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Conspirata

Robert Harris digs back 2,000 years to build a breezy, intelligent, political thriller on the life of Cicero.

By Erik Spanberg / February 6, 2010

Conspirata By Robert Harris Simon and Schuster 352 pp., $26

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A Senate tainted by special interests and corruption. Military leaders setting the agenda for politicians fearful of being labeled soft on national defense. A populace governed more by emotion and rhetoric than results.

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This may sound like the past decade or so of presidents and Congressional leaders, but in this instance it refers to the tableau brought to life by Robert Harris in his second novel telling the tales – political and otherwise – of Cicero. Harris’s new book, Conspirata, picks up where the first entry in the planned trilogy, “Imperium,” left off.

Cicero, as Harris has noted in earlier interviews, is an ideal subject for a historical novelist. People know his name but few other details of his life. And his life in politics is, in many senses, a contemporary story even if Cicero’s exploits took place 2,000 years ago.

“Imperium,” published in 2006, chronicled Cicero’s unusual rise to power in ancient Rome. He came from humble origins and achieved political power without family lineage or military heroics.

Readers new to the series can pick up “Conspirata” and enjoy it without having to read the earlier title. And, once they finish, they’ll soon snap up a copy of “Imperium” anyway.

In Harris’s capable hands, arcane history and long-dead political machinations roar to life.

The author wisely uses Cicero’s real-life personal secretary, Tiro, as his narrator. Tiro actually lived to nearly 100 years of age and, as both confidant and slave, was by Cicero’s side during the dramatic days of the Roman statesman’s political rise, as well as his subsequent battles with Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey.

Tiro, in fact, wrote a biography of Cicero, but it was lost in the Dark Ages. Harris has turned that misfortune into his own literary fortune, relying on extensive research and clever pacing to give Tiro a second chance at telling Cicero’s story.

While Tiro’s work may have been lost many centuries ago, Harris has plenty of Cicero’s material to draw from, including 58 speeches and 800 personal letters, not to mention the endless stream of analysis by biographers and historians, including Plutarch.

This makes Conspirata sound like a history lecture, which it most certainly is not. Harris hews to historical fact in most instances — and fills in gaps elsewhere. The combination makes for a delirious ride through a society wrestling with civil unrest, violence, constant power grabs, and multiple assassination plots.

Cicero made his name as the best lawyer in Rome. He’s quick, sharp-witted, and boasts a cutting sense of humor and more oratorical gifts than Bill Clinton. In “Conspirata,” Cicero has become consul against all odds and now must practice his own form of triangulation while taking on the two most powerful political forces in Rome: the patricians and the plebeians.

Unlike everyone around him, Cicero deplores violence. He pays homage to military might because he must, but it is done with great reluctance.

Asked to inspect a mysterious corpse found in the Tiber River, Tiro makes note of his master’s “unusual squeamishness about death. Even the killing of animals in the games disturbed him, and this weakness – for, alas, in politics a soft heart is always perceived as a weakness – had started to be noticed.” With that, “Conspirata” gallops into action, with Cicero left to deal with constant political calamities threatening his power and Rome’s commitment to republican government.

Conspirata centers on two pivotal episodes: a plot to kill Cicero and assassinate other political leaders, as well as the formation of a dominant political alliance that could include Caesar, Crassus, Pompey – and perhaps Cicero.

And, writing as Tiro, Harris uses a breezy, gossipy style that translates well to our current era of “Game Change”-style political affairs, literally and figuratively.

Give Harris credit for spinning political machinations and a large cast of secondary characters (wives, mistresses, lesser known Senators) into a coherent, fast-break narrative. “Conspirata” offers ample intrigue and fun, but two irrefutable concerns loom: It will be at least another year or two before Harris publishes the final volume and, just as bad, the final volume will mean the end of Tiro’s delightful story.

That is in the future. For now, it’s best to enjoy a literary Roman holiday in Cicero’s Senate.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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