Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator by Robert Harris

Title: Dictator

Author: Robert Harris

Review by Neil Murray

This is the third volume in Robert Harris’s fast-paced trilogy about the life of Cicero, as seen through the eyes (and shorthand notes) of Tiro, his slave, who actually existed and is credited with developing the first shorthand system.

This narrative device allows Harris considerable rein to expand upon Cicero, the man, although Tiro did indeed write a biography of the famed lawyer, orator and republican. Actually, the book is almost as much about Tiro as it is about Cicero – all we learn from Cicero is what Tiro observes and deduces, whereas he voices his own innermost thoughts and desires.

Truth be told, Tiro is a bit of a fusspot. He worries about Cicero’s health, physical and mental, he worries about his relations with his family (especially his wife), he worries about Cicero’s physical safety, and he worries about how he, Tiro, will end his days. In the event, he lives to be 100 and through a generous but common act of manumission (according to Mary Beard, anyway), he is given his freedom and a nice farm to retire to. With slaves of his own, which is a nice touch.

Harris draws heavily on Cicero’s own correspondence and writing, of course, but it is nice to have Tiro hold a mirror up to the man. This final volume covers Cicero’s return from the political wilderness, after he fled from Rome to save his life after Clodius declared his dealing with the Cataline conspiracy illegal. He makes a triumphant return to Rome, rises almost to everlasting glory in his attempts to halt Julius Caesar’s successful bid to gain total control of Rome, and then flees for his life again. And this time there is no happy ending.

Ruthless 

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar: military genius, ruthless politician, sex-mad.

I think I actually liked Harris’s portrayal of Julius Caesar best of all the characters. There is still something compelling about the man. Military genius, utterly ruthless politician and sex-mad: an irresistible combination. On the last point, I was amused to see Harris repeat, word for word, the first stanza of the bawdy song sung by Caesar’s soldiers at his triumph, as it appears in Robert Graves’ Claudius the God:

‘Home we bring the bald whoremonger,

Romans, lock your wives away.’

I’m certain this isn’t sloppiness or plagiarism: just a grinning nod to the reference. And there’s more: in Lustrum, the preceding volume, Harris cheekily attributed to Pompey the speech made by Adolf Hitler to the Reichstag on the outbreak of war in in 1939:

‘I have once more put on that coat [uniform] that was the most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.’

In this book, he takes a quote from Churchill, in that fateful Cabinet meeting after the Fall of France in summer 1940, when Britain came within an ace of making peace with Hitler, and puts it in Cicero’s mouth: ‘Let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ I wonder if I’m the only one to have noticed this? He also echoes Roy Jenkins’ assessment of Churchill’s finances which, like those of Cicero, were occasionally parlous; even dodgy. Jenkins opined that if Churchill’s expenditure did not meet his income, his solution was not to cut expenditure but to increase income. It’s a strategy I have some sympathy with, and Tiro makes exactly the same observation about Cicero.

In fact, and I’m sure it’s conscious, Harris portrays Cicero’s time in the wilderness and triumphant return very much like Churchill’s ditto, the only exception being that Cicero was also fighting to preserve his own life.

As a child, I loved the historical novels of Henry Treece and Ronald Welch. Not great literature (though Treece was also a notable poet), but rattling good yarns that actually extended one’s knowledge of history. Dictator, and whole Cicero trilogy, pull off the same trick.

By Neil Murray

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