Tag Archives: Ancient Rome

Review of ‘Imperium’ by Robert Harris.

Harris breathes life into the world of late-republican Rome in a taut tale narrated through Tiro, scribe to the greatest orator of the day, Marcus Tullius Cicero. In an effort of the imagination, the author brings us Tiro’s lost biography of the Roman lawyer and statesman, with this being the first volume of a trilogy which charts his rise to power as consul. The names of many of the leading characters in this book – Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey – will be familiar to those with an interest in this period of history, and it is through his vivid portrayal of their rivalries, scheming, and politicking, that we are permitted to play the role of disinterested spectators, although no reader could surely feel anything but antipathy towards such monstrous specimens of humanity as Verres and Catalina.  

Key to Cicero’s rise are his eloquence, sharp wit, and sheer political nous, and Harris ensures that certain enduring features of electoral politics – corruption, compromise, and emotional demagoguery, amongst many others – are also given centre stage, with parallels being alluded to with respect to the politics of the early 21st-century. Harris, being a former prominent supporter of the Labour Party, would appear to be drawing certain parallels between Cicero and another then ambitious young lawyer who had become Prime Minister in 1997 – Tony Blair. 

Pompey’s war on the pirates is also made something of a metaphor for the ‘War on Terror’, although in many ways it is but a poor comparison, for pirates possess no motivating ideology other than that of predatory self-serving greed. Islamism, on the other hand, is a coherent, albeit irrational, ideology, as well as a protean and existential threat, springing up hydra-like with the backing of vast reservoirs of funding from certain wealthy Arab regimes that are allegedly our ‘friends’. If anything, this latter fact serves to demonstrate the eternal perverting influence of vast sums of money on the political process, bringing to mind an image of the figure of the current incumbent of the White House swaying, sword in hand, in unison with the flowing-robed moneyed interests of his Arabian companions, whilst denouncing the very ideology that they propagate. In many respects, Trump resembles Crassus, albeit a far less intelligent version of the latter: a cynical plutocrat, willing to purchase the votes of the plebs to satisfy his own vanity. O tempora! O mores! Everything changes, and yet it remains the same. I look forward to reading the next two volumes in this trilogy.

Review: ‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris

Harris’s fast-paced novel of life, and mass death, in Pompeii during the final days of its existence in AD 79, manages to create an evocative picture of first-century Roman society, in all of its opulence, corruption and squalor. His protagonist – Marcus Attilius Primus – has been sent to the nearby city of Misenum to act as the replacement for his missing predecessor, Exomnius, who was responsible for maintaining the Aqua Augusta, the mighty aqueduct which supplies the region with its water. The solving of the mystery of Exomnius’s disappearance is played out against the lead-up to, and climax of, the Vesuvian eruption, with the latter being described in vivid, and convincing, detail.

It is within the interplay between Attilius and his nemesis, Ampliatus, a sadistic, nouveau-riche, former slave turned regional plutocrat, that the primary drama of the book inheres, and it is in the portrayal of the pursuit, and abuse, of power and wealth that Harris exceeds. Ampliatus proves to be a compellingly repulsive character, an embodiment of the worst in Roman society, whereas Attilius serves as his principled foil. The reality of city politics is portrayed in a manner that is at once, depressingly, recognisable. Harris also provides us with a glimpse of the character of Pliny the Elder, who perished in the tragedy, courtesy of the notes regarding the eruption compiled by his nephew, Pliny the Younger. It is to the latter, of course, to whom we owe our knowledge of what unfolded in Pompeii during that fateful August, with his gift to posterity being honoured by the use of the adjective ‘Plinian’ in categorising the type of eruption observed at Vesuvius.

Harris’s research shows in the convincing detail that he deploys, which is woven into the warp and weft of the tale without being ostentatiously, and incongruously, displayed for the sake of ‘showing off’. The alien world of ancient Rome is thereby rendered almost familiar, despite the attitudinal, and philosophical, differences that framed the worldview of Roman citizens in this distant age. An enjoyable read which I finished surprisingly quickly.