Born to a modest, provincial family, Marcus Tullius Cicero made an unlikely rise to power in the last days of the Roman Republic with little more than his wits to aid him. Well, wits and a good secretary. The slave Tiro served by Cicero's side and racked up a few notable achievements of his own, including the invention of shorthand and a biography of his master. The latter has been lost to the ages, leaving BBC-newsman-turned novelist Robert Harris to make educated guesses in Imperium, a novel detailing two key moments in Cicero's career from Tiro's perspective.

Best known for the historical novel Pompeii and the what-if-the-Nazis-had-won alternate-history novel Fatherland, Harris has clearly done his homework. Tiro casually describes the workings of the Roman world, from the everyday routines of a senator to what it smelled like on the carcass-strewn city edges. Harris builds tension almost as casually, first following Cicero as he mounts a case against an outrageously corrupt governor of Sicily, then as he runs for consul, discovering in both adventures that cleverness makes a better weapon against entrenched power than truth.


Without putting too fine a point on it, the novel finds an abundance of parallels between Roman politics and our own, and Harris strikes a tricky balance in making his Cicero a moral man who's also a consummate politician. He's interested in doing what's right, but just as interested—and by the end, perhaps even more interested—in not losing his footing. And when your most obvious opponent is a man known for crucifying 6,000 rebellious slaves to make a point, the line between righteousness and self-preservation can get blurry.

Harris turns his political machinations into a compelling read throughout, but gets into trouble in the home stretch. Either too long or too short, the novel's thrilling first half gives way to a second half that feels like the dusty middle innings of a longer work. It ends with an obvious setup for a sequel, and by that point, most readers will be wanting more—though maybe not quite begging for it. [In stores September 27.]