9.12.2010

Conspirata, by Robert Harris

Conspirata
Conspirata
Conspirata, by Robert Harris, portrays the continuing adventures of Marcus Tullius Cicero. This time, we join the story just as Cicero is about to take office as consul. Even before he takes office, the trouble starts. This book really deserve its title. There are so many conspiracies and plots that its hard to keep track of them all. First of all, Cicero has to deal with Catiline, a former candidate for consul who just can't deal with losing. He's such a poor sport that he actually foments a "small" rebellion: the Catiline conspiracies. And there's the First Trumvirate. Behind the scenes, Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Gnaeus Pompey Magnus essentially seize power in Rome by masterfully using the Republic's own laws against Cicero and the Senate.

After reading Conspirata, I really hope that Robert Harris writes the next book soon--not just because it takes us into a part of Roman history that I find utterly fascinating (the transition from Republic to Empire), but because the book leaves Cicero at such a low point you have to wonder how he's going to be able to get back into the Senate.

As I read this book, I spent an awful lot of time on Wikipedia filling in the gaps in my knowledge about Rome. Most of what I know comes from fiction and some history classes I took way back when. I can recognize the names and I know generally how the history goes, but I looked up an awful lot of Romans and Roman custom. I just love books with an educational element. This book was like a more entertaining episode on the History Channel.

One of the things that struck me towards the end of the book and as I read through the relevant Wikipedia articles was how broken the system seemed to be. Granted, Caesar and the other triumvirs were manipulating things behind the scenes by catering to the mob (who could overrule the Senate) and by outright bribing people or threatening them with armies. But for a system that lasted almost 500 years, it's amazing they got things done at all. After the ousting of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the Roman people put an extraordinary number of checks on executive power. There were two consuls who acted as president of the Senate in alternating months. They were only in office for one year and prohibited from running again for at least a decade. Generals gave up their military power as soon as they entered the city. The Senate could be overruled by assemblies of the people. They held elections all the time and so many people voted that they had to hold the balloting out on the Field of Mars to accommodate them all (at least before it got built up after the end of the Republic). The fictional Cicero at one point remarks that there were so many elections the Republic may have gorged itself to death on them.

Conspirata is a much more exciting book that its predecessor, Imperium, for two reasons. First, the stakes are a lot higher. Instead of losing an election or a court case, Cicero is up against rebellions and conspiracies. He doesn't know it yet, but he's watching the Republic start to die. Just fifteen or so years from the end of the events in the book, Caesar gets himself declared dictator for life. Seventeen years after Caesar's assassination, the Senate basically makes Augustus its first emperor. The historical Cicero meets his end well before this time, but he was there for the beginning of the end.

9.07.2010

Imperium, by Robert Harris

Imperium
Imperium
I read Robert Harris' Imperium as part of my ongoing fascination with Roman history. Unlike Roma--which I just finished--Imperium doesn't try to tell the entire story of the kingdom and republic of Rome. It centers on the early life of Marcus Tullius Cicero and his quest to become consul. Unusually (I think), it's narrated by Cicero's secretary, Tiro. Tiro really did exist and really was Cicero's secretary. He wrote a biography of Cicero, but it was lost. Imperium is a fictional version of that biography. While I understand the desire to use this historical detail, I wonder why Harris chose not to try and get inside the head of one of the world's greatest orators and a major figure in Roman history.

Imperium picks up as Cicero finishes his posting as a magistrate in Sicily and heads to Rome to take his place as a senator. At that time, Rome was still a republic and the Senate was still a going concern. After getting involved in a major corruption case, Cicero becomes aedile and continues to rise through the ranks. The novel does not follow the traditional single plot arc. Instead, there are several. As Cicero wins higher offices, he keeps getting involved in bigger and bigger conspiracies.

Throughout the novel, Cicero faces ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma. He's caught between political advancement and his Republican (in the Roman sense, not the modern sense) values to do the right things. As a young man, he choses to prosecute a corrupt governor and alienates the aristocrats. But as he rises and the stakes get higher, he starts to compromise those values. And yet, Tiro keeps you on Cicero's side. Even though you're not inside his head, you can clearly see and even understand why he makes his choices.

This novel follows the history closely, glossing over some events in order to get to the big events in Cicero's life. But because the real Tiro's biography was lost, we don't know all the details. Harris does exercise some poetic license by filling in dialogue and the relationships and the emotions, but I sensed a certain timidity in this book. It seemed like Harris was reluctant to invent too much, to take too many liberties. Imperium read more like creative nonfiction than like fiction. Again, it's a choice I don't understand.

I am, however, looking forward to the next book in the series, Conspirata, which covers the opening salvos in the battles between Cicero and Caesar.

Roma, by Steven Saylor

Roma
Roma
Steven Saylor's Roma is a book in the Edward Rutherfurd-mode: a generational story of a city. It follows a pair of families down through the centuries, highlighting the turning points in their city's history. In this case, that city is Rome. Saylor follows the Pinarii and Potitii families from 1000 BC to 1 BC and we get to see Rome grow from a small trading post to the seat of an Empire.

Because the book is structure as a series of short stories, it's hard to bond with any of the characters. It also doesn't help that some of the characters are jerks. Just like a Rutherfurd novel, you have to keep remembering that the main character isn't really a person; it's the city. If you read it that way, Roma is an amazing novel. Like the best works of historical fiction, it shows how much like us our ancestors were. They were smart. Their civilizations were complex. And yet...the Romans are also alien. They were brutal. They were very religious and superstitious.

As I read Roma, one of the things that struck me was how small historical events can become legendary. Saylor uses Roman festivals like the Lupercalia and places like the Caci Stairs (Scalae Caci) and invents stories to explain their origins. Something will happen, sometimes something small, and then a few stories and a few generations later, its a venerable tradition and no one knows exactly how it got started.

One of things that bothered me about this book--and it bothered me a lot--was Saylor's tendency to gloss over important events in history. Granted, Roma covers 1,000 years of history. Saylor can't cover everything. But a lot of events were omitted that I was really hoping to read about: the Battle of Actium, the story of Cincinnatus, the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Augustus' rise to become emperor, etc. Some of the chapters would cover the aftermath or mention this events, but these elisions made the last third of the book unsatisfying. I might read Empire, the sequel that covers 14 CE to 138 CE, but I don't have high hopes.