Through Latin A level and later at university, I read a great deal of Marcus Tullius Cicero's writings and found them, unusually, very hard going. While we all appreciate that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, brain and linguistic ability, he comes across, nonetheless, as an arrogant bore, stuffed full of himself and with an incredbile ability to irritate others. His ability to write golden Latin is beyond all doubt, and Queen Elizabeth I's proudest boast was that she could write "Ciceronian" Latin.
"Against Verres", the speech that is the subject of this novel, is Cicero's prosecution of Verres, ex-Governor of Sicily. Verres, even given Cicero's hatchet job in 70 BC, seems to have been a pretty loathsome creature who plundered and intimidated his subjects openly and without remorse or guilt. The remainder of the novel is concerned with Cicero's climb up the greasy pole to real power and all the resulting intrigues and plotting. Fascinating stuff, and as Mr Harris said, if what he propounds did not actually happen, then something like it probably did. After all, 2 + 2 generally makes 5 - ish.
Harris has obviously done his research here and the bones of the historical fact are fleshed out by a very entertianing novel. He is an extremly funny writer in an "ars celat artem" way and the various discussion and debates in this novel are extremely amusing: Cicero's comments about marriage will make you laugh out loud, and many other passages will cause you to smile.
Harris' characterisation is very good indeed, and Cicero comes over as a prissy, self-important, principled yet proud man who in real life I have always found insufferable. In this, he appears rather like a cross between the late Bob Monkhouse and Rumpole of the Bailey and becomes likeable. His family are alive and real, and the scurrying, desperate gents from Sicily in the first half are both pitiable and amusing.
Above all, Harris writes the most beautiful English, reminiscent of Mortimer and Huxley.
This is a fine read and very amusing in a dry way. He manages to make one of the world's most five-star arrogant bores entertaining and witty - in fact almost human. I repeat, almost ...