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Cicero: Vanity betrayed him at the hour or triumph 

On a vile December day, with the Tiber running high and brown, the body of a beautiful boy is found by the water's edge. His throat has been cut, his body slashed open and his organs removed. The magistrate at the crime scene then points out to the consul-elect that the cause of death was a hammer-blow behind his right ear. No Roman would need to have the significance explained: the boy has been killed as sacrificial bulls are killed and his organs inspected for auguries. 

This brilliant and grisly scene opens the second volume of Robert Harris's Cicero trilogy. Cicero is the consul-elect and Rome is in ferment. His defeated rival in the election, the monstrous Catilina, is deep in conspiracy, plotting revolution. Speculation about the boy's murder is dangerous. Cicero at once orders a cover-up. But the boy will not be forgotten.

Lustrum is a political novel and a novel of character. The story is tortuous, but intensely gripping. It is told from Cicero's point of view, for the narrator is his slave, later freedman, Tiro, who is employed as his secretary and who devised a form of shorthand to record Cicero's speeches and  all political discussions in which he engages. This is a convenient and convincing device, but it is not Harris's invention. Tiro was indeed so employed; he later wrote a biography of his master and edited a collection of his letters. In Harris's hands he is a sympathetic and wholly credible character.

Cicero's year as consul was one of acute danger for the Republic, but in truth the Republic was becoming unmanageable. Institutions designed for a city-state could not be adapted to the new empire of Rome. They could not cope with the wealth that poured into the city (and was so unevenly distributed) or with the power of successful generals.  Cicero senses this, fears it, struggles against it, and we know that he will ultimately be defeated. His liberal-conservatism, based on what he called the concordia ordinum, and his belief that all that was needed was for the boni to act together for the good of the Republic were out of date. Harris, by way of Tiro, admires him, faults and all, and prepares the way for his tragic failure. Tragedy is a word too often and too easily used, but there is true tragedy, in the Shakespearean sense, in Cicero's political life, and Harris rises magnificently to his theme.

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October 10th, 2009
1:10 PM
On your recommendation I shall read Lustrum, but forgive me if I doubt that it is better than your own Roman novels which I have read with much admiration and enjoyment. You are too modest, which I suppose is the right degree of modesty in a reviewer. But how could you be objective?

October 9th, 2009
10:10 PM
Just finished Lustrum today. Superb! Would recomend this to anyone!

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