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Bookmarks Issue: 
26-Jan-Feb-2007
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A Novel of Ancient Rome

A-ImperiumThe first biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero was written by his brilliant slave, Tiro, who served him as a secretary and confidant for three decades. That work has long since been lost, but Robert Harris, author of Pompeii ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection, Mar/Apr 2004), does his best to recreate Cicero’s rise to power in first-century B.C. Rome in Imperium (reportedly the first of three volumes). He uses Tiro’s perspective to tell the story of Cicero’s ascension from an impoverished and unknown orator to one of the two Roman consuls—the highest elected officials in the Roman Republic. This saga becomes the story of Rome itself as the Republic gives way to the Empire, and the political stakes become even higher.
Simon & Schuster. 310 pages. $26. ISBN: 074326603X

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a testament to Harris’s narrative skill that Tiro speaks with such assurance, but it is the novelist’s seamless use of Cicero’s own words that is most impressive. … [This is] quite possibly [Harris’s] most accomplished work to date." Nicholas A. Basbanes

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Harris’s zest for political machinations serves the material well. … [The novel is reminiscent of] another splendid novel of antiquity, Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March." Dennis Drabelle

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Harris has created a fascinating novel based on Cicero’s rise to political power, what makes the book resonate is the realization that, in 2,000 years, neither people nor politics have much changed." Robin Vidimos

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"While it doesn’t offer any particularly novel insights, this first book in a planned trilogy does create a entertainingly vivid picture of one of history’s most fascinating elected officials. … Harris effectively portrays the nitty-gritty of Cicero’s courtroom and electoral battles, [but] he doesn’t fully convey either the sense of a city teeming with life or the poignancy of a republic on the verge of collapse." Robert Bianco

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Robert Harris provides tantalizing glimpses of iconic figures like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and the rival Generals Pompey and Crassus. But, too quickly, he whisks them off stage. … I suspect the main reason for my disappointment with Harris’s latest work is that … Imperium is mostly back story." Len Barcousky

Critical Summary

Quoting extensively from the extant works of Cicero, Robert Harris makes much of his most famous political battles (sometimes drawing awkward parallels to present-day events) and his search for a sufficiently wealthy and well-placed wife. Tiro is a good choice of narrator: in addition to his historical qualifications, he has reason to ask questions that help explain the plot. Except for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which expressed an utter lack of excitement over a slow plot, critics generally agreed that Imperium is a compelling portrayal of a man and a place 2,000 years gone, made relevant and interesting for modern-day readers.

Also by the Author

Pompeii (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Selection, Mar/Apr 2004. Young Marcus Attilus Primus is the new chief engineer of the local aqueduct. When a drought threatens the area, he must travel to Pompeii to investigate water contamination. Attilus meets Corelia, the daughter of a real estate speculator who may be the source of the problems with the water supply. As he learns that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is imminent, Attilus races to escape the conspirators and rescue Corelia.