Robert Harris’ Imperium is a political thriller, courtroom drama and historical novel all rolled into one. It has been widely praised for its historical accuracy and attention to detail – and deservedly so – yet the book never becomes too bogged down with complicated explanations. It reads as a well-written and structured story, not a history text. Rome and its people, its law courts and temples, political infighting and dangerous rivalries, all seem as real and vital as events that might have happened yesterday, rather than over 2000 years ago.

Harris has a wonderful talent for bringing his characters to life, not an easy task when real historical people are involved, and it is this that makes Imperium such a joy to read. Harris dives into the real writings and speeches of Cicero and pulls out the man behind the rhetoric, with all his talents, quirks, vanities and flaws. Cicero is a man we can feel and worry for, while at the same time disapprove and despair of. Cicero’s friends, family and rivals are all characterised beautifully, from the hypocrisies of the aristocratic senators to the fierce loyalties of his brother and friends, the adorable little Tullia, and the sharp, uncompromising support of his wife. However, the story does sometimes suffer from the introduction of too many characters, some popping in and out for a matter of pages, or drifting around in the background for seemingly no reason. This is a problem thrown up by the setting; Roman politics involved a great number of interconnected people and families all vying for top positions, some working secretively behind the scenes. Many of the minor characters introduced in Imperium will become vital in the sequels. Until then, however, these characters are confusing, easily forgotten or mixed up with others, and the book would have benefited from an index of people for readers to refer to.

 Some reviewers have argued that the narrator of the story, Tiro, is a dull, bland and priggish character, but this seems a little unfair. Tiro’s character is perhaps subtler and less touched on than others, but he allows the reader to witness events from a unique perspective; as a slave in the Roman world, he is at once an outsider, more object or furniture than person, while at the same time a human being who can think and feel and relate: a perfect fly-on-the-wall. As Tiro’s readers, however, we are allowed to see him for what the other characters in the book sometimes cannot or refuse to: more than just a slave, but an intelligent, thoughtful man, nervous and shy, but also courageous and brilliant, and he adds an interesting dynamic to the story of Cicero’s life.

Harris creates a Rome and a Cicero that are relevant and interesting for modern readers, whatever their level of knowledge concerning the ancient world. Some critics have criticised Harris for bringing modern political connections into the book, but if subtle comparisons can be drawn, then they are rarely, if ever, obvious enough to spoil the story or the integrity of the setting. Harris himself has compared the pirate threat to the modern terrorist threat, and Pompey to Bush, but in Imperium the crisis is resolved quickly and Pompey is never accused of having begun an illegal war. If Harris is trying to make a point, he never does so at the expense of historical accuracy.

Imperium is not a difficult read. Harris’ style and language feels natural and easy, and the pacing of the book moves the story along nicely without any sections that feel too tedious or rushed. The different events and genres of the book are blended smoothly without feeling forced or confusing. One of Harris’ most impressive achievements in the book is the ease with which he uses Cicero’s own words seamlessly, giving us a taste of Cicero’s famous oratory, while wisely not subjecting his readers to the full hours-long speeches! Even those readers who might normally avoid courtroom dramas or historical novels will find themselves drawn into the tension of Cicero’s struggle as he passionately pleads his case, watching as the stony-faced senators glower down at this provincial upstart and prepare to cast their votes. Imperium is an easy, enjoyable and gripping read.

 

Other Reviews:

Tom Holland's review for the Guardian.

Interview with Robert Harris, for the Guardian.

Andrew Rawnsley's review for the Observer.

Roman History Books and More review.

A scathing look at Imperium from John Crace (some spoilers).

 

Critical Praise

 “Harris paints an engrossing picture of the cauldron of Roman politics and presents a Cicero for our own times… Imperium is meticulous, absorbing and informative – a gripping novel about ancient Rome” – Marcel Theroux, New York Times

“Effortlessly slick and enjoyable… Harris handles the big set pieces superbly, especially a knock-down, drag-out fight for the consulship” – Economist

“It’s a testament to Harris’ narrative skill that Tiro speaks with such assurance, but it is the novelist’s seamless use of Cicero’s own words that is most impressive… His most accomplished work to date” – Los Angeles Times

“Harris (is) a truly gifted, razor-sharp writer… Enormously entertaining” – Daily Telegraph

“Harris deploys the devices of the thriller writer to trace the perils and triumphs of Cicero’s ascent… A finely accomplished recreation of the power struggles of more than two millenniums ago” – Observer

“Genres ancient and modern have rarely been so skilfully synthesised” – Tom Holland, Guardian

“Part of what makes Imperium so compelling is Mr. Harris’ ability to generate suspense without overt physical menace” – Wall Street Journal

“Character, drama and scholarship are perfectly balanced while the plot has the suspense of a legal or political thriller” – Boston Globe