Sunday, October 28, 2007

Life and Death at the End of the Toungue

I've promised to never review a book unless I've finished it and this is the reason this post is slightly delayed (when you're jet lagged, it's hard to read at night).

The book I'd like to recommend today is Imperium by Robert Harris (link and picture on the left).

I've loved Harris' work on Fatherland (a what-if scenario of the results of World War II) and Enigma (about the British efforts to break the German's code machine). Archangel has also been good (although this is probably the only time I can say the TV series was better than a book - watch Daniel Craig, in his pre-Bond days, solve one of Russia's greatest mysteries).

The book follows the life of the greatest Roman orator Cicero, from a stuttering boy to the height of his political and advocacy career. It is written from the point of view of his slave Tiro, himself a learned man and writer and inventor of shorthand (used by stenographers in court until today).

We learn a lot about speech delivery (the way Cicero is taught to memorize his long speeches - some took days to deliver, and he never used notes - is amazing), politics, alliances, and spirit.

Having not come from an aristocratic family, Cicero had to prove himself to his peers and to the people on a daily basis. At a time when if you were too smart and a better speaker than your enemies, they would simply murder you, he took great risks and faced them down smartly. Some of his observations are still true today (e.g. "beware a politician who says he entered public service not for himself, but for the greater good - he's the vainest of them all" and my favorite: "if it's loyalty you want - get a dog").

Most of Cicero's speeches and letters were recorded for posterity and are available. But if you have no time for dry rhetorics and historical facts, just read this book. Adding a personal side to this complex, controversial, ambitious and smart person and coloring the entire period when people could literally live or die but what they've said (hence the title of the post).

PS: my fascination with the Roman empire times started by reading Robert Graves' "I Claudius", the greatest Roman novel in my humble opinion. And if you want to get to the source of these 2 great novels, look no further than Suetonius' "Twelve Caesars", arguably the best piece of gossip ever written, by a person who survived some the 12 first Caesars of Rome (showing you how resourceful he was and also how short lived were they).

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