Politics is often considered to be a dirty business, and those who succeed are usually required to have lots of money and few scruples. People long for leaders who have integrity, who tell the truth, who can’t be bought. However, the system seems to require a certain level of compromise, wealth, and ambition from all who participate. Apparently it’s been that way for millennia.

Imperium is the story of Cicero, a Roman senator seeking the pinnacle of power in the Roman Republic, i.e. Rome before the emperors. Cicero starts his quest with very little. His constitution is not strong and neither is his voice. Though not poor, his family does not possess great wealth. Though respectable, his family is not one of the “great aristocratic families, with generations of political favors to draw on at election time.”  Two things Cicero does have, however, are a great intellect and perseverance.

Cicero starts his quest by traveling to Greece with his servant, Tiro — the inventor of shorthand and intelligent in his own right — to learn philosophy and oratory. Having accomplished that, he needs money, since no one can become a senator without possessing assets of at least one million sesterces, the ancient version of today’s millionaire. Not having that money in his own right, he marries it. As for favors, he works tirelessly as a defense lawyer, earning the gratitude and obligation of his many clients.

To gain this supreme power, this imperium, requires Cicero to work with and against some of the most powerful figures in history, men like Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Crassus. Given that these men were largely unprincipled, he needs constantly to strike a balance between supporting them to gain their favor and opposing them to establish his own place in the political universe. He must also strike a balance between the senators, bastions of the aristocracy, and the tribunes, the voice of the common man. With the support of his friends, family, and the faithful Tiro, Cicero navigates the treacherous political landscape of ancient Rome. The common thread in all his activities is his voice — persuading the masses, cajoling the reluctant, manipulating the powerful.

I found this book very enjoyable. It was fascinating to see how little politics has changed since ancient times and to see the many varied methods Cicero employed to accomplish his goal. His story shows the value of perseverance and the importance of taking risks. The book also provided an informative look, not just at the individual practice of politics, but also at the political process of the Roman Republic. It is a book I highly recommend.