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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Robert Harris

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To purchase Imperium

Title: Imperium
Author: Robert Harris
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 305 pages
Availability: Imperium - US
Imperium - UK
Imperium - Canada
Imperium - India
Imperium - France
Imperium - Deutschland
Imperium - Italia
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  • A Novel of Ancient Rome

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining, smoothly written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 6/10/2006 Erik Spanberg
The Economist . 26/8/2006 .
FASz . 24/9/2006 Peter Körte
FAZ . 16/12/2006 Gina Thomas
The Guardian . 2/9/2006 Tom Holland
The Independent A+ 1/9/2006 Manda Scott
The LA Times A 23/9/2006 Nicholas A. Basbanes
The NY Rev. of Books A 15/3/2007 Mary Beard
The NY Times Book Rev. A 22/10/2006 Marcel Theroux
The Spectator . 2/9/2006 Ross Leckie
Sunday Times . 3/9/2006 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph A 5/9/2006 Andrew Rosenheim
The Telegraph A+ 5/9/2006 Allan Massie
TLS D 1/9/2006 Richard Jenkyns
USA Today . 27/9/2006 Robert Bianco
The Washington Post . 24/9/2006 Dennis Drabelle

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like the rest of the Imperium cast, the character of Tiro (...) conveys vivid, accurate depictions of Roman political intrigue through the use of historical research." - Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(A)n effortlessly slick and enjoyable book, part historical drama, part political thriller and part blueprint for a buddy movie.(...) Mr Harris dramatises seemingly mundane events: taking dictation, transcribing speeches, swotting up on the law. But in his hands these chores are as tense as a Hollywood shoot-out." - The Economist

  • "Harris lächelt sorglos. Er hat ja immer die Gegenwart vor Augen. Und es gelingt ihm auch, den komplizierten politischen Apparat für Leser anschaulich werden zu lassen, die noch nie von Comitien oder Ädilen gehört haben. Man erfährt fast beiläufig, wie die Ämterlaufbahn aussah und wie die Abstimmungen funktionierten, welche Rolle Senat und Volksversammlung spielten, wie man sich einen Gerichtsprozeß vorstellen muß, wie Wählerstimmen gekauft, mit welchen Tricks Gesetze auf den Weg gebracht wurden." - Peter Körte, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Seine Darstellung des Altertums aus der Perspektive der britischen Gegenwart verleiht dem Roman eine Aktualität, die zweifellos zum Erfolg beiträgt." - Gina Thomas, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Harris, like an excavator restoring a shattered mosaic, uses material native to the Romans whenever he can, fitting the fragments of real speeches and letters into the patterns of his own reconstruction. The result is an experiment as bold as it is unexpected: a novel that draws so scrupulously on the Roman source material that it forgoes much of what are traditionally regarded as the prime features of the thriller. (...) Genres ancient and modern have rarely been so skilfully synthesised." - Tom Holland, The Guardian

  • "(A) joy to read in every way, and as a mirror to the politics of our present age has no equal. It should be compulsory reading in every sixth form, and for exactly that reason almost certainly won't be -- at least, not before it's too late." - Manda Scott, The Independent

  • "It's a testament to Harris' narrative skill that Tiro speaks with such assurance, but it is the novelist's seamless use of Cicero's own words that is most impressive. (...) (Q)uite possibly his most accomplished work to date. And as Tiro the raconteur continues to spin his timeless tale of human nature, we can cross our fingers that the best is yet to come." - Nicholas A. Basbanes, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Imperium can be read with pleasure by readers of all sorts, whether they know anything about the Roman Republic or not (.....) Part of the fun of the book is our wary engagement with him as a hugely entertaining, depply insightful, and, simultaneously, treacherous guide to the history he conjures up. Part of his skill is to set us on our guard against his own seductive narrative." - Mary Beard, The New York Review of Books

  • "In his new novel, Imperium, the British author Robert Harris fictionalizes Cicero's less-known early career as a young lawyer on the make. He paints an engrossing picture of the caldron of Roman politics and presents a Cicero for our own times, a man who is the lineal ancestor of the modern career politician. (...) Imperium is meticulous, absorbing and informative -- a gripping novel about ancient Rome with barely a net or a trident in sight." - Marcel Theroux, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Re-creating a society two millennia away from ours, Harris contrives to make it appear at once distant and familiar. (...) Imperium masterfully dramatises issues pertinent not only to a vanished world but our own." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "Throughout Imperium there are countless evocative asides about imperial Rome (.....) In Harris's hands these touches provide a sense of authenticity rather than -- as is so often the case with historical novels -- serving only to reveal the extent of the author's research. (...) In Harris's novel, the story of one life spent in the business of politics is sometimes touching, often funny, and always enormously entertaining. If it goes without saying that Imperium will sell in vast numbers, it is worth saying how much it deserves to." - Andrew Rosenheim, The Telegraph

  • "(A) marvellous novel, as good as any I have read about the Rome of the late Republic. It is Robert Harris's best so far, rapid and compelling in narrative, copious in detail, thoroughly researched but also, which is more important, thoroughly imagined. (...) Irresistible. I have written six Roman novels myself. Reluctantly, I must admit that Imperium is better than any of them." - Allan Massie, The Telegraph

  • "(F)lat-footed from the start. (...) Robert Harris has faced the challenge only to duck it, for his story ends abruptly in 64 bc, with his subject elected consul but not yet in office. Why has he done this ? No clue is offered in the text and the result is unsatisfactory. (...) This Tiro has no personality at all, and he writes a brisk, efficient prose entirely lacking in colour. Most of the real Cicero's complexity is lost, and he becomes here no more than a skilful political manipulator with a gift for oratory. (...) It is hard to see for whom this book is intended. Those who know the period well will find it anaemic; others may well be baffled." - Richard Jenkyns, Times Literary Supplement

  • "While it doesn't offer any particularly novel insights, this first book in a planned trilogy does create a entertainingly vivid picture of one of history's most fascinating elected officials. (...) Like too many books about the ancient world, Imperium does try too hard at times to twist the past so that it parallels the present." - Robert Bianco, USA Today

  • "(B)oth author and protagonist evince a flair for politics that will remind many Washingtonians of what originally brought them here." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Imperium is narrated by Tiro, for thirty-six years the "confidential secretary" of Cicero, who now, at a very advanced age ("almost a hundred, or so they tell me") is penning his memoirs about his time with the great man. The first in what is apparently going to be trilogy, Imperium focusses on Cicero's years as lawyer and up-and-coming senator up to when he is elected Roman consul at age 42.
       Harris focusses on a few major episodes and weaves his story around them. Cicero is very much at the centre of the novel, but it's also a crash-course in the Roman history of the time, as well as life in the empire in those times in general. As befits a crash-course, quite a bit of that is bumpy, messy, and rushed, but Harris is professional enough to make the book as a whole read fairly smoothly while presenting a good deal of material. And the local colour (and corruption) help, too.
       Cicero is a lawyer, and a good deal of what he does involves legal cases. The first major case presented is that against the outrageously corrupt governor Verres, whose abuse of his power in Sicily was extreme even for someone in his position. (Some personal enrichment at the expense of the locals was apparently expected and tolerated of any Roman governor .....) Much of Imperium is, in fact, in the John Grisham-mode, a legal procedural livened up considerably by the peculiar Roman (il)legal ways. From how the cases are brought to court to the bribing of the jury, the Roman legal system was far from an ideal of justice -- and yet it functioned adequately, at least on some level. Cicero, vying for the reputation of best lawyer in town, knows the system well, and generally uses it to best advantage. The fact that he's such an adept orator (thanks to all the hard work he puts into his craft) also helps.
       The legal cases are often intertwined with the political jostling for power, and there are, of course, several noteworthy figures whose names are familiar to all modern readers. Caesar is only beginning his rise to power in these years, but others such as Pompey and Crassus are at the heights of their power after their military triumphs. True wickedness is common, and while Cicero is powerful (and well-connected enough) not to have to worry too much about his life being endangered, no one is ever completely safe.
       Harris also uses some of the events of the day to reflect on current times, as when Pompey seeks to consolidate power to wipe out the pirate threat that has come too close to Rome for comfort, a "unique enemy demanding a unique response":

What Rome was facing was a threat very different from that posed by a conventional enemy. These pirates were a new type of ruthless foe, with no government to represent them and no treaties to bind them.
       Harris does a decent job of describing that power struggle, of whether to give Pompey those "world commander"-powers needed to destroy the terrorists pirates, but it does seem something of a forced episode.
       Most of the other major issues -- and there are only a few that dominate the book -- are handled more convincingly, and from Cicero's compromises to carry votes, his tricks, and his domestic life (with a strong-willed and rich wife) Harris presents a fairly broad, entertaining, and informative picture of Rome in that time. Presenting the story through Tiro's eyes is also a good choice, as Tiro is both witness to almost everything Cicero does (a slave, but still very much a right-hand man -- who has perfected the art of shorthand) and yet also can offer a slightly different perspective, and exposure to a few sides of Roman life that Cicero may not see quite as clearly.
       The final show-down of this book involves, among other things, "a coup d'état disguised as an agarian reform bill", a plot that's quite convoluted and difficult to present neatly -- especially since the book ends with Cicero's triumphant election, while history, of course, moved on. (The next installments in the trilogy will, of course, advance the story, but it's still a somewhat annoying place to come to a dead stop.)
       Harris has bitten off a lot here, but he handles history quite well. The novel is engaging enough throughout -- a good story, plenty of evil characters (and a few noble ones), some dramatic events and court clashes, a bit of detective work, lots of politics, all mixed enough to keep things going at a good trot. It's hardly a substitute for a history book, but does offer a few easily-digestible lessons.
       Worthwhile and entertaining.

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Imperium: Reviews: Robert Harris: Other books by Robert Harris under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Robert Harris, born in 1957, achieved international success with his first novel, Fatherland. He has been a correspondent for the BBC, and a columnist for the Sunday Times.

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