CONSPIRATA by Robert Harris

Book Quote:

“Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumor, and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorizing shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights….Goods were scarce, food hoarded, shops empty. Even the moneylenders had stopped making loans.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (MAY 28, 2010)

Spanning five years, Harris’ second crisis-driven installment in the life of Cicero (after Imperium — both can be read on their own) begins in 63 BC as Cicero is elected consul of Rome and finds himself caught between two factions scheming for power, the patricians and the populists. Tiro, his slave and loyal secretary, continues to chronicle his master’s exploits as powerful forces range against him, including the wily and ruthless Gaius Julius Caesar.

“Pompey was still away commanding the legions in the East, and in his absence an uneasy, shifting mood swirled around the streets like river fog, giving everyone the jitters. There was a sense that some huge event was impending but no clear idea what it might be. The new tribunes were said to be working with Caesar and Crassus on a vast and secret scheme for giving away public land to the urban poor. Cicero had tried to find out more about it but had been rebuffed.”

The body of a disemboweled slave boy is discovered two days before Cicero’s inauguration, a murder which proves to be a barbaric sacrifice by a bunch of conspiring noblemen, aligning themselves, ironically, with the populists.

Then a group of agitated patrician senators appears at Cicero’s door while he is preparing his inaugural speech. Though he at first does not take them seriously – “Like many rich old men they tended to regard the slightest personal inconvenience as proof of the end of the world” – it turns out the oldest and most befuddled of them has been charged with the thirty-six year old murder of a tribune, Saturninus, who had, at the time, been declared a public enemy by the Senate for the murder of a consular candidate.

“Catulus spat out his name as if it were poison. ‘Saturninus! What a rogue! Killing him wasn’t a crime – it was a public service.’ “ Catulus goes on to describe the events, which involved at least 30 of Rome’s finest. Saturninus and his men had been captured and jailed in the Senate House until trial. “But we didn’t trust them not to escape again, so we got up on the roof and tore off the tiles and pelted them. There was no hiding place. They ran to and fro squealing like rats in a ditch. By the time Saturninus stopped twitching, you could barely tell who he was.’ “

Caesar, leader of the populists, is behind the charges, though Cicero is mystified as to what he expects to gain. He will find out as the public trial unfolds before the masses as well as hundreds of citizen jurors. Not only will his finest oratory be called upon, but his wiliest strategic thinking.

And this is only the beginning. 63 BC was a tumultuous year for Rome with plots, counterplots and more plots, most of them bearing the crafty marks of Caesar’s unconventional thinking. Cicero requires all his wits and political ingenuity just to stay alive. The sympathetic view of his mild-mannered secretary probes behind the events to explore Cicero’s thinking as he forms unlikely alliances, performs daring feats of oratory, and proves himself much braver than he feels. Not that Cicero doesn’t have his faults, which come back to haunt him after his consulship is complete.

The political maneuvering, fast footwork and bloody reprisals make for suspenseful reading, while the sympathetic narration fleshes out Cicero, who usually gets short shrift compared to Caesar, who here comes across as reckless as he is quick-witted.

Readers interested in this pivotal period in Roman history may also be interested in Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s The Ides of March, translated from the Italian by Christine Fedderson, (Europa Editions, paperback) which chronicles a race against time as a loyal centurion learns of the plot to assassinate Caesar and rushes to Rome to stop it. I found it a bit dry, with stilted characters, but aficionados may forgive these faults for the historical atmosphere as the centurion races through the countryside, recalling past campaigns and wary of betrayal.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 46 readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (February 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Robert Harris
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More early Roman Empire (in Fiction):A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela

Hadrian’s Wall by William Dietrich

A Body in the Bathhouse by Lindsey Davis


Cicero Trilogy


Movies from books:

May 28, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History

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