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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Imperium by Robert Harrois

I was reading a biography of Julius Caesar after having watched some episodes of “Rome,” a rather bawdy but interesting version of the rise of Octavian in which Cicero plays a prominent, if cheesey role, so I knowing Harris through some other books, I grabbed this one.

Told through the eyes and memory of his servant, Tiro, supposedly the inventor of shorthand, the mechanism for perfect recording of the actual speeches,  Cicero’s place in the history of oratory (Demosthenes taught that content was less important than delivery) and role in the growing conflict between the “plebes” and aristocracy (“the fish rots from the head down) is secured. A real person, Marcus Tullius Tiro, was Cicero’s slave then freedman, who wrote about Cicero, since lost, and collected many of Cicero’s works.

“Imperium” is a Latin word (not that I remember it from my high school Latin) which can be roughly translated as “power to command,” that refers to the power of the state over the individual, but also implies the power gained from wealth and ownership of “stuff,” i.e., the aristocracy.

There are some startling images of historical veracity.  For example, Crassus, bringing his army back to Rome, crucified 6000 prisoners, slaves, along more than 300 miles of the Appian way, spacing he crosses about 17 to the mile, as a warning to any future Spartacus who might wish to revolt against the imperium. (From the Third Servile War -

Harris shows an intimate knowledge of Rome and its history managing to portray all of it through the legal battle between Cicero and the great legal mind of Hortensius (who defends the role of rhetoric in Cicero’s Hortensius) the famous advocate in a trial in which Cicero defends a friend from Gaius Verres, a disreputable and thoroughly corrupt Senator (all historical figures.).  Corruption, as we would understand it, was rampant and institutionalized.  Votes were for sale; in fact, there were bribery merchants and it took a great deal of money to gain and remain in power, “voters never forgave a cheapskate.”

What I found quite remarkable is how Harris’s Roman Senate and political world so mirrors our own.

This is not a book for those who like flesh-slashing, cut-them-up action stories.  Rather, it’s an intricate legal novel of startling historical veracity (as far as I can research) that really held my interest. There are some wonderful turns of phrase.  While making a comment about hagiography, Tiro says simply it is the “distorting light of the future on the shadows of the past.”

This is the first of a trilogy.
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