[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.