Imperium – a Novel of Ancient Rome, by Robert Harris

Bibliography - Robert Harris

  • Fatherland (1992)
  • Enigma (1995)
  • Archangel/Aurora (1999)
  • Pompeii (2003)
  • Imperium (2006) (Cicero I)
  • The Ghost (2007)
  • Lustrum/Conspirata (2009) (Cicero II)
Robert Harris

Cicero, or rather Marcus Tullius Cicero, has always been an elusive historical character. He is hard to pin down. There is much evidence to suggest that he was one of the foremost Imperium, by Robert Harris legal scholars of the Roman Empire. Beyond doubt, he was also a first rank public speaker and a rhetorical marvel. Also that he managed to become a consul even though he came from a family without power. That he was, for all intents and purposes, a self-made man in a Rome where family ties, patronage, prestige and power was everything. In a sense an anomaly. So there had to be something about him. What, however, was hard to see.

Even so, he has always seemed very boring to me, to the extent that I have formed an opinion of him from the numerous books of historical fiction about Rome that I have read over the years. Not so anymore. Not after having read two volumes of Robert Harris’ trilogy about ancient Rome, focusing on that elusive character. Harris – the author of The Ghost, Enigma , Fatherland and Pompeii –brings to life a man who had as his enemies virtually all of the huge names of Roman history – Clodius, Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, Marcus Antonius, and others. And still exerted influence and survived until the then relatively ripe age of 63.

In the first book in the series, Imperium, British author Robert Harris fictionalizes Cicero’s less-known early career as a young lawyer. He tells a very interesting tale of Roman politics and the history of Cicero that makes him understandable and alive. He uses a very clever device, letting the story in Imperium be told by Tiro, Cicero’s slave, and presenting it as a lost biography. We follow Cicero from 79 to 64 B.C., and via Cicero and Tiro, Robert Harris makes this period of Roman history come alive.

Cicero made his name in Roman politics by taking on some very difficult legal battles against very strong men and at odds that seemed to be very much in his disfavor. Given this, Imperium to a large extent becomes a very exciting legal thriller – a John Grisham like novel, set in Rome, and where politics and law intertwine, and where power is wielded relatively freely to defend positions and privilege.

Cicero’s opponent in his first famous case is Verres. He is a former Roman governor of Sicily. A decadent and very, very greedy man. In court, he is represented by the formidable Hortensius, viewed by most as the greatest Roman advocate of the time. Much of the oratory from this case is still well known and quoted today:

“A belief has become established — as harmful to the Republic as it is to yourselves — that these courts, with you senators as the jury, will never convict any man, however guilty, if he has sufficient money.”

This first book in the series, Imperium, takes us all the way up to Cicero’s election to consul. It is very enlightening and very interesting, as well as entertaining and excellently written. Cicero still remains an enigma, but a much more interesting and much more crafty character than I had so far though. I enjoyed this book a lot, and recommend it for readers interested in political thrillers, the history of Roma and historical fiction. Imperium is a very gripping novel.

Conspirata – a Novel of Ancient Rome, by Robert Harris

This is the second novel (in Great Britain it was published Conspirate, by Robert Harris as Lustrum) in the trilogy by Robert Harris about Marcus Tullius Cicero; consul, lawyer, orator and master of rhetorics. This novel is the sequel to the best-selling novel Imperium. In many ways it is a legal and political thriller, every bit as exciting and spell-binding as for instance the current-day thrillers of John Grisham, with excellent description of the power games played by Cicero and his contemporaries: Catalina, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey, and Marcus Antonius.

While the previous novel traced the rise of Cicero from smart lawyer and good orator to consul of Rome, this book tells the tale of his consulship and the time immediately following it. It is a very strong tale of shifting alliances, greed, sexual liaisons, personal ambition, love, hate, and total betrayal among the elites of Rome.

Harris’ book is superb. His scholarship is impeccable, his story-telling is mesmerizing, and his writing is a pure treat. And the story he tells in this volume moves quickly and is very fast-paced. Cicero becomes a consul. But even before his consulship begins, he is faced, in Conspitrata, with strong indications, in the form of a child sacrificed in a bestial fashion, that there exists a conspiracy against himself and Rome. A seemingly large group of powerful citizens, many of them from the highest ranking families, have come up with a plan to murder him and destabilize Rome.

It is well known that Cicero managed to successfully outwit the conspirators, and that the uprising by Catalina was thwarted as well. And that, due to this, Cicero was viewed as a savior of the republic and became a very highly regarded figure. We follow him closely through these trials, and also the following period when he enjoys the fruits of his labors. However, the good times did not last long. Cicero had an uncanny ability to make the most powerful men in Rome his enemies.

When Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus formed an alliance and seized power, the tide turned dramatically against Cicero. And when Caesar also let loose the beastly Clodius, who hated Cicero more than any, on him, bad turned quickly to much, much worse for Cicero.

Conspirata is an intriguing tale of conspiracy, power and political maneuvering in Rome. The book is very convincing. Robert Harris tells an impressively strong tale of the forces that influences the history of Roma and that led to the downfall of the republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. An excellent historical novel of Roma, and one which I do not hesitate to recommend.