Robert Harris’s Imperium

Recently, I read a very good book of historical fiction on Cicero.  Robert Harris’s Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome tells the story of Cicero from his early career until his election to the consulship.  Some years ago, I had started Anthony Everitt’s Cicero, which is admirable biography of Cicero, but somehow my interest waned and I didn’t finish the book.  By contrast, Harris’s work had my interest throughout.

There is something about a fictional biography – a work written about a person’s life but supplying details that the author does not know to be true – that makes it easier to read.  Harris tells us that his story respects all of the known facts about Cicero, but where we are ignorant, he supplies the details based on his own view of Cicero.

There is, of course, always the possibility that the fictional biographer will lead us astray by supplying unlikely or mistaken details.  But, of course, the nonfictional biographer can also lead us astray, since he will have a take on his subject.

Harris does a great job of describing the political context in which Cicero lived and how he rose as a “new man” through his intelligence, oratory, and ambition in a world largely dominated by wealthy aristocrats.  One of the key aspects of the book is how Cicero can both be a famous philosopher of stoic leanings and a successful politician.  Harris portrays Cicero as facing several situations where he must choose between public virtue and ambition, and in many of them he chooses the latter, although he generally has arguments attempting to justify his actions.  Whether he entirely believes them, Harris does not really tell us.

It is a fun book, which I recommend.  There is a plan to have a trilogy that covers Cicero’s life, and the second book is out, which I will definitely be reading.