Monday, September 04, 2006

Book Review: Imperium

I do enjoy a good piece of historical fiction, so I jumped at the chance to get a review copy of Imperium, a new novel about Cicero. Ancient Rome, intrigue, courtroom scenes: what's not to love? A book like this is a chance to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known, and I think that's an excellent way to spend a day.

First, two quibbles: if you, like me, have read a lot of historical fiction, this particular period of Roman history may already have been saturated for you. Fortunately, I love Rome, so this was not the case, but the sheer number of authors who have used this setting may mean that preexisting characterizations may color the narrative.

Second: there's something else that bleeds through the pages of Imperium, and that's current events. Rome is faced with a problem: Mediterranean pirates. They're not aligned with a government, so there's no one to declare war on. They strike at will; some fear that they're going to sail up the river to Rome itself. The swaggering, countrified son of a former executive argues that they should do away with divisions between political and military authority to take the battle to the pirates. "If you're not with us," he says, "you're against us." None of this is fabricated: Pompeius Magnus, son of Pompeius Strabo, did wrest unprecedented power from the government, he was viewed as a provincial by the aristocracy, and he did contribute to the fall of the Roman republic. But I like my political commentary less thinly veiled, thanks.

Setting aside these two minor issues, though, Imperium is a fine book. It recreates the Life of Cicero that was written by Tiro, Cicero's personal secretary, which was lost, and does so vividly and with panache. Modern attitudes do not intrude; women are seldom seen or heard and our hero Cicero keeps slaves with no apparent guilt. This is surprisingly difficult for some authors to manage, and purists can rest assured that the tone remains resolutely Roman.

Much of the book dwells on Cicero's campaigns for public office. We are made privy to the political machinations of a long-ago era, and they would shock us were they more appalling than those of our own. We are also treated to a few juicy courtroom scenes from Cicero's famed legal career and some thundering speeches on the Senate floor. If this sounds dull to you, the author has put a few choice words in Cicero's mouth:
Politics? Boring? Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men's souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses? Boring? You might as well say that life itself is boring!
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