The Jungle Kings & Imperium


The Jungle Kings of Angkor Wat


In stone they lie sleeping,

the Jungle Kings.

Enfolded in the loving embrace of trees

they dream.

Like statues in the shadows shifting

they seem,

so still are they,

as the monkey troops caper

amongst the ruins of their splendid cities.


Alone before the long-loped head

of some toppled, forgotten conqueror,

I stand and stare

at the smooth sandstone lips,

parted as if to speak

some last thought perhaps,

or some

remonstrance against their fate.

And though I know

that those last words

By carved tongue never will be spoken,


I listen and I wait.




Book of the Week: “Imperium” by Robert Harris, (Hutchinson, 2006)


Following on from my disparaging remarks about Cicero last week,

and my review of “ROME” the HBO series prior to that, I thought it would be only appropriate to reread and review one of my favourite historical novels, Robert Harris‘s “Imperium”. For this novel, based heavily on historical fact, follows the career of the famous orator Cicero at its beginning, as an unknown young lawyer and an aspiring politician.

The tale is told from the point of view of his (slave/later freedman) secretary Tiro, who acted as his literary assistant cum confidant for thirty six years. The real life Tiro apparently invented a type of shorthand and appropriately is known to have written his own biography of Cicero, now however sadly lost. Much of the novel’s factual historical content, in fact, is derived from Cicero’s own writings.

The novel is set in a very tumultuous period of Roman politics, being sometime after the death of the bloody dictator Sulla but before the rise of the Triumvares. Pompey is the all conquering Great General, Caesar is an unscrupulous young politician on the make, Catiline is a debauched young nobleman, yet to harbour thoughts of revolution. The novel opens with Cicero’s first big case as a lawyer, his prosecution of Verres, and ends with his campaign to be elected Consul, the highest elected office in the Roman State.

Unlike today’s talentless, time serving, party hacks, Roman politicians had to be versatile, nay multi-talented. A competent Roman politician was expected to be able to function as required as a lawyer, an orator, a politician, an administrator, a general or a priest. In his time Cicero was all of these, holding numerous posts within the Republican administration. His particular achievement was that he was a “New Man”, that is he became Consul even though he was born outside of the narrow clique of families that had ruled Rome for centuries. (Roman politics always tended to the conservative side and it had been some time since the last “New Man” had clawed his way to the top.)


Cicero‘s virtue, I suppose, was that at his best he came close to being a statesman rather than just another politician. Unlike your average cynical Roman political career-animal, Cicero did at least espouse, and to a degree come to embody, a form of Republican virtue, a much needed moral counterweight to the greed & lust for power corrupting Roman society at the time. It has to be noted also, that when it came time to administer a province post-consulship himself, Cicero was that rarity of rarities the Ave Raris; the Roman governor who DIDN’T shamelessly plunder and loot his province for his own personal enrichment.

On the other hand he was a dreadful snob and a shameless self-publicist, with a touch of hypocrisy entering his personal affairs (as in when he divorced his wife so he could marry his wealthy young ward- but that happens later than this book). He was perhaps not the most courageous of men and in the end he made so many compromises and cut so many deals as to be rendered politically impotent. Nontheless there were critical junctures in his career when he ‘stood up’ for what he saw as the good of the state, and this was recognised by the Romans when he was named Father of his Country in gratitude for his role in suppressing the Catiline Conspiracy.

Perhaps, as this book suggests, agreeing to take the prosecution case against Verres was one of those occasions when he ‘stood up’. For Verres had powerful friends and an ambitious young lawyer had to watch carefully what enemies he made. Yet Cicero was also capable, as we see later in his career, of taking cases based purely on how they would advance his career.


In following the young lawyer/politician’s career at this formative stage, we learn a great deal about the Roman republic’s political machinery and the personalities that inhabit it. There’s an interesting portrayal of his sometimes irritating yet influental wife (historical records do indicate she was renowned as a bit of a nag.)

One character study, as portrayed here, shows even the relatively young Julius Caesar already rousing the suspicions of conservative oligarchs. Personally though I disagree with this sort of portrayal of Caesar.

I think the often expressed idea that Caesar always had his eye on Kingship is just oligarchic propaganda, historical revisionism, originating from political opponents and writers long after the fact. In reality I see him as merely reacting to political necessity a lot of the time, rather than pursuing a long term plan to achieve ‘ultimate power’. If he could have avoided politically motivated prosectutions being maliciously launched after his governorship of Gaul, I believe he would never have crossed the Rubicon.

Even when he did achieve supreme power he may have made himself dictator for life, but it was still a republican office, he maintained the republican structure, he didn’t call himself king. Really, the senate just hated him coz his land reforms threatened their economic powerbase. OK, maybe there were some other reasons. Sure he killed a few people but he showed greater clemency and pardoned more people than any of his opponents. Perhaps too many, eh Brutus?

Anyhoo, enough Caesarean apologia, let me just say read “Imperium” for a fascinating & readable insight into the late Roman Republic’s legal/political structure & culture. If that doesn’t sound entertaining enough, try thinking of it as “Rumpole goes to the Forum”, OK?


 All photoes of Angkor Wat courtesy of Dhanielle Iris. Safe travels sweetie!


The Reverend Hellfire..he’s different from the others.



~ by reverendhellfire on November 28, 2010.

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