Uncovering the Modern Politics of Ancient Rome; Book of the Week

Article excerpt

Byline: PETER JONES

LUSTRUM by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, [pounds sterling]18.99) AHISTORICAL novelist is rather like a barrister hand- ling a client whose story broadly rings true but nevertheless does not quite add up in every detail. It is in this sense that Robert Harris is the master -- taking what we know from the fragmented historical record and making rounded, human sense of it all.

He demonstrated this skill consummately in Imperium, the gripping first instalment of a proposed trilogy about the life of the Roman statesman, advocate and intellectual Cicero (106-43BC).

With the second instalment, Lustrum ("a five-year period"), he has surpassed himself. It is one of the most exciting thrillers I have ever read, even though, as a classicist, I know what happens -- or at least what the sources (mainly Cicero's speeches and private letters) report.

Take, for example, those famous unexplained letters. Cicero, now consul (63BC), is convinced that he is faced with a conspiracy, led by a ruthlessly ambitious senator, Catiline, that threatens to destroy Roman society.

He also suspects that it has the covert backing of powerful populists such as the multi-millionaire Crassus and Julius Caesar. But he cannot find clinching proof for either assumption.

Then, late one night, Crassus heads a deputation to Cicero's house with some letters he has received, addressed to himself and other senators, implicating them all in this plot. Eager to dissociate himself, Crassus hands them over to Cicero -- who now has the evidence he requires.

Where on earth did they originate? Our sources are silent. Much later in the book, Harris quietly drops a handgrenade: they were a forgery, planted by Cicero! Admittedly, this is not a new hypothesis, but it took my breath away. It is but one of many such grenades, perfectly placed and detonated to stunning effect.

Such moments are not there just for effect, either.

As in Imperium, Cicero's story is told in the first person through the mouth of his loved and trusted slave-secretary Tiro (who wrote a life of Cicero, now lost). …