Imperium, by Robert Harris
Random House – Sep 7, 2010
Fiction – 496 pages
It’s déjà vu all over again as we travel back with author Robert Harris to Republican Rome just before it became Imperial Rome. We complain loudly and frequently about government corruption, speculate about conspiracies. Brood darkly on the failure of government to address issues of inequality. Deplore the bribery of officials. The world, we say, is going to Hell.
Except that government went to Hell a long time ago and you could easily argue that government — all government — was always a bit hellish. Compared to Imperial Rome, our government is a clean machine, clean as driven snow. It’s all a matter of perspective. Republican Rome was in most ways a model for good government, but over the centuries, corruption ate away at it. By the time it became imperial, it was heading into its final days.
Reading history puts the world in which I live into perspective. Whatever problems we face, we — the human family — have faced them before. We survived. It’s important to remember our ability to survive is greater (for the most part) than our ability to screw up.
Imperium, by Robert Harris, is about a guy named Cicero. You’ve probably heard of him. Famed as a lawyer, even more famed as an orator, Cicero rose to fame and power during a critical cusp in history as Rome was about to change from republican to imperial. Julius Caesar had just stepped onto the stage of history. It was the beginning of the greatest imperial power the earth had ever seen … and the end of the greatest republic the world ever knew. Perspective.
Marcus Cicero started his journey to power as an outsider from the provinces. His first significant legal case put him head-to-head with the dangerous, cruel and utterly corrupt Gaius Verres, governor of provincial Sicily. Using his stunning oratorical abilities and dogged determination in the face of impossible odds, Cicero beats Verres in court. He then goes on to triumph over many powerful opponents, making friends — but far more enemies — along the way.
Cicero seeks ultimate power — imperium. His allegiance is to the Republic. Cicero’s secretary and slave, Tiro — the inventor of shorthand — is the “author” of this biography of his master. Tiro was at Cicero’s right hand throughout his career, by his side, through triumph and catastrophe. Through his voice the world of ancient Rome is brought to life.
It’s a fascinating story. Pompey and Julius Caesar stride across the stage of this deeply corrupt, depraved, dangerous and strangely familiar society.
Robert Harris is a brilliant story-teller and author of historical fiction. He lures us into a violent, treacherous world of Roman politics simultaneously exotically different from and startlingly similar to our own. I read it on Kindle, then listened to the very fine version available from Audible.com. I recommend both most highly.
This is part one of a duology. The second volume in the American printing is titled Conspirata. In Great Britain the same book is titled Lustrum.
Both books are available on Kindle from Amazon and as a paperback from most sellers.