Curt's Read-Bag: Imperium
By: Robert Harris (Simon & Schuster, 305 pp.)
Concerning: Intrigues in the life and career of Cicero (almost entirely through the periods 79-70 and 68-64 B.C.), as told by his slave and confidential secretary Tiro, an actual individual credited with the invention of shorthand. A novel from the author of Fatherland that makes me want to read his Pompeii novel.
Quotation: Describing one of Cicero's early legal cases, about a man accused of killing his father: "If he failed to convince the jury, Popillius, as a convicted parricide, would be stripped naked, flayed till he bled, then sewn up in a sack together with a dog, a cock and a viper, and then thrown in the River Tiber... I caught a glimpse of Popillius himself, a notoriously violent youth, whose eyebrows merged to form a continuous thick black line. He was seated next to his uncle on the bench reserved for the defense, scowling defiantly, spitting at anyone who came too close. 'We really must secure an acquittal,' observed Cicero, 'if only to spare the dog, the cock and the viper the ordeal of being sewn up in a sock with Popillius.'"
Verdict: I checked it out of the library because watching "HBO's" just-completed "Rome" piqued my interest in the personalities of the period, but lost interest in actually reading it. I happened to pick it up because Sweetness was having difficult time staying bed, so I wanted to read something while sitting outside her room for an extended period. And I discovered that it's good! It's in two halves, and the first part focuses primarily on a legal case Cicero pursues as a Roman lawyer and young Senator, and it evolves as a marvelous, exciting courtroom drama (with make-or-break stakes for Cicero's career). The second half focuses on an election with similarly huge stakes and powerful adversaries. There's a corny bit near the end in which Tiro's shorthand skills become a little too important to the narrative, and the prose tends to be adequate without being exceptional. But it's a great, readable account of big events during the twilight of the Roman republic, and how politics never really changes. There's even a plot point in which pirate raids causes disquieting political power consolidation, not only spelling the death knell of the republic, but resonating with contemporary War on Terror/abuse of homeland security issues.
Incidentally: If you're thinking about watching HBO's "Rome," Imperium would be a good preparatory read – it's lively, not very long and sets the stage of the events at the beginning of the show. Julius Caesar's more of a marginal character, but clearly on the rise. Pompey is particularly important, as is his rivalry with Crassus, whom I don't believe is in "Rome," but is the villainous Laurence Olivier character in Spartacus (and the end of that movies overlap a little with Imperium). No Titus Pullo, though.
Anyway, if you wanted to have a real fictional "Roman holiday" (in historical order) you could:
1. Watch Spartacus
2. Read Imperium
3. Watch "Rome's" first season
4. Read or watch the Marlon Brando Julius Caesar
5. Watch "Rome's second season
6. Maybe read Antony and Cleopatra (not sure if there's a good movie/video)
7. Watch "I, Claudius" – which you should probably watch regardless.
If there's other good Roman stuff, let me know.