Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Imperium and Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Imperium (2006) and Lustrum (2009) comprise the first 2/3 of a fictionalized biography trilogy focusing on the ancient Roman politician Cicero, by British novelist Robert Harris. My first exposure to Harris was his earlier novel (and only previous Roman setting) Pompeii, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Adding to my interest in these two newer works is previous exposure to a fictionalized Cicero, in the Masters of Rome series of novels by the formidable Colleen McCullough. I decided it would be fun, after finishing Imperium and Lustrum, to re-read Fortune's Favorites and Caesar's Women (an unfortunate if accurate title), which contain McCollough's version of Cicero. That gave me two fictionalized portrayals of both Cicero and Caesar to compare.

The main revelation in this exercise was in how a skilled novelist can take a brief historical account of an event and fill it out to create a convincing yet entirely fictional scene. Equally interesting is the extent to which details may be altered in different directions to support a novel's plot. Without getting into a detailed reading of the historical sources myself (a task for which I lack the patience), reading both pairs of novels allowed me to see which details have support from historical sources and which are pure fiction.

A case in point is the contrasting accounts of the "Bona Dea scandal", in which a man profaned the annual women-only "Bona Dea" religious rite by trying to sneak in, disguised as a woman. McCullough's version has the offender apprehended right away while attempting to enter the house (Caesar's house). Harris, however, allows the intruder to be discovered only after the sacred and secret rites have begun - well within the house - and adds some entertaining invented detail thereafter.

Another interesting thing, although I really shouldn't be surprised, is that the main historical characters in these novels are treated more sympathetically than their contemporaries. Harris' Cicero is ambitious but principled, political but ethical. McCulloch's portrayal is not uncomplimentary, but much less glowing. The reverse is true of Julius Caesar - the ultimate Roman hero in McCullough's series but seen as a dangerously ambitious schemer by the Cicero of Lustrum. This same phenomenon occurs frequently in straight historical biographies. A writer can come to love and admire (or sometimes hate) his subject while doing research, to the point that objectivity suffers. With subjects like Cicero and Caesar, there's the added problem that much of the information about their lives comes from their own writing. Imagine if, 2000 years from now, you wanted to write a biography of Adolf Hitler and your main source of information was Mein Kampf.

I won't use the five criteria this time, as Harris gets uniformly high marks on all five. I look forward to the third and final entry in the Cicero Trilogy.