Lustrum

LustrumI have half a dozen book reviews I still want to write, but I wanted to get this one out of my mind as long as the memory is still fresh.

Two days ago I finished reading Lustrum, by Robert Harris. I am saddened to say that the book was good, so this review isn’t bound to be very funny.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, Naples, Capri. Places I’ve been to personally, places that I love. They all have one thing in common: almost two thousand years ago they were thriving, buzzing parts of the Roman Empire.

Rome has held its sway over me for about fifteen years now. It started out as a sort of extra-curricular school trip that sounded like fun and has since then bloomed into a deep and long-lasting fascination with all things Roman (ancient Greek will do at a pinch, I’m not picky). I will, one day, write my own epic set in ancient Rome, but until then I’ll have to make do with the works of others on the subject.

In light of this passion of mine  it was only logical for me to read devour Robert Harris’s book Pompeii (okay, I’ll admit it, it was a gift from Jonas, it was he who pointed Mr. Harris’s work out to me first) and after that the first book of his trilogy on the life and works of the famous Roman politician and orator Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is a fascinating figure. Lauded by his contemporaries and later generations of historians as one of the most versatile minds of his time, he was a lawyer, translator, politician, orator, philosopher and linguist. What makes him even more interesting as a protagonist for a book is the fact that he was a contemporary of all the great names that one will associate with Rome at fist glance: Caesar, Pompey Magnus, Brutus, Lucullus, Crassus and many others.

While the first book, Imperium, chronicles Cicero’s rise to power through hard work and cunning, told through the eyes of his faithful slave (and friend) Tiro, the second book finds him at the height of his career. Newly elected consul, Cicero has to use all his wit to fight against his political enemies and smite down a conspiracy that might well mean the end of the Roman Republic. To say more would unfortunately contain many spoilers, so let it suffice to say that the problems only begin there.

I mention Tiro in the above paragraph, and in that character lies the book’s main weakness. It is a small flaw, one that barely merits pointing out, but I shall still mention it. Tiro, or Marcus Tullius Tiro as he became known after being freed by his master, is a real, historical character. Little is known of his origins, but what is known is that he was (among) the first to ever record a session of the Roman senate in shorthand and that this shorthand system, which was invented by him, gives us many useful words that survive to this day, most notably the ever-popular “etc.” In the book Tiro functions as the narrator, writing down the life history of Marcus Tullius Cicero many years after his death (history tells us that Tiro lived to a ripe age of 99 and died 39 years after his former master). And here lies my principal problem with the book (there is one other one, also connected to Tiro, but I’ll let that slip): our narrator, busily scribbling away at his former master’s biography before he himself croaks of old age, is a bit too intent on pointing out to us that he is writing this many years after the actual events have taken place. A few mentions less of “here my notes record” or “now I myself am old and feeble”, “if only he had known what I know today” etc., would have done the book a great service. Tiro seems to strive above all to destroy our immersion with his constant comments.

Don’t think that the book is bad now, it’s still plenty good. I just was annoyed by Tiro to a certain degree. I also think it gets better as the book progresses.

Back to the book:

Lustrum is, as I already knew, Latin for… well… a whorehouse. What I didn’t know is that is also means “a period of four years”. The book, as you may have guessed, easily accounts for both meanings of the title, and we see a lot more of Cicero than just what happened to him during the twelve months of his consulship.

Although the second part of the book suffers from certain structural issues (which are almost unavoidable since Cicero was, politically speaking, on a decaying orbit after his consulship and is thus demoted from active schemer to passive watcher), the book still manages to go out with  a bang. A bang that left me wishing that Robert Harris would hurry up and write the last part of his Cicero trilogy as quickly as possible.

Lustrum is to a large degree based on the actual historical events and Harris claims that he has taken excerpts from actual speeches by Cicero and his contemporaries as often as possible. I have no reason to doubt him. The book feels authentic and for anyone who shares my passion for Rome and her people it will be a joy to read. I can only recommend the book, but bear in mind that the enjoyment will be all the greater if you also read Imperium, with which Lustrum forms an almost seamless unit.

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3 thoughts on “Lustrum

  1. Rome is fascinating, and I love history, but I just can’t do historical fiction. My problem is that we already know what happens – oh, not the details in the story, but in general, the course of history afterward. Whatever happens, I know that the future won’t be any better (or worse), because it’s already happened. For some reason, that’s a deal-breaker for me.

    I love alternate history, though. It’s a historical setting with an unknown future, so we really don’t know what will happen. Eric Flint’s “1812: The Rivers of War,” for example, is set in a time of American history that I don’t know as well as I should and filled with characters whose names I recognize, but the future is not set (and indeed, things turn out much different than they did in our timeline). I loved it, whereas I would have had no interest in a historical novel with the same setting and characters.

    Funny, isn’t it? Well, we’re all different. I know that historical fiction is popular, so I imagine that this isn’t a problem for you? I wonder why it affects me like this…

    • Since I find people that read historical fiction by the bucketload, regardless of quality, slightly disturbing, I feel that I need to say something:

      I don’t read historical fiction, at least not much.

      I love the books on ancient Rome by Harris. I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Circle, which is sort of alternate history and also sort of terrible and I read some Guy Gavriel Kay in the last year or so, which was wonderful. (I also, in my dark and distant past, read Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which is something I should probably not speak about in public.)

      Lustrum and Imperium are novels set in Rome that feature some historical characters and some historical events, but they’re still valid, vibrant stories. (And they’re set in Rome, a subject on which I devour anything that I can get my hands on.) The Earth’s Children books (to pick a particularly bad example of historical or in this case pre-historical fiction) and others of its ilk are badly written pseudo-novels targeted at mid-forties housewives. Sorry for being so judgemental. But I think most of what is considered Historical Fiction nowadays is just embarrassing.

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