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Book Review: Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

added 20 sep 2019
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Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

Ancient Roman political intrigue

(this review contains spoilers)

This masterpiece of a book brings to life the early career of Roman politician Marcus Tullius Cicero as he rises through the ranks of Rome's political system to become:

  • A lawyer (Rome's second best)
  • Aedile (equivalent to a government Minister today)
  • Praetor (Magistrate of the Extortion Court)
  • Consul (equivalent to President today)

You might think that reading about a politician who lived over 2000 years ago would be boring and irrelevant, but for me at least, this book was the complete opposite. Cicero's political ambitions are both exciting and surprisingly similar to those of politicians today. He is extremely ambitious, and carefully plans every move and each political alliance. If he thinks a person will help him advance his career then he does them a favor, with the expectation of it being returned at a later date. And if a person is not useful to him then he blows them off, regardless of how just or unjust their cause may be. His approach to politics is that it is not a fight for justice, but a profession.

The first half of the book focuses on Cicero's prosecution of the corrupt Governor of Sicily - Gaius Verres. Cicero hopes to win this court case partly because in so doing he will take Veres' rank (as was the Roman tradition), and partly to gain the favor of the Roman citizenry who will then elect him as an Aedile of Rome. Veres' crimes are so monstrous, and Cicero is such a rousing orator, that his court case becomes "the greatest show in town". In the end Veres flees the city. Having won over the plebeians, Cicero is elected Aedile. His new-found popularity also gains him a lot of business in his legal practice.

The second half of the book is about Cicero's struggle to become Consul. He already has the support of the plebeians, so his main challenge lies in convincing the aristocracy to vote for him - a new man (ie. a non-aristocrat). He discovers a secret plot by his rival for Consul - Lucius Sergius Catilina - and uses this information to his advantage. Catilina and his friends plan to take key positions in the senate and then introduce a land reform bill to sell vast amounts of Roman land, and annex Egypt. The aristocrats find this prospect so distasteful that they vote Cicero in as Consul purely to thwart Catilina's bill.

I have always thought of ancient Rome as one of the most brutal societies - with its cruicifixions, floggings, beheadings and slavery - and this book does confirm that; however I was quite surprised to discover that both democracy and the rule of law were also strong aspects of ancient Roman society. I do find it strange that such a violent society was constructed so deliberately and with the approval of the general population. In this aspect I think many modern societies have improved since ancient Rome.

added 20 sep 2019
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