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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Imperium’ Tells Story of Roman Republic Leader Cicero in Historical Novel Form

Posted by kinchendavid on November 10, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – Talk about books you don’t want to finish because they’re so good, consider the case of “Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome” by Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster, 305 pages, $26). This is the first volume in a projected trilogy of the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C. – 43 B.C.), as told by his confidential secretary – and slave, let’s not forget that — Marcus Tullius Tiro.

“Imperium” (the supreme power in the Roman Republic) takes the reader up to Cicero’s election as Consul of the Roman Republic in 64 B.C., at the age of 42, the youngest age possible. He was elected along with Hybridia, with the support of the aristocrats of the Senate, without whose support he wouldn’t have made it. Cicero (Latin for chickpea) came from the landed gentry; his father was a Roman knight, which conferred Roman citizenship on the family, including the very ambitious Cicero.

Robert Harris has written about ancient Rome before (“Pompeii”) as well as penning some of the best political thrillers around, including my favorite, ”Fatherland,” an alternate history about a Germany that won World War II and is looking forward in 1964 to a state visit by President Kennedy to meet with the 75-year-old Adolf Hitler. No, the Kennedy in the novel is not JFK, but rather his movie-producer, rum-running banker father Joseph P. Kennedy. The evil empire in the novel is not the U.S.S.R., but rather a Germany that rules Europe, including the former Soviet Union.

If you liked the 2005 HBO miniseries “Rome” – and who didn’t? – you’ll find many of show’s characters present in “Imperium,” including Gaius Julius Caesar, Servilia, the sister of Cato, Cato, Cicero himself and many more.

Cicero is a fascinating character and an ideal one for a skilled historical novelist like Harris (by the way, he’s not to be confused with Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lecter; this Harris is an Englishman, born in 1957, who has been a TV journalist as well as a print one). Marcus Tullius Cicero, the so-called “novus homo,” or “new man,” was the first professional politician in the view of many and was the first non-aristocrat to become a Consul of the Roman Republic – the peak of power – albeit shared with another man – in the republic.

Cicero is endlessly fascinating, especially in his deal-making and compromising, but I really identified with Tiro, following Cicero hither and yon, taking down his every word in the shorthand he invented, subtly giving the Roman advice and doing the dirty work. Three years younger than Cicero, he was the great man’s eyes and ears and press agent. As one of Cicero’s young male interns points out, Tiro had no life outside of the household on the Esquiline Hill – one of Rome’s fabled seven hills – presided over by Cicero and his aristocratic and sharp-tongued wife Terentia.

Tiro grew up in the same rural setting of Arpinium east of Rome as Cicero and his ambition — which we know from the book was later realized — was to gain his freedom and buy a farm in the place where he grew up. Tiro is an historical figure who wrote a biography of Cicero, one that was lost in the Dark Ages; Harris’s goal – wonderfully realized in this first volume – is to recreate the work of Tiro.

While he was a moderately successful lawyer in Rome, it wasn’t until he took on the defense of a Sicilian who had been falsely condemned to death by the outrageously criminal governor of that island province, Verres, that Cicero gained his reputation and started his climb toward the ultimate prize.

Cicero and his entourage, including Tiro and Quintus Cicero, Marcus Cicero’s brother, made a meticulous on-the-scene investigation of the crimes of Verres in Sicily and successfully prosecuted the corrupt ex-governor, who fled Rome. The Verres case made Cicero the go-to lawyer in town, rivaling Hortensius, who defended Verres.

In his ability to compromise and make behind-the-scenes deals, Cicero comes across as a very modern politician indeed. In his rise through the Senate and to other power positions on the way to his consulship, Cicero often exasperated his brother Quintus, not to mention his even more idealistic cousin Lucius, who berated Cicero with a telling statement that rings down through the centuries: “Words, words, words. Is there no end to the tricks you can make them perform?”

Harris’ prose style makes these men in togas and the women who find them difficult to deal with come to life. The relationship between Cicero and Terentia, whose late-night arguments often kept the entire house awake, might call to mind the marital squabbles of two brilliant and similarly ambitious Americans: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

On a trip out of Rome, Tiro caught a glimpse of Caesar, a notorious womanizer, having impromptu sex with Mucia, the pregnant young wife of their host, Pompey. At the time, Tiro didn’t tell Cicero of the incident, although Cicero commented to Tiro when he did tell him years later that a man who would do what Julius Caesar did in the home of his host would do anything.

The meeting in Pompey’s estate was a summit called to deal with pirates who had raided Rome’s port of Ostia, sinking a number of warships and killing many people. With the familiar cry: “Those who are not with us are against us,” Pompey urges swift and decisive action against the pirates, in a manner reminiscent of the current “War on Terror.” Cicero speaks out against the concentration of power in the hands of the man leading the unconventional war, so similar to current events. The Ostia raid will call to mind 9/11, as well as the line from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1.9) about there being “nothing new under the sun.”

When Quintus later complained about the ingratitude of Pompey, who never answered Cicero’s letters to him, Cicero in Harris’ novel says with fatalism: “If it is gratitude you want, get a dog,” a statement expressing a similar view by Harry Truman about a politician seeking a friend in Washington, DC.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.simonsays.com

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