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.