The story of Cicero, told well

I just devoured Robert Harris’s Imperium, the first book in what will be a trilogy of historical fiction, or fictional biography, about Cicero. I read it in a couple of sittings, hardly able to put it down. It may be the best way to learn about that great man and that fascinating time, a turning point in world history. I’ve just ordered the second book in the trilogy, and I can’t wait for the third to come out.

In terms of themes that show up a lot here on this blog:

  1. Storytelling: Wow. Harris has Cicero’s slave and confidante Tiro tell the story from his point of view, which works well. All the details of Roman life and of the characters (Crassus, Pompey, Caesar etc etc) come to life.
  2. The “impostors triumph and disaster”: Cicero embodies them (though not quite as perfectly as Hannibal and Scipio do, which is why I myself chose them to tell my own story. ;))
  3. The tension between mobs and elites, republican and democratic power sharing, what ought to be and what is.

Among other things.

In any case, if you like The Hannibal Blog, you’re likely to like not only Hannibal and Me in January but also Imperium right now.

10 thoughts on “The story of Cicero, told well

  1. I agree — these books are brilliant. I’m waiting for number three, which will be the most dramatic. But Harris has put Cicero aside for a bit: his latest book is a thriller set in the financial world. So I’ve been reading “Pompeii” instead, his first Roman novel. It’s not as good as the Cicero books. But it will do for the time being.

    • Why would anybody set aside Rome, in the middle of a streak, to write about Wall Street? What a pity.

      Did you see “Rome” on DVD? Do. Fantastic.

      But then they ran out of money in the second season. I don’t understand this world.

  2. Most of the few reviews I’ve read of “Imperium” are laudatory. So it seems you chose well in selecting “Imperium” to read.

    For anyone too busy to read “Imperium”, I’ve tracked down the Guardian’s “digested read” *treatment of it*.

  3. I’ll gladly eat it up. Cicero is one of those characters in history that has never quite come alive for me, whatever the reason, but I grant anyone the chance to change that.

    • I was exactly like you. Cicero is hard to get one’s mind around. That’s because he’s so complex (by contrast, a Pompey or a Crassus was simple. Even a Caesar was simplER.)

      That’s why this book is so good. You want to see events from his point of view, rather than, say, Caesar’s. It gives you more.

  4. Thanks for another interesting post.

    For quite a while now I’ve had a dilemma. I have no doubt that Imperium is one of the best fictional recreations of a fascinating period in history. Several freinds of mine have suggested that if I read it I might come to regard Robert Harris could become one of very few authors of fiction who actually *get* politics.

    Unfortunately I don’t think I could ever read a book by Harris without thinking about his association with, and defence of, Roman Polanski. In the same way that I could never watch a film by Polanski, I think I’ll always struggle to read a novel by Harris.

    This is purely a personal idiosyncracy. To slightly paraphrase Hercule Poirot, I have a very bourgeois attitude to this. If we dismissed every work of art because of the moral failings of the artist we would have a narrow and dull culture.

    In a selfish sense, this is frustrating because I’m sure I’m missing out on a rare example of exactly the kind of novel I’m always seeking and rarely find.

    Maybe eventually I’ll read so many positive reviews it’ll tip the balance. Or maybe someone will come up with an way of reconciling my two positions. In the mean time I’ve got more than enough other books to read, including one coming out in the new year about Hannibal . . .

    • Ah, yes, Tom, I must say I’m on the side of your friends in this one: I do urge you to read Imperium and Consipirata and the third one as soon as it comes out.

      To say that Harris “gets politics” is almost an understatement. He makes it come alive, elucidates it, et cetera.

      Now, as to his views on Polanski: I am fortunate not even to know what they are. Until you mentioned it, I had no idea he defended Polanski.

      Even now, of course, I don’t know the whole story. So I won’t judge.

      But the bigger point is that, as you say, “If we dismissed every work of art because of the moral failings of the artist we would have a narrow and dull culture.”

      Do you like Caravaggio? I think he’s one of the two or three best painters of all time. But he would make Polanski look like Bambi. In a strange way, though, Caravaggio’s doings only ADD to the mystique.

      Rousseau comes to mind: I cannot forgive the man for fathering children and then abandoning them at orphanages, and then waxing hypocritical about noble savaves and what not. But will I read his books? Better than not reading them, I figure.

      Let’s see. Oh god, we could talk about Heidegger….

      Enough. We’re overintellectualizing. You have an assignment: Read Harris. It’ll only take you a few hours, because you wont’ be able to put it down. Then come back here and take it to pieces with me, until we both understand politics as never before. 🙂

  5. Thanks Andreas, you’re pushing me close to the edge.

    I certainly don’t have the same problem with Caravaggio, Rousseau, or Heidegger.

    Or for that matter Graham Greene, Frank Sinatra or Wagner. Of course it may help that they’re all dead.

    Really, I’m very close to the edge now. It’ll be next month before I have a gap in my reading, so I’ll muse on it until then.

    Hopefully I’ll be back here in six weeks to explain what I personally mean by saying and author “gets” politics, and see how I can improve it by taking on what you mean.


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