Josh reviews the historical novel “Imperium” by Robert Harris.

Imperium is a historical novel about the life of the great Roman Orator Cicero written from the vantage point of his slave Tiro. What makes this story so very interesting is that, as Harris puts it, nothing in the story “…demonstrably did not happen”. The real life Tiro did in fact write about the life of Cicero (although this manuscript has been lost to history), and most of the events that take place did actually happen, and are corroborated by historians and Cicero’s preserved writings and correspondence. The parts of the story that are made up are largely private moments, emotions and plans that were not known to historians, or not written about by Cicero. Robert Harris has brilliantly turned a very real, albeit very sketchy, history into an entertaining novel by recreating Tiro’s masterpiece and fictionalizing the gaps in our knowledge.

I was drawn to read Imperium because I so thoroughly enjoyed Fatherland, one of Harris’s earlier books (which is very very much recommended). In fact, in terms of historical/alternative historical fiction it is quite hard to think of a better modern example than Fatherland or Harris. Furthermore, having recently taken some interest in the Roman and Greek philosophers, I was drawn to the idea that this was a novelization of a real story (and quite possibly an accurate novelization of an important historical event). Thanks to painstaking research on the part of Harris, and the acknowledgement that many nonfiction works written during the Roman period were done in an informal and even novel-like style, it is more than possible to claim that this is close to Tiro’s original work.

On the whole Imperium is a brilliant work of both fiction and nonfiction. Nothing in the story stretches the imagination or belief, and it is all quite logical. Furthermore, the frequent use of Cicero’s actual words comes in stark juxtaposition to the very hammy dialogue that is the hallmark of a lot of contemporary fiction. If there is any complaint to be made, it is that at some points the novel does drag on very slowly. However, the splitting of the novel into two books, as well as the complete emersion into the politics and day to day life of Rome from the point of view of an influential slave, more than makes up for these lapses.

This book is ideal for politics and history buffs, but should probably be steered clear of by everyone else. As noted above, there are a few slow periods during the story that are only rescued by the sheer detail provided, and unless you are interested in these details it would be quite easy to get lost. Much of the story consists of scheming, politics and dialogue, with romance and action virtually non-existent. Furthermore, some prior knowledge of Roman history and culture is probably advised, or at the very least a computer should be close at hand. Therefore it is probably not a book for young adults, or those without the necessary patience or interest.

Imperium, therefore, is a brilliant historical novel based upon both real life events and a real life story. It is a brilliant example of fiction taking the place of nonfiction to tell a real story, and is probably best suited for those with a keen interest in politics and history.

Title: Imperium

Author: Robert Harris

Pages: 305 (Paperback)

Publisher: Pocket Books

ISBN-10: 0743498666

ISBN-13: 978-0743498661

Rating: 4/5

Amazon Link: Imperium