October 4, 2009
Lustrum by Robert Harris
Yet it soon becomes clear that Harris has no interest in that kind of story at all. His focus instead is firmly upon the dangers and temptations of politics. Over the course of the next 400 pages, the gritty and tortuous realities of power take precedence over the contrived puzzles of crime fiction.
It is not difficult to see why Harris was so drawn to the years between 63BC and 58BC when the novel is set (Lustrum means “five-year period” in Latin). The stakes then, in a period when the Roman republic was perpetually at risk of disintegration, were so much higher than they are now. Plunge to catastrophic defeat in modern British politics and the worst that awaits you is an early elevation to the House of Lords; failure in Roman politics could result in exile, assassination or an inescapable invitation to open your veins in a warm bath.
It is against this background of the everpresent potential for violence and death that Harris’s gripping narrative unfolds. Within a few chapters, readers learn who killed the slave and why. He was the victim of Catilina, one of Cicero’s beaten rivals for the consulship, who offered the boy up as the sacrificial seal on an oath taken by a group of decadent aristocrats to murder Cicero and take control of the state.