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Cicero, Erupted

By Gene Mirabelli

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

By Robert Harris

Simon & Schuster, 305 pages. $26

A couple of years ago I picked up a cheap paperback novel called Pompeii, by Robert Harris. It wasn’t what’s called a “quality” paperback; no, it was one of those small squarish volumes printed on cheap paper that you find on book racks at CVS. The book was a surprise, a historical thriller, a delight.

Pompeii’s protagonist is an engineer who investigates a problem with the great aqueduct that supplies water to cities around the bay of Naples. The lively story engages us with evil patricians, the wonders of Roman engineering and, of course, the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius that entombs Pompeii. This is pop fiction at its best.

Now, Robert Harris is back with another historical novel, this one printed on fine paper and bound in crimson cloth with images of noble Romans decorating the end pages. Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome is about Cicero. As a popular writer, Harris had set himself the difficult task of writing an exciting story about a lawyer who lived between 106 and 43 B.C. It’s true this particular advocate was a charismatic orator who had some high-profile cases, but that’s rarely the stuff of thriller fiction.

Imperium follows young Cicero’s career as a lawyer who climbs the ladder of political power in Rome. The climax comes when he wins election as consul. That’s great for Cicero, but no matter how dramatically Harris presents it, it’s not the same as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Furthermore, though Cicero was involved in the chicanery and intrigue of Roman politics during his rise, the most dramatic and novelistic episodes in his life came later, after the last page of this book.

Cicero’s story is told by Tiro, the slave who was the great orator’s confidential secretary. Cicero’s slave was, in historical fact, the inventor of a shorthand system and the author of numerous books, including a biography of his master, a work which disappeared in the Middle Ages. Tiro’s prose in Imperium is very much like Robert Harris’ admirable style in Pompeii—simple, precise and easy to read. The author also has a pleasingly unobtrusive way of providing the reader with historical information just when the reader needs it.

The main event in the first part of the story is Cicero’s successful prosecution of Verres, a former governor of Sicily. Governors made their money through graft but Verres had overdone it, confiscating hundreds of art objects from Sicilian homes and public spaces, sentencing his critics to death and even requiring bribes from their families to have the executioner do a merciful job. The latter half of the novel is filled with Cicero’s electioneering and his successful demolition of Lucius Sergius Catilina’s attempt to overthrow the republic and seize power.

Being a lawyer in old Rome was rather like being a lawyer in contemporary Baghdad; you could make your reputation with a high-profile case, but you risked getting murdered. It took bravery for Cicero to prosecute Verres, and courage plus something approaching foolhardiness for him to move against the Cataline conspiracy. Verres and Cataline had powerful friends in high places, and Cicero could have died like one of his relatives, with shattered arms and legs, his tongue sliced and his eyes gouged out.

A story about an cient Rome in evitably has some parallels to contemporary Washington, D.C., but Harris doesn’t trumpet them. Rome was corrupt beyond anything dreamed of by Jack Abramhoff or the K Street Project. Romans were so accustomed to buying votes—or buying senators and tribunes, for that matter—that there was a system of go-betweens set up to facilitate the process. On the other hand, Pompey’s maneuvers to induce Rome to grant him unchecked power—his inciting panic about the danger from pirates and his manipulation of frightened legislators—do bring our president’s scare tactics to mind.

Cicero’s Roman republic wasn’t a republic in our meaning of the word. It was a brutal oligarchy made of rich and powerful families. There were no political parties the way we understand them, nor did people sort themselves according to ideologies. There were only alliances, continually shifting alliances, between ruthless people.

We’re a violent society engaged in perpetual warfare and we admire our generals, but we still fall short of Rome’s cruel grandeur. When Pompey returned triumphant from Spain, he had with him prisoners who were ceremoniously strangled as part of his victory celebration. When Crassus returned after defeating the Sparticus slave revolt he erected crosses along the Appian Way and nailed a prisoner to each one until 6000 victims hung dying over the busiest road into Rome.

I was never good at Latin, and I was positively bad at translating Cicero. Give me Ovid or, better yet, Catullus. I confess I don’t like Cicero. Fortunately, Robert Harris’ Imperium is an entertaining and informative novel and his Cicero is a believable, if unlovable, character. As consul, Cicero rounded up Cataline’s fellow conspirators and presided over their strangulation, though they had not been given trials. From that point on he was in and out of politics, depending on who was in power. When Cicero’s enemies caught up with him they sliced off his head and hands and nailed them to the rostrum in the Roman forum. Now that’s politics.


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