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LustrumLustrum by Robert Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lustrum is simply a period of five years - an important division of time in the Rome of the old Republic where terms of political office and governorships were strictly measured out with military precision. Confusingly enough the book was renamed as 'Conspirata' for the US market, which does not have quite the same resonance.

This book follows on almost directly from 'Imperium' with Marcus Tullius Cicero taking up his role as Roman Consol. He faces the ill omen of a brutally murdered slave being discovered, which points to a conspiracy to subvert the established order. Cicero must confront the plotters and build a coalition to oppose them, but the compromises and deals that he brokers (including the cut price purchase of a ludicrously opulent house) and the decisions that he is forced to make will come back to haunt him many times over.

The Catiline orations, in which Cicero publicly exposed the conspiracy to the Senate, still stand as some of the most powerful and dramatic pieces of political rhetoric ever heard. Indeed, they are still quoted to this day. Robert Harris really brings this key moment in history to life by placing it in the correct context of a political body riven by intrigue and ambition, not least that of Gaius Julius Caesar - Cicero's most bitter rival. Harris's Cicero is a flawed individual - a brilliant lawyer, politician and orator but prone to bouts of self doubt and introspection, and after his term as Consol given to bouts of vainglorious self-aggrandizement.

Much of the legal and political wrangling will seem familiar to a modern audience - scandals involving sex and expenses, expedient coalitions between rivals and rabble rousing populism in opposition to the patrician order - but that is just a sign of the deep roots of our systems of government and the law, and the debt that we owe to the Roman politicians, lawyers and orators such as Cicero.


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September 2010

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