02 April 2008

Book Review: Imperium by Robert Harris

888 Challenge #6

Imperium In the last decades of the Roman republic, imperium is power. The height of political imperium is the consulship, and Marcus Tullius Cicero won’t settle for anything less - quite an ambition for a farmer’s son. Learning the art of oratory and marrying sufficient money to buy his way into the senate is easy enough; achieving rank within the senate is harder. The opportunity to do so arrives on his doorstep in the form of a Sicilian named Sthenius, hiding from the murderous intentions of Sicily’s Roman governor. Gaius Verres could scarcely be more corrupt if he tried, and makes an ideal target for an ambitious advocate clever enough to outwit the devious defence lawyer.

In politics, drawing attention to yourself can cause trouble. Cicero finds himself caught between the feuding generals Pompey and Crassus, beholden to one and dodging the enmity of the other. Having helped Cicero during the Verres case, Pompey expects some assistance in return - help to gain his own, military brand of imperium; and Crassus is planning something that Cicero will need all his political ingenuity to stop.

A novel about law and politics ... bound to be a bit dull, you think? Not a chance! Even elections can be interesting when the process is subject to the kinds of manoeuvrings the Romans delighted in. Add in Caesar’s ambitions and Crassus’s fortune, and they can be thrilling. So can trials when you have Verres in the dock and Hortensius defending him; the one vile, the other a first-rate schemer with an endless supply of tricks for ensuring things go his client’s way. The sheer scale of Verres’s numerous crimes was mind-boggling, and I wondered if history had ever produced an official more corrupt ... and then the book introduced Catilina, who governed in Africa and almost escaped prosecution because no-one could be found brave enough to take on the case.

The people in the book are all real, and so is the narrator - Cicero’s secretary-slave, Tiro, who developed a 4000-symbol shorthand system in order to cope with his master’s torrents of words. He’s ideal for the rôle - close to Cicero and his work, and able to observe without being much noticed. He can just stand back and watch the drama (and the comedy) unfold. Between Tiro’s observations (‘I learned one valuable lesson that day, which is that if you seek popularity, there is no surer way of achieving it than raiding a syndicate of tax collectors.’) and the comeuppances delivered to various characters, it was funnier than I had expected. The characters are all fabulous, and it’s generally easy to keep track of who’s who - but it ended when Cicero became consul and I wanted to know more!

Rating: A


Lisa said...

I don't normally read much fiction set during this era, but this sounds like it would be really good. Did you feel like you had to know a great deal about the period beforehand to understand the plot and keep up with all the characters?

Lezlie said...

I, too, thought this was a great book! My understanding is that it's the first in a trilogy, and I'm anxiously awaiting #2.


Amat Libris said...

Lisa: Not at all. Before picking it up I knew virtually nothing about republican Rome - but I know a lot more now :-)

Lezlie: Ooh, is it? Fabulous!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776