© 2009/2010 Robert Harris
“Until this moment, gentlemen, I did not realize the extent to which there were two conspiracies I had to fight. There was the conspiracy which I destroyed, and then there was the conspiracy behind that conspiracy — and that inner one prospers still. Look around you, Romans, and you can see how well it prospers!”
Imperium and Pompeii sold me on Robert Harris as an author, and I anticipated with eagerness Imperium’s sequel, the second part of his biographical trilogy of Marcus Tullius Cicero. The sequel (Lustrum‘s) release in America was delayed for three months, after which time it arrived as Conspirata. Imperium ended with Cicero’s rise to the consulship (63 BC), the highest office in Rome. He earns the office not through family ties or money, but through sheer political prowess and oratorical might. He will need both to survive in late Republican Rome — in a time of political crisis and turmoil. The dispossessed, hungry, and desperate masses view the violent would-be revolutionary Catalina as their savior. Cicero and Catalina are bitter rivals, and their machinations against the other dominate the initial two-thirds of the book. Catalina’s desire to overthrow the Republic is personal for Cicero, and not just because of the latter’s adoration for tradition and Roman virtue: Catalina has sworn to murder Cicero, and inspires his supporters to hate our subject. In spite of popular hatred, Cicero is determined to maintain the rule of law against the threat of violence.
Although Catalina is the most direct and obvious threat, Cicero will find that he is not the only threat. The revolutionary is flanked by the young and ambitious Julius Caesar, whose own adeptness at the game of politicians is startling. Supporting the both of them is Crassus, the robber-baron and king-maker of his day: Crassus, whose vast wealth can buy him everything but the glory he seeks, is willing to do whatever it takes to make a public name for himself. Looming in the distance is Pompey, whose opinion of himself after the destruction of Rome’s foreign enemies is so great that he refers to himself as “the Great”. The legendary general commands the respect of all: his own ambition to rule the world is thwarted only by the equal ambition of Caesar and Crassus. What unites these men is their lust for glory and power — and standing against them are men like the pragmatic Cicero and the puritanically idealistic Cato. In this novel’s five year span (known as a lustrum), Cicero’s star will rise to glory despite the odds — but against such powerfully arrayed forces, it may not long shine.
Conspirata is a first-rate political thriller, one that invokes the tension between idealism and pragmatism as well as the on-going fight between the haves and the have nots. Cicero emerges as a sympathetic character even as he is partially corrupted by his own success, largely because those he stands against are such scoundrels. The very nature of politics emerges through the various political fights here, as they both its idealism and its tendency toward corruption for both noble and ignoble purposes. The struggle between the optimates and populares intrigues me, largely because it continues today, giving Rome’s political dramas steadfast relevance. Harris has triumphed here.
- Steven Saylor’s Catalina’s Riddle, which has the main character give shelter to Cataline during the power struggle.