Lustrum, the second in Robert Harris's Roman trilogy (after Imperium), opens in 63 BC with a gruesome discovery: A young slave boy's body has been fished out of the Tiber. His throat has been slashed and his body opened up from chest to groin, and all of his organs removed. The nature of the murder, which appears to be a parody of traditional animal sacrifices, causes the magistrate on duty to summon Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is two days from being inaugurated as senior consul of Rome.
Cicero, philosopher, politician, writer and rhetorician, is the central character of Lustrum, as he was for Imperium. The novel is cast as a biography of the great Roman, written by his slave and amanuensis Tiro at the end of his long life. (Tiro is a historical character and in fact collected and published Cicero's works and wrote a biography of his master and mentor. This book - and others by him - are referred to by several ancient and medieval writers, but have been lost. Tiro is also credited with being the first to record speeches in the Roman senate, and with inventing shorthand notation; such abbreviations as e.g., i.e., etc. and et al. are vestiges of the Tironian system, which was much in use through the medieval years.)
In Imperium, Cicero parlayed a brilliant career as a lawyer into a successful vocation in politics. But he has many jealous rivals who wish to destroy him and the senate, and seize control of the state. To thwart them takes all of his skill and intelligence, and the battle brings him, and the Rome that he loves, to the brink of destruction.
Lustrum is a compelling page-turner, tracing the power struggles and factionalism of the Roman Republic during one of the most tumultuous moments in its history. Cicero, newly installed as consul, learns of a plot to overthrow the government, led by the aristocratic politician Catalina, the fabulously wealthy Crassus and the young and ambitious Julius Caesar, who has his own agenda to pursue.
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Cicero exposes the treachery and, after a bloody struggle, emerges triumphant. But then the promiscuous senator and nobleman Clodius is put on trial, accused of entering a sacred women-only religious ritual, and Cicero reluctantly finds himself caught up in the case as the star witness for the prosecution. He has made many enemies, and as Caesar, Crassus and the grasping general Pompey take power, his past returns to ruin him. At the end of the novel, he is exiled from Rome, his career in tatters and his family in danger.
But never fear. Cicero still has years to live, including a return to triumph and a great deal more political skulduggery, and a third volume of the trilogy is scheduled for 2011.
H.J. Kirchhoff is The Globe and Mail's deputy Books editor.