Pair of must-read historical novels

Friday, July 8, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 27

If memory serves, it was about this time of year in 2008 that I found myself face to face with my favorite Latin teacher at a party.

She recommended Imperium, a 2006 historical novel by British author Robert Harris, for my summer reading.

She did not require a book report, as it was uncertain when we would see each other again.

Imperium was billed as “a novel of ancient Rome,” the first of a planned trilogy about the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

My conversation partner said (correctly) that it was a fascinating account of the Roman court system.

I liked it so much that I now use an excerpt in the Law & Literature seminar that I teach for upper level law students.

The narrator is Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, a slave known to have invented a system of shorthand and to have written a biography of Cicero that did not survive the fall of the empire.

Cicero was not born into wealth. So, following tradition, he married into it so that he could run for the Senate and have a successful law practice. Thus, he was almost always at odds with the aristocracy.

Early in his career, Cicero made a name for himself by prosecuting the corrupt governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, who was represented by the other leading orator of the day.

The chapter describing this trial, complete with pre-trial strategies that could easily apply to any high profile trial on the 21st century, is the one I serve up to law students.

Imperium was a best-seller that caused some reviewers to remark that the career of Cicero, from a struggling young lawyer to a masterful campaigner, evoked images of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and other elements of modern politics.

Early last year, volume two of the trilogy, Conspirata, was published. It is as compelling a read as was its predecessor.

Imperium ends with Cicero’s being elected consul of Rome – a one-year term – and that is where “Conspirata” begins.

Full of idealism and great intentions, Cicero is on the cusp of delivering his inaugural address when the gory murder of a young slave is discovered, bearing the marks of a ritualistic killing, a sacrifice of some sort – an omen!

While one senses (correctly) that this mystery’s solution will be revealed, one also worries that Cicero’s sweeping the goriest of details under the rug will come back to haunt him. But how?

A deft storyteller, Harris paints a picture of a presidency – uh, consulship – in which political enemies of the incumbent seem bent on ensuring that his accomplishments be limited in scope and number.

We readers tag along in awe, alternately thrilled at the successes and aghast at the defeats, gaining an education along the way.

I cannot wait for the third book and strongly advise that you read the first and second before it comes out.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at