Imperium, Robert Harris

My mother and I listened to Imperium the week she came up to help me finish my shantung muslin for the wedding dress. Actually, we had planned to start on the actual dress itself, but we ended up making quite a few changes to the design and draping the back pieces took us a lot longer than we'd anticipated. Ah, well, we still had a great time and we did manage to cut into the silk before she left.

Imperium was quite good. I like political novels in general, but even so, it isn't easy to make ancient politics entertaining, and Harris totally pulls it off. I mean, Cicero has been dead for well over 2000 years, but the novel doesn't read that way at all. Harris is extremely adept at making Ancient Rome feel modern and fresh. We're talking Rome before the Pax Romana, before Lindsey Davis's hilarious Falco, and well before the most famous emperors of Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. Rome isn't burning yet and Caligula hasn't made a horse into a senator. This is Rome just before the collapse of the Republic–Julius Caesar makes an entrance into the novel, of course, but mostly as a rather waifish backstabber (ha!) who runs around with a very bad set. This is, in other words, the boring part of Rome. Sure, the Republic is about to disintegrate into a dictatorship under Caesar, but really, that's all because of the complex political struggles between the populists (i.e., Cicero) and the aristocrats (i.e., a bunch of guys you've never heard of until you read this book, like Gauis Verres or Quintus Hortensius).

Unlike a lot of other novels about Ancient Rome, Harris doesn't make this seem modern through anachronistic language, but rather simply by reminding the reader that not much has changed in politics for over two thousand years. People still make decisions based on their own needs, desires, or best interests. Alliances are formed over shared interests, enemies are made because of personal insults or just plain dislike, and ambition, of course, always plays a role. Cicero may wear a toga and sit on a couch at dinner, but in terms of his work ethic, his manipulation of others, and his ability to rile a crowd, he'd fit right in today in the Beltway. The basics of the game haven't changed: who can vote and how do you get them to vote your way?

Harris makes all of this fascinating because he's so very good at drawing out subtleties of character among these now long dead and legendary men. He pulls this off by positioning one of Cicero's slaves, Tiro, as the narrator. Tiro is a historically famous figure because he is credited with developing an early form of shorthand, which he explains in the novel became necessary in order to keep up with chattermouth Cicero. So, we have Tiro to thank for that fascinating (albeit short-lived) craze in the late 19th century for novels and stories printed in shorthand. But Tiro is a great narrator in his own right since he was both an insider–witness to Cicero's triumphs and foibles throughout his career as he moved up the ranks from Senator to Consul–and an outsider. As a slave, Tiro is in a position to criticize the men around him as they inexorably move towards the deterioration of the Roman Republic. Tiro functions as a living critique to Cicero's mythic status–despite all his great rhetorical prowesss concerning the rights of man and the freedoms of the republic, Cicero did not release Tiro from bondage until approximately 10 years before Cicero's death. Tiro also stands as a rebuke to the Roman system as a whole–he functions as an ironic symbol of the collapse of the Republic itself; no republic built on a system of slavery can sustain itself.

This isn't a novel of action. Cicero, after all, was a great speaker, not a soldier. But it is a wonderful conception of what it might have been like to have witnessed a man like Cicero, with both his warts and his wit, rise from extremely humble beginnings to become a rhetorician and orator of such incredible renown. A funny, gripping book, and especially great for a lengthy sewing project.


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