Robert Harris’s second entry in the “Cicero Trilogy” (the first was Imperium), Conspirata follows the famed Roman orator through his career as consul, charting his battles with a complex conspiracy that threatens both his country and himself, only to find that the threat is far more complex and subtle than he ever expected. More than that, though, it shapes the arc of Cicero’s life between two of the biggest events of his career, a historical choice that may satisfy the novelist, but leads to some muddling on the part of the reader.
Harris maintains his structure from the first book, allowing the story to be told through the perspective and writing of Cicero’s longtime secretary Tiro, who was present for all of the machinations, the orations, the negotiations, and the family crises. Tiro continues to be a rich, compelling narrator, one who’s allowed to comment frankly on Cicero’s strengths and weaknesses, all while becoming a subtle commentator on the world itself, whether it be lamenting his station in life, developing a relationship with a woman, or speaking truth to men who need to hear it. More importantly, though, it allows the story to live and breathe the air of ancient Rome, bringing it to life effortlessly, and speaking not as a historical writer, but as a citizen, for whom all of this is second nature. Harris provides a helpful appendix that gives both a character listing and a terminology guide, and I’ll admit that I used both a few times, but more often than not, his storytelling and craft conveys the meaning and the importance without much effort.
Such can’t always be said for the book’s complicated political situation, which starts off dense and becomes overwhelming by the end. It’s clear that Harris is building towards a certain moment in Cicero’s life, but that point doesn’t end up feeling like a culmination of the book around it; moreover, it comes about only as a result of some truly labyrinthine alliances, betrayals, beliefs, and maneuvers, and Harris ends up rushing through some of them, leaving me consulting online sources for more clarity and understanding of exactly how things got to the point they did. The result ultimately feels less streamlined and accessible than Imperium does, and that’s a shame, especially because the first half of the book? It’s an absolute rocket, as Cicero carefully, thoroughly works his way through the conspiracy that’s rapidly tightening its noose around Rome and himself. It’s only towards the end that the book feels rushed and cluttered, but unfortunately, the moment it’s all building to is so critical that it feels muted without fully understanding everything that led to it.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Conspirata, if not as much as its predecessor. Once again, Harris manages the unenviable task of converting a densely political tale of an ancient empire into a gripping novel, and manages to mostly succeed, against all odds. But more than anything else, what he manages to do is bring these figures – not just Cicero, but the confident Julius Caesar, the larger than life Pompey, the arrogant Crassus, and so many more iconic figures of historical import – to vivid, rich life, so much that you can feel your perceptions of them changing permanently to accommodate Harris’s descriptions and personality traits. That’s no small feat, but Harris pulls it off, and it makes Conspirata worth reading, even if it gets a bit too dense by the end.