Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Conspirata - Crime, Conspiracy and Political Intrigue in Ancient Rome

Conspirata opens like many crime thrillers. There is the discovery of a dead body.

But Conspirata (Simon & Schuster) is different than most crime thrillers, as the dead body in this novel is a slave who was murdered more than 2,000 years ago, and the person called to investigate is Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman orator and statesman.

Conspirata is a historical thriller written by Robert Harris, the British author of Enigma and Pompeii.

Prior to writing novels, Harris worked as a reporter for the BBC and then became the political editor for the British newspaper the Observer. He went on to become a columnist for the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Robert Harris first introduced us to Cicero in his novel Imperium. Conspirata is the second novel in his planned trilogy about Cicero and ancient Rome.

Imperium is about the rise of Cicero to the position of consul. The novel’s narrator is Tiro, Cicero’s slave.

“My Name is Tiro,” Harris writes in Imperium. “For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, and finally extremely dangerous.”

Tiro is almost 100 years old when he writes these words. He states that he has often been asked what Cicero was really like, but he kept silent in fear for his life. But as he no longer fears death, he states that he offers this work as his answer.

Marcus Tullius Tiro was a real man. He was a slave, but he served as Cicero’s secretary and confidant. Thanks to Tiro’s invented system of shorthand, we have a historical record of Cicero’s great speeches. Tiro also wrote a biography of Cicero, but it was lost over the ages.

In a style that reminds me of Robert Graves’ great historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, both Imperium and Conspirata have Tiro as our narrator and guide through the most interesting times of ancient Rome.

When Cicero is called to the body found in the Tiber River, he was the consul-elect. The body was a young boy who had been bludgeoned, stabbed and then horribly mutilated.

This murder turns out to be a ritualistic slaying meant to cement the plotters who plan to overthrow the Roman Republic. This novel is about how Cicero puts down the plot, which was called the Catiline Conspiracy. The plotters are led by Lucius Sergius Catilna.

Catilina flees the city, leaving five other conspirators to be arrested. Harris shows us Cicero at his best in the Roman Senate debating the plotters’ fate. As Harris and others have noted, this was perhaps one of the world’s greatest parliamentary debates.
Cicero’s has the five men sentenced to death without the benefit of a trial. The five are taken to a prison and strangled.

For his actions in putting down the conspiracy, Cicero was given the title “Father of his Country.”

But then Cicero has to contend with the political intrigue of the young Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, AKA, Pompey the Great.

In an interview with Steve Inskeep at NPR, Robert Harris said that he found Cicero to be one of the most fascinating and attractive characters in history.

“He was brilliant, he was self-made, and a man of great complexity who is accessible to the modern mind, I think,” Harris said.

Harris said that Cicero left behind 700 letters.

“In a way, this book in particular, is a duel between Cicero and Caesar, two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition. Cicero’s ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar’s desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image.”

The clash between the two historical figures - who are, Harris noted, sort of wary friends and admirers - is truly the dynamic of the novel.

“And I believe that Cicero has had a less of a good shake from history than Caesar, who was in some ways, a monster - along the lines of a Napoleon or even Hitler,” Harris said.

In Conspirata, we see Rome at a time of civil unrest, rampant crime and utter debauchery. One often reads about backstabbing politicians and cutthroat politics, but in ancient Rome, the phrases are quite literal.

Like any student of history, I know the outcome of Cicero, Caesar and the Roman Empire, but yet I still enjoyed the suspense of this most interesting historical thriller.

I look forward to reading Harris’ third novel of Cicero and ancient Rome.

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