Robert Harris has always been one of those authors that I have formed a preconceived opinion of that is completely unjustified. I can’t explain it but I have always had it in my head that his books were not for me. Robert Goddard is another such author, I just haven’t read them despite both authors being immensely popular. Maybe I have something against “Roberts,” call it a jealousy thing!
Imperium was recommended to me by my Brother-in-law. Since I trust his judgement and as it has been over 12 years since I studied Ancient Rome I thought it was time to give the author and book a shot.
I remember studying Cicero for my A Levels. I always found the character fascinating and the rhetoric he used in his speeches amusing. However, it was always in the mindset that, “I’m-studying-this-and-it-is-not-as-bad-as-it-could-be-although-why-can’t-it-be-written-plainer” kind of way.
Robert Harris achieves exactly this and then some. He really brings Rome to life without even trying too hard. The whole political system of Consuls, Aediles, praetors and senators is effortlessly explained and you never feel like you are being taught it. Instead it just forms part of the natural process of the story, which in a historical fiction novel that is heavily based on fact is a major achievement.
From my wilting memory, Cicero is captured perfectly. His character is clever and insatiable but Robert Harris does a nice job of conveying how he is perceived in a less than favourable light by the Aristocrats and in general.
I recalled some of his speeches as I read them, but Harris again makes such simple work of explaining the background behind each one and the political ramifications they have that they were far more enjoyable to read then when I studied them. Again they are all weaved easily into a story.
Like Derfel in Bernard Cornwell’s warlord chronicles, the narrator Tiro is an excellent character. He recalls his time with Cicero affectionately and in a candid manner that makes his own character highly likable.
It would have been easy for Robert Harris to focus most of his attention on the major characters of the time period such as Pompey and Caesar. The pair feature in the novel but do not dominate it. Instead we are treated to Cicero’s ongoing feuds with Verres, Hortensius and Crassus. All are great characters and nicely fleshed out.
Although the main focus of the book is Cicero’s attempt to gain the Consulship, there is not a plot in a traditional sense of the word. Instead Tiro recalls significant events in Cicero’s early life and these are tied into the records we have of him.
My rating: 8.4