In 79 BCE, Pompey the Great—Republican Rome’s home-grown answer to the Greek Alexander—was upstaged by some elephants. He was celebrating his military victories in Africa with a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. This was the nearest thing to heaven for a Roman general. Almost literally; for the triumph involved not only a shameless parade of spoils, captured weapons, looted artworks, and exotic prisoners, it also allowed the general to dress up for the day in the costume of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Best and Greatest”), patron god of the city.
This particular triumph was irregular in a number of ways. First of all, Pompey was far too young for any such honor, being at most twenty-six years old. “He got a triumph before he grew a beard,” as one ancient commentator later summed up the precocious celebration—vividly, if not wholly accurately. “Murderous teenager” was how an elderly adversary described Pompey nearer the time, though admittedly this had been provoked by an insult about age from the young man himself. Pompey had inquired whether his gray-beard opponent was just visiting town on a short break from the underworld.
Second, it was said to be only by barefaced chutzpah that he had squeezed permission to hold the ceremony out of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, warlord, conservative ideologue, and (at that time) dictator of Rome. When Sulla, who was then in his late fifties, seemed set to refuse, Pompey again displayed that combination of youthful arrogance and canny prescience: “You should bear in mind that more people worship the rising sun than the setting sun.” Sulla gave in.
Third, instead of the usual team of four horses, Pompey chose to ride in a triumphal chariot drawn by elephants. These animals had been rounded up during the African campaigns and the big-game hunting trip which Pompey apparently enjoyed on his vacation before sailing home. But they did more than remind spectators of the far-flung foreign territories over which the boy-general had been victorious. They cast an even stronger divine light over the whole show. For it was in a chariot drawn by elephants that the god Bacchus (or Dionysos) was believed to have returned to the West after his conquest of India. Pompey was, in other words, going beyond the traditional identification of the general as “Jupiter for the day”; he was presenting himself as the new Bacchus.
But as so often happens when mortals choose to imitate the gods, the elephants did not turn out to be so easy to handle for Pompey as they had for Bacchus. When the triumphal procession came to pass through a gateway on its route up to the Capitoline hill, the lumbering animals proved too big to fit and promptly became stuck. Pompey went into reverse, drew them back, and attempted the maneuver a second time—but still without success. He had no choice but to give up, unhitch them, and hang around while the standard four horses were put in their place.
Most modern historians have taken this as a classic case of an ambitious Roman getting above himself. And they have interpreted the gleeful recounting of Pompey’s discomfiture by a number of ancient writers as typically Roman moralizing rhetoric. The message is: look at the red-faced humiliation that may result from such self-promotion and from claiming the attributes of the gods. Yet a few historians, recently, have seen a rather more sophisticated public relations exercise at work. The whole scene was, they have suggested, carefully stage-managed, to demonstrate to the assembled spectators that Pompey had literally outgrown the traditional constraints imposed by the city and the norms of Roman political life. Pompey was now bigger than Rome.
I remain unconvinced that any such clever scheme by Pompey’s spin doctors is to be detected here. But whichever interpretation we choose, the story calls to mind a side of Pompey and a stage in his career which, from HBO’s Rome to more sober works of history, is often forgotten. Pompey’s image in the modern world tends to be defined by his later years. Politically sidelined by the 50s BCE and overshadowed by the even more dramatic rise of Julius Caesar, he was eventually drawn out of semiretirement to uphold Republican liberty in the face of Caesar’s looming autocracy. Vain and vacillating, he made a poor job of it and was himself crushed by the new “rising sun.” There are few more ignominious deaths in the history of Rome than Pompey’s in 48 BCE. Routed by Caesar’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus, a pathetic fugitive, he was decapitated on the shores of Egypt by the eunuch henchman of a princeling (in fact the brother of the famous Cleopatra) who was keen to ingratiate himself with the victorious Caesar. In fact, on Caesar’s arrival in Egypt he was presented with Pompey’s head and wept—but according to the poet Lucan, they were crocodile tears.
This sad and seedy final scene of a generally disappointing last act now overshadows Pompey’s biography. His power and glamour in the 70s and 60s BCE are hard to take seriously; his pretensions seem faintly ridiculous. His famous portrait bust from Rome (now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, in Copenhagen) raises more laughs than it does admiration: a fat, middle-aged Roman, with piggy eyes and flabby cheeks, topped incongruously with a head of hair imitating the distinctive style of the dashing young Alexander the Great. Only a century after Pompey’s death, that obsessive polymath (and moralizing bore) Pliny the Elder could play for laughs this mismatch between Pompey’s early glory and his later fall. Describing one of the most exquisitely expensive (or grossly vulgar) objects displayed in one of Pompey’s later triumphal celebrations—a large portrait head of the general made entirely out of pearls—Pliny cannot resist pointing to the obvious irony: how horribly appropriate that a man who would suffer Pompey’s eventual fate should have put this head on show like this; what an omen for the future.
In fact Pompey’s early career was anything but ridiculous. And despite his eventual role as the well-meaning if ineffectual defender of traditional Republican liberty against the threat of one-man rule, there is a good case for seeing him, rather than Caesar, as the first Roman emperor—in all but name, at least. He dominated the political process at Rome for two decades, he conquered more territory than any Roman general before him and most after (the comparison with Alexander the Great was not purely self-serving), and on several occasions he was granted by a desperate, or grateful, Roman people more or less autocratic power. In 67 BCE, for example, when piracy was rampant throughout the Roman world (Julius Caesar was only one of many young nobles to be kidnapped on the lawless seas and ransomed for a fat sum), Pompey was given an extraordinary military command which made him effectively master of the whole Mediterranean. It was not long before—in the East, even if never in Rome itself—you could find his head on the coinage, cities named after him, religious cults in his honor.
Pompey’s problem was that he lived too long. Like many Romans, he has had the bad luck to enter the popular imagination already old, and the successes of his youth have been capped by the pompous follies of his later years.
Another victim of this treatment is his exact contemporary (they were both born in 106 BCE) Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero rose determinedly to the consulship, the highest elected office in the Roman state, without any advantages of aristocratic birth, hereditary political connections, or even the military expertise that gave Pompey a fast track to power. He was one of the “newest” of all the so-called “new men” at Rome, talking his way to the top through a series of high-profile legal cases, which brought with them a wealth of influential political friends. His consulship in 63 BCE was to be his finest hour: he uncovered (or, to follow the suspicions of some skeptical modern historians, invented) a terrorist plot, hatched under the leadership of a bankrupt aristocrat, Lucius Sergius Catilina—and so, as he was ever after to boast, saved the city of Rome from internal destruction, much as Pompey had saved it from the pirates.
But from that point on it was, for him too, downhill all the way. Not only was he likewise eclipsed by the emergence of Julius Caesar, but the success of his consulship quickly turned sour. In quashing the terrorists, Cicero had sheltered behind an “Emergency Powers Act” of dubious legality, and before long he was (briefly) sent into exile on the charge of putting Roman citizens to death without a proper trial. On his return he found himself marginal to the power politics of a looming civil war, an uncomfortably irrelevant figure, forever looking back to his great moment of glory and mouthing political slogans that were as outdated as they were honorable. An “alliance of all decent men,” fine as it sounded, was hardly a realistic solution to the troubles of a city torn between anarchy and autocracy.
In the end, the rhetorical skill that had underpinned his rise to power brought about his downfall and murder. For after the assassination of Caesar, Cicero delivered a series of blistering tirades, some of the cleverest exercises in invective in the history of the West, against Mark Antony, Caesar’s principal lieutenant. It was a brave and simultaneously self-destructive gesture. As soon as Antony had a chance, in 43 BCE, he had Cicero put to death; his tongue and hands were pinned to the rostra in Rome. The story goes that Fulvia, Antony’s wife, took the final vengeance, stabbing the tongue repeatedly with her long gold hairpins.
If Cicero’s later years have fared even worse than Pompey’s in the judgment of history, that is partly because of his voluminous writings, dating mostly to that period, which still survive. Literary giant he may have been, the greatest Roman rhetorician ever, and one of the most influential voices in the introduction of Greek philosophy and theory to the Latin West. But his day-to-day private correspondence (published shortly after his death) and his essays and speeches cruelly document the pretensions and pomposities of a man who has not fully grasped how far his own influence has been eroded.
This is never clearer than in the run-up to the civil war between Caesar and the “senatorial” forces under Pompey in 49 BCE. Cicero, always uncomfortable if forced to move too far outside Italy, had been unwillingly sent off to govern the province of Cilicia, in modern Turkey. While he was there, he had, however, scored some kind of military victory in a skirmish against a posse of troublesome natives and had stormed the (otherwise unheard of) town of Pindenissum. This was not far from where Alexander the Great had passed in his victorious march eastward almost three hundred years earlier—and Cicero, with a degree of self-irony (one hopes), compared his own achievements to Alexander’s.
Returning to Rome, he decided to request a triumphal procession to celebrate his success, almost at the very moment when Caesar was crossing the Rubicon and invading his homeland. Cicero’s letters of this period are an almost poignant testimony to his unrealism and self-obsession. As the Roman world collapsed into civil war, and the Roman elite were leaving the city to join up with one or other of the rival camps, Cicero was still calculating how many votes he needed to secure his triumph. Rather than face the realities of the new conflict, he lingered outside the city (triumphing generals were not allowed to reenter Rome until the very day of their celebration), the laurel wreaths decorating his rods of office, or fasces, wilting by the day.
In Robert Harris’s new Roman novel, Imperium, all this is yet to come; and presumably it will, in the later volumes of what is a projected trilogy on the life of Cicero. This first episode concentrates instead on the rise to power of its hero, a sharp-talking young lawyer with a bit of a social and political conscience—in a city where the precocious Pompey is the key force to be reckoned with. Told in the voice of Cicero’s slave Tiro (in real life, his favorite secretary and confidant, as well as the author of a biography of his master, now lost), it takes the story from the twenty-something-year-old Cicero’s training in oratory to the moment in 64 BCE when he tops the poll in the elections for the next year’s consulship. Harris has already tried his hand at recreating the ancient world. After his best-selling books Enigma and Fatherland—a fantasy about the Nazi conquest of England—his Pompeii (which appeared in 2003) was a clever new take on the eruption of Vesuvius, combining reflections on world geopolitics and modern imperialism with a surprisingly infectious enthusiasm for the details of Roman aqueducts and water supply. Imperium—whose title translates as the military and political “power” of Roman officeholders—has even more bite and appeal than that.
Harris is an expert storyteller, with a sharp eye for evocative detail and an ability to inject suspense into some at first sight unpromising material. An exploding volcano, after all, is one thing; whether Marcus Tullius Cicero is going to achieve the consulship or Pompey will be granted special powers under the Lex Gabinia quite another. Imperium can be read with pleasure by readers of all sorts, whether they know anything about the Roman Republic or not: from the depiction of the Senate house, with pigeons in its rafters dropping excrement onto the Roman bigwigs seated below, to the sparring but affectionate relationship between Cicero and his well-connected and shrewd wife Terentia (though those who already know that a divorce is set to follow in a future volume and that the elderly Cicero will eventually make a fool of himself by marrying an heiress young enough to be his granddaughter may read the sparring less affectionately).
My own particular favorite walk-on part (at least from a Roman historical point of view) is the junior senator Marcus Lollius Palicanus, a bluff, energetic henchman of Pompey—who, unlike his more sophisticated senatorial colleagues, sees no reason to conceal Pompey’s superhuman ambitions. When Cicero and Tiro go to call on Palicanus, they walk into his front hall to be confronted by a bust of Pompey resplendent in the outfit of Alexander the Great (“I suppose it makes a change from the Three Graces” mused Cicero). Moving into Palicanus’ small study, they find it completely dominated by “a huge wall-painting of a laureled Pompey, this time dressed as Jupiter, complete with lightning bolts shooting from his fingers.” “Do you like it?” asked Palicanus. “It is remarkable,” said Cicero—while he and Tiro try not to catch each other’s eyes for fear of collapsing in laughter. This is a brilliantly simple little exchange, which manages to say a good deal about the complex cultural world of the first century BCE: its competing levels of sophistication, mistaken metaphors, crude literalizations. In this case, however, it was actually the clever and urbane Cicero and his slave buddy who in their superior irony had got it wrong—for Pompey in a sense was Alexander and Jupiter rolled into one.
In Imperium, even more engagingly than in Pompeii, Harris manages to exploit the potential of historical fiction both to bridge and at the same time to open up the gap between the Roman world (or any past culture, for that matter) and our own. “Authenticity” and “accuracy” are not the main routes to success in this genre, even though Harris comes out reasonably well on that score. (I would not, however, trust him on plural Latin nouns: it should be Laenates not Laeni. Nor on the byways of Roman constitutional law: the financial qualification for senatorial status at this period was exactly the same as that for equestrian status, 400,000 sesterces, not a million.) Harris, like all the best historical novelists, offers something more than technical accuracy or well-observed re-creation. He is constantly playing with (rather than pandering to) his readers’ desire to look into the Roman world and find themselves. He challenges us both to enjoy and to resist his marvelously inventive, if sometimes glaringly implausible, parallels between Cicero’s situation and our own modern world. Part of the fun of the book is our wary engagement with him as a hugely entertaining, deeply insightful, and, simultaneously, treacherous guide to the history he conjures up. Part of his skill is to set us on our guard against his own seductive narrative.
Wry glances at modern political life, which Harris knows better than most, from years spent as a political journalist and commentator in the UK, enliven almost every page. Cicero’s teacher of rhetoric hammers home the mantra “Delivery, delivery, delivery” as insistently as Tony Blair with his “Education, education, education.” His election campaigns are here conducted on the model of a mainstream British political party, with energetic and well-planned canvassing in the regions (“hands shaken, stories listened to, bores endured,…local worthies smoothed and flattered,” while Cicero delivers exactly the same rousing speech in each dreary town hall). The convenient birth of baby Marcus to Terentia is hailed as an electoral advantage much along the lines of the infant Leo Blair (“suggestive of a virile candidate”); and even while his wife is still pregnant Cicero stoops to some half-serious banter about arranging the ancient equivalent of photo opportunities for the kid. At the end of the book, relaxing after his final victory at the polls, he urges his brother Quintus to think of a “third way” between the two extremes of the horribly plutocratic Marcus Licinius Crassus and the radical, even revolutionary, Julius Caesar: a crafty allusion to the “Third Way” slogan of modern centrist politicians (as well as to the idea that Cicero might in due course find it just as tricky a position to occupy as Clinton, Blair, and Schröder have found it).
One episode in particular is systematically recast by Harris in distinctive modern terms: that is, the Roman reactions to the menace of the pirates running amok in the Mediterranean and the decision in 67 BCE under the Lex Gabinia (“The Gabinian Law,” named after the junior magistrate who proposed it) to grant Pompey almost limitless power, as well as a vast budget and more than 120,000 troops, to deal with them. Harris sees these events in the light of modern terrorism, its political manipulation by interest groups at home, and the threat to traditional civil liberties and democratic values that some responses to terrorism can raise: while the self-serving Pompey insisted that “the existing national security system…was clearly inadequate to the challenge,” traditionalists in the Senate urged that “ancient liberties were not to be flung aside merely because of some passing scare about pirates.”
In fact, the Lex Gabinia has a large part in Imperium. This was, at the time, a highly contested piece of Roman legislation. In handing over power to a single man, it struck at the traditional system of checks and balances that lay at the heart of the Roman Republican constitution. Conservatives, not unreasonably, objected that Pompey was becoming little short of a king and the law was only finally passed in the face of riotous opposition. But as a turning point in Roman history, it has never before escaped from the hands of academics to become the stuff of popular fiction. Harris uses the controversy in part to explore the dynamics of the relationship between his Cicero, a brilliant political tactician, and his Pompey, a slippery, dissembling politician—endowed with immense power and ambition but surprisingly few political wiles. In this fictional version, it is Cicero who steers the Gabinian bill through the assemblies in Pompey’s favor, by a clever combination of appealing to historical precedent and persuading a reluctant Pompey that he would be more likely to be called on to save the city if he at least pretended not to be so eager to do so. And it is, of course, Cicero who ghostwrites Pompey’s nauseatingly self-effacing speeches (“the idea of appearing modest appealed to Pompey’s vanity”). In the end Cicero suffers the indignity of many others who sell their words to others, then or now. As Pompey leaves one of the debates, rather too pleased with his own performance, he turns to Cicero and asks, “Did you like the line about my heart remaining among the hearths and temples of Rome forever?” Cicero can only mutter under his breath, “Naturally I did, you great booby—I wrote it!”
But it is in the run-up to the passage of Gabinian law that Harris offers his most glaring modern parallel. In Imperium, what provokes panic in Rome is not the omnipresence of the pirates across the Mediterranean (people had been living with that for years), but a particularly daring pirate strike on the port of Ostia, almost at the very center of the Roman world, only a few miles downstream from the forum of Rome itself. Ships and granaries are destroyed, a few hundred people killed, a couple of politicians taken hostage. There is much talk in Rome of security breaches, organized conspiracy, unconventional weapons (“poison-tipped arrows, and Greek fire”), proportionate response, and the problems of dealing with a new type of enemy not tied to state or government. “I do not believe we should negotiate with such people, as it will only encourage them,” thunders Pompey (before Cicero has started coaching him in how to get his own way).
The sting in the tail is obvious. Even as Cicero begins to plan how to achieve for Pompey the vast powers he craves, he sees the “pirate menace” for what it is: a weapon in Pompey’s rise to dominance. The panic is being fanned and pointless security measures being put in place precisely to heighten fear. (“This is absurd,” said Cicero as he watched the early-warning devices installed. “As if any sane pirate would dream of sailing twenty miles up an open river to attack a defended city!”) The aim is to make acceptance of the Lex Gabinia easier, for—so the public was to think—only a supreme commander could hope to bring security to the terrified homeland once more. In the end Cicero must go along with the lie.
When, after the law was passed, Pompey did manage to clear the Mediterranean of pirates in seven short weeks, most of Rome was delighted, including the now collusive Cicero: “Whatever Pompey’s faults, no one disputed that he was a brilliant soldier.” Harris leaves it to Terentia waspishly to restate Cicero’s earlier doubts: if they really had been swept away so quickly, “perhaps they had not been quite the menace that Cicero and his friends had made them out to be in the first place!” Cicero did not take kindly to his own bad faith being revealed: “The mood in the house during the following days was as fragile as Neapolitan glass.”
Whether Harris in fact believes the parallel between pirates and modern terrorism to be a good one is not the main point (though he did recently repeat it in The New York Times). Most readers will not anyway take it straight. The enjoyment of Imperium, as of other historical fiction of this quality, comes from watching Harris manipulate a modern parallel and push it with verve and style up to and beyond the bounds of plausibility. This is a genre in which the clever reader is always deemed to know better than the author. We know that the home life of Roman politicians was far from the almost suburban domesticity conjured up by Harris (in which, apart from Tiro, the slaves are almost invisible—and Cicero’s confidant Atticus is, implausibly, living in a “perfect bachelor setup”). We know that this Cicero’s “Labour Front Bench”–style reactions to political crisis would have been baffling in the Roman world itself. Harris’s inspiration comes more from the party structure and ritualized competition of the House of Commons than from the violent bloodbath of the late Republican Senate and assemblies. The pleasure comes from watching the elegant literary gymnastics with which he tries to pull the parallel off.
There is, of course, also something satisfying about the way Harris takes cover in the first century BCE to discuss some of the most raw issues of contemporary political life: not just the threat of global terrorism, but the manipulation of public reaction and the complicity of politicians who should know better. It has been one of the most traditional uses of the ancient world from at least as long ago as Shakespeare decided to discuss political morality under the alibi of Julius Caesar; and is one of the worthiest reasons to continue to support the study of ancient history and literature today.