By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Robert Harris
Narration by: Simon Jones
“Imperium” is a novel about a nuance of politics known as populism. Though Robert Harris’s book is about the beginnings of the Roman Empire, it is the story of the rise of Cicero. Cicero is among the first populists of the Roman world. Before Cicero, only warriors and aristocrats dominate politics. Only force of arms, heritage, and/or wealth give admittance to leadership. Cicero’s weapons are words; not swords, patrimony, or riches.
A populist is one characterized as “a member of a political interest group that seeks to represent interests of ordinary people”. Populists, like all leaders, are neither good nor bad; i.e. they can be either or both. Slightly more is known of Cicero because of letters written by and for Cicero during his life time. However, even with firsthand accounts, there are many historical gaps. Writers like Harris fill in those gaps with research and imagination.
In the beginning of the Roman Empire (6th century BC), leadership revolves around warriors who conquer, and families that inherit new lands that become part of the empire. Warriors and their offspring become Roman consuls. By the 1st century BC, Harris suggests only those leaders that conquered new territories would be considered for consulship of the Roman Republic. Though several vie for that position, Pompey the Great fits the characterization of new-land acquirer. He becomes a Consul of the Republic. In contrast Crassus (one of the richest men in Rome) would have a hard time becoming Consul because, as a general of a Roman army, he only regained lost territory. Though Pompey qualifies for Consul of the Republic, he aspires to be the premier Consul, a singular dictator. In that aspiration, Harris suggests, Pompey is aided by Marcus Cicero. The following identify leadership positions in the Roman Empire:
Cicero earns a reputation for representation of “ordinary people” by prosecuting an Aedile (a lesser Roman leader) of Sicily that robs and murders local residents. His more significant crime is to murder a traveling Roman citizen. The murder of a Roman citizen, if proven, is a capital crime. Against great odds, Cicero wins the case. In prosecution of the trial, Cicero comes to the attention of Pompey the Great.
Harris suggests Cicero becomes a reluctant ally of Pompey. Pompey’s plan is to take control of Rome. Pompey gathers supporters and explains that he should be designated as the sole leader of the Roman Republic. It that role, he would repulse pirates who are raiding Roman ports. Harris suggests Pompey’s need for supreme power is out of proportion to the pirate threat to Rome. Cicero, as one of the gathered allies, argues Pompey’s approach would be seen as taking power away from aristocratic senators and consuls who are leaders in the Roman State. Cicero explains a direct appeal to the Senate for dictatorial power, even with control of a great army, will not succeed. Cicero suggests the idea of seducing “ordinary” Roman Citizens. He suggests that Pompey announce his retirement, declining any desire for power, while insisting that one military leader be appointed to abate Pirate incursions. Cicero reasons that Pompey will be recalled by acclimation because of his history of conquest and defense of Rome. No other Roman leader has as great a reputation as Pompey.
The ploy fails because, as Cicero expected, Roman aristocrats (Senators and fellow Consuls) do not want to lose their own power. The point is Cicero’s populist appeal offers a way to achieve dictatorship; i.e. create an outside threat to Rome and enlists citizen fear to support a supreme leader. Though it fails in this instance, it sets the table for the rise of Julius Caesar. Identifying outside threats is a ploy of dictators throughout history.
Not to lose sight of Harris’s clever story, there are many twists and turns that lead Cicero to the pinnacle of 1st century Roman power based on populism. Populism leads to constructive as well as destructive change. Cicero becomes a Consul but is assassinated in 43 BC. The irony of “Imperium” is that Cicero is opposed to dictatorship but becomes a tool and a victim of its ascension. Julius Caesar and his adopted son become the first dictators of Rome. Dictatorship is the beginning and the end of the Empire.
This narration of “Imperium” is excellent but unnecessary pauses between chapters degrade Simon Jones’ presentation.