Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Imperium", by Robert Harris...

...or, "A Roman Reviewed"
Although centuries have passed since its fall, many of us cannot get the Roman Empire out of our heads. We remember resolute legions charging into battle, carrying the eagles of the great imperial city forward on what was then considered (at least by most Roman citizens) the triumphant surge of civilization. Thanks to a very great playwright named Shakespeare, and to some lesser and less well known scriptwriters, we remember great actors in great roles...Sir John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, Sir Alec Guinness as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius...
Why does memory linger? Because the Romans were like us in many ways, especially in their bedazzlement with power and their experiments with its use and its misuse.
In other words, their national--and imperial-- game was politics. Those who did not possess the skill required to ride the political wave were doomed to be swept under in its backwash. The Romans taught everybody who has come after them how the game is played; and everybody from Niccolo Machiavelli on would agree that not much has changed.
For this, I would add, I don't really blame the Romans. I believe the way we handle power is hardwired into our brains. Nobody really wants to throw the One Ring back into the fires of Mount Doom--to our great peril.
Robert Harris's "Imperium" is not a new book, simply one I consider worth sharing with readers. It's been out long enough that, if it interests you, you'll probably be able to arrange to borrow it at or through your public library--or buy it , new or used, online.
The book is about a Roman lawyer, orator, and statesman named Marcus Tullus Cicero, who used to be much more famous than he is. Part of his marketing problem no doubt has to do with the fact that his contemporaries included the much more flamboyant Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus Caesar--part that Cicero, in the end, was among those swept under by the wave of power he had tried to ride.
Cicero was a gifted young man from the provinces, who arrived in Rome with the highest ideals and the highest ambition. His goal was to attain "imperium," one of the two consulships, the highest offices in the Roman state. This office he intended to exercise in the most principled way.
The story of what happened is narrated by his slave and secretary Tiro, said to be the inventor of a system of shorthand. The shorthand makes him seem to be almost magically gifted to Cicero's colleagues and enemies.
But Tiro's magic powers do not extend to an insightful telling of the tale of his master's moral decline; he is too loyal to see the import of what is happening. When Cicero's devoted relative Lucius, a man of the highest probity, commits suicide, this fact is mentioned to us by Tiro, but he does not tell Cicero about it. The secretary cannot or will not come to terms with Cicero's alteration in character, let alone its connection with Lucius's death.
It would be a good thing if our elected officials read more books that have to do with Roman history and politics. But would such reading encourage them to clean up the sinkhole of corruption that seems to be politics today? Or would they, like Tiro, be unable to come to terms with the facts as they are?

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