"Imperium, a Novel of Ancient Rome" by Robert Harris, Simon & Schuster
I love this genre; the well-researched, authoritative historical novel. Robert Harris has done a wonderful job of bringing the waning days of the Roman Republic to life, as seen through the eyes of Tiro, personal secretary, confidante...and slave... of Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the greatest orators in history.
This account of the rise of Cicero, the first installment of a trilogy, follows Cicero's career from newly elected senator to the ultimate elective power of the Roman republic wielded by the Roman consuls, "imperium". The politicking that propels Cicero from lawyer to consul; populism, dirty tricks, publicity stunts, dark bargains with unsavory operatives, and realpolitik compromises; could characterize many present day political figures. This is fascinating stuff, conveyed with a steady hand and an excellent feel for drama and suspense by Harris, who specializes in "docu-novels" of ancient Rome.
Unfortunately, it appears that Harris made his own compromise with the publisher's marketing department. In fact, this is how I came to review the book. Simon & Schuster asked several political bloggers to read and review it for its advertised relevance to today's political world. It does have relevance on the strength of the descriptions of Roman politics, which are certainly similar, in a general way, to modern politics. But trying to imply direct connections between current events and Roman history is a bit of a stretch.
Using Harris' own technique of inferring unknown details from known outcomes, one can almost hear the voices at the marketing brainstorm session: "If we get the author to punch up the connection between the pirates and today's terrorists we'll give the book appeal outside the historical novel genre; security moms, pundits, political junkies..."
Alas, the pirates who plagued Rome were not "terrorists" in the Islamist mold (they were motivated by booty, and wiped out by the Romans in 43 days) and the Roman general Pompey was not an earlier version of George W. Bush. Overreaching for one-to-one allegory, Harris puts these words in Pompey's mouth (page 172) [emphasis added]: "All captured pirates are to be handed over to Roman jurisdiction. Any ruler who refuses to cooperate will be regarded as Rome's enemy. Those who are not with us are against us."
Grit your teeth and read through it. It's a small wart on an otherwise well written and highly entertaining work. I look forward to the next installment in the trilogy.