Lustrum, By Robert Harris
Politics was a dangerous game in the ancient Rome which Robert Harris so vividly brings to life
Sunday 18 October 2009
Thank goodness Robert Harris is only 52. He plans to write novels for at least another 20 years, and if he keeps up his current output of three every two years, we've got another 30 volumes of unbridled pleasure to come. Having discovered Harris only recently, I admit to the zeal of the newly-converted. His books are the parsnip crisps of the literary diet – seemingly ordinary but, once tasted, completely addictive, yet respectable and not at all bad for you.
Lustrum is the second volume of Harris's classical trilogy, picking up where Imperium left off, after the election of Cicero as consul of Rome in 63 BC. Once again, our narrator is Tiro, the real-life amanuensis of Cicero whose biography of the great orator, now sadly lost, is the basis for much of what we know about him.
One of Harris's great strengths is the thoroughness of his research and his absolute mastery of complex historical periods. He spent three years researching volcanoes and Roman history before writing Pompeii. As with that book, some readers of Lustrum will know strands of the story already and Harris weaves in well-known events, such as the plot to assassinate Cicero, to create an utterly convincing quasi-historical narrative. Rusty classicists will thrill to have their memories refreshed while I can't think of a better introduction for those unfamiliar with the period. If I were spearheading a campaign to bring classics back into schools, a national air-drop of Harris's Roman novels would be a start.
A former political journalist and champion of New Labour, Harris claims to prefer writing about politics in the ancient world because it is more dramatic than now. Readers of his last novel, The Ghost, will know that he is just as capable of telling a cracking modern yarn. But it's true that the easy violence of first-century Rome heightens the psychological political excitement. The reader of Lustrum knows that Harris can slit any character's throat at any time. In Whitehall, what weapons are there to play with? Miliband's banana?
As ever, the political chicanery is astutely observed. At one point, Cicero finds himself in an impossible situation orchestrated to undermine him by his ambitious rival Caesar. At first, Cicero tries to bargain with Caesar, then he tries diplomacy, but even his formidable powers of rhetoric fail to win round the mob. And so, despicably but effectively, Cicero uses the trick only available to leaders: he creates a bogus fear of invasion, ordering the flag on the Janiculum to be lowered, signalling that Rome is under attack. Instantly, the mob disperses, the potentially ruinous election is sabotaged. Even the great Cicero has occasionally to resort to dirty tricks. Now what modern parallel could Harris have had in mind?
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