Robert Harris ‘Imperium’

I’ve just finished reading Robert Harris’ Imperium, which is the first book of his Cicero Trilogy. Cicero has always been a figure of fascination for me, ever since I read Julius Caesar – and more recently, and concretely, as a republican and a lawyer. Imperium charts his career from his first forays into public life as a ‘new man’ (i.e., a non-aristocrat), armed with nothing but his oratory and forensic skill in the law courts of the Republic. Through the eyes and narrative voice of his slave-secretary, Tiro (who also invented the shorthand), it follows him as he negotiates alliances and enmities with the powerful men of Rome – Pompey, Crassus, Hortensius, and other aristocratic members of the Senate – in his attempt to attain his goal of becoming Consul, the highest public office in Rome.

I have very little by way of substantive commentary about this book, apart from saying that Harris does an outstanding job of bringing Republican Rome to life, with all its colour, life, movement, and horrors. The book moves at the pace of a thriller (I stayed up till 2 AM to finish half of it, and then read the rest of it in a flight, a taxi, and a cafe, the next day). Its descriptions of the raucous public elections and of the cut-and-thrust of legal battle (it features the famous historical event of Cicero’s prosecution of Verres, which is often the opening chapter in compilations of Cicero’s speeches) is gripping and entertaining. Tiro’s narrative voice – engaged, sympathetic, humorous, but also unsparing, is perfect for the role. And despite the seriousness of the underlying theme – the tragedy of how idealism is undermined by the necessity of political compromise, to the point at which power becomes an end in itself, and idealism is reduced to a veneer – the book never allows itself to be bogged down by its own gravitas.

I’m waiting eagerly to buy and read the next two instalments. Much recommended. Not to mention, the descriptions of the courtroom battles will be of special interest to lawyers!

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