A Novel of Ancient Rome
By Robert Harris
Simon & Schuster. 305 pp. $26
I sure could have used this book while taking third-year Latin. Robert Harris reminds readers that Marcus Tullius Cicero was more than just a writer of tormenting prose. He was also one of the Roman Republic's consummate politicians, a self-made lawyer who took daring chances and usually succeeded.
Running from 79 to 64 B.C., the story is narrated by Tiro, Cicero's slave and secretary, who is credited with inventing shorthand, living to age 100 and writing a life of his master, now lost. Imperium, the first volume of a planned trilogy, is an imaginary recreation of that missing work, and Tiro makes a useful narrator: He can ask about matters for which a slave (as well as the modern reader) needs background information even as he sits in on high-level strategy sessions.
The first of the book's two parts pits Cicero against Gaius Verres, a hoggishly corrupt governor of Sicily. Students of Latin will recall that the case inspired Cicero's Verrine orations, and that as a villain Verres comes in second only to the egregious Lucius Sergius Catilina, who himself appears in these pages, just prior to attempting the coup that Cicero exposed in his most brilliant series of speeches.
Harris, who has also written Fatherland , a thriller that reimagines German history, sets up formidable barriers between Cicero and a successful prosecution of Verres, especially time constraints (if the case doesn't finish soon, a new and hostile judge will take it over, and Verres's lawyer is a master of dilatory tactics). Then Harris shows Cicero using cunning and bravado to knock those barriers down.
Along the way, both author and protagonist evince a flair for politics that will remind many Washingtonians of what originally brought them here. "Politics? Boring?" Cicero rejoins to a jaded relative. "Politics is history on the wing! . . . You might as well say that life itself is boring!" The second part of the novel depicts Cicero making the moves that win him election to the republic's highest office, the consulship. Here again Harris's zest for political machinations serves the material well. Toward the end comes a walk-on by Publius Clodius Pulcher, the most beautiful man in Rome, who figures prominently in another splendid novel of antiquity, Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March . I can think of no better endorsement of Imperium than to mention those two books in the same breath. ·
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.