Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Imperium by Robert Harris








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I liked Robert Harris’ Pompeii enough to jump right into his new novel, Imperium. The protagonist of Imperium is Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Harris presents a fictional version of Cicero’s early political life, from his early days as a lawyer to his election as consul. Readers can hope there will be a sequel that presents the rest of Cicero’s life. In Imperium, Harris uses Cicero’s longtime secretary, the slave Tiro, as narrator. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “Roll IV,” pp. 47-51:


Another of Cicero’s maxims was that if you must do something unpopular, you might as well do it wholeheartedly, for in politics there is no credit to be won by timidity. Thus, although he had never previously expressed an opinion about Pompey or the tri­bunes, neither cause now had a more devoted adherent. And the Pompeians were delighted to welcome such a brilliant recruit to their ranks.

That winter was long and cold in the city, and for no one, I sus­pect, more than Terentia. Her personal code of honor required her to support her husband against the enemies who had invaded her home. But having sat among the smelly poor~, and listened to Cicero haranguing her own class, she now found her drawing room and dining room invaded at all hours by his new political cronies: men from the uncouth north, who spoke with ugly accents and who liked to put their feet up on her furniture and plot late into the night. Palicanus was the chief of these, and on his second visit to the house in January he brought with him one of the new praetors, Lu­cius Afranius, a fellow senator from Pompey’s homeland of Pi­cenum. Cicero went out of his way to be charming, and in earlier years, Terentia, too, would have felt it an honor to have a praetor in her house. But Afranius had no decent family or breeding of any sort. He actually had the nerve to ask her if she liked dancing, and, when she drew back in horror, declared that personally he loved nothing more. He pulled up his toga and showed her his legs and demanded to know if she had ever seen a finer pair of calves.

These men were Pompey’s representatives in Rome and they car­ried with them something of the smell and manners of the army camp. They were blunt to the point of brutality—but then, perhaps they had to be, given what they were planning. Palicanus’s daughter, Lollia—a blowsy young piece, very much not to Terentia’s taste— occasionally joined the menfolk, for she was married to Aulus Gabinius, another of Pompey’s Picenean lieutenants, currently serv­ing with the general in Spain. Gabinius was a link with the le­gionary commanders, who in turn provided intelligence on the loy­alty of the centuries—an important consideration, for, as Afranius put it, there was no point in bringing the army to Rome to restore the powers of the tribunes, only to find that the legions would hap­pily go over to the aristocrats if they were offered a big enough bribe.

At the end of January, Gabinius sent word that the final rebel strongholds of Uxama and Calagurris had been taken, and that Pompey was ready to march his legions home. Cicero had been ac­tive among the pedarii for weeks, drawing senators aside as they waited for debaes, convincing them that the rebel slaves in the Ital­ian north posed a gathering threat to their businesses and trade. He had lobbied well. When the issue came up for discussion in the Sen­ate, despite the intense opposition of the aristocrats and the sup­porters of Crassus, the house voted narrowly to let Pompey keep his Spanish army intact and bring it back to the mother country to crush Spartacus’s northern recruits. From that point on, the consul­ship was as good as his, and on the day the motion passed, Cicero came home smiling. True, he had been snubbed by the aristocrats, who now loathed him more than any other man in Rome, and the presiding consul, the super-snobbish Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, had refused to recognize him when he tried to speak. But what did that matter? He was in the inner circle of Pompey the Great, and, as every fool knows, the quickest way to get ahead in politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top.

Throughout these busy months, I am ashamed to say, we ne­glected Sthenius of Thermae. He would often turn up in the morn­ings and hang around the senator for the entire day in the hope of securing an interview. He was still living in Terentia’s squalid tene­ment block. He had little money. He was unable to venture beyond the walls of the city, as his immunity ended at the boundaries of Rome. He had not shaved his beard nor cut his hair, nor, by the smell of him, changed his clothes since October. He reeked, not of madness exactly, but of obsession, forever producing small scraps of paper, which he would fumble with and drop in the street.

Cicero kept making excuses not to see him. Doubtless he felt he had discharged his obligation. But that was not the sole explana­tion. The truth is that politics is a country idiot, and capable of con­centrating on only one thing at a time, and poor Sthenius had become simply yesterday’s topic. All anyone could talk about now was the coming confrontation between Crassus and Pompey; the plight of the Sicilian was a bore.

In the late spring, Crassus had finally defeated the main force of Spartacus’s rebels in the heel of Italy, killing Spartacus and taking six thousand prisoners. He had started marching toward Rome. Very soon afterwards, Pompey crossed the Alps and wiped out the slave rebellion in the north. He sent a letter to the consuls which was read out in the Senate, giving only the faintest credit to Crassus for his achievement, instead proclaiming that it was really he who had finished off the slave war “utterly and entirely.” The signal to his supporters could not have been clearer: only one general would be triumphing that year, and it would not be Marcus Crassus. Fi­nally, lest there be any remaining doubt, at the end of his dispatch Pompey announced that he, too, was moving on Rome. Little won­der that amid these stirring historical events, Sthenius was forgot­ten.

Sometime in May, it must have been, or possibly early June—I cannot find the exact date—a messenger arrived at Cicero’s house bearing a letter. With some reluctance the man let me take it, but refused to leave the premises until he had received a reply: those, he said, were his orders. Although he was wearing civilian clothes, I could tell he was in the army. I carried the message into the study and watched Cicero’s expression darken as he read it. He handed it to me, and when I saw the opening—”From Marcus Licinius Gras­sus, Imperator, to Marcus Tullius Cicero: Greetings”—I understood the reason for his frown. Not that there was anything threatening in the letter. It was simply an invitation to meet the victorious gen­eral the next morning on the road to Rome, close to the town of Lanuvium, at the eighteenth milestone.

“Can I refuse?” asked Cicero, but then he answered his own question. “No, I can’t. That would be interpreted as a mortal in­sult.”

“Presumably he is going to ask for your support.”

“Really?” said Cicero sarcastically. “What makes you think that?”

“Could you not offer him some limited encouragement, as long as it does not clash with your undertakings to Pompey?”

“No. That is the trouble. Pompey has made that very clear. He expects absolute loyalty. So Crassus will pose the question: Are you for me or against me? and then I shall face the politician’s nightmare: the requirement to give a straight answer.” He sighed. “But we shall have to go of course.”

We left soon after dawn the following morning, in a two-wheeled open carriage, with Cicero’s valet doubling as coachman for the occasion. It was the most perfect time of day at the most per­fect time of year, already hot enough for people to be bathing in the public pool beside the Capena Gate, but cool enough for the air to be refreshing. There was none of the usual dust thrown up from the road. The leaves of the olive trees were a glossy, fresh green. Even the tombs that line the Appian Way so thickly along that particular stretch just beyond the wall gleamed bright and cheerful in the first hour of the sun. Normally Cicero liked to draw my attention to some particular monument and give me a lecture on it—the statue of Scipio Africanus, perhaps, or the tomb of Horatia, murdered by her brother for displaying excessive grief at the death of her lover. But on this morning his usual good spirits had deserted him. He was too preoccupied with Crassus.

“Half of Rome belongs to him—these tombs as well, I should not wonder. You could house an entire family in one of these! Why not? Crassus would! Have you ever seen him in operation? Let us say he hears there is a fire raging and spreading through a particular neighborhood: he sends a team of slaves around all the apartments, offering to buy out the owners for next to nothing. When the poor fellows have agreed, he sends another team equipped with water carts to put the fires out! That is just one of his tricks. Do you know what Sicinnius calls him—always bearing in mind, by the way, that Sicinnius is afraid of no one? He calls Crassus ‘the most dangerous bull in the herd.’”

His chin sank onto his chest and that was all he said until we had passed the eighth milestone and were deep into open country, not far from Bovillae. That was when he drew my attention to something odd: military pickets guarding what looked like small timber yards. We had already passed four or five, spaced out at reg­ular half-mile intervals, and the farther down the road we went, the greater the activity seemed—hammering, sawing, digging. It was Cicero who eventually supplied the answer. The legionnaires were making crosses. Soon afterwards, we encountered a column of Cras­sus’s infantry tramping toward us, heading for Rome, and we had to pull over to the far side of the road to let them pass. Behind the le­gionnaires came a stumbling procession of prisoners, hundreds of them, vanquished rebel slaves, their arms pinioned behind their backs—a terrible, emaciated, gray army of ghosts, heading for a fate which we had seen being prepared for them, but of which they were presumably ignorant. Our driver muttered a spell to ward off evil and flicked his whip over the flanks of the horses, and we jolted for­ward. A mile or so later, the killing started, in little huddles off on either side of the road, where the prisoners were being nailed to the crosses. I try not to remember it, but it comes back to me occasion­ally in my dreams, especially, for some reason, the crosses with their impaled and shrieking victims being pulled upright by soldiers heav­ing on ropes, each wooden upright dropping with a thud into the deep hole that had been dug for it. That I remember and also the moment when we passed over the crest of a hill and saw a long av­enue of crosses running straight ahead for mile after mile, shimmer­ing in the mid-morning heat, the air seeming to tremble with the moans of the dying, the buzz of the flies, the screams of the circling crows.

“So this is why he dragged me out of Rome,” murmured Cicero, “to intimidate me by showing me these poor wretches.” He had gone very white, for he was squeamish about pain and death, even when inflicted on animals, and for that reason tried to avoid attend­ing the games. I suppose this also explains his aversion to all mat­ters military. He had done the bare minimum of army service in his youth, and he was quite incapable of wielding a sword or hurling a javelin; throughout his career he had to put up with the taunt of being a draft dodger.


Latin scholars may take exception to Harris’ portrayal of Cicero, but most readers will find Imperium to be a lively political story that grips interest from beginning to end.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2006



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