Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

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36 thoughts on “Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

  1. How can you NOT be attracted to Imperial Roman? It is so similar to our time period, with all the political intrigues and consumerism etc. Admittedly, I may be somewhat biased through too much reading of Lindsey Davis, but still…

    • Haha – I know, it’s odd! I feel I should find it interesting, but I don’t – maybe it’s TOO like now! I tried to love Lindsay Davis too, but hit the same problem – again, my fault, not hers…

  2. Phew! I thought I was the only one who couldn’t keep all of the names straight in Roman history. I loved Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome books except for not being able to remember who was who and what they had done…

  3. That does look really interesting, FictionFan. Interesting point you make, too, about Cicero’s being just a person. In a way, that means Harris did his job, because Cicero really was, well, just a person. It doesn’t always add ‘zip’ to a novel, though, does it? It does seem like a good look at Rome, though, which I think I find more interesting than you do. And, as you say, Harris is a master at evoking place and time. Glad you liked this one.

    • Yes, that’s true – I did find the characterisation convincing, and loved the way he showed how we haven’t really changed over the last two thousand years, especially the political shenanigans. I wish I found Rome more interesting, but I never have. Shamefacedly, I admit to feeling the same apathy about ancient Greece…

  4. This actually sounds really fascinating. But I think I know what you mean. This time period has been amply covered. I have to wonder if some of the Star Wars books took their inspiration from this time period.

    • Harris can always make a subject interesting, even if it’s one that doesn’t much appeal, but I prefer his more modern settings. Interesting thought! Mind you, I possibly know even less about Star Wars than I do about Rome… 😉

  5. I loved this book, but I’ve always been interested in Roman history, so the detail suits me. I think you may enjoy the sequals better – more action, less minutiae.

    • I don’t know why Rome always makes my eyes glaze over a bit – ancient Greece has the same effect. But Harris is so good he can make anything interesting… good to know the sequels have a different balance.

  6. Hmm. This sounds like one I would enjoy. I just visited ancient (mythological) Greece and now I should re-visit Ancient Rome! Lovely review, FF! I appreciate your input about the details and names, etc. It sounds like the pay-off may be worthwhile with the rest of the series!

  7. I enjoyed this book but then got stuck on the second which seemed to take forever to say not very much and so didn’t try the third. For once, I actually thought the theatrical version at Stratford, earlier this year, was better than the novel. I don’t normally approve of dramatisation but this cut a lot of the repetitive details out and spun along at a decent rate.

    • Oh, that’s a pity – I was hoping books 2 and 3 might be a bit faster now he’s set the scene. Yes, I can see how this would work as an adaptation – I found the “action” bits much more interesting than all the stuff in between.

  8. I’m rather fascinated with Roman history so this one might be right up my alley! The caveat, of course, is the difficulty with all those similar-sounding names. Hmm, I probably ought to look into this one anyway and hope I remember something of my years of study!

    • If you like Roman history, then I definitely recommend this one to you! He’s such a great writer, and very good at introducing characters well – I just seem to have a mental block when it comes to Romans… 😉

  9. I loved all three of the Cicero books, which really surprised me as until then I had shared your lack of interest in Ancient Rome. I had never expected to find Roman politics so fascinating! I’m glad you enjoyed this one, even if it didn’t quite manage the full five stars. 🙂

    • I certainly enjoyed it enough to want to continue with the trilogy, and find out what happens to Cicero… and more importantly, to Tiro! Even though this wasn’t my overall favourite, Harris could really get me interested in just about any period – he manages to get a great mix of authentic setting and believable characters. 😀

  10. Haven’t we all had our fill of politicians lately! 😉 I can see how this would perhaps drag a bit. For some reason I’ve never been terribly interested in Roman times either – I’d be hopelessly lost I’m afraid.

    • Haha – on both side of the Atlantic! 😉 Yes, I suspect I’d have got a lot more out of it if I knew more about the period, but it’s a tribute to Harris’ writing that he’s left me willing to read the rest of the trilogy!

  11. Hmm, I can already tell this book wouldn’t be for me. If I don’t have enough knowledge of the time period, I usually can’t get into the story, even if the author does his/her best to educate a newb like me. Oh well, one more off the list! haha

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