When I was in university, I had the immense privilege and joy of taking a course in classical rhetoric. Rhetoric itself is fascinating; classical rhetoric I found doubly so. There is something very rewarding about breaking down even the most modern of eloquent orations and finding, in their bones, the lessons learned and promulgated by voices from two millennia ago. I suspect that, in addition to my general interest in fiction set in ancient Rome, is what first landed Imperium on my to-read list. When I finally got around to it, I was sceptical. As I started reading it, I wasn’t sure this type of narration was what I wanted right now. I pushed on, though, and I’m glad I did. Robert Harris tells a compelling story not just about Cicero but about the last days of the Roman Republic.
Marcus Tullius Cicero is already an accomplished lawyer and senator when Imperium begins. Told in hindsight by his former slave and secretary, Tiro, Imperium is about Cicero’s rise to political power: first aedile, then praetor, and finally consul of Rome. During this time, the Roman Republic starts to succumb to the rot within the ranks of the aristocracy and others in power. Figures such as Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, familiar to many who would read fiction about this period, loom large in this story. But this is not a book of military conquest. It’s more political intrigue, and beyond that, it’s more about electoral intrigue with a side of legal drama. Kind of House of Cards meets … some legal drama show.
It’s really difficult to overstate Cicero’s influence on Renaissance and later writing in Europe, so Harris is taking on a big task here. I’m not going to talk about historical veracity—that’s not my forte—but I want to comment a bit on idiom. Harris makes use of a lot of contemporary British slang here, almost as if this book has been translated into vernacular—which, in a sense, I suppose it must be, given that if Tiro had really written these words, they would be in Latin, not English! So while this choice threw me at first, it kind of grew on me after a while. Harris does a good job differentiating between the different classes by means of things like dialogue, and that can be tough to do in historical fiction so far removed from our time and language.
Imperium is also a kind of crash course into Roman politics in the 1st century BC. Tiro portrays Cicero as a patriot who truly believes in the ideal of the Republic. Ranged against him are those who desire personal glory (Pompey), those who want to preserve the status quo (the aristocracy), those who desire to reshape Rome in their own image (Caesar, bankrolled by Crassus), and those who simply want to abuse the system for their own ends (Verres, Catilina). Cicero is shrewd and not entirely clean himself, in the sense that, as a politician, he often has to do business with people he finds detestable. I really like how, in this way, Harris has the political and electoral machinery of ancient Rome resembling our own today—the exact rules and procedures differ, of course, but much of the strategizing, the backroom deals verging on conspiracy, remains the same. Even if you aren’t much interested in ancient Rome, if you like political novels, this might give you your fill.
I think what really got me into Imperium, though, is the ominous sense of dread that permeates the final part of the book. As Cicero faces his stiffest opposition yet in his run for consul, we see the cracks in the facade of the Republic. Corruption is rife throughout the mechanics of the election, and there is a conspiracy to consolidate power. There’s this eerie sense that even if Cicero wins, he and the Republic are working on borrowed time. It reminds me so much of the current state of politics south of the border right now. The US has often been compared, and occasionally compares itself, to Rome, right down to using a term like “senator”. But of course in all those comparisons is the implicit statement that Rome itself fell, multiple times, first as a Republic and then even as an Empire. All things must end … and the decaying husk of a Republic felt in this book hit a little close to him given what’s happening in the States right now.
This is a good novel. The narration is a little on the verbose side, with lots of description and exposition (which can be useful, given the historical setting, I suppose), so at times the pacing feels off. Nevertheless, when Harris needs to move the plot forward, he doesn’t hesitate to use time jumps; and, Tiro is a pretty interesting narrator. This novel isn’t going to change your mind about fiction set in ancient Rome or anything, but for fans of this era/subgenre, you might like this if you want a look at the life of one of history’s greatest rhetoricians and orators.