Date finished: 5-23-08
Author: Robert Harris
Category: Historical fiction
Pages: 608 (large-print edition)
As a new man with little money, Cicero’s ambition of achieving the ultimate political success seems a faint hope. But bold moves in the courts and strategic alliances allow the most clever orator Rome has seen in years to overcome numerous obstacles en route to the ivory chair.
This was the first book from this time period I’ve read where Cicero was the major player, and I find the workings of his brain quite fascinating. Watching him put together pieces of his long-term political strategy, seeing how he peeled the onion to uncover the true motivations of his enemies – intriguing. Using his secretary Tiro as the first-person narrator puts some distance between us and Cicero, and I wasn’t sure it was going to work after the rough start to the story-telling. But it improved as the action started, although I do think there are better books out there in this time period that should be read first.
Given that we’re in an election year, it’s easy to see the parallels between Cicero’s various campaigns for office and what’s making the news every day now. Which makes me suspicious of the accuracy of Harris’ story. Or at least it makes me question the amount of leeway he took in telling the story. I know there are many similarities (politics doesn’t change any more than people do), but the way he laid it out became a bit eerie at times.
The book ends with the day on which Cicero is elected consul against some pretty stunning odds. But the ending is pretty abrupt there, leaving you with the impression that there has to be a second volume coming. In fact, the ending almost feels like he wrote something that was too long and just chopped it in two. Given that Cicero’s time as consul marks the end of the true republican rule of Rome, not to mention his eventual exile, there’s much ground to cover yet.
Finally, let’s discuss a pet peeve of mine. The cover of the edition I was reading is red with a Roman soldier on the front. Why? Cicero was a known wuss who never served in the military. He never even went to serve as a provincial governor where he would have had any troops around. So why put a soldier on the book? You can’t even argue that it’s supposed to be Cicero after he serves as consul because 1) the cape isn’t red and 2) the book doesn’t make it that far in time. Just bugged me to no end. The original cover with the Senate on it is much more appropriate.