May 4, 2007

The campaign of 64 BC

The year Cicero was elected consul of Rome is much more interesting to me than the campaign of 2008. That's part of the territory covered in Imperium by Robert Harris.

Of course, it's ludicrous to compare characters like Cicero, Caesar and Pompey with Obama, Clinton or McCain, but Harris's Rome--where every move by the protagonist has political implications--seems very much like home. There are deals and double-deals, pork barrel spending and corruption. Big-time corruption.

Imperium begins with the trial that made Cicero's name, the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily on corruption charges. It was expected that governors would fill their coffers while administering outposts of the Republic, but the depredations of Gaius Verres shocked even the Romans. He stripped the place bare, imprisoning anyone who complained. Still, Romans were loath to take the side of outsiders against a Roman citizen. Yet Cicero persuaded them. And his political career took off.

In his path to the consulship, Cicero had two strikes against him: A middle class boy from the provinces, he was a "new man," with no aristocratic connections, although he married well. He also had no military prowess. He succeeded on his words and his wits. And what wits! The jousting with Pompey and Crassus and the shifting political alliances that ensue are fascinating. Here's where comparisons to our political scene come to the fore, though the war funding bill with its timetable for withdrawal and Bush's subsequent veto pale in comparison to the subtle behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a Cicero or a Caesar. Would that Harry Reid had half their smarts. Or Karl Rove for that matter.

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