetite for more about Cicero is going to be satisfied.
I would recommend 'Imperium' for any fans of Robert Harris and anyone interested in finding out about the realities of Roman political life.
'Imperium' by Robert Harris in paperback (496 pages) published by Arrow Books Ltd (ISBN-10: 0099406314/ISBN-13: 978-0099406310) can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £3.49 (+p&p) at the time of writing this review.