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As a student of history, I always approach historical novels with trepidation. What if historical accuracy is sacrificied for the sake of entertainment, or the author has taken unconventional interpretations of characters to fit their story? Thankfully, Imperium fell into neither of these traps, and still managed to deliver an excellent read, while remaining faithful to the history.
The story follows the early career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a figure slightly neglected in retellings of the late Roman republic, but nevertheless, an absolutely fascinating and incredibly important character. We follow Cicero's early career through the law courts, up to his election as consul at the youngest possible age, all told from the perspective of his loyal secretary Tiro. We see Cicero contending with the class-bias of the more noble Roman senators, as well as experiencing the details of his political career itself; a courtroom drama, relocated to Ancient Rome!
Where Robert Harris really excels is in bringing Rome and the character of Cicero to life. Cicero's voice is captured perfectly; throughout the book, his original speeches are weaved into the narrative, and it is impossible tell which are his words, and which are inventions, without already being familiar with the former. He is by no by means a perfect character, but despite his flaws, we are made to care desparately for his career and fate. All of the events are historically accurate, but this does not mean they are dry. Far from it, they are infused with tension, even when you already know the outcome. This is a story of political events, but is also the story of one politician, and his personal life and struggles.
During my time at senior school I really hated history. This was in no small part down to the people teaching me and it was simply a subject I really couldn't get excited about. Now however I have slightly different views and am very interested in finding out about as much history as possible and it's that reason that has led to Historical Fiction becoming one of my favourite genres. I've really taken to the concept of fictional works based on actual events throughout history and with writers such as Conn Iggulden, Bernard Cornwell and Robert Harris it is a genre packed full of talented writers, which resulted in me picking up Robert Harris's Imperium.
In this book Harris has chosen to tell the tale of one of the Roman's most important Roman politicians and Orators, Cicero. The story is told from the view of his most trusted slave, Tiro, who writes the stories as his own memoirs of his time serving one of the most recognizable names in Roman history. He charters Cicero's rise from a humble background right through to his election to the top ranks of the Roman Republic. It highlights the dangers, decisions and alliances he makes along the way and by using Tiro as the narrator it makes for what should be a very effective and easy way to tell the story.
The problem though is that it never really gets going. I've read a number of Harris books in the past and have regularly been impressed by the way he has gripped and held onto my attention throughout. This time though I found the plot was slow and meandering, which resulted in me dipping in and out of the story, at times leaving it for weeks before I would even consider picking it up again. It doesn't seem to have Harris's usual passion flowing through the characters and the plot and that leaves it feeling quite stale and stagnated at times.
I really felt that the plot didn't get going and lacked any sense of really being able to draw the reader into it. This is a feature that Harris normally excels at and with the likes of Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel and more recently The Ghost having an addictive quality to them I was quite disappointed that Imperium didn't follow suit. Of course the subject of this work did dictate the events that had to be included and that will in part take away from his ability to write a free flowing book as felt there were certain topics within the book that really seemed to get bogged down and slow the pace far too much.
Even his characters felt a little stilted and disjointed. His normal ability to make characters instantly likeable didn't seem to be working with Cicero and although I felt a connection to the narrator, Tiro, I thought this same connection to Cicero was sadly lacking. He does a good job of identifying and characterising other important characters within the book such as Crassus, Pompey and even Julius Caesar, which helps to build the side story and give a real indication of how crooked Roman politics really was, but I didn't really find that to be enough and having reservations about the main character meant I really wasn't able to enjoy this as much as I would have liked.
If there is one aspect where Harris has excelled though it is in his descriptive narrative and setting the scenes. This is an element of his writing that I've always been impressed with and it is actually one of the plus points I took away from this book. He gets the descriptive element of his book right and really helps you to create a mental picture of every location he writes about. He details the grandeur of the Roman senate with great descriptive powers and really helps to create a spectacular backdrop to what I'm afraid was a rather dull story.
Despite giving the sense of what Cicero achieved in his life up until his election victory, I just felt that the book was lacking in that spark that would have really captured my attention. The results were not what I've come to expect from Harris and despite having read a number of positive reviews about the book I just couldn't see it. The story is slow, the characters aren't quite compelling enough and although the scene is set well, it just doesn't work for me. The inclusion of key moments in roman politics is crucial however and once again his work gives a good insight into actual events, bringing Roman politics to life through thorough research and a well-developed back story. I'm disappointed I didn't enjoy this more, but perhaps that's more to do with me expecting more from the book given Harris's back catalogue rather than the way it's written.
I've always been a fan of Robert Harris' novels, particularly Fatherland and Archangel. His previous outing to Ancient Rome (Pompeii) left me a little cold, however, so I wasn't really sure what to expect from Imperium.
What I found was a gripping book. Although a historian by training, I have always found the history of Rome a bit dull. In the hands of Harris, though, it is brought back to life. I've no idea how accurate Harris' portrayal is, but it FEELS right, which is the main thing.
Imperium focuses on, Cicero; a lawyer keen to enter political life and his struggles to be accepted, particularly by the Roman aristocracy. Roman politics has always seemed to me little more than a succession of struggles between vain, overly ambitious men without principle (I shall refrain from making any observations about modern politics at this stage). Harris uses this to his advantage, constructing a narrative which covers all the internal squabbles, bringing them to life in a way no history book ever could. Rather than simply reciting a series of events from known facts, Harris adds colour and flavour. He makes up little asides or anecdotes which leaves you feeling that these things actually happened. For the first time the machinations of Roman politicians became compelling and I could barely put my book down. I found myself reading it at every opportunity - whilst brushing my teeth, waiting on the phone for a dratted call centre and so on. When a book grips you that much, you know it's something special.
One of the dangers of creating a historical novel featuring real people and events is that it can impose restrictions, forcing the author to make sure certain characters are in certain places at a certain time, or that particular events happen. Again, Harris uses this to his advantage. The basic facts of Cicero's life provide the approximate structure, crafting a tale which takes him from his initial entry into public life, through to its climax.
At the same time, there are enough gaps in our knowledge to allow for some inventions and it's here Harris is particularly clever. He creates events and conversation between characters which are grounded in the known facts so whilst they are the product of Harris' imagination, they always feel like they could have happened. By mixing fact and fiction, Harris creates a fascinating tale of political intrigue, which sits easily with the known historical backdrop and is far less dry than traditional histories.
Harris also recreates the sights, sounds and smells of the Roman Republic, giving his characters a convincing backdrop against which to operate. This brings the wider Roman society to life- not just the political machinations, but what life was like for the average citizen. To fit all of this detail in whilst also creating a genuinely intriguing story is a fine achievement. Imperium may not be Harris' best novel (Archangel would get my vote), but it's a good 'un.
It helps that Harris uses a clever narrative technique to tell the tale. Events are seen through the eyes of Cicero's long-time slave, Tiro, writing his memoirs after a many years of service to his master. This allows Harris to maintain a sense of perspective, putting Cicero's actions in the context of what happened before and after him. Tiro was a real person and Harris makes us believe this, giving him his own voice, his own aspirations and fears and making him leap off the page to make a real connection between reader and narrator. As Tiro reflected on his life, I genuinely experienced a tangible sense of sadness that the vital, vibrant slave we see in the memoirs had grown old and infirm, and that his master had died long ago.
If you wanted to, you could also read this book on a deeper level, as an examination of how little the business of politics has changed in 2,000 years - it is still based around pettiness, jealousy, shaky alliances, made and broken as convenient and, of course, good old-fashioned manipulation. But don't run away with the idea that this is a polemic. You can read these parallels into the book if you so desire, but you can also just enjoy it as a straightforward tale of Roman politics.
There are two minor criticisms. The first is that chapters are quite long, with lengthy sections between breaks in the text. I mentioned above that I was so fascinated by the book I tried to grab two minutes whenever I could, but the structure of the book worked against this to some extent, and more breaks in chapters would have been welcome.
The other issue is that Imperium features a lot of characters and institutions which will be unfamiliar to modern eyes and ears. Whilst Harris successfully conveys the complexities of Roman political life, this is a double-edged sword, as it can be slightly tricky for the reader to try and keep track everything. Harris does his best to explain key political concepts making the book too dry and succeeds for the most part, but there were times when I felt a little at sea. It's also true that some readers may also find the entire subject matter very boring, recalling dull history lessons at school, but I wasn't one of them.
After being disappointed with Pompeii, I approached Imperium with a feeling of ambivalence. That was blown away in the opening chapters as I realised that Harris' return to Rome as triumphant as a Roman General's victory parade. A great achievement and a great book.
Random House, 2006
© Copyright SWSt 2009
Imperium is the fifth novel by Robert Harris. I have read the first three, Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel, which might be said to belong to the genre of alternative history. I have not read Pompeii which is based on the events around the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, but when I saw Imperium at the airport I was tempted to buy it. A three hour flight and nearly 200 pages later, I think it is safe to say that I was hooked.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
The book is written in the form of a first person narrative, that person being the nearly 100-year old slave, Tiro, who as a slave of the famous orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, invented a system of shorthand that enabled him to take down great amounts of speech verbatim, which could be read back faultlessly. In his twilight years, Tiro sets down what Cicero was like, having been privy to practically his every move as his confidential secretary throughout his political career.
There are two main sections to the book Senator 79-70BC and Praetorian 68-64BC although there is no major change of style, merely the marking of a change in the chronology. Imperium is set at a time when the term imperium meant having military command and did not denote an emperor. That was to come later.
In brief, the book chronicles Ciceros desire for a political career and glory, with only his eloquence and intelligence to commend him. He had no military glory to his name, nor aristocratic heritage, coming from the equites, the middle class, above the plebs (plebians) but distinctly inferior to the patricians and aristocrats. These obstacles are well conveyed by Harris, who captures the long political struggle against what at times seem insuperable odds, as Cicero, just elected a senator sets his heart on the pinnacle of the political ladder - the consulship.
While the narrative is very sympathetic to Cicero, it is no whitewashed hagiography, as it shows clearly the compromises and pursuit of power above what to a modern writer would seem justice. While Cicero is not afraid to promote the cause of the underdog, there are occasions where he has to accept the political reality that he faces.
As to historical accuracy, Harris own words express it best although Imperium is a novel, the majority of events it describes actually did happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope, demonstrably did not happen.
IS IT WORTH READING?
As someone who works in politics, I found it absolutely riveting. I couldnt stop reading it once I started, and although the end of the book feels almost as though you have stopped just after the main course of a sumptuous 5-course banquet still waiting for the pudding, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have deliberately not gone into any detail about the plot as one part leads inexorably into the next until the very end.
Some of the passages stick out in the mind. The repetition of the refrain I am a Roman citizen during the Verres case evidence was clearly the inspiration for many politicians since then Viscount Palmerston in 1850 (Don Pacifico affair) and John F Kennedy, ich bin ein Berliner to name but two. The political ruse of ruling oneself out if drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve" may be an anachronistic borrowing from William Tecumsah Sherman, but draws on older Roman history in the form of Cincinnatus and has even been heard used this year by the now Foreign Secretary, David Milliband. There is also a very poignant part where someone laments that posterity will not record men who were inordinately wealthy, but would remember those who were glorious in victory.
Overall, if you enjoy political intrigue that does not rely on bloodshed, this is a marvellous book. Towards the end, I found I had to wrack my brain to keep track of just who everyone was, but the big characters Pompey, Crassus, Hortensius, Catullus, Caesar are memorably drawn. I think it helps to have a very rudimentary knowledge of Roman history so as to be able to place the events in contexts, ie the chaotic latter stages of the Republic, with people like Cicero fighting to hold on to the republican ideal, while others are looking for a strong man dictator to restore order. The book doesn't go into great detail about life for the average Roman or slave of the time, it is about high (and low) politics, and none the worse for that. After all, posterity remembers Cicero, but scarcely a score of other great men of the 1000 years of the empire.
In short, a well-written, fascinating account of the life of a fascinating figure, known as the greatest orator ever, but also a consummate if compromised statesman.
Author Robert Harris
Publisher Arrow Books Ltd (United Kingdom)
Paperback - ISBN 978-0099406310, £3.49 (amazon.co.uk),
Hardback - ISBN 978-0091795429, £8.39 (amazon.co.uk)
Ancient Rome is back in vogue, maybe this stems from huge success of the film 'Gladiator' a few years ago but more recently this fascination has spread to TV and books. The highly enjoyable TV romp Rome presented us with the more common vision of the ancient capitol featuring plenty or orgies, assassinations and torture... an adult Roman soap opera if you like. In the sphere of literature there have been many historically based fantasy fictions such as the Emperor series by Conn Iggulden or the books by Valerio Massimo Manfredi one of which 'The Last Legion' has also been made into a film. Some authors however has attempted to bring a more realistic vision of ancient Rome to us and Robert Harris in his previous book 'Pompeii' and in this book 'Imperium' has given us a literary version of the docu/drama, blending real life historical characters, details and events with fictional drama.
In 'Imperium' Harris has decided base his story largely based on actual events around the legendary Roman politician and orator Cicero who was one of the last great Romans of the Republic before the rise of the totalitarian emperors. Narrated through the eyes of Cicero's most trusted slave and confidant Tiro we get a portrait of Cicero rising from humble beginning to reach the very highest echelons of roman society without the benefit of family patronage relying instead of his superlative skills as an public speaker and his indefatigable networking and machination in the cutthroat world of the Roman political elite. The use of Tiro as the narrator is a good device since it allow for an appraisal of Cicero from close quarters but still from an outsiders perspective thus allowing for elements of his character to be beyond our understanding and maintaining an element of mystery around the man. This I believe is preferable to having Cicero as the narrator.
Due to the insights of Tiro we get a surprisingly candid and believable view of the great man. Great because of his political skills but at the same time flawed, often showing vanity and self-interest at the heart of many decisions he made.
It has to be said that if you are a fan of the 'sword and sandal' depictions of Rome mentioned above then you are going to be disappointed by 'Imperium'. If however you are looking for what I suspect is a fairly accurate view of Roman political life filled with scheming, treachery and betrayal then 'Imperium' will more than oblige.
After setting the scene and giving us enough detail of Cicero's youth to explain his current position in Roman society the story pans out more like a John Grisham courtroom drama than a tale of ancient empire.
What Harris has always been good at is building up the fabric of the story paying great attention to detail in order to create a rich backdrop to the events. Using the fruits of extensive research based on the contemporary accounts of roman life, Roman law and the life of Cicero he brings the ancient city to life. To this end he is fortunate that Cicero is one of the few figures of that period that we have considerable amounts of personal information about. From personal correspondence that was released in the public domain by the real life Tiro after Cicero's death we have an accurate, honest appraisal of the man, and Harris has built on this foundation to create his own version of Cicero.
For anyone interested in ancient Rome it is especially fascinating to learn of the hierarchy that existed in Roman society and how a citizen's social class and family ties made it possible or impossible to achieve certain kinds of elected office. I had never quite known the difference between Senators, Tribunes or Consuls but these things are all explained not in a cumbersome way but as part of the natural unfolding of the plot.
Rome is presented as an organised society ruled by laws prosecuted by elected officials however corruption and class bias lie at its heart. The noble idea of the Republic is always under threat from ambitious individuals who believe they have earned the right to be above its laws and despite his self-publicizing and naked ambition Cicero takes on the mantle of the Republic's defender a man of the common people waging war against the corrupt aristocracy. As he prepares to pit his skill and wit against the formidable Hortensius 'The King of the Law Courts' the only man in Rome whose abilities as an orator are equal to Cicero's, the case becomes more than simply an isolated struggle between two ambitious men or even the prosecution of corruption on a grand scale but a battle for the very principles of the rule of law in the Republic. At stake is the existence of the Republic itself.
Cicero comes across as the ultimate conviction politician and very much in a modern context. He is principled and honest to those principles but he is also pragmatic. He will cut deals with opponents and play the system to his advantage. I suspect Cicero would do very well in today's political world. One of the most surprising aspects of the story is the similarity and parallel that can be drawn between ancient Rome and our modern western democracies. One often has this image of the Roman Republic as a ruthless military machine subjugating and controlling its people and land by the use of military might. While the military pre-eminence of the roman army was important in keeping peace and expanding its boundaries the main reason that Rome ruled for so long was its political organisation, its laws and its bureaucracy. The thousands of taxmen and local administrator were as important to the Republic as the great generals and the well trained foot soldiers. The harsh realities of Roman politics were that while votes get you elected, money gets you votes. This might seem like brazen corruption of the political system but then again how many millions of pounds do political parties in today's system need to spend in order to secure election victories. We only have to look at the USA the largest modern western democracy to see that a presidential candidate has to be a millionaire or backed by millionaires in order to even fight the campaign. Now just and then in ancient Rome money talks and it is in this world of dealing and double-dealings that Cicero navigates making some very important and dangerous enemies along the way.
The story is fast paced and like in any courtroom drama unexpected events are just around every corner to keep you guessing as to the outcome of the trial. Of course the biggest problem any author as when dealing with actual events and real life people is that at least some of his readership will already know the outcome of the story but to his credit Harris still manages to inject real tension into the proceedings so that knowing the ending doesn't matter it's how we get there that counts.
What does disappoint is that the book in some ways ends prematurely only covering a part of Cicero's life and leaving out the perhaps better-known parts dealing with the rise of Julius Caesar. However I was not surprised to read that a sequel is planned so our appetite for more about Cicero is going to be satisfied.
I would recommend 'Imperium' for any fans of Robert Harris and anyone interested in finding out about the realities of Roman political life.
'Imperium' by Robert Harris in paperback (496 pages) published by Arrow Books Ltd (ISBN-10: 0099406314/ISBN-13: 978-0099406310) can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £3.49 (+p&p) at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2007
Recently I have become a big fan of historical fiction - and especially of anything set in and around the era of the Roman Empire - so, being a big fan of Robert Harris and his previous novels, could not resist when I saw this last week in Tesco for the bargain price of £3.73!!
This is one of the reasons why temptation should sometimes be ignored. Quite honestly, I was very disappointed and found this newest book from the author of Fatherland and Pompeii to be the worst he has yet released....
The novel is all about a well known legal case of the Roman Advocate, Marcus Tullus Cicero as he takes on some very influential people in a bid to see justice being done. The novel is narrated by his personal slave, Tiro, many years after Cicero's death. Sounds like it might be a very intresting tale full of the politics of the time and plenty of mystery and intrigue, I thought.....I couldn't have been more wrong!!
In the last month, I had already encountered the character of Cicero in fictional form both in the highly entertaining new BBC t.v series of Rome and in the pages of the far superior novel, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, so already had some familiarity with his character. Unfortunately, and much to my chagrin, I found Imperium as nothing more than a snooze-fest with very little appearing to happen. For almost 200 pages!!
Now don't get me wrong- I am a big fan of Robert Harris normally which those of you who have read my review of Pompeii will be able to testify. I loved that historical novel and thought it his greatest book since his first publication, Fatherland, which was set in a fictional Germany where Hitler was never defeated. I even rather enjoyed Enigma, the novel not so much the film, despite it getting very mixed reviews upon release and though I found Archangel a bit of a drag, I missed the adaptation on BBC1 starring Daniel Craig so do not know how it transferred to the screen, still I also found this an engaging read. Not so IMPERIUM.
I am very reluctant to say this but everything about this novel literally bored me. Cicero comes across as a very vacuous character and Tiro is, I feel, a very poor narrator though I can see why Harris has chosen him to be so being the closest thing to a friend Cicero has at times. Still there is very little in this novel to keep the reader hooked as the case plods along shamelessly pulling in better known characters such as Pompey and Brutus from the side-lines seemingly just to make the book appear to be about more than what it is- which ultimately is a very dull case of land and goods seized illegitimately by a very influential member of notoriety.
Being a very big reader and someone who is a real bargain hunter when it comes to books, it almost pains me to say this latest novel is not even worth the £3.73 I paid for it. My advice- if you want to read about ancient Rome, pick up the Emperor series by Conn Igudden about the early days of Julius Ceasar right through to his death or anything by Steven Saylor; a new author I have discovered, whose mysteries set around but not directly about historical events in Rome are like the finest caviar of historical fiction when compared to this dull dross from a normally exceptional writer.
My advice in a nutshell- get me out of this nutshell!! My advice about this book- avoid if you don't want to be disappointed!!!