Dictator by Robert Harris
From long ago comes a vivid memory of a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre production of Julius Caesar that my wife and I attended in Stratford Upon Avon. At the end, dressed in a royal toga, a victorious and arrogant Octavian (soon to become Augustus) strode out of a center door and advanced purposely downstage. As the curtain descended he planted his feet at the proscenium and stared imperiously out at the audience.
Dictator, published in 2015, is the third in a series of historical novels about the rise and fall of Republican Rome as seen through the eyes of the Roman politician and orator Cicero. With this year’s Ides of March approaching, I selected this volume from the growing pile of unread volumes on my study file cabinet. My only other experience with Harris was with his Pompei and that was why I picked this one up when I recognized the author’s name. It turned out to be a similar type of novel with a fictional re-creation of historical events underpinned by an incredible amount of background research. I shall now have to accept the fact that my unread pile will get bigger as I will be on the lookout for the first two volumes.
We begin Dictator in 58 B.C. Cicero has been driven into exile by the machinations of his enemies and Julius Caesar is heading off to conquer Gaul. Tiro, a slave who historically served Cicero as his secretary, is the almost invisible narrator. “I seem to have been blessed,” he admits, “with the sort of personality that nobody notices.” This makes him an ideal observer. He is there always but makes minimal moral judgements on the right or wrong of his master’s choices. Meanwhile the main subject in the book is the great game of Roman politics and throughout we get tidy first hand glimpses of Caesar, Brutus, Clodius, Cato, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian. The personal meetings with the great figures are also nicely countered by the fictionally re-created private moments of Cicero’s family life.
You may find the first two thirds of the book a bit too deliberate in pace, but things pick up with the assassination of Caesar. After that the alliances and double crosses come at you faster than a golf ball hit by Bryson DeChambeau.
Cicero was the preeminent lawyer, politician, and orator of his generation and his words of wisdom are legion. (Oh Lord, pardon the Roman pun.) One I liked was: “You can only train for death by living a life that is morally good.” Since I did teach Public Speaking and Theatre during my working life, I also tagged a point I used to cite in one of my old lectures. “A speech is a performance not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect.” Most cogent though was the pervading sense throughout the book that the challenges faced by Cicero were not much different than those we continue to face today. As he said: “To argue that to preserve our freedoms we must suspend our freedoms, that to safeguard election we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must appoint a dictator—what logic is this?”
So who can legally vote? How can power be transferred peacefully rather than through the trauma of endless wars? How does a citizen follow or interpret a constitution that has both strengths and areas of interpretative difficulty? How does a citizenry deal with the assertion of unfettered individual power over more democratic governance?
Here Cicero falter a bit. He says, “The best way for us to show confidence in our institutions is to allow them to function normally and to elect our magistrates as our ancestors taught us in the olden time.” Unfortunately, quite recently our Democracy has been violently attacked with lies about fraudulent elections and now multiple states are attempting to pass laws that will suppress voting rights for large numbers of citizens. Neither Cicero or Harris was writing about 2020, but that does not means that today’s readers cannot make contemporary connections.
A final lovely thought.
“I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.” Cicero