REVIEW: Imperium—A Novel of Ancient Rome

by | General

Imperium by Robert Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction, with characters brought to life, and actual events crafted into compelling and moving stories, you will enjoy the works of Robert Harris. His knowledge and research into ancient Rome—in all its aspects—are unsurpassed. His writing skills are sound.

This book is told from the perspective of the slave and amanuensis for the great Roman orator Marcus Cicero. The slave was Tiro, who we know from history, well-regarded by Cicero and reportedly the one who invented a type of shorthand that allowed him to take notes and of Cicero’s speeches and meetings at blazing speed. I have read a good deal of Cicero’s works, and I am impressed at how well Harris takes those ancient records and weaves them into a story that rings true.

The setting and perspective of the novel is brilliant. There are records that tell us about Tiro, after Cicero’s death, had written a biography of his master. It has never been located. Harris, then, recreates this biography, told by the older Tiro. In this volume (the first in a three-volume series) starts near the beginning of Cicero’s public life. As Cicero strives to gain status in Rome, he is called upon to prosecute some of the most powerful politicians, weave his way carefully through the political minefield that was Roman government, and use his extraordinary talent for arguing the law to both bring justice and further his own goals.

Amazon’s description of the story in this volume is apt:
On a cold November morning, Tiro opens the door to find a terrified, bedraggled stranger begging for help. Once a Sicilian aristocrat, the man was robbed by the corrupt Roman governor, Verres, who is now trying to convict him under false pretenses and sentence him to a violent death. The man claims that only the great senator Marcus Cicero, one of Rome’s most ambitious lawyers and spellbinding orators, can bring him justice in a crooked society manipulated by the villainous governor. But for Cicero, it is a chance to prove himself worthy of absolute power. What follows is one of the most gripping courtroom dramas in history, and the beginning of a quest for political glory by a man who fought his way to the top using only his voice—defeating the most daunting figures in Roman history.

This is what I call “hard” historical fiction—the story is not just set in a certain historical period, but immerses the reader in that culture, people, and events. The reader learns while being entertained. It requires significant and sound research on the author’s part, and and then skilled writing to make it a good story instead of a vehicle for historical knowledge. Harris excels at this task.

I think his book, Pompeii, was better, but the subject matter was also more unusual (the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius). But if you enjoy hard historical fiction, especially about Ancient Rome, you’ll love this novel.

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Author, writer, and freelance editor.
Nonfiction and fiction.


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