Monday, December 11, 2006

Imperium: Robert Harris

Imperium is a fictionalized biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. It traces the rise of Cicero from a common man to senator to aedile to praetor and finally to the summit: “at forty-two, the youngest age allowable… the supreme imperium of the Roman consulship”.

Imperium is written through the eyes of Cicero’s confidential secretary, Tiro, who probably merits a page in history himself, credited as he is with having created the first formal form of shorthand. And, as he very coyly says: “I can modestly claim to be the man who invented the ampersand”.

In addition to being a chronicle of Cicero’s life, Imperium also serves as a commentary on Roman politics and, as an extension, on politics as it has been through the ages and is still practiced today. Most of what was relevant to politics and public life in the Rome of Cicero’s time seem just as valid today as well – a politician’s worst nightmare (“the requirement to give a straight answer”), Cicero’s overarching and high-sounding campaign slogan (“Justice and Reform”), and his quip that “the business of governing the state was merely something to occupy the time between polling days.” Cicero’s definition of politics is chilling in its simplicity and truth: “…he thinks that politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.”

And it is not just in word that the different aspects of politics comes through in Imperium, but in deed as well. The fact that Cicero marries Terentia because she is rich and he needs money to finance his political campaigns is one example. Another example is the dichotomy when Cicero prosecutes Gaius Verres for corruption, and later on, defends Catilina even though Catilina is known to be corrupt.

The commingling of law and public life enables the author to weave in a lot of pithy aphorisms into the narrative. Here’s a sample.

“Only three things count in oratory. Delivery, delivery, and again: delivery.”

“The first rule in politics, Tiro: never forget a face.”

“An ounce of heredity is worth a pound of merit.”

“The one golden rule of cross-examination is never, under any circumstances, to ask a question to which you do not know the answer.”

To me, the defining paragraph in the book is this description of how an orator prepares for a political speech, and the little sentence at the end that defines Cicero.

No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gracefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory.

Another interesting feature of Imperium is the banter between Cicero and Terentia. He may have married her for money but there was more than money she brought to the table, best expressed in the advice she gives him as he prepares for his opening speech in the prosecution of Gaius Verres: “Make your speech shorter!” This simple but eventually significant advice of Terentia ensures that Cicero’s most famous and significant address ends up becoming, ironically for a man known for his oratory, “no speech at all.”

All this makes Imperium a very interesting read. However, considering that “all he [Cicero] had was his voice,” we could may be have done with more of Cicero’s oratory. More than once, Tiro gives us bits of Cicero’s speech and then starts reporting it and describing the results it produced. It might have been more interesting to read the entire speech and feel the consequences. May be a first person narrative by Cicero would have been more powerful and insightful into the mind of the man. An autobiography as opposed to a biography, perhaps.


Anonymous said...

I'm currently teaching World History and I'm afriad I don't have time to read the whole thing. (Yet!) Could anybody give me a sieries of highley recommended pages that might enthrall teenagers.

De Scribe said...

I would love to help you out, Anonymous. Unfortunately, I can't because I don't have a copy of Imperium - I had borrowed it from someone and read it.