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Imperium by Robert Harris

Posted by RB Kollannur on March 30, 2014


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 10/11/2012

Publisher – Simon & Schuster; Year of Publication – 2006; Pages – 452; Cost at the time of purchase – Rs 290

Yesterday in Chicago, we saw Barack Obama deliver another fine speech to declare his victory in the US Presidential elections. Many great leaders are great orators, who have the ability to inspire and enthral their followers by the mere sound of their voice. Regrettably, our own elected leaders have been lacking in this capacity but history tells us of many such rousing speeches. Ranging from Hitler and Churchill during the Second World War to Lincoln in the American Civil War to Mark Antony in his eulogy to Caesar could unleash war with their words. Nowadays it is easier to rouse an audience because leaders can rely on loudspeakers and media, but a person like Mark Antony was able to raise a nation, nay, the entire southern Europe to launch a war against Caesar’s killers, without all the modern technology that our leaders can now make use.

Ancient Rome saw many great orators. The fact that the word rostrum, the pedestal for a speaker, has a Latin origin tells us of their importance. While Rome was largely a military state, during the first century BC as the Roman Republic neared its demise, it produced many skilled orators. Cato the Younger is often credited to be able to speak for an entire day so as to prevent others from raising issues he did not like in the Senate. Many know of Caesar and his one liners like “the die is cast” and “veni,vidi, vici”, but he needed to be just as good in the long form if he was to lead the Roman Senate, which he did for over a decade.

Imperium is about another famous orator, Marcus Cicero, a man of humble origins unlike Caesar, but rose to become one of Rome’s most powerful men and a strong critic of Caesar at the height of his power. He is assisted in his raise to power by his trusted slave (later freedman) Tiro who acts as the narrator for this fictional biography. Tiro is at times credited to be the inventor of short hand writing, perhaps an indication of the volume of articles spat out by the orator. Robert Harris covers the early life of Cicero tracking his rise to consulship to become one of the two heads of state of the Roman Republic. But the book goes beyond the realm of a biography. It details the political intricacies and corruption that would eventually lead to the demise of the Republic. The early part of the book covers the rise of Cicero the orator as he defends clients as an advocate in the Senate and later as a politician which is when Cicero glows on the podium.

With Imperium, we get the Roman society at its best, in the Senate halls, as the Senator debated and legislated the laws, and at the election booths, as many Roman citizens exercised their right to vote every year. We also get to see the Roman society at its worst, in the Senate halls, as powerful coteries led waste to the many colonies of Rome and corruption went hand in hand with power, and at the election booths, where bribery became common practice and only a small minority of the people who lived in the Roman Republic actually got to vote.

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One Response to “Imperium by Robert Harris”

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