‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris (2006) – 305 pages
The Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris is the second major fiction I have read about ancient Rome. The first was ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves. ‘I Claudius’ was wild, wacky, and preposterous, much like those early Roman emperors who were presented so unforgettably by Graves. The Cicero trilogy, on the other hand, is solid, workmanlike, invigorating, and intelligent, befitting Cicero, the lawyer and orator and defender of the Roman republic.
The entire Cicero trilogy is told by Cicero’s slave Tiro. We do not know if Tiro was actually white or black or some color in between, since a slave in ancient Rome could be of any nationality. Tiro was very much a remarkable man himself. He invented a shorthand system which allowed him to exactly transcribe Cicero’s speeches word for word while they were spoken, and thus the speeches were saved for posterity. After Cicero was killed, Tiro worked to save as many of the words of Cicero as possible up until his own death at age 99. Tiro also wrote a book on the life of Cicero which unfortunately was lost.
The first novel of the trilogy, ‘Imperium’, covers the significant events of Cicero’s early career as a lawyer. The first half of the book deals with the prosecution and trial of Verres, the magistrate of Sicily, who robbed temples and private houses of their works of art. Verres had many friends in the aristocracy which allowed him to steal from other rich Sicilians with impunity. When finally Verres was arrested and taken to court, it was Cicero who was assigned to prosecute the case against him.
Cicero is the leader of a small group of honest people fighting massive corruption among the rich aristocratic ruling classes of Rome. His is a thankless task, and he will need all his eloquence and intelligence to defeat his powerful rotten foes. This is the classic battle of the underdog against a relentless ruthless enemy. I read this bracing story with always a smile as they battle the forces of evil and corruption much like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, except instead of physical prowess they use rhetoric and reason in the battle.
“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.”
Cicero fought the patrician aristocracy in this trial but later he will join forces with some of the patricians in battles against the plebian masses. Of his many gifts, a talent for friendship was not the least.
Robert Harris also has put some humor into the proceedings which makes ‘Imperium’ easy to enjoy. He has a lot of fun with Cicero’s wife Terentia who apparently ruled their household.
“Terentia regarded her husband – arguably the greatest orator and the cleverest Senator in Rome at that time – with the kind of look a matron might reserve for a child who has made a puddle on the drawing room floor.”
In the second half of ‘Imperium’ we meet two of the major figures of the time, Pompey and Julius Caesar. Both are popular military heroes who have hugely increased the size of the Roman republic as well as its treasury and thus are worshipped by the masses. Later Cicero will have to defend the republic from power grabs by these two war superstars.