Thursday, December 11, 2008

Imperium by Robert Harris

Having read and enjoyed Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel, I picked up Imperium with eager anticipation. The other novels were tense thrillers based around historical events and embellished with significant speculative twists.

But from the outset it was clear that this novel would be different. “My name is Tiro,” the narrative begins. “For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman Statesman Cicero.” The pages turn and we sense that this book is not going to have the usual structure of a novel. It follows the recorded events of the time, only filling in where the details can not be known. And thus the book has an episodic feeling, as if it is a concatenation of two or three shorter works.

Tiro leads us through the stages of Cicero’s rise from idealistic obscurity to compromised power and fame. We are never fearful that he will not make it. That much is history. The fascination of this journey is to learn how the events might have come to pass. And as such it is a hugely successful book. Though the number of characters was at times baffling, I was always impelled to read on.

Harris is able to identify the key moments, the critical choices, when the great statesman did the opposite of what we and those around him might have expected. In doing so Cicero took control of his destiny, and the destiny of Rome. With insights such as these and many others, Harris has created a compelling and thought provoking novel. I have no hesitation in recommending it.

But is he teaching us about ancient Roman politics, or is he shining a light on the politics of our own time? How many of our recent political giants, love them or hate them, had this same instinct when confronted with difficulty – to choose what seemed the hardest, the least popular, the most dangerous path, and in doing so create the momentum that got them out of trouble?

Perhaps the principles of politics never change.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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