Classics and pop culture / Reviews

Review: Robert Harris ‘Lustrum’

A black cover with with a picture of a horse and rules.[This is a version of a review I made about eighteen months ago in a different setting. Obviously, I’m still interested in hearing people’s thoughts, but just to say that I haven’t read the book in a while now, so certain errors may have crept in.]

Robert Harris’ Lustrum (2009) is the sequel to his Imperium, about Cicero’s rise to the consulship, which came out in 2006 (and which I read around then). It works like the tragic counterpart to the first novel, following Cicero’s consulship, ambition for glory and eventual fall into exile. I’m by no means a Cicero specialist, but as a novel I think there were a number of things that really worked in terms of translating the subject matter for a modern audience, although there were also some question marks I found in terms of characterisation and understanding of the religion of the period, which I would love to have more people’s opinion on.

My knowledge of this period’s history, to start with, is what you might call ‘broadly there but patchy’, as is my knowledge of the ins and outs of the Roman political system. From that perspective, I think Harris managed to contextualise the material very adeptly, such that anything that was meant to seem outrageous did seem outrageous, while the banalities of Roman life were explained in a way that left it clear that these were fairly standard occurrences.

The characterisation of Cicero was, for my taste, also excellent, with the recognisable part of his speeches slotting in perfectly with the ‘voice’ Harris had found for the rest of his dialogue. The narrative voice, however, offered by Cicero’s slave-secretary, Tiro, seemed to be taken as an excuse to defend and apologise for any number of Cicero’s character faults, which I found a little distracting. Any notion that Cicero’s consulship went to his head is generally glossed over, such that Harris’ Cicero doesn’t initially present the Catalinarian speeches with any sense of self-aggrandisement; this was a retrospective addition to the published versions, we are meant to believe, brought on by Cicero getting caught up in his own fame. I’m not certain I’m convinced.

Elsewhere, the characterisation was also very entertaining, I found, and it carried me through the book from page to page to page. However, I was left somewhat unsatisfied by the end, since several characters tended towards caricature. Caesar’s grasping political ambition and Pompey’s sense of entitlement led to some really engrossing interaction, but there seemed to be little shrewdness to Caesar’s character and little evidence for how or why Pompey would have gained as much authority as he had. The women characters similarly seemed to suffer from this, with Terentia (Cicero’s wife) and Clodia (that Clodia) slotting very much into type as the sharp-tongued matron and scheming sexpot respectively

I was uncertain about the choices made for anglicising names, where Pompey remained in the familiar form, but Cataline became ‘Catalina’, which was slightly disconcerting. The main question I had when it came to Harris’ choices for adapting Rome for a modern audience, however, was his treatment of religion, wherein it seemed that the majority of characters essentially held the gods in contempt and would use ritual in any way that suited them. However, this also gave some really hilarious moments, such as this one:

“…Who’s in command here?”

“I am,” said a centurion, stepping forward. He was an experienced man of about forty. “And I don’t care whose brother-in-law you are, or what authority you have, that flag stays flying unless an enemy threatens Rome.”

“But an enemy does threaten Rome,” said Celer. “See!” And he pointed to the countryside west of the city, which was all spread out beneath us. The centurion turned to look, and in a flash, Celer had seized him from behind by his hair and had the edge of his sword at the soldier’s throat. “When I tell you there’s an enemy coming,” he hissed, “There’s an enemy coming, understand? And do you know how I know there’s an enemy coming, even though you can’t see anything?” He gave the man’s hair a vicious tug, which made him grunt. “Because I’m a fucking augur, that’s why. Now take down that flag, and sound the alarm.”

For me, moments like this made up for a lot, but I don’t know whether it was worth it overall.


7 thoughts on “Review: Robert Harris ‘Lustrum’

  1. I’ve been watching a pretty good period drama atm called Garrow’s Law (series 3 is now on BBC1). It’s set in the reign of George III. What’s struck me actually are the parallels between it and Imperium – young outsider lawyer takes great stand, pisses off some nasty oligarchs, gets in with others, has a habit of making self-incriminating jokes/remarks – but also the C18th and the C1st BC generally. A parallel that the C18th bods were very proud to draw (self-consciously) themselves.

    Yeah Lustrum was not as good as Imperium, despite its badass augurs.

    • I can never tell whether I liked Imperium better because I was in Sixth Form and didn’t know enough about what was going on, or whether it was just better. Clearly I should read it again! But the 18th century is interesting… Wish I knew more about that too. What were the specific parallels you saw?

      • Lots! For example, women’s position in society – the upper class women seem to have quite a lot of freedom on the surface – Lady Sarah, the main female character, even sits in on trials and dines with the judge (I don’t know actually how accurate this is mind you) – but when she falls out with her husband she has no legal rights to her child, no money, no nothing. Roman style, it’s all his as paterfamilias, and she has no father and apparently no family (conveniently pushing her into the arms of Garrow). (The ongoing plotline at the moment is that she’s challenging her husband’s exclusive rights to the baby, which is getting a lot of the aristos very worked up [the French Revolution is happening across the pond] because by challenging the rights of the head of the household she’s challenging the whole status quo…)
        But also the importance of rhetoric. Like Cicero Garrow’s an outsider but because he’s a brilliant barrister he’s become a big player.
        It’s based on a real historical figure, though I think Lady Sarah is fictional.

  2. I agree, Imperium was much better – mainly because by the second one I was finding Tiro increasingly irritating as a narrator! and yes the augur passage is amazing, but it would have been nice if the book gave a bit more of a sense of non-cynical religious views as well – because what’s interesting is the way the two interact when people who hold perfectly genuine religious views (as I assume most Romans did) can ALSO use them in a completely cynical way, without seeing any problems…
    In fact, off the top of my head I’m struggling to think of ANY novel set in the classical world that really has a proper go at dealing with religion, rather than just ignoring it/reducing it to cynicism…there must be some, surely? any suggestions?

    • I agree on Tiro! I didn’t mention it here because I was trying not to ramble on and on and on, but I found the whole ‘romance’ plotline with Tiro and the random slave he slept with at whosever house in Baiae or wherever quite patronising: the whole thing seemed to be about Tiro completely projecting onto this girl and then deciding to ‘buy her freedom!!’ without even consulting her first. I don’t expect my books set in the classical world to completely follow modern ideas of gender relations, but I’m not sure why that had to follow the particular route it did.

      And that’s a good point about religion. I can’t say that I know any novels that work with it, and the only thing to springs to mind is the Rome the TV series, which I felt like it went very much for the shock! factor with its portrayals of sacrifices and so on. (What was that scene with Attia getting drenched in cow’s blood?) There seems to be a general discomfort with the idea of Roman/ancient religion – perhaps institutional polytheism more generally?

      • Yes the whole ‘romance’ thing with that slave girl really needed cutting out by some editor!

        Pretty much the only books I’ve managed to think of that do deal with religion are ones that are (loosely) based around epics – Adele Geras’ ‘Troy’ and ‘Ithaka’, Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Lavinia’ (which doesn’t really count since as far as I remember it’s kind of a made-up pre-Roman religion)…I guess the feeling is if the book’s already set in a kind of fantasy epic world anyway, it’s less problematic to have gods turning up/being talked about! Barry Unsworth’s ‘The Songs of the Kings’ is an interesting study of how people believe in and/or manipulate and/or are manipulated by religion…so you do get some exploration of actual religious belief as well as cynical manipulation, but overall it comes pretty firmly down on the cynical side! I think you’re right there is a discomfort with the _institutional_ polytheism – for instance in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain books, you get a few token references to Mithraism, the occasional Christian, and a surprising amount about the religion of the Britons/Picts/whoever…and that’s pretty much it. I guess people just have trouble seeing it as a ‘real’ religion, because it just doesn’t fit with modern (Judaeo-Christian/Islamic) ideas about belief…so mystery-type religions are a lot easier to deal with?

        as for Rome…that was really just ‘hey, let’s have some blood and gore now to fill in the gaps between everybody sleeping with everybody else’!

  3. We must have a sequel to Lustrum with Robert Harris’ take on the rest of Cicero’s life.

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