Imperium, by Robert Harris

Ancient law and disorder
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Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) was one of the intellectual and political giants of the ancient world. He was a gifted orator, an ambitious politician and a lawyer of exceptional skill who single-handedly changed the nature of Roman legal process, creating the system of adversarial advocacy that we still use today. He was also a prolific speech-maker and had an ego large enough to ensure that the vast majority were written down for posterity. As a result, there is an enormous body of work by him and about him, from classical times until now.

For a novelist, the creation of a fictional biography is largely a question of sorting through the gigabytes of material and finding a way in which to present the resulting mass in a humane and engaging form. And therein lies the problem: it is passion that fires a novel and whereas there is no doubt that Cicero was a Great Man, he was also ruthlessly ambitious.

His passions, such as they were, could be seen to stem largely from his ambitions. He may have fought for his life, but he did so on the stage of the Forum and it is more likely that he would have been humiliated than crucified had he lost (although he bet so badly on the losing side after Julius Caesar's assassination that he was, indeed, exiled and murdered). He loved his children, but he kissed them endlessly in public to prove himself a "family man"; he may have loved his wife, but he married her for her money, not her mind, her soul, her humour or even her body.

To write the fiction, therefore, runs the risk of ruin. There is nothing more dreary than a novel that shovels out research cloaked under a faint guise of assumed emotion, and nothing more distasteful than a fictional account of ancient times that gives no nod to their mores but assumes modern sensibilities in its protagonists.

In his early novels, set closer to the present day, Robert Harris proved himself a master of research and the evocation of humanity. In Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel, he focused on the small men - rarely the women - who kept the cogs of greatness turning, and in so doing, brought us warmth in the midst of cold and war. Pompeii reached back further and proved that he could write of the classical world without the grating anachronism that assails lesser writers.

It is no surprise, therefore, that he has the courage to take on Cicero - or that he does it so well. Imperium follows the first half of Cicero's life, from his inauspicious beginnings as a turkey-necked weakling, with a larynx "as big as a baby's fist", through his hard-fought climb up the greasy pole of Roman politics to his election as consul, the eponymous Imperium, the highest position any man could hold in the Republic of Rome.

Harris takes as his narrator the slave Tiro, borrowed by the young Cicero from his father and, "like many a useful volume", never returned. Widely accredited with the invention of shorthand - he took down verbatim a substantial proportion of the great man's speeches - Tiro was Cicero's right-hand man until his death, not quite Alastair Campbell to his Blair (that role rather belongs to his younger brother Quintus), but a sympathetic pair of eyes through which to view a life lived on the knife-edge between a sincere love of democracy and outright corruption.

It could be argued that the first half of Cicero's life was not the most nail-biting, and certainly the politics of Rome became more heated in the dying days of the Republic as the shining lights of Crassus and Pompey faded and gave way to Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Octavian. But it would be impossible to tell the story without the second half; if Harris intends this novel to be the first of a pair, I can only imagine the second will sell in shed-loads even before publication.

In the meantime, we have Imperium, which is 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's 'Boudica' sequence of novels concluded this year with 'Dreaming the Serpent Spear' (Bantam)

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