Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

5. Robert Harris (2009), Lustrum

(This is another instalment in me trying to catch up on unwritten book reviews from 2010. I took a few notes on this one at the time, but they're pretty sketchy, so this review is probably quite unbalanced.)

After reading the first of Harris' Cicero books, Imperium, and being pretty underwhelmed by it, I resolved not to bother reading any more in the series. But I guess the prospect of the young Octavian (later Augustus) appearing in the final volume proved too much of a temptation. Eventually, this series is going to come under the remit of my interest in receptions of Octavian / Augustus, and I want to be ready when it does.

In the meantime, this instalment mainly covers the year of Cicero's consulship and the Catilinarian conspiracy in 63 BC, but Harris also follows up on the consequences of all that for Cicero in the form of his exile in 58. The title of the book, which refers to a purificatory sacrifice performed once every five years, thus refers to the span of time which it covers - though I'd personally have preferred the much prettier alternative term, quinquennium, myself.

Most of my impressions of the first book held true for this one as well. Tiro remains an effective narrator and Terentia a surprisingly-plausible (if minor) secondary character, while the politics is generally deftly handled. But most of the characters are fairly two-dimensional, and the events described lack emotional weight.

Catiline's conspiracy did make for a slightly more exciting narrative than the previous instalment, while I felt that the smells, sounds and topography of the city of Rome were nicely evoked. As for Harris' Pompeii, it was pretty clear that he had written this book, too, with a map of late-Republican Rome in front of him, and had thought carefully about how the spatial relationships between (for example) Cicero's house and the Forum would affect the behaviour of his characters, as well as how the experience of being in the city would change with the seasons and the time of the day or night. I also recognised direct echoes of several of the relevant primary sources, including Plutarch's Caesar and Cicero's own Pro Rabirio, Pro Murena and In Catilinam I, all of which were very effectively used.

But Harris remains fundamentally second-rate as a novelist for me, and for all his (obvious) careful research, a fair few historical errors crept in as well. I noticed that Cicero's daughter, Tullia, was "all veiled and dressed in white" for her wedding (so what of the famous flame-coloured veil?), while the senate seems to have regular daily meetings and a parliamentary-style recess (in fact, it met in this period on an ad hoc basis, whenever summoned by one of the magistrates). I also felt that Cicero seemed far too well aware in advance of the potential consequences of his decision to have Catiline's supporters imprisoned without a proper trial. I can see how his concern would serve as valuable dramatic foregrounding for what does happen later on as a result of this, but I'm pretty sure he just thought he was being decisive and heroic about it at the time, and I would have preferred to see his shock and humiliation at being completely unexpectedly attacked for this by Clodius instead.

In short - not a complete and utter waste of paper, but to be honest I'd still recommend just reading Plutarch's Life of Cicero instead.

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Tags: books, books read 2010, cicero, classical receptions, reviews, roman history, rome

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