Sunday, 25 September 2011

Lustrum; by Robert Harris

Roman politics:

‘Lustrum’ is the second volume of a planned Trilogy about the Roman politician and philosopher Cicero. Robert Harris is continuing a strong tradition following William Shakespeare, Robert Graves and even the HBO channel. He has done his research thoroughly, and writes fluently, as ever.

He educates us about one of the important foundation stones of European civilization: Ancient Rome. In the process he tells a generally exciting tale. The plethora of characters is hard to follow, and I felt some tedium in the middle of the book from the repetition of speeches and court cases and triumphs. The defeat of the Cataline conspiracy, and his flight from Rome at the end of the book were particularly exciting, but the whole book is not consistently thrilling.

In the preceding volume ‘Imperium’ Cicero was portrayed as more consistently upright and good. Here we see weaker and less pure sides to Cicero’s character. So we lose a little sympathy for the protagonist, but he becomes more rounded and human. Another character comes more to the fore in this volume, the slave and secretary Tiro, who is the ostensible author of this book. He displays more initiative, wisdom and courage than his rather retiring personality in ‘Imperium’.

Harris draws out more universal lessons of politics, in an unobtrusive way. For instance: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events.” He seems to be making contemporary references at times: “We pile up riches for ourselves while the state is bankrupt…” There is an element of philosophy that can be picked up too: “It seemed to me… an act of madness for a man to pursue power when he could be sitting in the sunshine and reading a book.”

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