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Imperium by Robert Harris

Book Review by Chris Heaton

Following up on “Pompeii”, his remarkable first novel in an ancient setting, veteran historical fiction author Robert Harris has produced another engaging and rousing recreation of the Roman world.

Unlike Pompeii, which included such true historical characters as Pliny the Elder as a supportive cast, “Imperium” is based almost entirely on real historic events and people.

The central character Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famed politician, lawyer, orator and author, is superbly portrayed as an intriguing protagonist yet still entirely within his historical context.

Harris’ Cicero is appropriately moderate, at times both a political populist and a social conservative. His character is rightly motivated by personal convictions and the defense/application of Roman law, but this Cicero (as was the historical) is also driven by a desire to gain political acceptance and standing while increasing his own “dignitas”.

Perhaps more importantly however, Harris’ Cicero comes to life as real and human. Known personality “flaws” (from an ancient Roman perspective) such as devotion to his daughter and subservience to his wife are contrasted by his brilliance as a politician and dedication to duty.

“Imperium”, named for Cicero’s quest to become Consul and therefore gain ultimate Roman political authority, is brilliantly told from the perspective of Tiro, Cicero’s true historical slave, secretary and confidant. His story, an inventive recreation of the now lost historical biography of his master, is not only a narrative of events but is woven with appropriate explanations of Roman culture, politics and law from the perspective.

Interesting are his asides on such things as the introduction of Julius Caesar. Told from the perspective of an old man writing in hindsight, Tiro’s depiction of famous characters is compelling. A young nervous Caesar standing for ‘election’ to the senate prior to becoming one of the most powerful and influential men in history, and a Cato the Younger portrayed as a disheveled yet politically ardent lesser aristocrat simply bring humanizes historical legends.

The novel is an energetic tale of Cicero’s early years and growth from outsider to influential player. From the prosecution of Gaius Verres’, the corrupt governor of Sicily, to the beginning of the intrigue and scandal involving men like Catalina and Clodius, “Imperium” offers historical insight, drama and thrilling action.

The book ends at the moment Cicero achieves his goal of election to Consul, disappointing in that there is still so much left to be told. However, the reader can take solace in the knowledge that “Imperium” is only the first release in a planned trilogy.

The reader educated in the subject matter may pick out a few subtle discrepancies with history, but there are few examples of a novel more closely aligned with the historical record. “Imperium” simply stands among the finest publications of Roman historical fiction and Robert Harris has emerged as one of the most exceptional novelists in the genre.

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Book Review of Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome - Related Topic: Cicero


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