Imperium (by Robert Harris)

I have a new article on Latin in popular culture up at Rosetta - this is the one I think I've mentioned a few times as forthcoming on the blog!

I enjoyed this book a lot – so much so, I even started to like Cicero a little bit. (Just a little bit). The book is perhaps slightly too long and spends a wee bit too much time on the trial of Verres, which brought Cicero to prominence and which, fascinating though it is, goes on until the book’s halfway point. This leaves the seizure of supreme command by Pompey (one of the many steps towards the institution of Emperors) a little less space, and the fight for the consulship between Cicero and Catiline (which led to Cicero winning the highest political office in the Roman republic) relatively little space at all. I would, I think, have been fairly happy to see the book conclude with the trial of Verres and save the rest for the next volume, though that might prevent the series from falling into a nice neat trilogy (and, in one of my many less bright moments, I spent half the book thinking that this was a one-volume story of the life of Cicero, and was wondering how on Earth Harris was going to fit it all in). The level of detail is great to see, though, and Harris tells as absorbing tale.

The book is packaged to attract readers of Harris’ work on more modern politics, chiefly his Fatherland, an alternative history set in a world where Hitler won Word War Two. Politics throughout the ages is clearly Harris’ main interest and he uses American political terminology to describe Roman politics throughout. Words like ‘canvass’, ‘campaign’, ‘ballot’ ‘the ticket’, ‘running mate’ and many more frequently made me feel like I was watching an episode of The West Wing rather than reading about Roman politics and the section about how the first century to vote felt terribly proud of the honour sounded exactly like the way the inhabitants of New Hampshire feel about the New Hampshire Primary (according to The West Wing, anyway, which is the source of all my knowledge of American politics. That and Dave). For the most part, these phrases work rather well – they instantly present the reader with something recognisable, with a familiar set of patterns and expectations to work with, and they prevent readers from spending half the book trying to work out what’s going on, though I think ‘bills’ with ‘amendments’ is going a bit far – we’d all recognize the words ‘law’ and ‘change’ and too much Americanisation/modernisation will, eventually, take the reader out of the story and become a distraction. The one word that really stood out as incongruous was ‘hagiographical’. I don’t doubt for a second that Harris is fully aware that this a Christian term, relating to a Christian genre which could not, therefore, have been in use sixty years before the birth of Christ. He uses the word for effect in the same way he uses ‘running mate’. But for me, like the ‘St Bernard’s Pass’, ‘hagiographical’ is just a step too far and it takes me right out of the narrative.

Harris’ narrator is Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, the inventor of shorthand, and you couldn’t wish for a more useful character as narrator – Tiro’s job was to make notes on Cicero’s work and he did write a Life of Cicero, which was unfortunately lost. Sometimes, Harris actually tries a little too hard to reassure us that Tiro really could have been present at various important meetings – since Tiro is a secretary and note-taker, I can believe in that particular narrative device quite happily without the characters having to have a conversation about it every time. On the other hand, this tactic does pay off somewhat at the end of the novel, when Tiro is, for once, excluded, and so the revelation of Cicero’s latest deal is delayed until a dramatically appropriate moment. I’ve always had a thoroughly silly liking for Tiro anyway, purely because he was portrayed in a very sympathetic manner in the first of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books, so I’m more than happy to sympathise with him as a lead character.

Harris does sometimes fall prey to the same tactic as Massie did in his Caesar, in which just about everything Caesar ever said or did was really the idea of Massie’s protagonist, Decimus Brutus. Here, just about every major speech Cicero was vaguely associated with was written by him and he came up with all the cleverest ideas to advance Pompey. Harris has rather more justification here than Massie did though, as I suspect a lot of it is true, so he gets away with it. Pompey himself reminded me of Captain Kirk more than anything else – a supreme military commander who’s not that great at anything else and gets bored when not with the army. Caesar comes off as much sharper, politically.

The most refreshing thing about this book was the sex – there was hardly any of it! Caesar, of course, is having sex with just about every woman in Rome, as usual, but rather than calmly accepting this, Tiro is horrified when he catches Caesar sleeping with Pompey’s wife in Pompey’s own house. Tiro himself is so apparently asexual another character comments on it and Cicero appears to have sex mainly for the purposes of procreation. It is wonderful to see a portrayal of ancient Rome that does not assume that all Romans thought nothing of people getting blow jobs from slave boys in half-open tents or getting their slaves to do all the hard work for them while conducting serious discussions. I did roll my eyes when I got to the accusations concerning Clodius and Clodia sleeping together – the reason for my longstanding dislike of Cicero is that I read the Pro Caelio, in which he defends Caelius by attacking Clodia, as a borderline misogynistic attack on a woman’s character with only peripheral relevance to the case at hand. I am skeptical that either were as bad as the later tradition, which was not kind to them, makes out and I doubt they slept together – but this case won’t come up until the next book, so I’ll have to wait and see what Harris does with it. Harris does write Cicero's wife, Terentia, the only significant female character in the book, very well. Their relationship is tense, affectionate without passion, occasionally loving without being in love, often falling apart - a touching and believable account of an arranged marriage of convenience that lasts for thirty years in a culture that was entirely open to quick and frequent divorce.

Overall, this was a brilliantly written, engaging book about a fascinating character (though I still don’t actually like him – but I like Tiro). All the necessary background to Roman politics is explained and the whole thing sweeps you along nicely. A few sections start to resemble a history book as Harris fills in information between events, but for the most part this is a novel revolving around a strong set of characters, chiefly the central trio of Cicero, Tiro and Terentia. I look forward to reading Volume 2!

David Bamber as Cicero in BBC/HBO's Rome


  1. Wonderful review Juliette. I actually have the unabridged audio versions of the first two, which are wonderfully done - a great accompaniment to a long hike!

    I can never got the blatant dislike people have for Cicero. Someone whose voice echoes so clearly through the ages and has influenced so many in a positive way. Having an inkling of his flaws makes him all the more admirable as they are flaws of an internal nature that we can all be subject to.

    I think some of this stems from where you may have first been exposed to Cicero. For me it was through David Bamber! Had I needed to wade through Cicero's writings in Latin as I probably would be much less impressed with him too! Bamber does a great job portraying Cicero in 'Rome', noble minded yet flawed at the same time. The death scene was particularly well done. I love how Tiro runs out to vainly defend Cicero. It may not have been historically accurate but it was a nice display of Tiro's affection for Cicero.

    The common argument that Cicero enjoyed self promotion a little too much is explored further in book two. A mistake commonly made here is ascribing our modern Western sensibilities about this fact to a person from another region, let alone era. If you've spent enough time in Italy, looking at its artworks or studying the history of its upper crust, they are perennial self promoters - even to this day.

    This element of the Southern psyche that lends itself to self glorification is nicely illustrated in Roman sculpture. Were enough Roman painting to survive, we would likely see something similar to the Renaissance where prominent persons had themselves painted into important scenes in a glorified manner.

    IIRC there is a scene in book 2 about one of Pompey's supporters having exactly such an elaborate and gaudy decoration featuring Pompey painted in his house :)

    I'm really looking forward to Book 3 due next year!

    Kind Regards

  2. i've never read anything by harris, but have meant to for years now. you've motivated me to go and find a copy to read over christmas.

    i'm not sure if i like cicero much, but i certainly admire his intellect. for me it was reading some of his philosophical works (rather than his speeches) that made me see him in a more sympathetic light.

    as for clodius and clodia, i don't claim to know whether they did or didn't sleep with each other, but the rumours to that effect must have been pretty well-known, otherwise cicero's jokes in pro caelio would have fallen flat. there's also the catullus poem (can't remember which one off the top of my head) that alludes to just such a relationship.

  3. I'm rather conflicted about Cicero. I first really got to know him as more than just a name from the early Gordianus books, where he was at least somewhat sympathetically portrayed. I do find much to admire in his speeches and essays. I even forgive him for blowing his own horn so much, since that was the only way he was ever going to advance.

    On the other hand, he appears to have become rather fond of power and its use (for example, his handling of the Cataline affair and the use of the mos maiorum). He also seems to have been an insufferable prig. The lack of sex in the book seems to be appropriate. What I think I can forgive him least for is the way he coddled his son, while simultaneously denigrating his nephew, when the evidence would seem to indicate he should have reversed that. He also essentially condemned his brother and nephew to death be refusing to help them flee Italy during the civil war following Caesar's assassination.

    In a way, he's rather like Alkibiades (a comparison that would annoy him no end, I'm sure): brilliant at what he did, but his failures as a human being detract so much that it is hard to admire him.

  4. JM - that's a good point about Clodius and Clodia, and it may be that Cicero was justified.

    The two bits of Cicero's writing that I've looked at in detail are the Pro Caelio and the De Divinatione. De Div is all right (though it goes on forever) but Cicero's method of setting up Quintus with a lot of opinions he himself will then disprove, while perfectly acceptable as a philosophical dialogue, does rather emphasise his opinion of himself - Plato, for example, usually had Socrates present the most interesting ideas, not himself (I thought Harris presented the Quintus/Cicero relationship rather nicely, certainly in line with how Cicero presented it). And I still find the Pro Caelio way over the top in terms of character assassination, not to mention that even if they did commit incest, that had no bearing on the case. I think I agree with DemetriosX that Cicero's failings as a person rather outweigh, for me, his achievements. I love Bamber's portryal of him though - Bamber, to me, will always be Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice, but somehow, that almost works as an association - social climber, respectable, but not actually very nice... ;)


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