Book Review: Dictator by Robert Harris

Anyone wanting an intensely vivid portrait of the history, politics and culture of the last years of the Roman Republic will want to read this book.

Dictator is the third book of a series by Richard Harris based on the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book, Imperium, covers Cicero’s youth and his rise to fame and power as an attorney and orator, culminating in his spectacular victory in the prosecution of Caius Verres, the corrupt governor of Sicily in 70 B.C. The second book deals with the Cataline Conspiracy, which Cicero, as Consul in 62 B.C. uncovers. His leadership of the Roman Senate leads to the exile and ultimate defeat in battle of Sergius Catalina and the execution of five of the conspirators, all wealthy and prominent Romans.

Dictator cover the last fifteen years of Cicero’s life, a most tumultuous period which saw the rise of Julius Caesar, the reign of terror of Publius Clodius Pulcher, which led to Cicero’s exile, the death of Clodius at the hands of Titus Annius Milo, the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, the death of Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae, the crossing of the Rubicon and the resistance to Caesar by Pompey and Cato which culminated in Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus. Cicero watched in increasing distress as the Roman Republic appeared to unravel.

Although he was not privy to the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar, he applauded the outcome and supported the conspirators after the fact. He observed with anxiety the rise in power and influence of Marc Anthony whom he considered to be “as bad as Caesar but with none of his virtues.” He fought against Anthony with a bold series of speeches that he called the Phillipics after Demosthenes’ speeches denouncing Phillip of Macedon. He attempted to form an alliance with Caesar’s heir, Octavian, but eventually Octavian betrayed him by forming a Triumvirate with Mark Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

All three novels are told from the point of view of Cicero’s slave, and ultimately freedman, Tiro. Tiro has an intimate knowledge of both Cicero’s personal life and his political life and Harris does a tremendous job of interweaving the two. Tiro is known for having invented the first system of shorthand. He long outlived his master, dying in his 100th year. Students of the history, politics, culture and philosophy of the Late Roman Republic owe Tiro a monumental debt for the care he took in preserving Cicero’s writings.

I once met a history professor who dismissed Cicero as pompous. Cicero may not have disagreed. As his end approached, proscribed by the Triumvirate of Marc Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus, and condemned to death, he tells Tiro to bring him his correspondence so that he may review his life. “Some of the letters showed him in a bad light-vain, duplicitous, greedy, wrong-headed-and I expected him to weed out the more egregious examples and order me to destroy them. But when I asked him which letters he wished me to discard he replied ‘We must keep them all. I can’t present myself to posterity as some improbable paragon-no one will believe it. If this archive is to have the necessary authenticity, I must stand before the muse of history as naked as a Greek statue. Let future generations mock me for my follies and pretensions however much they like-the important thing is that they will have to read me, and in that will lie my victory.’” Pompous or not, we owe Cicero a vast debt for preserving his writings.

From Tiro’s perspective, the deaths of Cicero’s beloved Republic and of his beloved master were unmitigated tragedies. From our perspective, two millennia later, we may take a more nuanced view. The final eighty years of the Roman Republic were a time of nearly constant turmoil and civil war. It may be that the state had gotten too vast to be governed by the traditional Republican forms, given the limited technology of the age. The Principate of Augustus did usher in a time of peace and a cultural flourishing which would not be seen again until the Renaissance.

 

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