EPS Review #189 - Imperium

Imperium, by Robert Harris, Arrow 2006, 480pp.

Griffin strikes a Cicero pose in Rome Apparently I had been living in a hole, as far as this best-selling author is concerned. P saw me reading Imperium, and said I should read Pompeii as well. And even a BA stewardess who saw me with the book in my hand volunteered that she liked it. The credit goes to Mr. Harris, and not to Cicero, I suppose.

Imperium is Cicero's life story, as written by his slave Tiro, who invented the ampersand. I have to admit that I never liked Cicero as much as I should have. We read his Letters to Atticus in a college seminar, and I remember not a shred of them. From In Catilinam I remember only "Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?". Rapacious Verres in Sicily was a good story, but Cicero's speech seemed like a lot of dull lists, of which I remember, for some reason, only a spoon that was carved out of a gem. Harris makes it clear what a gamble it was for Cicero to prosecute Verres: either to win fame and the rank of vanquished, or to be destroyed, and in any case to make enemies among the aristocracy. Even the tedious lists make sense, when Harris explains them. Classics departments should recommend that students read this novel, and watch the excellent first season of Rome on DVD. I very much visualised Cicero as the actor from that drama, who so clearly showed the painful and sometimes shameful political choices that Cicero had to make.

As the pages flew by, I wondered how the novel was going to have space to cover all the events around the rise and fall of Caesar. Well, it doesn't! We may have a second volume to look forward to.

Tom wrote:

I've been living in the same hole, if it's any consolation: never heard of Harris until your review.

I'm wondering: the concept reminds me of I, Claudius by that other Bob (which I enjoyed). How would you compare the two?

I replied:

I am not sure that I ever read the book, just avidly watched the PBS series as a kid. I suspect that "I, Claudius" has more detail and more going on, but I should read it and see.