A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – September 2016 (1)


Imperium – Robert Harris

A curious thing, historical fiction. The problem is that generally you know what is going to happen before you pick up the book. Apart from the Tudors, probably one of the most plundered eras for historical novels and historiography in general is the last forty years or so of the Roman Republic. There are so many strong stories for the novelist to get their teeth into – the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the rise of Octavian and the establishment of the Roman Empire.

And then there is Cicero. I must confess I have never been a great fan of Marcus Tullius – too many hours poring over his speeches – all tarted up for publication rather than the versions delivered live – his philosophical treatises and letters, I suppose. He was a beneficiary of serendipity. Because his prose style was admired and much imitated more manuscripts of his made it through the dark ages. But Cicero was a bit of a prig with an unerring knack of backing the wrong side.

Friends had recommended that I read Robert Harris’ trilogy about Cicero – Imperium is the first part – but such is my antipathy towards Cicero that it has been something I have been putting off for years. But I fancied something relatively unchallenging to read and so succumbed to temptation. And the book is just that – unchallenging, reasonably well written and with just enough action to keep the reader engaged.

The story centres on the decade between 72 and 63 BCE when Cicero is climbing up the political greasy pole and features the trial of Verres  – my first encounter with Cicero as a schoolboy was reading one of his speeches in the series In Verrem – the denunciation of Catilina and his election to the consulship. The first part is historically accurate and draws much from Cicero’s speeches, the middle section drags a bit and the finale is gripping, although much is a figment of Harris’ imagination, by necessity, as it deals with the back room deals that Cicero had to make to secure the ultimate prize. Much good it does him but that is a story for the second volume.

The tale is told through the eyes of Cicero’s amanuensis, Tiro, who amongst other things invented a form of shorthand so he could capture the pearls of wisdom dropping from his master’s mouth and who did actually write a biography of Cicero, although that did not survive the vicissitudes of time. What this means is that Tiro is used as an objective witness – his status as a slave means that he is almost invisible to the story’s main characters but is constantly at Cicero’s side not missing a thing. An undeveloped character, although he does moan about Cicero’s unwillingness to free him, he allows the events to develop without any bias. A clever ploy.

But it does mean that we don’t get inside Cicero’s head and understand precisely what made him tick or choose a certain course of action. The master of first person Roman narrative, of course, was Robert Graves and Harris’ Imperium is a far less engaging and impressive piece of work than I, Claudius or even Claudius the God.

A book to read on the sun lounger with a pina colada in hand. I am not sure I will be rushing to read the other two books in the series, Lustrum – for some reason it goes by the title Conspirata in the States – and Dictator.


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