To hear a politician, one would believe there could be no nobler creature on Earth. Selflessly toiling day and night to better the condition of the weakest in society. Caring and compassionate to a fault. Dedicated and vigorous defenders of the public good. That’s why reading about ancient Rome and is such fun. They were unencumbered with having to dress up their ambitions. The desire for personal wealth, glory and power were considered natural urges and nobody bothered to hide their sentiments.
One of my favourite books about the period is Robert Harris’ novel Imperium which deals a the the rise of Cicero. Cicero is remembered today as a self made man and one of Rome’s greatest speakers. He is also remembered for his steadfast opposition to the rise of Julius Caesar because he correctly saw in this, the death of the Roman republic.
Harris started out as a political journalist and had close ties with Tony Blair. But he split with Blair over the Iraq war. Harris however retained a life long interest in understanding the workings of power. He saw how politicians maneuvered and jockeyed for posts, the tricks of the trade. He marvelled at how in ancient times, a master orator like Cicero could hold the attention of hundreds for thee hours without the aid of a microphone.
The thing about Imperium is that it is not just about Rome. Rather Rome is a canvas for Harris’s study of politics. In the middle of his dialogues, Harris places into the mouths of his characters, apt aphorisms taken from Lenin or Bush. The insertions are usually skilled enough to elude the casual reader. But they serve to illustrate the timeless nature of the subject.
The story of Imperium deals with the court case that made Cicero’s reputation. When still a relatively junior senator, he took on a case nobody else would touch. A provincial governor was guilty of robbing the people of his province, using threats and even direct violence to steal any property he fancied. Rome did not have a police force. To prosecute someone, another individual had to bring out a lawsuit against him. The governor however had some of the most powerful patrician families for friends including some of the richest men in Rome. The outcome of the trial seemed a foregone conclusion. No lawyer would dare to take this case except for hungry Cicero.
What follows is a remarkable story of courage, diplomacy and cunning. I strongly recommend it