Book Review of Imperium by Robert Harris

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Imperium (2006) is the first novel in a trilogy centered on the life of the great Roman orator Cicero. Other two books are Lustrum and Dictator. In the book, Imperium, Robert Harris takes us on a historical journey of ambitious man from a commoner to achieve the position of the consulship. Harris is a master storyteller and famous novelist who grips the reader to the unfolding of events in his story. The book is in the form of a story told by the Tiro, secretary of Cicero who has keen observation not only of the surroundings and events happening around him but also on the psyches of the people around him including Cicero.

The book is a must guide for the people who have political ambitions or want to understand the intricacies of the politics in real terms. As Cicero tells, “Politics is a profession” not a fight for justice. In fact, the book starts with a journey through which Cicero slowly develops various skills and creates a narrative to attain supreme power in Rome. And the book proves that a common man can achieve ‘the power of life and death as vested by the state in an individual’ without having any resources if he develops the skills required for achieving success in the arena of politics.

Knowing philosophy and history is very important to build a career in politics. Cicero not only reads philosophy in Athens but also tries to find out various evidence and examples from National Archive to understand the present-day politics of Rome. It can be easily related to the politics of India. How politicians use various events of history like freedom struggle, Mughal rule, Colonial legacy and names of leaders to create narratives to build their case for winning the elections.

Cicero learns the skills of oratory from the famous Apollonius Molon in Rhodes and becomes a master orator in subsequent years. This was one of the most important skills which provided him new avenues to achieve victory in the Senate. Oratory is still vital to creating a narrative in politics. Cicero often talks about the various characteristics required to become a statesman, like remembering the face of every person, importance of appearances etc.

Cicero built his whole narrative around the issue of corruption and how aristocrats are neck deep in corrupt activities. He successfully prosecuted the Verres, the former governor of Sicily. In fact, the issue of corruption in public life is still very strong and every now and then political parties and the leaders build their narratives to remove corruption and black money from the country. For instance, the emergence of the AAP( Aam Aadmi Party) and the BJP(Bhartiya Janata Party) ‘s campaigning around removing black money through various measures including the controversial demonetization move are the examples of the corruption as the concurring issue in the politics of any country since ages.

The author convincingly shows the phenomenon of creating ‘hope and fear’ among the masses around the issue of war against pirates. How do politicians create fear among the masses to gain more power? It seems that Pompey is acting as the USA and pirates as terrorists because terrorists do not have any proper unified system and there are no rules and treaties to bind them. And the Pompey similarly as the USA accumulates more power legally and illegally to increase its influence to fight against terrorists.

The election campaigning and electoral process at that time provide a mirror of the present-day political and the electoral process. How does money play a deciding role in the electoral process? How do politicians bribe voters to get the support of voters? However, the win of the Cicero in the election of consulship also gives a hope to the commoners to achieve the political power if they have all skills and attributes to achieve it. The portrayal of women as the wife, mistress, love interest etc and Cicero’s desire to have a son from his wife Terentia shows the nature of patriarchal society prevalent at that time. It is still true in the present-day society of India.

In the end, Cicero campaigns for his consulship and successfully achieves the supreme power in Rome. Through the whole journey of the book, the author portrays the complex character of Cicero and how much is he in love with the process of politics? Slowly, he starts thinking about the end rather than means to achieve the political power. In fact, here, he is in sync with the Nicole Machiavelli’s thought that success should be the yardstick to measure and judge political activities rather moral or ethical criterion. And how does the writer portray the true and real picture of the politics through all events occurring in the life of Cicero? It shows that politics is not about right and wrong or achieving justice but it is very complex bargaining process in which different groups negotiate and cooperate to achieve their goals. This realistic picture of politics can make others realize to see things in various perspectives rather criticize the leaders for their political expediencies.

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