Novel by Robert Harris
Review by Jarad Johnson
Once again, Robert Harris brings the courtrooms of Ancient Rome to life with his vivid imagery and meticulous writing style. This is the first in the series, and it is narrated by Cicero’s slave, clerk, and confidante Tiro. Through his writing, the reader sees that Cicero, even from the start of his career, was a master at the game of politics, as well as a brilliant orator. He could change sides from one day to the next, but with the right turn of a phrase, somehow manage to keep the favor, even the adoration, of the populous. That alone takes talent. Moreover, through Tiro’s narration, the reader gets to see the beginnings of his first career, from his initial election, to his first criminal case in the courtroom, to his war on the aristocracy. All of it is fascinating, and anyone who loves ancient history or politics will greatly enjoy this book.
One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was when Cicero, though he had many reservations, assisted Pompey in becoming the Supreme Commander of Rome, which meant that he was given command of the large fleet of ships to combat pirates in the Mediterranean, and a large Army to fight in the East – all historically accurate information. The senators at the time feared that giving that much political power to one man would lead him to a dictatorship. In short, one man had military command over nearly the entire Roman Empire, which was a milestone in the Fall of the Republic. Due to the recent resurgence of demagoguery, this is a very interesting historical point of view. Pompey the Great enjoyed a huge popularity among the Roman public, which gave him staying power, but very little influence among the Senators. However, like most demagogues, he did not serve the people, even though he was technically a public servant. He mainly cared about political glory and showed a disregard for traditional political constraints.
People today still say that politics is a corrupt business. Not much has changed since the time of the Romans, because Harris’s account is just as corrupt, if not more so, than today’s political intrigues. So much scheming, lying, and bribery that goes on in the novel that the Elizabethan Court would not feel out of place. However, all of these machinations, “For the good of the Republic” are ultimately in vain. That is part of what makes this book so enthralling, I think, is that we know from a historical perspective that Rome was destined to fall. Of course, the characters don’t know that, but they’re all contributing and participating in the steady decline of the Republic.
Cicero himself was a great choice for a main character. When you think of Rome, he is not the first name that comes to mind, perhaps Caesar or even Constantine does, but he was by far one of the most clever politicians in the Senate. Part of this brilliance is that he was a very skilled orator, an invaluable skill to have as a lawyer, and more importantly when trying to garner votes. He was not born into the Aristocracy, and so could not buy the votes. He was not from any distinguished family line, so he had no foothold going into the Senate. He had to rely on his skills as a public speaker. Many other factors kept him there of course, but that was how he began his career.
Overall, the book is an absolute joy to read; although, if you’re looking for an escapism novel, look elsewhere. There are so many incidences and events that overlap with our own era that it seems almost influenced by it. But no, it is all historically accurate. Good writing is really the key here. History can either be a boring sleeping pill or extremely captivating, and through his meticulous style the author made it the latter.
Jarad attends Middle Tennessee State University, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is majoring in English. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!