Prodigious research; prodigious narrative; full of grim echoing down the centuries
Imperium is the first volume of a trilogy by Robert Harris which tells the story of Cicero, politician, orator, philosopher, and lawyer, who lived from 106 B.C.E. to 43 B.C.E. Much is known directly about Cicero from his published letters, speeches and treatises. Cicero’s writings were rediscovered by the fourteenth century scholar and humanist Petrarch, so Harris would have had a great amount of direct source material to give direction to these novels, plus of course any number of works by later scholars referencing Cicero.
Imperium is far from a dry scholarly read though. Harris is a novelist, and knows how to shape and tell a tale as well as how to flesh out real people with real histories.
Rather than third person narration, or even a narration by Cicero-in-the-first-person, he makes his narrator another historically real individual, Tiro, Cicero’s slave and scribe,later made a freedman after his master retired from public office. Tiro, who died in 4 B.C E. aged 99, published Cicero’s speeches after his death and was a writer himself. It is also believed that he invented an early version of shorthand.
Tiro is presented as both highly intelligent, but, because of his status he has a certain naïvity – he is not always the recipient of Cicero’s thinking, or the receiver of personal confidences, though he is always present in Cicero’s public outings, to scribe him. His lowly status also casts him as observer and interpreter of the great events. He is a kind of intelligent everyman, without a defined ego and agenda of his own to prosecute. He’s fluent, engaging and with understated humour as part of his nature : a good companion for the reader. Tiro is writing his life of Cicero long after these events have happened, a good half century later.
This has been a particularly apposite read in these troubling, corrupt times. It is a book about the politics of Rome, in the first half of the last century B.C.E, but of course, there being nothing new under the sun, the corruption which underpins so much of the life of power, money, and the division between classes, not to mention the particular workings of states, nations and empires, stalks Ancient Rome as heavily as it does our own times and places.
Cicero is a man not of the aristocracy, therefore despised by them, as his intelligence and skills, and his championing of the ‘public’ brings him closer to taking the reins of power himself. However, the closer he comes to that, the more he will have to, and will, dirty his hands and play the system to achieve the ends desired
Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them
Initially rather soft-hearted, hating to see cruelty and violence done, Cicero will have to steel himself and harden himself, fostering steely resolve
If you must do something unpopular, you might as well do it wholeheartedly, for in politics there is no credit to be won by timidity
Tiro will be the recorder of Cicero’s journey towards a kind of cynical pragmatism
the journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery
Whatever the venality, cupidity and self-serving arrogance of some of those currently attempting to achieve the greatest political stages in our own time, they had their moulds in ancient Rome. Indeed, I found myself visioning some of our present politicians in the guise of the worst characters stalking Imperium’s pages, Crassus (well named) and Verres. Unfortunately, learning from history’s mistakes isn’t something we seem to do well, even if Cicero himself, over two thousand years ago, was urging the study of history. Tiro quotes this from Cicero :
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
A terrific read, and I shall for sure want to read the next two volumes, but I may let the fallout from the recent referendum, not to mention the upcoming election in the States this autumn, settle first. Reading how easily the populace can be manipulated by brash and power hungry demagogues, and how serious the consequences of such manipulations may be is a little too close for comfort, even if this account has as its real setting the Rome of over 2000 years ago.