Customer Reviews: Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome
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VINE VOICEon February 2, 2010
Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon penned a piece called "Cicero Superstar." In her overview of this illustrious Roman's life she noted that his preserved letters contain some laments about a lack of confidants: " 'I go down to the Forum surrounded by droves of friends, but in the whole crowd I can find no one to whim I can make an unguarded joke or let out a friendly sigh.' " Well, Robert Harris mitigates this somewhat by making Tiro, the scribe, someone upon whom Cicero relies and and trusts with sensitive matters. As Harris notes, Cicero did write to his slave stenographer, " 'Your services to me are beyond count.' " Both Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome and now Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome are narrated by a Tiro who serves as confidant and advisor. At times this stretches credibility -- especially when Tiro archly, though mildly, implies he is smarter than his master and paints himself the hero. However, CONSPIRATA does not really suffer from this device; Tiro supplies an "common" view of Cicero that a fellow Senator, for example, wouldn't as convincingly convey.

Cicero himself, through Tiro's eyes, is a man whose vanity sometimes gets the better of him, who isn't above a bit of graft, and who is occasionally politically tone deaf. But one never loses sight of this statesman's intrinsic desire to serve his republic with integrity and honor.

CONSPIRATA covers 63-59 B.C. This "lustrum" -- meaning five-year duration (the title (Lustrum: A Novel) was chosen for the previously published British edition) -- began with Cicero's momentous one-year term as consul. In the following four years, he was celebrated as "pater patriae" (father of his country) but then suffered a drastic downturn in political and economic fortunes as Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus seized power. This novel introduces a gruesome murder mystery in the first pages that leads to an internecine conspiracy against the republic. The book convincingly traces the path that Cicero might in reality have followed in order to finally reach the defining decision of his consulship, namely that several high-ranking Romans should be executed without formal trial.

Presumably, at least one more volume will be forthcoming to finish this story of Cicero's struggle with Rome's more dictatorial powers-that-be. In that final novel, perhaps we will read more about Cicero as philosopher since after this lustrum he wrote his celebrated dialogues DE REPUBLICA and DE LEGIBUS (found herein: M. Tullius Ciceronis De Re Publica, De Legibus, Cato Maior de Senectute, Laelius de Amicitia (Oxford Classical Texts)) -- and many of his approximately eight hundred surviving letters.

Quoting from another of those missives, Glendon aligned Cicero's worries about "whether, when, and how far to compromise for the sake of advancing his most cherished cause -- the preservation of the traditional system he called republican" with current relevancies about government strength and form. As with IMPERIUM, Harris uses CONSPIRATA to accomplish precisely the same thing: he depicts Cicero's Rome as a decaying republic being pulled into tyranny, and in the political chicanery and intrigue of ancient times, one sees the indubitable reflections of modern problems with aging "democracies" that are leaning too far toward bread, circuses and central authority.

CONSPIRATA is a worthy successor to IMPERIUM, although it is more concerned with plot than its predecessor and gives the impression of being a more hastily written novel. IMPERIUM developed its plot at a relatively leisurely pace in order to build a character portrait; CONSPIRATA hastens -- sometimes summing up little things like wars in a few paragraphs -- to focus on particular actions in Cicero's life. Regardless, it too is entertaining, enriches understanding of Cicero and his compatriots, and it unquestionably reminds us that if we do not keep the lessons of history uppermost in our minds, we could well repeat the patterns of Cicero's Rome.
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on February 2, 2010
Like its predecessor "Imperium", Conspirata is a very gripping book. If this book could be summed up in one line it would be "Cicero Plays Political Chess with Caesar".

This book begins just prior to the Cataline conspiracies and ends on the day Cicero is exiled by his 'one time friend' Clodius. The 5 year period the book covers focuses on Cicero's Consulship, the Cataline conspiracies (there were to some degree two conspiracies) and the First Triumvirate. While Cicero isn't completely unscrupulous he does manage to uphold some moral standard to protect the Republic (he wasn't called the 'righteous pagan' by the Catholic Church for nothing).

Two things I warn the reader about:

1. If you are a Caesarphile and believe that Julius Caesar was a nice guy killed by an evil Senate then you may not like this book. Shakespeare impressed upon me that Caesar was rather innocent and did not deserve his fate. This book shows Caesar in another light and makes one literally yell out loud for Cicero to execute Caesar while he had the chance.

2. The book starts a little slow at the beginning of his consulship. Don't worry it doesn't take long to pick up speed.

While you don't need to read the first Robert Harris book about Cicero 'Imperium' I recommend that you do. Imperium is a quick read and it really sets the stage for Conspirata; explaining more about Cicero the 'human' than the 'oratory machine'.

If you like historical fiction you cannot go wrong with this book. I am looking forward to the next book Harris writes about Cicero.
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Power politics is an ugly business, whether it's played in the halls of the Senate in 21st century Washington, or the Senate of Republican Rome in the first century BC. Harris could have chosen to set his thriller in the former; happily for readers he has opted instead to tell a story of high-stakes political games-playing featuring the celebrated orator Cicero and the ruthlessly ambitious military leader, Julius Caesar. When the novel opens, Cicero is on top of the world -- literally and rhetorically. He's on the roof of his house, studying the skies for omens as he begins his year as Consul, the ultimate authority in Rome. Even his carping wife seems happy.

Then there's a murder on the day of his accession to power -- and while the mystery never really occupies center stage in this drama, it's an ominous sign of the plots that are being brewed by Cicero's political foes behind the scene, including some of Rome's most noble families. As in the first volume of this projected trilogy, Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, the tale of Cicero's year as consul and the conspiracy he must combat and resolve, even if it means going against his own principles, is told through the eyes of his slave and scribe, Tiro. Above all, however, this is the story of Cicero's realization that the most dangerous threat to the Roman Republic he cherishes may remain and be embodied in one of its increasingly popular military leaders: Caesar. Seeing Caesar through Tiro's eyes gave me an entirely fresh sense of how he might have been perceived not only by his aristocratic peers or a 'new man' like Cicero but by the broader population of Rome on whose support he would craft the beginnings of what would become an empire. It's an absolutely chilling portrait of someone who to the outward world appears intelligent, committed and effective, and yet who is utterly cold and manipulative.

I enjoyed the first volume of this saga so much that I didn't want to wait for the second to be published in the U.S., but ordered it from the U.K. when it appeared last year. I wasn't disappointed, and was even happy to fork over the extra $10 shipping fee to get it as soon as I could after a yearlong publishing delay. Now I'm condemned to wait another year or two for the third and final volume to appear, it feels like torture.

This is a book that anyone who has read Colleen McCullough's immense seven-volume series starting with The First Man in Rome will relish. Even better, it's a fast-paced version of some of the events covered in those books that will appeal to anyone who shied away from McCullough's books as being either too ponderous, excessively detailed or simply way too long. This is the story of the decline and fall of the Roman republic, the collapse of a political ideal, through the eyes of Cicero, who still cherishes that ideal and that system. The timing of his rise to the top at a time when being ruler of Rome means he must grapple with the harsh truth that his idea of Rome and the reality are no longer the same is as heartbreaking as in any classical tragedy. The suspense doesn't falter, the historical accuracy is remarkable and Harris's crisp style is admirable.

Highly recommended; I can't wait for the next installment.
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on May 7, 2010
Halfway through "Conspirata", I had one of those terrible epiphanies, the sort that usually only strike middle-aged men in dead-end jobs just before they either leap out the window or take up organic farming. And the epiphany was this: There really is no point to this.

"Conspirata" is the second in a series of novels by British author and former political correspondent Robert Harris, based on the life of famous Roman statesman and orator, Marcus Cicero. The first book, "Imperium", charted his rise from ambitious lawyer to his election as consul, the highest political office in Rome. The narrator in both books is Tiro, a slave owned by Cicero and something of a historical figure himself, thanks to his purported invention of a system of shorthand (though Mr Harris erroneously also attributes the invention of the ampersand, "&", to him).

Readers drawn by the martial-looking eagle on the cover, or who assume any Roman epic is going to involve gladiators, orgies and crucifixions will be cruelly disappointed. "West Wing" fans will be pleased, though. This is a political drama, proudly all talk and no action, where the climactic scenes take place on the rostra, not the colliseum. The single, solitary episode of toga-lifting naughtiness, a tryst between Tiro and a slave of another household, takes place firmly off-camera.

Instead, Mr Harris throws us headlong into the political arena, when Cicero uncovers evidence of a plot against both himself and the City of Rome. The plotters are never much of a mystery, and the focus is instead on how to outmaneuver them. Once they are defeated, the focus in the second half of the novel shifts to Cicero's diminished status once his term of office ends, and on the rise of a fellow named Julius Ceasar in the ensuing vacuum.

Mr Harris displays a casual knowledge of the inner workings of Roman government, but despite the notes provided at the end of the book it can sometimes be a headache to keep your praetors separated from your tribunes, your augurs from your pontifex, your Metelli from your Claudians. Indeed, there is precious little description of anything outside of Senate speeches and private intrigues. The storytelling is competent but uninspiring. Certainly, no Cicero.

I say the novel is "based on" the life of Cicero, but this is doing Mr Harris a disservice. Heck, this IS the life of Cicero. "Conspirata" is first-rate history, which sadly sometimes makes it second-rate entertainment. Ostensibly a novel, the story line hews so closely to historical fact that five minutes on Wikipedia ruined the entire plot for me. For a work of historical fiction, this is too much history, too little fiction. Mr Harris neither alters nor adds to the facts, never suggests an alternative interpretation, never illustrates some unrecorded adventure. The whole thing soon becomes a bit like being cornered at a party by a dreadfully earnest history professor.

This flaw is exacerbated by Mr Harris's choice of Tiro as narrator and Cicero as subject. Particularly during the second half of the book, once Cicero's term as consul is over, he is reduced to mere bystander in greater events. That makes our man Tiro peripheral to the periphery, a third-hand news source doubly removed from all the action. Here you have Julius Ceasar, Rome's most ambitious and ruthless man, Pompey, her greatest general, and Crassus, her richest man, seizing control of the republic, but we see none of it.

It was then that the epiphany hit me. Why bother reading "Conspirata", when a history book would achieve much the same end?

The limited insights Mr Harris offers us are that Cicero was patriotic, Ceasar unscrupulous, Pompey vain and Crassus dim. What is the point of historical fiction, if not to make suggestions, interpretations or changes, to fill in the missing pages or otherwise doodle in the margins of history's textbooks? Why write a novel if not to present us with a work of fiction? This is not a bad book; the plot plows along straightforwardly, characterization is consistent if a little thin. Mr Harris just doesn't seem to have anyting particularly interesting to say about any of it.

Now if you will excuse me, I have some organic vegetables to tend to.
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on December 7, 2015
Having read this some time ago, I decided to re-read it (something I rarely do) in anticipation of the publication of "Dictator" -- the final book in Harris's Cicero trilogy. This is a master author at his best; a compelling story, narrated with wit, sympathy and what I'll call "fond objectivity". The book describes Cicero's brave actions as consul, followed by his ultimate downfall at the hands of both the patricians and plebeians whose favor he tried to hard to curry. In some ways, he brings the downfall upon himself, but it's a fascinating trip, and Harris's depictions of some of the great heroes of ancient Rome -- notably, but not exclusively, Pompey and Caesar -- gives us some interesting and contrarian takes on what we may have read or seen in the movies some time ago. Caesar, in particular, comes across being totally unlike the Caesar depicted in Shaw and even Shakespeare, and if you think he was anything like the character played by Rex Harrison in "Cleopatra," think again.

A terrific read and one that makes me look forward with even greater anticipation to next month's publication of "Dictator," the final volume in Harris's Cicero trilogy. I can't wait to read it except that I know I'll be sad to see it end.
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on February 8, 2012
Conspirata is the second in the projected three novel series on the life of Cicero (104-63 BC). The novel is by Robert Harris a distinguished author of historical thrillers. This book published in 2010 will win the author plaudits. It whets the taste for his fans who eagerly await the publication of the third volume.
Plot: The novel opens n 63 B.C. Cicero is serving as one of the two consuls over the Roman Senate (the top spot!). A young boy is found with his throat cut and his body ripped wide open. It is learned that he was a human sacrifice. The murderers are conspirators against the Republic led by the repulsive Catilna a Senator. The first half of the book involves the battle between Cicero and his allies in the aristocric party against the rebels. The conspirators promise free land and farms to the plebes but there are defeated due to the skill of Cicero. The book is rife with conspiracies, murders, double dealing, treachery and treason against the Roman Republic.
In the second part of the novel we see Cicero duelling with such powerful enemies as Julius Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great. Pompey has just returned to Rome following many conquests in the Middle East including Israel. Caesar is a serial adulterer who is a sly and wily politcal fore. Crassus is a rich man who grovels for power.
The book is narrated by Triro the brilliant slave of Cicero who has invented Latin shorthand. He is the most valuable advisor Cicero has in all of Rome. Cicero's wife Tertullia is a wise woman who cares for the couple's two children. Cicero is best known for his blazing oratry and lawyerly skills.
A helpful glossary of Latin terms used in ancient Rome and a list of the major characters is included. The 376 page novel is narrated by Triro. Harris is an outstanding author who will entertain and educate you!
Caveats: New readers to Roman historical fiction may have trouble in keeping up with all the characters with strange Latin names. It helps to have the rudiments of Roman historical knowledge under one's belt to understand the complex web of politics going on in the late Roman republic.
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on June 21, 2014
Great way to get a sense of the machinations behind the rise to power of Caesar. The parallels to u politics in the USA today are frightening. It all seems to boil down to what I call the Chaos Principal - if you cannot gain power working within the structure, get inside and cause chaos then be ruthless taking advantage of the confusion.
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on February 11, 2016
In the second volume of his Cicero (106-43 B.C.) trilogy, Robert Harris continues the outstanding storytelling so much in evidence in "Imperium." That means, we have more of his superb historical research in evidence, a suspenseful development of the story, and just some very fine writing. He continues to use the plot device of having Cicero's actual slave and talented secretary,Tiro, recount the novel's events. I found this far superior to having Cicero himself tell the story. The central focus of this volume is the so-called "Cataline conspiracy," an attempt to overthrow the Roman republic by force and violence, an event in which Cicero's opposition and leadership played a key role in defeating the insurgents.

The key issue raised by Harris in both books really boils down to: was Cicero a self-serving rascal/opportunist or a hero? He certainly was a brilliant lawyer and orator; on this the historians agree. Harris has Tiro describe him as capable of deploying many weapons: "logic, cunning, irony, wit, oratory, experience, his profound knowledge of law and men" (p. 342). What is perhaps missing is solid judgment--likely his fatal flaw. Quick on the uptake, Cicero engages in snappy dialogue, evidencing not only wit but also an agile brain. Harris relies on Cicero's actual words as recorded in the various Loeb volumes of his orations and writings. So we can see for ourselves this somewhat brilliant statesman, author, and advocate at work.

While keeping track of all these various characters with Latin names can be difficult, Harris has included a "Dramatis Personae" listing of brief bios. And this is quite important, since many of the same individuals appear in all three volumes (I am now reading "Dictator"). He also includes a glossary of key terms to help the reader understand what is taking place. As I mentioned in my prior review, the reader leans a good deal about Roman politics, culture, military tactics, and history in the course of enjoying the novel. Simply some of the most outstanding historical fiction I have ever encountered.

I strongly suggest, having read two and one-half of the three novels, that they should be read in sequence to gain their full value and enjoyment. It has been said about Harris that it is simply impossible for him to write a dull novel--this trilogy certainly proves how much on target that observation is.
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on July 17, 2016
The middle book of the trilogy, Conspirata encompasses Cicero's life during his Consulship and the subsequent fall out from the Catiline Conspiracy. Through the voice of Tiro, the uber secretary, the author continues an excellent reading experience chock full of history enhanced with intrigue and emotion. Cicero rides a stormy sea as he vacillates between victories, doubt, and a surprising predilection to turn his fears into heroic acts. The characters ring true, from the pompous (Catalus, Hortensius), to the pretentious power seekers (Pompey, Crassus) and a unremitting, ruthless Caesar.

It had been quite a while between my reading of Imperium and Conspirata. I predict that it won't be as long before I start the final volume, Dictator. 4.8 stars & The Hoover Book Review's coveted "It's a Good One, Boys & Girls" award.
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VINE VOICEon December 15, 2011
Set in the waning days of the Roman republic, _Conspirata_ is told from the perspective of Cicero's slave, secretary and constant companion, Tiro. It is a story of hubris, conspiracy and tragedy. Cicero makes for a difficult protangonist, even through the eyes of Tiro - Cicero is haughty, arrogant, and frustratingly inept at times. Of course, readers have the benefit of looking at the story with the perspective of 2000 years of history, knowing his efforts will ultimately be futile. Even so, Cicero's tendency to see himself as the "saviour of the republic" as he massages and manages crisis after crisis, trying to balance competing factions with his own ambition did not lend any sympathy from me.

Harris does a remarkable job of showing the repubilc's death spiral even as those caught up in the heat of the moment are oblivious to its death throes: 90 years after the last Punic War, 70 years after the murder of the Gracci brothers, the memory of Sulla and Spartacus still fresh in the memories of many Romans, there is an element of futile nobility as Cicero attempts to stitch together the rapidly fraying republic. Perhaps I am imposing my own attitudes towards social class and privlidge on these long dead Romans, but I do hold the patrician class (and by extension the Roman Senate) in contempt: they are vain, self-serving and historionic to a fault, while Caesar (Cicero's rival) is a populist, his vulgarity as much a part of the revulsion Cicero and the rest have for him as for his dictatorial tendencies. As the republic unwinds, there is one conspiracy after another, each successive plot bringing the state closer to its eventual demise. Cicero is as much a part of this undoing these conspiracies as he is of coordinating them; ultimately he is his own worse enemy, making a series of grave miscalculations before being simply outmanouvered and trumped by the "first triumvirate" of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.

The joy of this story is the political intrigue for its own sake, rather than readers sympathizing or empathizing with Cicero. The traps set, alliances made and broken and the insider's view of the implosion of the Roman republic and subsequent rise of the empire has a certain vouyeristic appeal. But I prefer to have a protagonist I can cheer for, even if he is ultimately unsuccessful. Cicero and Tiro just didn't do that for me, hence the mediocre rating.
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