Tuesday, October 31, 2006


I've just finished Robert Harris's Imperium - his fictionalised account of Cicero's ascendancy to Consul in the 1st BC. As the author says, almost everything in the book actually took place - Cicero's letters and speeches survive to this day (almost 30 volumes of text). Although not quite as frantically gripping and page-turning as Enigma (on the famous code-breaking machines the British used to defeat the Germans in the Second World War) or his previous book, Pompei (which has an incredibly vivid characterisation of the famous Roman Pliny), Imperium is a huge achievement. Harris brings ancient Rome alive in technicolour, especially in terms of the colourful rituals of Roman democracy.

In between the lines, one cannot help comparing Cicero to Blair (Harris does an excellent job of concealing yet underpinning the comparison) - both lawyers of the highest aptitude, both able to talk themselves out of any corner, no matter how imperiled, both reliant on more powerful players of the game... Best of all, Harris brings alive the real-time drama of the political process itself. Strip away the technology, and 1st century BC Rome was startlingly similar to our times in almost every way.

The one signal difference: in our political times (at least in the West) everything is scripted - a politician rarely says something that someone else has not written (and someone else has edited and reviewed to assert its 'on-message' status). In ancient Rome, orators such as Cicero could memorise speeches lasting for four hours or more, and use the power of language to devastating effect. Cicero was the ultimate hero of using language to acquire power: he was the only man to become Consul without hereditary privilege, acquired wealth or wealthy benefactors.


Anonymous,  12:52 am  

I'm currently attempting (and failing) to study Latin. Cicero (pronounced Kikero) in his native language is incredible, what little I can translate adequately.

I should say that every modern politician attains office through the use of language, don't they, I mean practically? I also have to say Blair's gift for oratory is legendary. At least here in the US. I have watched him take on opponents in Commons, I'm astounded.

St Antonym 1:24 am  

Jeremy, do you know Suetonius? His (almost contemporaneous) "Lives of the Caesars" is full of such familiar incidents as would make you doubt your belief in human progress. The lust for power, and its susceptibility to money, has not abated since Suetonius wrote.

I think Nigeria is just about where Rome was in the first years of the common era. Ditto for the US (give or take a few legalized tricks of concealment).

Shall I send you a copy?

Jeremy 1:32 am  

yes please do St A. I loved the collage btw.

There were there is the greatest danger, there is also the greatest hope..

Jeremy 1:40 am  

But thank you Fred - I'm trying to readjust my 'Sissero' to 'Kikero'...

There's something wonderful and magical about accessing the ancients in the original text. After a painful year studying Greek at Uni, it was a thrill to unravel a paragraph of Aristotle or Plato from out of the squiggly Attic script.

It felt almost like I was transported to the garden of the Academy, walking next to the founding philosophical fathers, handsome Alcibiades a discreet few steps behind..

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