Book: Imperium by Robert Harris

Pretty good historical novel

Robert Harris
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
Simon and Schuster, 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-6603-1
ISBN-10: 0-7432-6603-X
305 pages

Imperium is a historical novel about Cicero, the famous lawyer and politician of ancient Rome. It's told as a memoir written by Tiro, the slave (later freed) who was Cicero's private secretary. The narrative covers roughly the period from Cicero's prosecution of Gaius Verres (in 70 B.C.E.) to the election in which he ran for consul (in 63 B.C.E.).

The book is good, but it has a bit of the feel of reading a rather detailed serious history book rather than an entertaining novel. Partly, that's a result of Mr Harris's choice of subject. Lots is known about Cicero. He was an ambitious politician and an excellent advocate. Mr Harris has limited scope to make things up. And partly it's a result of Mr Harris's choice of narrator. Tiro is a convenient narrator because he sees almost everything that Cicero sees but isn't quite as brilliant as Cicero is and so can explain things to us as he comes to understand them. He's a good "Doctor Watson" character. But, naturally, Tiro has enormous respect for Cicero and treats him with appropriate gravitas. So we don't hear much that's not to Cicero's credit.

In his Flashman novels, George MacDonald Fraser has historical events narrated by a reprehensible character who has no respect for anyone involved. That makes for a more entertaining novel.

Cicero has some impressive victories in the book, but of course they're political and oratorical victories. That's not bad and some of them are stirring but, as a geek, I found the engineering victories of Mr Harris's novel Pompeii rather more fun.

Tiro gives us a few hints about the coming dictatorship (in 46 B.C.E.) and the end of the republic and, of course, those are hinted at in the title. It's natural to consider the events Tiro narrates in light of what's to come. There are the makings of a tragedy for Rome there, but it's still off-stage as the book ends. Still, what's told is a pretty remarkable story.

There are a couple of tiny editing errors. "Debates" is missing its "t" on page 48. There's "bank" where "back" is wanted on page 66. And there's "Neopolitan" where "Neapolitan" would be better on page 216.

Posted: Sat - December 16, 2006 at 05:00 PM   Main   Category: