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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Conspirata turns Roman history into political page-turner


Mention to people that you’re reading a biographical novel about Cicero, the famed Roman orator and politician, and they might treat you like Sir Highbrow Von Ultramind. In fact, Robert Harris’ Conspirata reads like a guilty pleasure despite having the trappings of a  literary tome. Published Feb. 2, Conspirata turns out to be such a page-turner, it’s like you’ve got the dust jacket of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire concealing the kind of gripping thriller you'd buy at an airport.

Titled Lustrum when first published in Harris' native England, Conspirata follows on the heels of Imperium, the first book in the author's planned Cicero trilogy. Cicero's personal secretary, confidant and lifelong slave Tiro narrates the books (and holds a more modest place in the history books as one of the inventors of shorthand). Imperium traced the rise of Cicero's political fortunes, first through a legal case that challenges the Roman power structure, then through his election to consul (the one-term head of the Roman Senate). One half courtroom drama, one-half breathless political campaign, Imperium explored the corruption that undermined the egalitarian ideals of the Roman Republic.

Conspirata begins within days of when Imperium left off, and ratchets up the tension even higher. Despite having won the consulship, Cicero discovers he cannot rest on his laurels. On the eve of his inauguration, authorities discover the body of a ritually-sacrificed young boy, which portends a conspiracy that threatens to topple the Republic -- and views Cicero with special enmity. Conspirata's first part recounts his turbulent year as consul in 63 B.C. and treats his crisis management as the politician's finest hour, including outmaneuvering his many enemies, forging allegiances and even fending off a gang of murderous thugs at his home. Compared to more lurid Roman dramas, Harris' books keep the more scandalous episodes of sex and violence off-stage (if not far from the action). Having Cicero as the protagonist lets Harris focus more on politicking, power plays and skulduggery, which come vividly to life.

The book's second half depict the four years following his consulship as a second conspiracy emerges that seems beyond Cicero's powers to stop, and we share his household's anguish as old allies turn against him. Harris clearly has a great attachment to Cicero, and while acknowledging his missteps, ethical lapses and inconsistencies, persistently finds him the least corrupt and opportunistic of the major figures at the twilight of the Republic. His fellow senator Cato might have even more integrity and resistance to compromise, but also comes across as a blinkered, inflexible crank. And while Cicero can successfully match wits with such wealthy alpha male Romans as Crassus and Pompey the Great, he meets his match in the rapidly rising Julius Caesar, of whom he says:

Caesar is of a different category of man altogether. Pompey merely wants to rule the world. Caesar longs to smash it to pieces and remake it in his own image. And there's something else... There's a kind of divine recklessness about him -- a contempt, if you like, for the world itself -- as if he thinks it's all a joke. Anyway, this -- whatever it is, this quality -- it makes him hard to stop."

This example suggests that Harris' prose doesn't equal the rhetorical weight of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, or Cicero himself, for that matter. Nevertheless, Conspirata unfolds with speed and clarity and never feels as trashy as Harris' contemporary political novel The Ghost (adapted as The Ghost Writer, the new Roman Polanski film starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor). If you were a fan of HBO's "Rome "series, Harris's Cicero books give you an intoxicating fix of toga-and-treachery storytelling.

Conspirata. Robert Harris, Simon & Schuster, $26, 340 pp.

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