Those Ipod tapes sound interesting. At least the Homer part. Facing the Aeneid,
though, would be very brave. Even abridged.
I think you've hit the nail on the head about the power of the best historical material when you write:
I’ve been particularly struck by alien and yet at the same time utterly contemporary bronze age age Greece seems to me now. It mostly seemed alien when I was 20; now it seems like where I work, but with different bling.
It's not easy, even for an academic historian, to remain loyal -- in tone, content, language, world view, etc. -- to the historical period, while stressing situations and themes that are important to those of us living today. This is the line that separates, I think, the best historical novelists from those who merely turn modern characters loose in some romanticized past.
The success of Harris's Imperium
is partly due to having caught the balance between past world and modern sensibility very well. But I've been amazed that none of the reviews I've read has mentioned that there have been a large number of Cicero-dependent historical novels in recent years, and that they cover pretty much the same ground.
I guess that's because there are so many historical sources that tell us great detail about the major personages of the late Roman Republic. It's more than just Plutarch. Cicero's own speeches, law cases, other writings are truly voluminous, and have helped turn him into a highly unlikely literary celebrity today.
If you liked Imperium
-- as I did for the most part -- you might want to talk a look at some of the other works of fiction that deal with this period. Among the many recent works of fiction which include Cicero as a major character, and rely very heavily on his writings, are Steven Saylor's excellent series of crime novels, Roma Sub Rosa
, starring a detective called Gordianus the Finder; Colleen McCullough's 6-novel Masters of Rome
series, which covers several generations from Marius and Sulla to the aftermath of the death of Caesar; and the BBC/HBO mini-series, Rome.
The Cicero of Imperium
is a mainly sympathetic character. The book takes him pretty much at his own self-evaluation. Saylor's Cicero -- who employs the fictional Gordianus in several of his cases -- is presented mostly postiively as well. McCullough's, while a man of principle, is self-centered, insecure, priggish and rigid. You might almost imagine him to be a major politician in American politics today.