Robert Harris, Lustrum. Blinded by Ambition. Seduced by Power. Destroyed by Rome. London: Hutchinson, 2009. Pp. 454. ISBN 9780091801304. £18.99.
Reviewed by Andrea Schuetze, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München
"The body of a child was pulled from the River Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet". He was felled from behind by a hammer, his throat was cut and his body eviscerated. A dense atmosphere full of mystery and horror wafts through the opening of Robert Harris' Lustrum, the second part of his trilogy about the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the man from Arpinum, the homo novus, the pater patriae.
For those who know the story of Cicero's life, the story-line of this trilogy can be told very easily: Imperium, the first part, described the hard and stony way of Cicero's career, Lustrum, the second part, broaches the issue of Cicero's rise and fall, his consulship and exile and the third part will one day treat the last years of his life. Harris doesn't just write a biographical romance, he offers his reader a special mixture of historical truth and historical possibility. In the manner of Graves' "I Claudius" Tiro puts down his memory at the end of his life and gives a look through his old eyes into a past that had disappeared a long time ago. History becomes alive in rich (and accurately developed) atmosphere: The character of the homo novus Cicero appears to be quite modern, resembling very much one of John Grisham's lawyers. But this also turns out what Cicero actually is -- a lawyer and politician, always ready for good deals, able to catch and capture people with the power of his words. Maybe Harris suggests a bit too much the modern self-made man. On the other side Harris shows a man working all night in his office, vomiting after great speeches and leaning on his strong wife Terentia.
Those of the upper-class with less talent and genius, but more family-tradition and connection try not only to dim his brilliance by spite and neglect at every opportunity, they also try to use him and rope him into sinister political intrigues. Harris provides through Lustrum great insight into this exciting period of Roman history not only by echoing historical sources but by numerous psychologic zooms: a glimpse or a blink of an eye here, a whisper or a rumor there, and over all the ancient truth of evil omen.