Book Review: Imperium by Robert Harris

The Roman Republic has always had an unusual place in the pages of world history. Indeed, we attribute a great deal of importance to the Roman culture that stands as an example to modern society. From it’s political structure of self-governance and bicameralism to the idea of “innocent, until proven guilty; its principles are known for shaping the ideas of citizenship, justice and politics.

Thus, Robert Harris’s endeavor, by tapping into the exciting period of Roman History produced his most famous novel The Imperium. First, of the trilogy, the novel traces the political journey of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman, orator and advocate.

Harris has a brilliant knack for turning insipid events of history into a stimulating fictional drama. Though Harris wrote the novel, the narration is in first-person by Tiro, Cicero’s slave but also his secretary and confidante. Cicero was an astute thinker and his composition of books, letters and speeches are the finest works of literature in Roman history. Tiro, the inventor of shorthand, remained loyal and always by his side. He described his life with Cicero as “ exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous.”

Cicero was considered a self-made man of his time. Often, there is a great admiration for a person with grit and perseverance. He cleverly outmanoeuvred his rivals to succeed to the most powerful position in Roman politics- the consul.

Not everyone is born successful. Even Cicero had to struggle with his health and stutter. With the professional help of Apollonius Molon, the Greek rhetorician, he became one of the powerful orators in Roman history.

A philosopher and an orator, Cicero’s fame was not unknown to the Romans. His sharp memory of remembering names, his public affection for his daughter Tullia, and his idea of fair justice were simultaneously on par with his insecurities, jealousy and his ruthless ambition.

According to Tiro, Imperium is “the power of life and death as vested by the state in an individual” and Harris emphasized on how power politics requires a man, who without a credible background had to risk his principles to reach the high level of political power of Imperium.

Cicero believed in the Roman judicial system, and as the book records, Cicero was determined to bring justice to the people who were cheated and robbed by Gaius Verres (governor of Sicily), which gained him the reputation of people’s champion. But at the same time, he was also afraid to ruin his image in the eyes of the Romans. His motive, in the end, was to achieve consulship, even if he had to defend the corrupt Marcus Fonteius, the former governor of Further Gaul.

However, Harris clearly shows that a true politician needs to be shrewd and pliant. Throughout the novel, Cicero found himself tangled between different social circles.

Despite all the efforts and endurance in collecting the evidence and witnesses against Verres, Cicero knew that the only way to win the case was to gain the support and friendship of Pompey. He even manipulated the Senate and the Romans to pass the two important laws Lex Gabinia and Lex Manilia in favor of Pompey. It eventually led to the fall of Roman Republic.

Such was the power of the aristocracy that the Roman Republic stood only for its name. Though each Roman class had voting rights, only the high-class aristocrats had a say in elections. The political system of Rome did not guarantee equal participation. What made Cicero popular amongst the people was his achievement without any aid, great wealth, powerful family and or a commanding army.

Cicero’s brothers, friends and Tiro- all played an instrumental role in his political career. But an exceptional and always a forgotten character in history is Cicero’s wife, Terentia. Though he married her only for money to become the senator, she was both supportive and critical of his tactics. Cicero often had to prove himself to her and twice in the book (the idea of short speech during Verres’ prosecution and her idea to form an alliance with the aristocrats to outplay Crassus and Catiline) had helped him surmount his struggles.

In the words of Tiro, “Cicero did not always emerge as a paragon of virtue” but his voice was so impactful that it was essential, to tell the truth about his dangerous and tactful venture in Roman politics.

Harris did a great job to prove the words of Tiro. His persuasive style creates a profound link between the story and its readers. A fast paced novel as this is sure to woo even to those who are uninterested in studying history.

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