BookBrowse Reviews Imperium by Robert Harris

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Imperium

A Novel of Ancient Rome

by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2007, 496 pages

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Politics and corruption Roman-style. Not to be missed. Historical Fiction

Robert Harris's first three books were all set in the 20th century. For his fourth book he broke his own mold by taking readers back in time to the eruption of Vesuvius in the extremely enjoyable Pompeii; and it appears that he's planning to stay in the Roman Empire for sometime to come, as Imperium is the first volume of a projected trilogy that will span the last 25 years of the Roman republic. Imperium is narrated by the elderly Tiro (103 - 4 BC) formerly slave/secretary to the famous orator, statesman and political theorist Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) - an inspired touch as not only did Tiro exist, he was also the inventor of shorthand, a system he invented (or at least refined) in order to record Cicero's speeches verbatim, and there is evidence that he did actually write a biography of Cicero (which was sadly lost sometime in the Middle Ages).

We first meet Cicero as a hugely ambitious lawyer in his mid-thirties, hampered by a lack of influential contacts and money. To gain entry to the Roman Senate it was necessary to be at least 31 years old and to be a millionaire - how little things change! In Cicero's case he has to show the authorities that his assets total at least 1 million sesterces before he can enter an election bid. Short term money problems are relatively easily solved by marrying a wealthy but acerbic woman; influential friends to sponsor him are more difficult to come by as such friends expect favors in return, and Cicero is, apparently, a man of deeply held principles.

The first half of the book is taken up with Cicero's prosecution of the former governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, a truly nasty piece of work whose gross injustices against the people of Sicily still make the blood boil two-thousand years after the fact; the second half is taken up with Cicero's political battles to get himself elected. Both are grippingly brought to life with wonderful human touches such as the great military leader, but oratorical klutz, Pompey stumbling through his first Senate speech with a a "bluffer's guide to procedure written out for him by the famous scholar Varro".

In his author's note, Harris addresses the issue of where fact ends and fiction begins saying, "The majority of the events describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened, and nothing, I hope demonstrably did not happen."

Indeed, there is no need for Harris to invent much in the life of Cicero, considering that historians say that we know more about Cicero than we do about any other Roman. Not only do we have 58 of the 106 speeches he delivered but in the 14th century a cache of more than 900 letters were discovered - more than 800 written by Cicero, and about 100 written to him - these are considered to be particularly revealing of the man himself, as most were not written for publication. These speeches, letters, and various other works can be found in 29 volumes as part of the Loeb Classical Library. More about Cicero at BookBrowse.

Did you know?

  • Tiro's system of shorthand is referred to as Tironian notes. The system was in use in monasteries up until the Medieval period, with the original 4,000 or so signs extended to about 13,000. It declined in use around 1100 AD but still existed in part as late as the 17th century. At least one symbol still lives on - the Tironian symbol for et (and) which looks a little like the number 7 is still used in Irish Gaelic as an abbreviation for "and".
  • You probably know that a Triumph (triumphus) was the highest honor that a military leader could be given. If awarded a Triumph the victor could enter the city riding on a chariot drawn by four horses, to the sound of a trumpet fanfare and would be crowned with a laurel wreath; but did you know that the second-class award was an Ovation (from the Latin "to rejoice"), in which the victor walked in on foot to the sound of flutes and was crowned with a myrtle wreath!
  • During the three years it took to write Enigma, Harris was filmed (on and off) by a film crew for the BBC documentary series Omnibus. His youngest son used to ask, "Daddy, is 'Ominous' coming to film you again?" - which seemed apt to Harris at the time as, following on the success of his first novel Fatherland, Enigma was a difficult book to write.
  • Robert Harris's wife, Gill, is the sister of author Nick Hornby.
  • Harris fell out with Prime Minister Tony Blaire over what he saw as victimization of his close friend, Peter Mandelson (a former member of Blair's cabinet). However, he insists that Imperium is not New Labour in togas!

This review was originally published in October 2006, and has been updated for the July 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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