Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
Conspirata (titled Lustrum in the U.K.), is about a handful of momentous years in the life of Cicero, who was Roman consul in 63 B.C. Beginning that year, a series of crises and scandals struck Rome. Catilina plotted the Republic's overthrow. Clodius, disguised as a woman, snuck into the annual rites honoring the Good Goddess. Julius Caesar - soon to be Cicero's nemesis - secretly manipulated events and positioned himself for his rise to dictatorship.
The story begins with the discovery of a gruesome death, and though Conspirata is not a murder mystery - the scope of its concerns is far larger - it resembles one with its myriad puzzles and suspicions and careful fitting together of clues to reveal a sordid truth. Readers familiar with Roman history know the Roman Republic will soon become a dictatorship. What gives the novel its special fascination, aside from its portrayal of the mechanics of this transformation's beginning, is Cicero's character. Ambitious and whip-smart, he begins by treating politics as a kind of game - a serious game, yes, but one to be played with cunning to gain status and, when the opportunity offers, wealth.
Because his slave and confidential secretary narrates, Cicero's inner self is laid open more frankly than we suspect he might lay it out himself. For the same reason, Cicero's complex nature remains partly enigmatic to both narrator and reader. In the course of the novel, Cicero bends many principles - in contrast to the over-principled Cato whom he both mocks and admires - some in service to the greater good of Rome, some in his own interest. There are, however, are principles he will not bend. The reader is torn between despising his weakness and applauding his courage. Neither human beings nor political systems have ever been as admirable as we could wish them to be. In portraying an imperfect governmental system as it is twisted, undermined and exploited into something worse, Conspirata is all too relevant to our own time. (2010, 340 pages including a glossary and list of characters)More about Conspirata at Powell's Books or Amazon.com