By Robert Harris
By Edward Cuddihy
The politics of the day was callous and cutthroat. At first, losers and their families just faced financial and social ruin, their estates confiscated, the doors to the best baths on the hill closed to them.
But as the stakes grew larger, political losers began to pay with their lives. Even the winners lived in mortal danger, protected only by the thin thread of shifting loyalties and the brute force of mercenary goons.
The proud city on the seven hills, the legacy of the mystical Romulus and Remus, was fast becoming a lawless state, governed by liars and conspirators, fueled by bribes and promises of power. Huge wealth was moving from hand to shadowy hand. The people were told conflicting lies until no senator could be believed.
Men who once were free to express their beliefs in the public forum now were cowed into betraying their ideals. The high court, which had protected their rights as citizens of the Republic of Rome, was now corrupted and the sacred flame of the rule of law was extinguished.
Annual elections, once a symbol of national service, even if long rumored to be less than fairly conducted, now were the sole province of big-money families. And the laws only served to make the powerful more powerful and the moneyed masters richer.
This is author Robert Harris’ portrait of Rome on the verge of a seismic collapse that would transform the ancient democratic republic from chaos to a dictatorship. With all opposition silenced and personal liberty squelched in the name of national security, Rome would begin a new era of government by godlike emperors, answerable only to themselves.
Make no mistake. This is fiction. But the broad events of author Harris’ “Dictator” did take place, and his characters, for the most part, were real people walking the streets of Rome, even if their words and actions often are the creation of a gifted novelist.
This critic never has been a big fan of historical or biographical fiction. Too much mischief has been done in recent years to people’s lives and reputations in print, film and TV under the guise of art and fiction when too often it was thinly veiled ideological advocacy.
But the literary offense of creating thoughts and words from whole cloth for the minds and mouths of historical characters is mitigated somewhat when the characters lived two thousand years ago. (Added stipulation: Some of Shakespeare’s greatest work was in this genre, written to please his Tudor queen.)
To his credit, Harris has researched extensively the era of the Roman civil wars and the works of his protagonist Cicero, and has remained as faithful as a novelist dares to Cicero’s extant writings, letters and orations. While scholars disagree on the subjects of many of Cicero’s lost works, in Harris’ hands, the contents of these works are a fiction and he makes no pretense of authenticity.
Even the most strident historian will admire Harris’ masterful storytelling and his vivid re-creation of this critical period in the development of Western Civilization.
Harris is a Brit and the author of several best-sellers. This work completes a trilogy on the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman writer, orator and litigator whose single lifetime saw the complete political transformation of Rome from republic to dictatorship. (Yes, this is the same Cicero who generations of Latin students wrestled interminably to translate.)
This book, like Harris’ earlier “Conspirata” and “Imperium,” is told by first-person narrator Tiro, Cicero’s slave, personal secretary, confidant and probable biographer in real life.
“Dictator” picks up the Cicero story as he is being exiled to Macedonia by his political enemy Clodius, and continues through his triumphant return to Rome under Pompey, Julius Caesar’s usurption of political power, Caesar’s assassination, the collapse of Roman politics into mob rule, the rise of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, and Cicero’s murder, the final silencing of the voice of democracy by the forces of the new dictator.
Cicero and Tiro are the only fully developed characters in this novel, although its pages are filled with familiar and not-so-familiar names from history in this titanic struggle between freedom and political oppression. But even Cicero, his brilliance and his whimsy, are secondary to the events occurring all around him.
Harris’ Cicero is a complicated and conflicted hero. He is as duplicitous as any character in Rome, a master schemer, a manipulator. He craves adulation, and can be as cruel and unforgiving as his adversaries on the one hand, and just as kind and caring on the other. He stands on his ideals but is not above compromising them.
The author makes good use of the rough translations of Cicero’s most lasting quotes like: “When you gain a little power, use it. It will not stay long in your hands.” Or “Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy ... possibly run an empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed of by its founders?”
For many, Harris’ greatest strength is his ability to breathe life into the patrician society of Rome’s republican period. Their vast wealth, their slaves, their political intermarriage, their multiple estates, their total lack of want, their blindness to the poverty surrounding them all mold their characters. And their quest for the only remaining stimulant denied them, absolute political power, once achieved, spells the demise of the republic.
History’s lessons can be bitter pills.
If you read the first two books of the Cicero trilogy, you will want to complete the cycle with this exciting closing adventure.
But even if you have never given ancient Rome a second thought since escaping that confounding Latin class decades ago, you will find yourself right at home, jumping in on the final chapter of the life of this giant of a man and the final decade of his beloved republic.
Edward Cuddihy is a former News managing editor.