Friday, February 27, 2009

Imperium

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
© Robert Harris 2006
305 pages

I would not have expected to find a novel set in ancient Rome, nor would I expect the author of a mystery novel set in a world where Nazi Germany emerged victorious in the second world war to have penned it -- but here it is, and here Robert Harris has penned it. This is a novel set in the last days of the Old Republic -- before the dark times, before the Empire. The novel is told in the first person, from the perspective of "Tiro": slave/servant of Marcus Tullius Cicero, known chiefly by his last name. In a way, this is a biographical novel about Cicero, although it starts when he is a young politician in his twenties and culminates in his election to the consularship. The story takes us through several decades of political change in Rome, although it is not one long and fluid story: Tiro, addressing the reader directly, writes that he has no wish to bore the reader with a retelling of hum-drum events. He focuses, rather, on three very memorable and life-altering episodes in Cicero's political life.

I found the book completely compelling: not only does Harris create drama out of stuffy-sounding letters about legal incidents, but he makes the idea of Rome come alive. Its politics, its sights and sounds -- he gives the city life. Tiro's narration holds the story together and offers us a different perspective on Rome. He is aware of the plight of slaves, the existence of an entire Republic beyond the walls of Rome and the personal interests of its ruling class. He shows us Cicero when he triumphs and Cicero when he badly misjudges situations. This is excellent drama -- but beyond fiction, it is historical fiction. Here, too, Harris comes through. His depictions match what I know of the period, especially in terms of philosophy.

I enjoyed the book immensely, and am pleased to know that it is only the first book in a planned trilogy about the life of Cicero.

"The art of life is to deal with problems as they arise, rather than to destroy one's spirit by worrying about them too far in advance." - Cicero, as quoted in the book. He also commented that "Sometimes one must begin a fight in order to find out how to win it."

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