Monday, March 01, 2010

pop, six, squish, uhuh.

#19 Imperium, Robert Harris

Nice. An slick, legal-thriller-paced novel about the early career of Cicero, told through the eyes of his secretary, Tiro [whose invention of Latin shorthand not only stands him in good stead historically, but also forms an important plot point]. Republican realpolitik is the true hero of this book. There isn't a page without a a speech, a conspiracy, horse-trading, the threat of a political emergency - totally OhNoTheyDidnt! (Ancient Rome). The pages seethe with the characters and circumstances of those obscure fellows: Julius Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Catilina and others. The drippy thing is that Harris does more justice to the sketches of these supporting characters than he does to his top man Cicero. I'm afraid the writing stands at such a distance from insight or speculation about the character of Cicero that at times it seems pointless to read bits of his thrilling speeches in a novel when we could very well have taken a hit off that pipe by -- reading a book of his thrilling speeches. We end up knowing everything about his Wikipedia article and nothing about his LiveJournal, so to speak.

The saving grace is that Wikipedia articles involving Cicero are generally highly entertaining, since the man could talk a bit. Even so, fair warning: even Wikipedia historians will find the infodump in the first 50 pages tiring ["Of the six hundred men who then constituted the senate, only eight could be elected praetor - to preside over the courts - and only two of these could go on to achieve the supreme imperium of the consulship." Groan. Even Ridley Scott didn't do that]. So I don't know how primary text fans [of whom I am not one] will stand it. But let this not deter you -- it is still an engaging read, because it picks up steam quite admirably. Harris is a veritable artist of the gripping political intrigue. I'm thoroughly impressed with his skill at sustaining reader interest in events and outcomes that were spoilered for us two thousand years ago. In spite of its lack of psychological depth the book actually does a fabulous job sustaining an internal rhythm, with excitement building around Cicero's cases, his elections, and the changes in his own political positions. Most writers would despair of bringing it all together to fit so well. A-grade light reading, all in all. I will definitely be reading the recently-released Conspirata if I get a chance and a free day.


  1. indeed..resistance is fertile..came across ur blog..& fell in love..hope u read more this year..i sure will follow!good luck with your munch!

  2. Thank you! Glad you're enjoying.