- - Wednesday, January 6, 2016



By Robert Harris

Knopf, $26.95, 416 pages

“Dictator” is the final volume in Robert Harris‘ trilogy about the life of Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, whose political theories and prose style remained influential until at least the 19th century. “Imperium” (2006), the first volume, focused on Cicero’s rise to power. In the second volume “Lustrum” (2009), he is the consul who orders the execution of five members of the Catiline conspiracy that tried to overthrow the Roman republic in 63 B.C. “Dictator” picks up the story in 58 B.C. when Cicero is exiled for this supposedly illegal execution of Roman citizens. He settles unhappily in Thessalonica, accompanied only by his slave and amanuensis Tiro, until the Senate recalls him a year later.

Only one senator — Clodius — votes against rescinding Cicero’s exile, and he remains an unremitting enemy as Cicero tries alternately to re-establish himself as a political figure and to settle down to a life of philosophizing and writing. This is no easy choice. On the one hand, Cicero has no taste for the military; unlike many of his peers he cannot establish himself as a hero or a powerful commander of legions. He therefore often retires to his country villa, where he can write while “waiting and hoping for better times.”

On the other hand, many in Rome’s governing elite respect his acumen and oratory; others believe he owes them favors, so he is always being called back to political life. He responds because he believes that “politics is the most noble of all callings,” characterizing it as the function “in which human virtue approaches more closely the august function of the gods.” Yet as Tiro, who narrates the novel, explains, his path is never easy: he has to “Tiptoe between the three great men in the state [Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus], endeavoring to keep on good terms with all of them, doing their bidding, privately despairing of the future of the republic.”

He is right to despair. During the 15 years following his return from Thessalonica he sees the republic wrecked by a civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, from which Caesar emerges as dictator. Many Romans remember that they had got rid of kings in favor of a democratically ruled republic, so Caesar is quickly assassinated. This provokes a second civil war between Mark Antony, who lusts for Caesar’s former power and title, and Octavian, the teenaged great-nephew Caesar appointed as his heir. Cicero favors Octavian and tries to influence him, successfully at first but ultimately the realpolitik of empire triumphs.

Robert Harris describes the years recorded in “Dictator” as “arguably — at least until the convulsions of 1933-45 — the most tumultuous era in human history.” He shows little of the grandeur that was Rome, though he gives many glimpses of its extravagances in the form of spendthrift triumphs at which scores of wild animals and people were killed, lavish feasts punctuated by guests needing to vomit, merciless wars, and most outrageously in a supposed republic, Caesar’s solid gold throne that needs four men to lift it. Even before Caesar seized dictatorial authority, Rome was riven by contention and enmity; its politicians got power and money by running virtually constant election campaigns and instituting legal cases to impoverish or discredit their rivals. Given this behavior they needed to arm themselves with bodyguards to prevent attack from the citizens, and to marry women from wealthy political families so they could amass the money and family alliances needed to grasp the rich prizes government “service” offered.

All this provides lavish material for historians and novelists, not least because much documentary evidence has survived from ancient Rome. Robert Harris has mined this information to record the complex and murky events of this troubled period with a deftness that comes from deep familiarity with the sources. As a historian he is assured, and as a former journalist specializing in political affairs, he writes with clarity and attack. As a novelist he is less successful in “Dictator” than in his many previous novels. He casts the book as a biography of Cicero written by Tiro, the slave who accompanied him on all his journeys and meetings. And indeed it reads like a biography — but not like a novel. The rich evocativeness of fiction is missing. One reason for this is that the characterization is sketchy. With the exception of Cicero the characters are merely sets of attributes. There is therefore little emotional — as distinct from political — tension among them. Settings, too, are often less than vividly drawn. The dynamism of “Dictator” derives from the inherent interest of the historical events that it recounts, its steady narrative drive, and the similarity of the problems of Cicero’s Rome to those of today — not least questions about how democracy can work in a global superpower. All this makes “Dictator” thoroughly readable, though not Robert Harris‘ most esthetically successful novel.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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