Customer Reviews: Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
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on September 27, 2006
I give this novel my highest personal rating: it performs the extremely difficult task of making Cicero, a rather stuffy icon for 2 millennia, as accessible and as politically understandable as the national news in your local paper and to paint his turbulent times in a way anyone can identify with and understand. It is simply the best novel I've ever read, in terms of historical accuracy and intelligent reading of complex personalities, about the failing Roman Republic.

I have always had problems with Cicero. You have the "lawyer's briefs," his speeches and trials; you have the wonderful intimate, flawed, and somehow endearing correspondence in which Cicero proves he was far from able to navigate the complex political currents of his remarkable day; then you have his alliance with the Optimates, the rich nobles whose refusal to reform the Roman Republic made it, in part, possible for military strong-men like Pompey and Caesar to threaten and finally help destroy it.

Harris is simply superb. He uses Cicero's actual slave, Tiro (famous as his closest assistant) as the narrator of the remarkable and tragic events of those final years. I've read enough of Cicero to feel that Harris has somehow internalized and channeled both his speeches and correspondence; the context is effortlessly painted. Harris' comprehensive knowledge of Rome in the period roughly 70 BC is so meticulous that he makes it seem as easy to paint as an artist in a modern Chinatown. I've read enough of Harris' earlier novels to know that he's a fine plotter and draws clear characters. But I did not expect how he would recreate living men and women in a vanished time with such comfort and authenticity.

One of the great early trials that "made" Cicero's name was his prosecution of the politically-connected noble, Verres, who had pillaged his Sicilian province. In reading of the preparation for and prosecution of this trial (which took real political courage, in view of the vested interests ranged against conviction), I can honestly say it reads like a thriller and its culmination is extraordinarily moving - all while following history meticulously. But Harris isn't out to make Cicero a saint - we see (perhaps all too clearly, as parallels with modern politics spring easily to mind) just what it takes to claw your way up the Roman political tree, the kinds of compromises it requires, the kind of damage it can do to the man.

First in, I understand, a remarkable trilogy in which Cicero's career is impacted by other giants - Pompey, Caesar, Crassus, Clodius, all unforgettably drawn - this book is unput-downable, remarkably effective in conveying us to an ancient world, thrillingly able to make the connections between ancient and modern times through the medium of a remarkable politician who would be equally at home, now, in Washington or Baghdad. You will not feel the same about Cicero, or ancient Rome, again.
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VINE VOICEon November 4, 2006
What a treat this book is and what an extraordinary author is Robert Harris. His scholarship is impeccable, his story-telling is mesmerizing, and his writing is a pure treat. This novel, depicting the early career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, is presented as the recollections of Tiro, Cicero's personal secretary and assistant throughout his life. There was an actual publication by Tiro on the life of Cicero which was lost forever during the tumult during the 6th century and the fall of empire. Harris writes a plausible, and thoroughly enjoyable, recreation of that lost tract. If you enjoy Roman history you will be entranced with this novel. In my opinion it is better even than his popular "Pompeii" which was a smashingly good book.

The novel covers the first twenty years of Cicero's career from when Tiro was first given to Cicero in their early twenties, their travels through Greece to learn philosophy and their sojourn on the island of Rhodes to learn public speaking from Molon, the brilliant legal career of the young Cicero on his return to Rome including his infamous prosecution of Gaius Verres, the wicked governor of Sicily, and his rise to the seat of Consul during the years of strife between Crassus and Pompey.

As the book itself points out, Cicero was never an able, dashing general, nor an aristocrat; he was an upstart young attorney from the country, a "new man" with no friends or fortune. So how, in the face of adversity, and the enmity of the ruling class, did he climb the cursus honorum to become Consul of Rome? Why, when he controlled no armies, conquered no territory, amassed no fortune, is the name of Cicero still remembered and revered today along with the likes of Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Pompey? This book does an admirable job of showing how Cicero used his mind, his indomitable will, and his razor sharp wit to carve himself a place in history. For those unfamiliar with Cicero, I can't imagine a more entertinaing or enjoyable introduction to this complex and fascinating figure.

I have long been a fan of Colleen McCullough's Rome series, perhaps my favorite work of literature ever, but I have to admit that Imperium is so good it compares favorably with her works. If I have any true quibbles with this book it is only that it ends on the day he becomes Consul of Rome at age 42. The story of Cicero has so much more to it yet! Where is the story of his persecution of Catilina, his antagonism to Caesar even while his beloved brother Quintus served as one of his legates in Gaul, and his role in the Civil war between Pompey and Caesar? Harris tells only the first half of the story; I am hoping that there will be a sequel soon to complete this fabulous and wonderfully entertaining treatment of the brilliant Cicero.
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on March 20, 2007
How did Cicero, an country lawyer become a Roman Consul? Harris has written a superb easily understandable account. The story is told by Tiro, Cicero's talented slave and assistant (Tiro invented the shorthand). Tiro written account of Cicero's life never survived beyond the 6th century. Harris does an admirable job describing Cicero's and Tiro's lives with historical accuracy.

Harris' knowledge of Rome in the period 70 BC is so extensive that he effortlessly recreates the time period with authority and authenticity. Cicero's initial claim to fame was his prosecution of a powerful noble, Gaius Verres, for corruption and extortion. This prosecution required real political courage, and at the same time he had to compromise some of his principles to achieve victory. He used this victory to rise up the ladder of power. Usually in order to become a Consul one needs either money or connections or military victories. Cicero had none of these and this makes his feat truly remarkable.

Our founding fathers read Cicero and the history of the Roman empire and Greek civilization to formulate our laws. One feels right at home reading about special prosecutors, corrupt senators, ruthless businessman and cut throat lawyers. What happened in 70 BC was no different from what is happening in the modern era. I now understand Roman civilization now more than I ever had previously and I also can see how it was destroyed by power hungry men such as Caesar who showed contempt for Roman law.
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on October 1, 2006
I unconditionally recommend Robert Harris' latest novel to any fan of historical fiction. This novel is a must-read for any of the following: (1) Roman history fans; (2) lawyers, particularly litigators; (3) political wonks. (I am among the first two of those three and strongly suspect that I'm right for the third category.)

Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the most memorable figures from an era of great men who, among them, competed to tear apart or preserve the Roman republic. Cicero was a "new man" -- a provincial who rose from the middle class, doing so neither through wealth or military service but rather as a consummate trial lawyer -- and his rise to power is both an inspirational and cautionary tale. The two halves of "Imperium" tell the story of Cicero's prosecution for extortion against Verres and Cicero's campaign to become consul (the highest office a Roman could hold). While Roman history fans know the story and ending for both episodes, Harris fills in the ellipses left by the written records of the era with fine storytelling and educated speculation as to how the events played out in the eyes of a contemporary. Using Cicero's personal secretary to tell the story is a great device. Through the slave Tiro, Harris brings not only Cicero to life, but his wife Terentia, along with Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, and so many other interesting characters from the era.

Harris' narrative of the prosecution of Verres is some of the most memorable courtroom drama I have ever read. Any fan of legal fiction -- regardless of whether you are interested in Roman history -- will enjoy the courtroom scenes. The story of Cicero's campaign to become consul similarly should entertain any fan of electoral politics. While Cicero was a great lawyer, he was above all a politician, and a very skilled politician, and Harris portrays this aspect of the man skillfully and unflinchingly.

I assume that Harris will cover Cicero's consulship (and the Catilinarian conspiracy) and Cicero's ill-fated defense of the Republic against Marc Antony in subsequent volumes. I can't wait to read them. While I know how the story must end, Harris has hooked me with the way he is telling the tale.
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on January 26, 2007
I'm not a scholar of the Roman Empire, so I cannot testify as to the historical authenticity of the story. I can say I know more about Cicero than I did when I started the book, but more important, the book transported me a different time and place. When I had to put the book down for the night, I always had a little jolt that I was actually sitting in Montgomery, Alabama. The descriptions of the political and legal manuevering by Cicero et al. were fascinating and not too terribly far afield from what occurs in those professions today. Now that I've finished the book, I find myself missing my new friends - and enemies - in Rome. Getting so immersed in a book is becoming increasingly rare in my experience. Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon November 16, 2006
What a struggle it must be to be the shade of Cicero! How it must torment the soul of this most proud and ambitious Roman to forever wander the fringes of history and fame, perpetually overshadowed by both his more military contemporaries - Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and, of course, Julius Caesar - as well as his bloodthirsty heirs - the Roman imperial family? Cicero was a man of colossal achievement, and yet, if one counts the novels written about Caesar alone and compares them to the novels about Cicero, well, it ain't even close.

Robert Harris tries to remedy this with the entertaining, if not quite rollicking, "Imperium," a novel of Cicero's rise to political fame. In a refreshing change from established practice, Harris has written a fantastic novel of the final years of the Roman Republican that is not awash in blood and gore, but instead offers political intrigue in spades. This is also an impeccably-researched novel, more along the lines of Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" series than Conn Iggulden's more recent four-volume "Emperor" series. Apparently "Imperium" is the first volume in a planned trilogy, and it reads like it.

The novel is narrated by Cicero's slave/secretary, Tiro, inventor of shorthand. This is a clever ruse by Harris, because Tiro is logically present at Cicero's greatest triumphs in the courts and in negotiations, but he is not a protagonist. Tiro, a real historical figure regretably lost due to the vagaries of time, is a fantastic narrator - pithy, observant, and willing to call out his master when appropriate. Tiro also has a decent sense of humor, and makes the occasional funny observation.

How did Cicero, who came from a hopelessly middle-class background, manage to weave between the feuding aristocrats and populists to win the most coveted title in the Republic - that of consul? By being smarter than everybody else. That was no mean feat, given his contemporaries. But Tiro tells this story with balance and verve, and Cicero remains refreshingly human for all his triumphs. It's refreshing to read about how the Great Advocate barfs up his lunch on the way to giving one of his greatest orations! Too often our Roman heroes look back upon us from history as if perpetually etched in marble rather than actual human figures, and that is just not the case here.

I reserve the right to amend "Imperium" to a five-star novel, depending on later works. It's just so obvious that Harris has left several threads unfinished, and some characters get brief treatment here that, one hopes, will be more fully examined in later installments. If Harris fails to do so, a mere four-star book this will remain. If he succeeds, this will be a "great kickoff novel."

Exciting, funny, and intelligent, "Imperium" is a must-read for any fan of historical fiction of the ancient world.
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on January 20, 2007
Ancient Rome has the power to still enthrall us, even after fifteen hundred years after it fell as a political power. And the modern world has used the symbols of ancient Rome in architecture, politics and language, giving a haunting familiarity to it as well.

Author Robert Harris, a longtime journalist, returns to the Romans again for the setting of his new novel, Imperium . Set in the tumultuous times just before the collapse of the Roman Republic, it's a story of one man, and his family, as remembered by a remarkable slave, Tiro, who tells the story in a series of memoirs.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is a rising young star in the legal system, known for skill in defending various petty criminals. He's married into money, but his proud wife, Terentia , is too smart to let him use it. Cicero has managed to amass a credible client base, a move that may bring him success in the future, but only if he's very lucky. Outside the walls of his modest home, there are massive political forces at work -- and Cicero is about to find himself caught between two of the most powerful men in Rome.

Crassus is returning to Rome after crushing Spartacus' rebellion, and crucifying more than six thousand slaves on the Appian way as an object lesson to the servile classes. It's sight that horrifies both Cicero and his secretary, Tiro, a slave that grew up beside Cicero, and has become his confidant. Crassus is more than willing to help Cicero climb up the political ladder, but despite his hunger to become famous, Cicero is smart enough to be wary of the offer.

But luck is about to provide an unexpected turn. A bedraggled man arrives at Cicero's door, pleading for the advocate to take on a corruption case that involves the former governor of Sicily. Verres has murdered, enslaved, looted the island's farms and temples, and made the lives of the inhabitants a living misery. Will Cicero take on the case? The lawyer isn't so sure, after all, there's little evidence beyond hearsay, and Verres has the backing of powerful men. But the Sicilian begs him to think of the justice involved, that at the heart of things, Verres has done wrong, and Cicero takes it on.

Unhappily, one of Verres friends is the very successful general, Pompey, who is vain, very fond of the grand gesture, and has a tendency to force his own way in things. Needless to say, he and Crassus are deadly enemies to each other.

The first half of the novel is taken up with the prosecution of Verres, and Cicero and Tiro gathering up evidence. Through their eyes we witness the plight of the lowest, greed of the highest, and Cicero's own rise to power. For Cicero is one of the greatest orators of all time, able to turn a scathing comment at a second's notice, and not even his wife is immune to his barbed attacks. Terentia -- who is one of the more surprising characters in the story -- gives back as good as she gets.

When the surprising outcome happens, Cicero sees an even greater prize on the horizon -- a chance to make his name shine forever in Rome by being elected consul, one of the two leaders of the Senate, and the gateway to more power. But will he and his family survive the stresses of seeking high office?

I would have thought that a story about political mudslinging, backroom deals, and generally very unpleasant people would be dull as dishwater. Politics usually leaves me with a strong desire to take a very long, very hot shower to get the muck off, but I found myself fascinated by this story that gently untangles one of the more interesting people to inhabit Republican Rome, and make sense of the story. One of reasons why this works so well is Harris' attention to detail, and his use of Cicero's own speeches and letters, many of which were transcribed by Tiro, who had invented a means of shorthand to take it all down.

And Cicero's own words are amazing in and of themselves. It's stark, damning prose when he's chasing down corruption, or when he is trying to charm someone with the trick of sweetness. While the story does stop abruptly, it does have a completed feel to it, and I suspect that Harris has a sequel or two in mind. His other novel set in Ancient Rome is about a massive earthquake that devastated the city of Pompeii about ten years before the eruption of Vesuvius, and is as much a mystery novel as one about adventure, entitled simply Pompeii.

Fans of Colleen McCullough's massive series about the fall of the Roman Republic will probably enjoy this one. Many of the characters that appeared in those books are here as well, but in rather different guises. Harris' depiction of Pompey, Julius Caesar, Crassus and Cicero are not as detailed, perhaps, but just as compelling.

And that's what it all really comes down to. It's cracking good story that had me up for most of the night reading, and I happily recommend it to any one.
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on October 12, 2006
I enjoy Harris's work and looked forward to this one, though with a slight hesitation that came from my disappointment with his last Roman novel, Pompeii. The book is interesting in terms of the history; it places Cicero in the political context of Pompey that precedes the era of Julius Caesar. It gives Cicero presence and depth.

But otherwise it's so flat. None of the characters come to life - nor does Rome become more than a backdrop to the narrative. In the end I gave up on it and skimmed the last fifty pages. There's no dramatic tension and the style and story are very homogenous -- the same pacing, tone and talkative exegesis. For eaxmple, Cicero's marital tensions are talked about but his wife's personality and language never come to life.

I'm obviously in a minority among the Amazon reviewers, most of whom give the book 5 stars. They see something in it that I don't. I offer my opinion only as a caution for the reader who isn't interested in the history -- it's the history that makes it, not the story or the narration
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on September 26, 2006
Robert Harris has accomplished a truly remarkable task. He has written an historically accurate novel that moves at a page-turning pace without the benefit of an endless succession of battle scenes. The interest derives from his depiction of the incredibly fascinating political career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of history's greatest orators.

The book is written from the viewpoint of Tiro, Cicero's amanuensis. Tiro was a real historical character who is credited with the invention of the first usable system of shorthand. In this role, he accompanied Cicero throughout his political career. This novel covers Cicero's public life from the beginning through his campaign for consul. We see the young Cicero launching his career through his prosecution of a corrupt governor of Sicily, advancing through the positions of aedile and praetor, always opposed by the aristocrats of Rome, and always with the ultimate goal of consul in his mind. How he surmounts obstacles through shrewd politics and inspired oratory makes a great read. I give this book my highest recommendation.
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This novel is set just prior to the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.) As every schoolchild who is dragged through Latin class knows, there were two triumvirates and they always ended in two of the three getting bumped off by the third--in this case of course, Julius Caesar. But what was Rome like during the end of the Republic, leading up to this time? Author Harris creates the scenes of ancient Rome at the end of the senatorial rule with Cicero as the central character. The story is told by Cicero's amanuensis and slave Tiro. First, we follow the young and somewhat callow Cicero as he attempts to take down a tyrannical governor of Sicily who's flagrantly stealing artworks from temples and collectors, and accusing the victims of treason and espionage. He has been handily dispatching people without any restraint. A visit by one of his chief victims convinces Cicero that it's worth a dangerous battle to take down Verres and see that justice is done.

Cicero's wife Terentia is equally well drawn--she is a sort of Xanthippe, but underneath, despite her harshness, she admires Cicero and whips him (almost literally) into shape as Rome's most brilliant orator.

The characters are well-drawn, the historical scenarios are fresh as if they were happening today and the book is one you just can't put down. If you enjoyed "I, Claudius", you'll be likely to enjoy this book, set some decades before at the very last chapters of Rome's Republic.
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