Marcus Tullius Tiro is known to history as the inventor of shorthand and the author of a number of books, including a biography of the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, whom Tiro served for thirty-six years. Unfortunately, this biography disappeared during the Middle Ages. In his novel, Robert Harris attempts to re-create the lost work, which would probably have been written during Tiro’s retirement while he was living on his farm near Puteoli. At the beginning of Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Tiro says that though he has often been questioned about Cicero during the decades that have passed since the great man’s death, it is only now, as he is nearing his hundredth year and his own inevitable end, that he is willing to risk writing a book that might prove offensive to someone in power. Tiro takes additional precautions by writing in the shorthand that he invented on rolls of paper he has saved for the purpose. As a result the book is not written in the form of chapters but instead consists of eighteen numbered rolls.
On his deathbed, Cicero had made one request of Tiro: that he tell the truth. Tiro admits that if he is to fulfill that promise, he must show the shady deals that Cicero made, the deceptions he practiced, and the promises he broke on his way to power. However, as Tiro points out, one has to admire the only man who rose to eminence in republican Rome without the aid of a powerful family, great wealth, or a mighty army to back him.
Unlike most biographies Imperium does not begin with the subject’s birth. Instead it is made up of two sections, each of which details the events in a brief but crucial period in Cicero’s life. The first section, “Senator,” begins in 79 b.c.e., when Cicero is a young lawyer of twenty-seven preparing to complete his studies and to perfect his oratorical style with teachers located in Greece and on the island of Rhodes. Cicero has asked to borrow Tiro, who for all of his twenty-four years has lived on the family estate. As it turns out, Cicero finds that he cannot get along without Tiro, and the loan becomes a gift.
After completing his studies, Cicero learns the realities of political life and attains his ambition of becoming a senator. The first part of the book ends with Cicero successfully prosecuting a cruel, corrupt governor of Sicily and then, as an ancient custom permits him to do, assuming the guilty man’s praetorian rank. Between Part I, which ends in 70 b.c.e., and Part II, there is a lapse of two years. “Praetorian” begins in 68 b.c.e. and ends in 64 b.c.e., when Cicero is elected consul, thus attaining the “imperium,” or supreme power, the goal toward which all of his efforts have been directed.
From the beginning Cicero treats Tiro more like a paid companion than a slave. In Athens Cicero insists on Tiro’s remaining with him in the lecture hall, explaining that he needs someone with him who can discuss philosophy. Tiro becomes a member of a small inner circle that includes Cicero’s younger brother Quintus, his idealistic cousin Lucius, and the wealthy Titus Pomponius Atticus, who comes to Molon’s academy on Rhodes not for the instruction, since he has no intention of becoming involved in public life, but to be in his friend’s company. Cicero knows that he can trust any of these four with his life.
Eventually one more person becomes a member of Cicero’s inner circle, his wife Terentia. Cicero marries Terentia only because he needs money. One must have assets of one million sesterces to run for senator, and though Terentia has neither beauty nor charm, she is rich. Cicero soon learns that though Terentia’s violent temper can make her an unpleasant person to have around, she is extremely intelligent and often more clear-sighted than any of Cicero’s other intimates. Tiro points out a number of occasions when Terentia’s advice proves to be of immeasurable benefit to her husband. Although this marriage of convenience never turns into a romance, it becomes something more permanent, a lifelong friendship between two people who respect each other and are unflinchingly loyal toward each other.
After managing to get himself elected senator, Cicero spends a year...
(The entire section is 1777 words.)