Some notes on Imperium by Robert Harris

A perfect choice of narrator. Tiro, Cicero’s slave secretary, is the fly on the wall, the record-keeper, occasionally an actor in the events. He tells us Cicero’s story in a brisk pace, sometimes skipping whole years, sticking only to the relevant events (Tiro explains that he’s an old man with little time and only “a few dozen small rolls of the finest paper” at his disposal). Yet he allows himself occasional judgements and comments, a rare confession of his own thoughts and feelings — a personal touch that gives the book a little charm.

The fast-paced political intrigue is in the center of the book and Tiro’s lens is narrowly focused on it. But every now and again other fascinating details appear on the periphery of the narrative adding to it dimension and flavor. E.g. the relationship between Cicero and his rich, aristocratic wife Terentia (as a woman she cannot hold a political office or vote, but she retains control of her assets even after she’s married; when Cicero wants to borrow money for a campaign, she demands to hear his speech, and lends him the funds only after deciding he’s got a good case), or the reality of Roman conquest and management of distant provinces.

I’ve read complaints that ancient Rome is not tangible enough in Harris’ novel. I disagree. Tiro would not linger on descriptions of things that were commonplace to him, so the scarcity of setting is only consistent with the narrator and with his austere style. But he does show us Rome through the lens of the events described. He shows us a fascinating place, full of contradictions. On one hand it’s an impressively organized mechanism, with it’s census, voting procedures, roads and archives. On the other hand there are pigeons roosting in the Senate house, shitting on the senators whenever political arguments change into brawls and startle the birds.

Very relatable. Times change, but people don’t. The secretary copies documents with a stylus onto a wax tablet instead of snapping a photo with his smartphone. The politician walks to the office instead of driving. But their ambitions, interests, strategies — they’re universal. Could be ancient Rome, could be here and now.

Definitely recommended. Imperium, by Robert Harris, first part of the Cicero trilogy.

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