Do you like ancient Rome? Do you like tales of political intrigue? Do you like long-winded speeches made by lawyers on very complex Roman laws?
Okay, that last bit doesn’t sound exceptionally promising, but in the hand of Robert Harris, it can be far more interesting than you would imagine! Today I will be reviewing Imperium, the first of Harris’s trilogy on Cicero, and an excellent book that kept me hooked for days.
Let me tell you about it.
I have always been a big fan of ancient Rome and Greece. It helps that I studied Latin and Greek, as well as the classics works written in these languages, during my high school years. I have also always been fascinated by how advanced these societies were when compared to the Middle Ages and even recent history; the classic Greeks and Romans sometimes seem to be even more advanced than us in certain respects.
It was in this spirit that one day, while floor walking in Blackwell’s, I found a display of Robert Harris’s novels. He has just recently released Conclave, and will be coming to our shop in Oxford on the 17th of December to sign copies. The amount of attention he was receiving made me curious about his work, and when I saw that it was centred on Cicero’s life, I was sold. Cicero is one of my all-time favourite rhetoricians and orators, and has been a bit of a hero to me for a few years now.
Imperium, which is written from the persona of Tiro, Cicero’s personal slave and inventor of the short-hand system, shows us the famous politicians’ life from the moment he travelled to Athens to learn oratory to the moment he, against all odds, became consul of Rome.
Along the way, we see him antagonising the Patricians when he prosecutes Gaius Verres; his years as aedil and praetor; his support to give Pompey absolute control over the Roman legions; the beginning of his enmity with Catilina; and the many tricks and speeches he used to get all the way to the top of the Roman senate.
It may help that I am a fan of lawyer dramas. I count myself as a big fan of The Good Wife, and enjoy watching films and documentaries on trials and processes. I feel, however, that even if you’re not into this kind of genre, you would still find a lot to enjoy in this novel. Robert Harries writes fluently and without a lot of adornment—to him, the plot is the most vital part of the novel and he never lets it grow stagnant with overly complicated phrases or by prolonged scenes that get the readers nowhere. The action keeps coming, but it’s not a mindless, boring action—it’s the kind of intellectual story that keeps you hooked, wanting to know what will happen next.
More importantly, Robert Harris drew from many historical sources to compose Imperium. He often theorises about the holes between them to make the novel more amenable, but never goes against the historical facts just to deliver a plot twist.
All in all, I have enjoyed Imperium very much, and have now mover into reading its sequel, Lustrum. If you’re into historical fiction, or would like to read about the lives of Romans in the antiquity, I would recommend reading this book. You won’t regret it!