« Reading List: American Theocracy | Main | Reading List: Floor Games »

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Reading List: Imperium

Harris, Robert. Imperium. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-6603-X.
Marcus Tullius Tiro was a household slave who served as the personal secretary to the Roman orator, lawyer, and politician Cicero. Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand, and is responsible for the extensive verbatim records of Cicero's court appearances and political speeches. He was freed by Cicero in 53 B.C. and later purchased a farm where he lived to around the age of 100 years. According to contemporary accounts, Tiro published a biography of Cicero of at least four volumes; this work has been lost.

In this case, history's loss is a novelist's opportunity, which alternative-history wizard Robert Harris (Fatherland, Archangel, Enigma, Pompeii) seizes, bringing the history of Cicero's rise from ambitious lawyer to Consul of Rome to life, while remaining true to the documented events of Cicero's career. The narrator is Tiro, who discovers both the often-sordid details of how the Roman republic actually functioned and the complexity of Cicero's character as the story progresses.

The sense one gets of Rome is perhaps a little too modern, and terminology creeps in from time to time (for example, “electoral college” [p. 91]) which seems out of place. On pp. 226–227 there is an extended passage which made me fear we were about to veer off into commentary on current events:

‘I do not believe we should negotiate with such people, as it will only encourage them in their criminal acts.’ … Where would be struck next? What Rome was facing was a threat very different from that posed by a conventional enemy. These pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with no government to represent them and no treaties to bind them. Their bases were not confined to a single state. They had no unified system of command. They were a worldwide pestilence, a parasite which needed to be stamped out, otherwise Rome—despite her overwhelming military superiority—would never again know security or peace. … Any ruler who refuses to cooperate will be regarded as Rome's enemy. Those who are not with us are against us.
Harris resists the temptation of turning Rome into a soapbox for present-day political advocacy on any side, and quickly gets back to the political intrigue in the capital. (Not that the latter days of the Roman republic are devoid of relevance to the present situation; study of them may provide more insight into the news than all the pundits and political blogs on the Web. But the parallels are not exact, and the circumstances are different in many fundamental ways. Harris wisely sticks to the story and leaves the reader to discern the historical lessons.)

The novel comes to a rather abrupt close with Cicero's election to the consulate in 63 B.C. I suspect that what we have here is the first volume of a trilogy. If that be the case, I look forward to future installments.

Posted at April 4, 2007 22:24