Book Review: Imperium

Robert HarrisImperium was released in the U.S. about a month ago. It’s an enjoyable read, particularly for history buffs and political junkies. I certainly enjoyed it.

It’s hard to say if there are any spoilers in the review; anyone can pick up a history book and know what happened in Cicero’s life and the book does not portray anything known to have not happened, although as I describe below, I take issue with some of the… flavors, if you will, that the author uses to portray certain historical events. I strongly doubt that anything I’ve written below will take away from your enjoyment of the book if you choose to read it.

The novel tells the story of two chapters from the rich life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman lawyer, orator, and politician. Harris used Cicero’s moderately-famous secretary, Tiro (the inventor of shorthand), as his first-person narrator, and it is a good choice — Tiro gets to see the great men of history up-close and personal but is frequently treated like wallpaper by them because he was, after all, a slave. The conceit of the book is that it is a translation of a portion of Tiro’s long-lost biography of Cicero, which probably did exist but has been lost to the vicissitudes of history.

It is not clear to me whether some of the ham-handed phrases in the book — “I sense that you are anxious for me to continue with the narrative” — are Harris’ idea of first-person writing or Harris really trying to capture what he thought a narrative flow of a book written by a well-educated but provincial ex-slave might really have been. These are jarring, though, and disrupt the flow of the story. Some have criticized Harris’ use of modern terminology in the book, like referring to fine wine as “Chianti” or describing a member of the landed gentry as a “grand country seigneur”. I’m willing to forgive these as modern cognates of the somewhat more esoteric Latin phrases (Falernian and equitus, respectively) and chalk it up to something like “free translation” into modern English from the Latin that Tiro, the ostensible narrator, would have used.

Also of questionable choice are the portions of Cicero’s life that Harris’ Tiro chooses to narrate: the trial of Gaius Verres, and Cicero’s campaign for the consulship, the Republican Roman equivalent of running for President. Both make for quite interesting reading and provide decent theories about the flesh-and-blood interactions of Cicero with his contemporaries as well as Cicero’s motivations. But these are not, in my opinion, the only significant chapters of Cicero’s life to paint. They are, however, those portions of Cicero’s life that best demonstrate the noble and admirable qualities of Cicero’s character, which gives Harris the ability to paint Cicero as a populist, a talented outsider clawing his way to the top on merit alone, and even something of an idealist operating within a very cynical world — and thus, to underline many of the qualities of the man which modern readers will find admirable.

Utterly ignored, however, are other episodes of Cicero’s life which are at least questionable. Most annoying to me, as an amateur student of Roman history, is Cicero’s vacillation on the issue of one-man rule. It seems to me that Cicero was a populist only when it suited his immediate purpose, and he spent the bulk of his career going back and forth between the camps of popular figures and the unpopular but powerful aristocracy. Here’s the real overall arc of Cicero’s career:

Cicero kept his head down during Sulla’s dictatorship, which probably left a bad taste in the then young man’s mouth (as it did for most Romans). Only when the dictator had vacated the stage did Cicero step forward to begin his public career. He initially only took defense cases, seeking to cultivate friends and loyalties within the ruling class. He found good political purchase with both the popular masses and a sufficient number of nobles by using the former cronies of Sulla as foils for his defense arguments.

But, as a junior Senator, he toed the line with the powers that were. Then, after badly overestimating the political importance of doing a good job as the governor of Sicily, Cicero tried his hand at appealing to the masses with his prosecution of Verres and his cultivation of a friendship with Pompey the Great. But when he ran for consul, he ran as an ally of the conservative old guard, who only supported him because the candidates that year from within their own ranks were very weak. (This is exactly opposite to the portrayal of his campaign in Imperium.)

Cicero’s consulship was controversial and he wound up almost literally at dagger points with the populist hero of the day, Lucius Sergius Catalina, who he accused (rightfully, it seems, although the evidence was quite sketchy at the time) of fomenting revolution. Catalina was executed on Cicero’s orders without a trial on the authority of a law of dubious validity. This further alienated Cicero from the common people and drove him into the ranks of a distrustful cadre of nobles.

There he stayed for several years, until Pompey persuaded him to again switch sides back to Pompey’s faction, which at that time was the triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. This failed to bring him popularity, however, but it did have the effect of alienating his hard-line allies. At the time, his alliance to that triumvirate saved his life; he had so alienated the populist masses of Rome that he was exiled, and only barely escaped a death sentence by skipping town in time. It was also to the triumvirate, particularly to Pompey, that Cicero owed his ultimate return from exile.

As many Loyal Readers will know, the triumvirate failed when Caesar’s daughter Julia, who had been married to Pompey, and then Crassus himself, both died in quick succession. The result was a massive civil war, from which Caesar emerged the victor. Pompey eschewed Cicero’s support during the civil war, telling the lawyer to stay in Rome and make what peace he could with Caesar. This Cicero singularly failed to do, despite some strain on Caesar’s part to incorporate Cicero and his prestige into the Julian political machine. With Caesar, Cicero reached an uneasy sort of political nonaggression pact, which pleased neither Caesar (who was then quite popular) nor his enemies.

With Caesar’s proxies, however, Cicero found himself unable to restrain his polemic tongue and towards the end of his life seemed to finally decide to take a stand against the trend towards autocracy — far too late in the game to have possibly altered its outcome. After Caesar’s assassination, Antonius became Cicero’s primary target of public polemic, and when Antonius allied with Caesar’s adopted son Octavius (later Augustus), the price was Cicero’s death, which Octavius ordered without scruple.

So, Cicero was able to switch sides within the ever-shifting network of alliances that made up the governing oligarchy of Rome with remarkable facility. He seemed to sometimes like the idea of consolidating power in the hands of a few men (like when he allied himself with the triumvirs, or when he took the power of the state into his own hands to execute Catalina) but at other times seems to have taken great joy in attacking those men who held great power for their abuse of it (his Philippics against Antonius, his prosecution of Verres, his attacks on the lieutenants of Sulla). On the question of one-man rule, Cicero seems to have never decided on whether to take a principled stand against it, or to pick a side and work towards victory. When he finally felt he had no choice but to pick a horse to back, he chose Pompey despite the fact that Pompey was at that point obviously going to lose the war.

This runs directly counter to the blend of idealism and populism with political savvy that Harris is so anxious to portray in his hero. Cicero makes for an interesting hero, and has received scant treatment at the hands of novelists and even historians as a central character. The problem is that his career was so complex, and so ambiguous, as to defy the ability to present him in an insightful light. Was he a man for the people or a man for the nobility? Depends on when you look at him. Was he a staunch defender of the Roman constitution or a cunning sophist who played for short-term political advantage? A little of both, it seems. Was he a loyal friend? It seems not, but then again, he kept returning to the camp of Pompey, even when it was clearly to his disadvantage to do so and indeed, even when doing so rendered his own life forfeit.

In Imperium, the nuts and bolts of Cicero’s operation are revealed in remarkably believable detail. Harris does a fantastic job of showing how a Roman lawyer went about his tasks, particularly including Cicero’s reliance upon the people around him for support. He also provides very good insights into the Roman legal process, which included a lot of devices that modern lawyers would recognize today — things like subpoenas, large-scale document productions, and impeachment upon cross-examination. It was very interesting for me as a lawyer to read what doing that same job in ancient times would have been like.

The mechanics of an ambitious politician are also shown in detail, warts and all. Cicero is not above a few less-than-honorable political associations, and demonstrates an ability to roll logs and trade horses with political figures with whom he might otherwise have preferred not to. He has ideals, it seems, but he is willing to barter some of them away. This is, of course, what the business of politics is all about. There are also vote-wranglers and detailed depictions of the complex and esoteric way that Romans actually voted and governed themselves. To people interested in the process of politics and government, the book is worth the read for this alone.

A man of his times but not ahead of them, Cicero stood in the path of the oncoming revolution and occasionally tried to stop it, but occasionally helped it along, too. Ultimately, Cicero was not a man of principle, not a man of the people, not a man of the Senate. He was, quite simply, a lawyer-turned-politician. He was very smart, if not always very wise. Here is where Harris’ portrayal of this great, prolific Sphinx of a character fails to ring true, because Harries tries to make Cicero into something he was not: a hero. Cicero was, instead, simply a man. A flawed, inconsistent man, one who made mistakes and did things that he was not (or should have been) proud of. Cicero is in some ways more interesting than many of his contemporaries like the truly idealistic Cato the Younger, the dissolute Clodius Pulcher, or the power-hungry gambler Julius Caesar.

So while I do not acquit Cicero for his shortcomings, ultimately, I think I must apologize for them. It is not always easy to see the future, and Cicero certainly did not have that super power. Instead, he did the best he could with the information he had available to him. More importantly, it is not always easy to stay true to one’s own ideals in the face of strong political, legal, financial, physical, or personal pressure, and Cicero was not immune to these things and occasionally succumbed to them. Who among us can say that we would have done better than Cicero under the circumstances? Not me. I know from my own experience that political pressure can be both very powerful and very subtle — it can be very difficult indeed to even see that one’s ideals are being compromised until it is too late to change course; it sometimes seems to make little sense to walk away from having something in life, and risk losing everything you have worked hard to earn, over a principle. We all face trials like that in life from time to time, and I find it easy to imagine Cicero getting lost once or twice in his remarkable career.

And similarly, while Imperium is not flawless novel, I cannot say that I could have done any better than Robert Harris. Writing a lengthy piece of fiction is a very difficult task even for the best and most experienced writer. Taking on a deeply ambiguous character like Cicero only makes the task that much more challenging. Harris has produced a journeyman effort here. So if you have any interest in historical fiction, politics, or law, it’s worth your time to read the book.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.