Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator This is the third and final volume of Robert Harris’s fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman philosopher, lawyer and statesman. I loved the previous two novels, Imperium and Lustrum, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I loved Dictator too. Until recently, I didn’t have much interest in Ancient Rome and would never have thought that I could find reading about the intricacies of Roman politics so exciting and fascinating. How wrong I was! In fact, the only negative thing I can say about this trilogy is that it has now come to an end.

Dictator covers the last fifteen years of Cicero’s life, though as the title suggests, the focus of the book is on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. At the beginning of the novel, Cicero has been forced into exile by his enemy, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and with the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus now governing Rome it seems unlikely that he will be able to return. Loyalties and allegiances change quickly in the Roman Republic, however, and eventually it does become possible for Cicero to come home, to be reunited with his family and to return to politics and the senate.

As he tries to settle back into his old life in Rome, Cicero discovers that it is not the same city he left just a year before and when the tensions between Caesar and Pompey lead to civil war, he knows he is witnessing the destruction of the republic. With the assassination of Caesar after several years of dictatorship comes the sense that Rome is entering a new era, but Cicero will face further challenges with the rise to power of the dictator’s adopted son, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire).

As Dictator is the book which brings the trilogy to a close, there’s a sadness which wasn’t present in the first two books, with the deaths of several major characters and the collapse of the Roman Republic. It’s also sad to see Cicero’s relationship with his wife, Terentia, deteriorate beyond repair. It was never a very happy marriage, but now Cicero acknowledges that Terentia has had enough:

“Only at that moment did I realise how much she must have suffered, living in Caesar’s Rome and being married to me. I cannot say I felt love for her any more, but I did feel great pity and affection and sadness, and I resolved there and then to make no mention of money or property – it was all done with, as far as I was concerned.”

Like the first two novels, this book is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, a man who really did exist and who is credited with inventing an early form of shorthand. After Cicero’s death, Tiro published his master’s letters and collected works, and is thought to have also written a biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Tiro’s role in this trilogy is primarily to tell Cicero’s story, recording his words and actions and making observations on his master’s character and the characters of Rome’s other leading figures. Here he describes meeting Julius Caesar:

“How unreal it felt to watch the approach of this titan who had so dominated everyone’s thoughts for so many years – who had conquered countries and upended lives and sent thousands of soldiers marching hither and thither, and had smashed the ancient republic to fragments as if it were nothing more substantial than a chipped antique vase that had gone out of fashion – to watch him, and to find him, in the end…just an ordinary breathing mortal!”

Over the course of the three novels we see how Cicero comes to rely on Tiro not just as a servant but also as a friend – one of the only people in the world he knows he can truly trust. Tiro’s admiration and affection for Cicero also come across strongly but this doesn’t mean he is unable to see Cicero’s faults. Through Tiro’s eyes, Cicero is portrayed as a brilliant yet flawed man, his wisdom, talent and generosity offset by vanity and self-importance. He is sometimes too quick to speak before he thinks, particularly when he is unable to resist making a joke at someone else’s expense, and this often has serious consequences. I enjoyed getting to know Cicero, with all his faults, and was sorry to come to the end of his story.

Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator are three wonderful books – well-written, well-researched and with a feeling of authenticity. Highly recommended, but try to read them in order if possible. I’m now looking forward to returning to the Roman Empire with an earlier Robert Harris novel, Pompeii.

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Lustrum Lustrum (also published under the title Conspirata) is the second of a trilogy of fictional biographies of the Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book in the trilogy, Imperium, was one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Lustrum even more. A note from the author at the beginning of the book states that both novels can be read independently, but my advice would still be to read them in order, particularly if, like me, you have never read about Cicero’s life before.

The three novels (the third is called Dictator) are narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, a real historical figure believed to have invented an early form of shorthand and thought to have written a genuine biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Imperium is a recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and covers the beginnings of Cicero’s political career, ending just as he is elected one of Rome’s two consuls. Lustrum continues the story, taking us through the year of Cicero’s consulship and the four years that follow (the term ‘lustrum’ is the name given to a five-year period in Ancient Rome).

The period of Cicero’s life covered in Lustrum is a time of highs and lows. As consul for the year 63 BC, he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far when he uncovers a conspiracy led by the senator Catilina to assassinate him and overthrow the Roman Republic. Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Country” for the part he plays in dealing with this threat to Rome, but even his newfound popularity can’t protect him from the further plots and machinations of his enemies Gaius Julius Caesar and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

What a great book this is! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, immersed in Cicero’s world, watching as he struggles with his conscience, tries to make difficult moral decisions and attempts to outwit powerful men like Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great (the First Triumvirate). I realise a book about Roman politicians may not sound very exciting, but this one really is.

While I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and the relationships between them (bearing in mind I have very little knowledge of Ancient Rome) there is some great characterisation when it comes to the more well known names. I particularly loved the portrayal of Cato the Younger! Caesar comes across very much as the villain in this trilogy, but remembering that we only see things from the perspective of Cicero (via Tiro), we are obviously being given a biased view of his actions. The same story told from Caesar’s point of view would clearly be very different.

By Glauco92 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Tiro himself remains in the background, as he did in Imperium, but there is a small amount of character development for him; he even finds a love interest, although nothing really comes of it. But at the heart of the story, of course, is Marcus Tullius Cicero. The portrait of Cicero given to us by Tiro is generally very positive – he is clever and ambitious and usually (though not always) tries to do what he believes is best for the Roman Republic. But he also has a lot of faults and flaws: his arrogance and overconfidence lead him to make some poor choices and he is not above entering into dubious political alliances with men such as his fellow consul, Hybrida, whom he knows are corrupt or incompetent and don’t have Rome’s best interests at heart.

One of the things I love about the way Robert Harris portrays Rome is that he manages to make it feel historically accurate yet strangely contemporary at the same time. There are debates over foreign policy, a court case involving a sex scandal and questions asked over politicians’ expenses, all things which still happen in modern politics. As with Imperium, the scenes set in the senate are particularly dramatic and full of tension, making me wish I had been there to hear one of Cicero’s famous speeches for myself.

Lustrum was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2010. I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of Robert Harris; as well as the two Cicero books, I also loved An Officer and a Spy (the 2014 winner). I’m now looking forward to finishing this trilogy with Dictator and also to reading more fiction set in the Roman Republic and seeing how other authors portray the same characters and events.

Imperium by Robert Harris

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

These are the words of the Roman statesman, orator, philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero, a man who lived many centuries before I was born and of whom, thanks to Robert Harris, I am no longer ignorant. I had heard of Cicero, of course, but knew very little about his work and nothing at all about his personal life. Now that I’ve read Imperium, the first in a trilogy of novels narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, I know much more about both.

Imperium Tiro, like Cicero, really existed and is thought to have written a biography of his master which was unfortunately lost during the fall of the Roman Empire. Imperium is a fictional recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and follows Cicero from his humble beginnings as he progresses up the ladder of Roman politics and pursues his ambition of becoming one of Rome’s two Consuls.

As a ‘new man’ – in other words, the first in his family to be elected to the Roman Senate – Cicero’s incredible rise to power is a result of hard work, intelligence and natural ability. He is able to put these skills to good use in his position as lawyer, as we see in the first half of the book when he agrees to prosecute Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily, who has the support of Rome’s aristocracy despite being accused of corruption. The court case is a victory for Cicero but the drawback of this is that he has made enemies of the aristocrats, who will do whatever they can to prevent him rising any further…

As I’ve mentioned before, Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite periods to read about, so a few months ago I compiled a list of books that I hoped would change the way I feel about Roman history. Imperium is the first novel I’ve selected from that list and it was a fantastic choice. I’d had high hopes for it anyway, because another book by Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy, was one of my favourite reads of last year, but I enjoyed this one even more than I’d hoped! A book about Roman politics may sound boring, but I can assure you it’s not. Harris is an author of thrillers as well as historical fiction and this is an exciting, entertaining read, not just an educational one. The trial of Verres is as gripping as anything I’ve read and there are more tense moments later in the book, such as when Cicero sends Tiro to spy on a secret meeting of rival senators.

The characterisation of Cicero is wonderful. Seen through the eyes of Tiro, I felt that there was a slight distance between Cicero and the reader at first, but as the story went on I started to like and admire him more and more, especially during his investigations of Verres, when he conducted himself with so much honesty and integrity. It’s not long before some flaws start to appear – as he sets his sights on the positions of aedile, praetor and finally consul, we see him beginning to sacrifice some of his principles for the sake of ambition – but this just makes him more human. Tiro himself is the perfect choice of narrator – someone who is happy to get on with telling the story without intruding into it too much. As the inventor of one of the earliest forms of shorthand he becomes indispensable to Cicero so it’s quite believable that he accompanies Cicero almost everywhere, taking notes and recording conversations.

Cicero was known as a great orator and Harris really captures the power of some of his speeches in the senate and the court. Many of his letters, writings and transcripts of speeches are still available which means Harris would have been able to draw on those to put words into the fictional Cicero’s mouth. While I don’t have enough knowledge to be able to comment on the historical accuracy of the novel, there’s nothing that feels noticeably inaccurate – as he says in his author’s note, the things in this story either really happened, could have happened, or didn’t definitely not happen.

There’s still so much I would like to say about Imperium, but this post is already becoming very long so I will just quickly mention a few other things I liked: the portrayal of other famous Roman figures of the time, particularly Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great; the details of Cicero’s family life and his relationship with his wife, Terentia; the descriptions of how the Roman legal and political systems worked, especially the complex voting methods that led to high levels of corruption during elections; and the exploration of class differences in Ancient Rome.

Having loved this book so much I’m now looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy. My copy of Lustrum awaits!