If you like a story well told and are interested in the history of small-r republican government, you could do worse than to pick up “Imperium,” the first book of a readable three-book series by Robert Harris.
The trilogy covers the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the most famous orator of his time, which covers the period in which the Roman Republic tottered and ultimately collapsed, undone from the inside by power-mad conspirators.
Like many educated Romans, Cicero was trained in philosophy and law. He believed in republican government and worked through his life to hold the Roman republic together. He also was vain, fearful and pragmatic enough to keep his thoughts to himself on dangerous occasions when his life hung in the balance.
Author Harris, who has worked in journalism and written nonfiction books and thrillers about World War II, has done his homework on this trilogy, which took 12 years to research and write.
The story is told from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary/slave, whom Cicero ultimately freed and who in fact did write a biography of Cicero that disappeared centuries ago.
In the first volume, Harris recounts how Cicero, a well-educated man but not an aristocrat, gained admission to the Roman senate by marriage to a rich woman and then, once there, effectively prosecuted a Roman governor of Sicily whose record of murder and looting were outrageous even by the casual standards of the time.
By the end of the book, Cicero has been elected to a one-year term as a Roman consul.
(More than a millennium later, English and American governments were patterned on those of the Roman republic. Rome had two annual consuls, a senate composed of aristocrats and a plebeian organization of tribes represented by elected tribunes. England had a king or queen or prime minister, a house of lords and a house of commons. The US has a president, a senate and a house of representatives.)
The second book, “Conspirata,” details the events of Cicero’s consular year, when a group of conspirators had plotted to overthrow the Roman government, to burn the city and to kill many citizens and specific politicians in the process.
The plot is uncovered and frustrated by republican patriots including Cicero, but the book ends with his exile under threat of death by bitter partisans still angry that the conspirators had been executed by a senate vote and a subsequent order from the consul, Cicero.
The third book, “Dictator” finds Cicero back in a Rome now governed by a triumvirate that has replaced the consuls, neutered the senate and tribunes and made any who disagree fearful for their lives.
As Cicero ages, he finds himself flattering the powerful and dodging the plots of seeming friends and sworn enemies. Chief among these are Gaius Julius Caesar, who effectively becomes Rome’s dictator for life.
We all know how things ended for Caesar and Cicero and how Rome’s republican government gave way to a top-down imperial one that survived for centuries.
Knowing these things, however, does not reduce the interest of the books. The character development, plot pacing and regular references to Cicero’s actual oratories keep the reader turning the pages.
It seems likely that the author, an Englishman, finds parallels between Rome’s republican period and modern western democracies.
Political careers, then as now, were seen as opportunities to build great fortunes.
Popular support, then as now, was gained with promises of benefits to be bestowed once politicians were installed in office.
Emotional appeals, then as now, were effective in building public support for or opposition to legislation or candidates for electoral office.
What Is Different
For Americans distressed with our elections and government, the Cicero trilogy offers at least one comfort: Things could be worse. Much worse.
The inequality of wealth decried in the west today pales compared to that of republican Rome. There were far fewer wealthy people, relatively, and virtually all had inherited their riches. There was no such thing as an entrepreneurial economy, and the poor lived hand-to-mouth lives. Rome’s large slave population was even worse off; within the period, a slave uprising had been suppressed with the slaughter of virtually all its participants.
Rome’s spread and influence grew by making war. Initially this began with the suppression of a Carthaginian invasion. Over centuries, there were wars with opponents in the eastern Mediterranean. By the first century BC, Rome initiated wars with European tribes for the purpose of taxing them and enslaving their populations.
The human cost of wars was staggering. Roman generals sent home reports of hundreds of thousands killed on battlefields, most of them slaughtered by Roman troops.
The Roman government was susceptible to internal subterfuge, which ultimately led to the downfall of the republic.
The U.S. has had such incidents — many presidents targeted for assassination, six of them shot and four of those killed while in office. But the assassins were single actors or members of tiny fringe groups.
The American founders were familiar with Roman history. It seems likely that they meant to frustrate the opportunities for broad conspiracies by establishing three government branches with checks and balances among them.