Dictator | Robert Harris | 2015 | Hutchinson | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 58 BC and Cicero, now middle-aged, has reached the height of a career more illustrious than any could have imagined for a politician and lawyer of such comparatively low origins. But, though consul and Rome’s leading statesman, Cicero’s fall is to be dramatic and thorough, labelled murderer and despot, cast out from his beloved city by a triumvirate brought together by their hatred of Cicero – Crassus, Caesar, Pompey. Not that they are the ones to harry Cicero out of Rome, they have Clodius to do that for them, Cicero’s greatest enemy, never far from his heels, snapping at his throat. Into exile Cicero goes. This a lonely, pointless time for a man who is most himself in the Senate and courts of Rome, conjuring great victories from words, in need of an audience, ready with a quip to delight the crowd. But sometimes Cicero can say the wrong thing, carried away with the moment, in front of the wrong audience. He suffers for that, in his exile and after the moment of joy when he is finally recalled to Rome by the man with whom Cicero has his most complicated relationship, Julius Caesar.
It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating, intriguing and perplexing period of history than these last years of the Roman Republic. Cicero, middle-aged and then old, is our guide through this Roman dystopia. His story, and that of Rome’s transformation through murder, idealism, treachery and war, is told by Cicero’s servant and secretary Tiro, a slave who endures alongside his master even after he finally receives his long overdue emancipation. His love for Cicero, seasoned at times with irritation and exasperation, is here caught on the page. Tiro’s reward for his service is both affection and danger as Tiro accompanies Cicero through Rome’s streets, across seas to distant friendless provinces, in panicked flight or in proud procession. Cicero might be famous, infamous among his fellow citizens, but in Tiro’s eyes he remains a flawed, proud and eager man, but always a witty, likeable companion.
While Tiro’s words haven’t survived the centuries, they are brought alive by Robert Harris in this outstanding finale to his superb Cicero trilogy. Years and other books have separated the novels but my delight in learning that there was to be a conclusion was exceeded by the utter pleasure of reading it. Dictator is a fine novel, as indeed are Imperium and Lustrum, with Harris somehow evoking the violence and upheaval of a long-gone martial society by focusing on the life and career of a man who lived not by the sword but by his words. Rome was built on its contradictions, its idealism co-existing alongside its corruption – a tension so dramatic that it brought down the Republic and Harris captures it brilliantly. Cicero is a lawyer but the court and senate have become lawless, the mob has a power that lawyers can only envy. The assassination of Julius Caesar might seem to some as the beginning of a new era that harks back to the Republic’s earliest days – Cicero himself is alive with the moment – but surely an even bigger monster than Caesar has been unleashed in the shape of Octavius Caesar.
Cicero is shown to fear the outcome that must follow when the triumvirate is reduced to two, Caesar and Pompey. Cicero dreads the end of days will follow and he’s not far off the mark. Robert Harris not only portrays a living, breathing Cicero, he also works a similar magic on creating one of the most sinister figures I have read in a long time – Octavius Caesar. His character hides at times behind letters, public appearances, his relationship to Caesar, but we are in no doubt as to where power now lies and in this new world there is no place for a man like Cicero.
Robert Harris’s handling of the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination and the emergence of Octavius is simply outstanding. A man such as Cicero would have barely known which way was up for some considerable time. It is complicated, not least for those who had to live through it, but all is made clear, dramatic and thrilling in Dictator.
Dictator is a beautifully-written novel, capturing so well the feel of a distant past that we can only imagine. Robert Harris does it for us. The city of Rome and, even more importantly, its people are alive on the page. Some of the most famous characters of Roman history become three-dimensional, with families, aspirations, a determined purpose. Cicero is caught in the middle of it all, sometimes controlling events but, more often than not, caught on their wave. He is always, though, a man to admire. He is brave and loyal, frustrated and proud, petulant and kind. Tiro is our eyes and, through them, Robert Harris allows us, through this marvellous trilogy, to witness one of the most remarkable periods of history, taking us intimately into the lives of the people who shaped it.
Dictator works perfectly well as a stand alone novel but I do recommend that you travel back to the beginning with Imperium, if not before then definitely afterwards.
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