I still remember from my school days being given the dubious pleasure of having to try and translate some of Cicero’s fiendishly difficult prose.
Perhaps if I’d known more about the man, I would have put a lot more enthusiasm and effort into the task. For although he may not have been quite as well known as Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Marcus Crassus, and other towering figures who lived during the turbulent final years of the Roman Republic, Cicero was a great man in his own right: one of the most brilliant lawyers and orators of his time with a scathing wit and acerbic tongue, an outstanding philosopher, and a successful politician who despite his rustic origins rose to the position of consul at the age of forty-two.
In “Imperium”, Robert Harris recounts the rise of Cicero through a fictional biography written by Cicero’s faithful personal assistant Tiro, who is reputed to have written just such a book (which has unfortunately been lost) and also invented a form of shorthand that he employed to keep up with the voluminous utterings of his master.
As the book unfolds, we see Cicero grow from being an ambitious but poorly connected young lawyer to one of the leading politicians of the Republic thanks to a mixture of talent, hard work, and the willingness to take huge risks when required. This was particularly the case when Cicero decided to prosecute the extremely powerful Gaius Verres for his depredations against the people of Sicily even though Verres was defended by Hortensius, the top lawyer in Rome at the time.
Harris does a wonderful job of describing how Cicero navigated the complex and treacherous machinations of the judicial and political worlds of the late Republican period, in which he was regarded with great suspicion by the aristocracy as a “new man” and also managed to earn the enmity of the hugely rich and powerful Marcus Crassus.
Harris also provides a fascinating portrait of Cicero’s private life, especially his often contentious marriage with his wife Terentia, who provided a much needed reality check against his more risky plans but in the end always supported him despite any misgivings she may have harbored.
The tragedy of Cicero’s life was that it reached its zenith with his elevation to the consulship, and he had to spend the rest of it engaged in ultimately fruitless battles to defend both himself and the ideals of the Roman Republic as it was swept up in the throes of Civil War.
Harris is reported to be planning to write two more books covering Cicero’s life during this period. Based on the evidence of “Imperium”, this is a very exciting prospect.