Robert Harris – Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome
The second volume of Harris’ trilogy of historical novels about Cicero. I read the first book, Imperium, many years ago at my former colleague Gene Healy’s recommendation, and greatly enjoyed it. Harris writes from the point of view of Tiro, a real-life figure who was Cicero’s slave. Tiro was Cicero’s secretary and despite his slave status, a trusted friend. One of his jobs was taking down Cicero’s many speeches and dictations, and he invented a form of shorthand still in use today so he could keep up with his master. Tiro invented the ampersand (“&”), the abbreviations “etc.” for et cetera and “e.g.” for exemplis grata (“for example” in English), and other common shortcuts. Harris’ choice of narrator is a good one.
Conspirata consists of two parts. The first covers the year of Cicero’s consulship, 63 B.C., and the Catiline conspiracy, which was a narrowly-foiled assassination plot by the Senator Catiline against Cicero. The second part covers the next several years, which involved the rise of Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus, the first Triumvirate. Roman politics divided into populist and aristocratic factions, called populares and optimates. Cicero was philosophically closer to the optimates, but as a self-made homo novo (“new man”) without a lengthy noble heritage, he was not fully accepted into their orbit. The book ends on a low note, with Cicero’s exile from Rome, thus setting things up for the third volume of the trilogy.
As with the previous book, the events are dramatized and not to be taken as literal history. But Harris has clearly done his research, and the personalities, settings, and events are authentic, and as far as I can tell he gets most things correct. The value in this book is two-fold—seeing events through Tiro’s eyes, who was both a participant and an observer, is quite a bit different perspective than the usual narrative history. Harris is also a fine novelist, and the book is intrinsically enjoyable, and gives a vivid picture of the times.