*spoilers: DO NOT READ ON IF UNPREPARED*
The Classics geek in me reared its ugly head and snarled in gratified delight when I picked up Imperium, and I’ll be honest, I was ready to do some snarling here too. A book about CICERO??! Not only had I been so unfortunate as to study the longwinded rhetoric of this fine man during my unforgettable
(for all the wrong reasons) Latin AS-level, but his letters to anyone and everyone pop up CONSTANTLY in every sphere of life, to greatly exaggerated eye-rolling on my part. This man had a lot of opinions. However, Robert Harris is a fabulous author and I was looking for some excitement –i.e. a new topic for my whining and raging– so I took a deep breath, dove in…and was converted to the cause. Isn’t it boring when I actually enjoy these books?
The life of the famous Cicero (well-known for many reasons, none of which I will go into here because a) I am trying to let go of the latent frustration which the man’s speech writing inspires in me, and b) this book deals with them. In close detail.) is told by his slave/scribe, Tiro. However, his dramatic experiences with the triumvirate (Lepidus, Antony and Octavian) and ultimate death on their orders do NOT feature, and the novel focuses mainly on his legendary speeches against Verres and Catiline.
♥ Never before have I found Caesar quite so attractive, and I suspect this has everything to do with the fact that we are presented with his charisma, his charm, and his magnetism…but never an image of his face.*
♥ I loved the small but nonetheless theatrical appearance of Publius Clodius Pulcher as the foppish lawyer prosecuting Catiline. The carefully arranged floppiness of his locks and permanent cloud of perfume that he takes so much care to preserve belie the reality that this was the man who would eventually pass the laws forcing Cicero into exile, assault him physically in the street, and set fire to his brother’s house. Cheeky.
The Big Scoop:
I struggle with historical fiction in general, just because I like to know FOR CERTAIN whether something is true or not, for otherwise I cannot help but get hopelessly bogged down in the dramatised version. And guess what? From defining myself as a Classics student who has made an academic decision not to like Cicero as a man or writer, I can now declare have swung over to the other side to an embarrassing degree. The brain of this man, his courage, his extreme stubborness! His wit, his paternal pride, even the peculiarly romantic relationship he has with his wife: all these are brought to life in a manner most extraordinary and in vain have I struggled. It will not do. These feelings will not be repressed. (Top tip: when at a loss for words, quote Austen. You may not make any friends that way, but hey, you’ll fill all the awkward silences at dinner parties.)
Now here is the problem: where does the real Cicero end and this fictional one begin? According to Harris (and other, slightly more contemporary, sources), Tiro did actually write a biography of Cicero’s life, and he says that everything he described could have happened…and that’s where that phrase I have swiftly learned to loathe when it comes to history vaults into smug position: “Sadly, we’ll never know”.
In any case, we must press on with the key ANALYSIS OF THE BOOK, and dwell no longer on thinking seriously about which pyjamas Cicero would wear. Or was that just me?** A standout highlight was the presentation of these ancient men as, well, just men. Cicero and Crassus are described as not being able to stand one another for no reason other than there are sometimes those people with whom you simply cannot get along. Hortensius (rival lawyer bigshot) and Cicero hate each other with that curious mixture of respect and antipathy that stems from the equality of competing intellects. Cicero himself –as you might have gathered from the long list of all these people he dislikes– is hardly angel, or even a very good man, acting predominantly for his own self-interest in most respects. Indeed, he is almost convinced to act as the defence lawyer for Catiline, the deplorable villain whom he so vilifies in a later speech. However, the final triumph of ousting the planned agrarian laws –and this climactic finale must have done a world of good for restoring the public interest in land reform bills– that comprise the latest plot of Crassus and co. serves to bind the forces of Cicero and the aristocrats who despise him in a veeery tentatively hopeful ending. Aww.
(I mean the next two books in the trilogy will almost certainly shatter this illusion of contentment permanently, but for now I can live in peace.)
Oh, come on. It’s actually a bit mortifying that the only two books I have thus far given 10/10 –for that is the score with which I must grace this fine-feathered friend– both dwell on life in Ancient Rome. I suppose that Classics geek side must be bigger than I thought.
* EDIT: Because I take my blog v v seriously, I have to verify every statement I make with the help of the interweb. As you can see here, some nifty research on Google begs to differ with the implication that a young Caesar was bald and/or ugly.
** Turns out the interweb has some limitations, and the answer to this question is that omnipresent “Sadly, we’ll never know”. I’m thinking either a nightshirt and matching cap, or possibly something subtler. (The camel would have Hortensius’ face, naturally.)