I just finished the Cicero trilogy by Robert Harris and was awed by the imaginative and fully realized rendering of ancient Rome during the fall of the republic, as well as Harris’s brilliant writing style.
The series is ostensibly written by Tiro, a slave who served as Cicero’s secretary, actually did write a biography of Cicero, and invented the first system of shorthand. This would normally be a turnoff right from the get-go, as I prefer as a reader to get right in the head of the main protagonist instead of viewing them through a filter, but Harris’s use of Tiro is very effective. You feel like you know Cicero, but you’re focused on what Cicero says and does.
Before I get into the books, I should point out who Cicero was and why he’s important. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the greatest and cleverest statesmen, orators, lawyers, and philosophers the Roman republic produced. He was a “new man,” rising to power as a senator, aedile, and ultimately consul purely through his popularity and persuasion, rather than old money and a venerable name. His influenced the Latin language, introduced Greek philosophy to the Romans, and fought political duels against Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian, who would become Augustus Caesar. These battles marked the last years of his life, as he fought to save the Roman republic first from mob rule and then from the tyranny of dictatorship.
The three books in the bestselling trilogy are IMPERIUM, LUSTRUM, and DICTATOR. In IMPERIUM, we are thrown into the violent, wheeling-and-dealing, and backstabbing world of Roman politics, in which Cicero uses his wits and skills as an orator and lawyer against the entrenched patrician class to reach for the consulship. LUSTRUM deals with the dangers, seductions, and horrors of power, and the slide toward brutal mob rule. DICTATOR follows Cicero into exile and a dramatic comeback, where he strives to save the Roman republic against a series of would-be tyrants.
The books are amazingly detailed and realized, with every peculiarity of Roman life and political system explored, and with so many similarities to our own society and political system. Cicero is a thoroughly engaging character, a self-made man who is heavily flawed and is often forced to compromise, a politician who fights with his wit and clever scheming. The depictions of well-known Roman figures such as Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian are similarly very well depicted.
Overall, this series gets a high A from me. If you’re into Roman history or any historical fiction, this is a must read.