ONE of the most striking aspects of Robert Harris’s novel, Dictator — which is the final instalment in his trilogy about the life of Cicero, the Roman politician and philosopher — is the casual way in which violence was administered in the Rome of the first century BC.
Baying mobs roam the streets of the city killing people. Torture is used to get information.
At one point in the novel — which is based on research over the last 12 years — Cicero’s wife, Terentia, goes to Clodia’s house, the sister of his bitter enemy, Clodius, who has been responsible for Cicero’s exile.
Terentia pleads with her to allow her husband to return to Rome. Clodia is repulsed. She says her presence defiles her house and has her whipped off the premises, which leave scars on her back. Clodius has Cicero’s house burnt to the ground and orders that a “shrine to Liberty” be consecrated in its place.
Of course political scheming — which includes marital alliances and life-and-death betrayals — is also central to life for those in the upper echelons of ancient Rome, a feature that Harris captures in vivid detail. Only a few of his list of characters aren’t caught up in the ugly jostling for position between Pompey the Great and Caesar, who turns into a dictator of monstrous vanity once his military adventures in Gaul, Africa and Spain conclude.
Once in power, Caesar decrees, among other royal practices, that his statue must be carried in a special chariot during religious processions. He has his body plucked entirely hairless to better show off the scars he has accumulated in battle.
Cicero is a compelling character, too, full of flaws. He’s fretful, squeamish about death, disdainful of military matters; he never, for example, sanctions sitting with a gladiator at his dining table. He dithers and is in thrall to the roar of the crowd, but to see him wield his most powerful weapon, his oratory, is thrilling. There is a wonderful scene in which he undoes Clodia in a public trial.
Cicero’s honeyed words can’t, however, save his marriage to Terentia. Harris’s study of a long-term marriage, which ultimately unravels, is deft. They trade favours with each other. Terentia is independently wealthy, largesse that enables Cicero to pursue his political career.
“It was certainly not for her looks or the sweetness of her temper”, says Tiro, Cicero’s secretary and the novel’s narrator, which attracted Cicero to her.
The orator’s triumphant political career, which leaves him second only to Pompey the Great in status, allows her to bask in reflected glory. Once he loses his power, however, their ties loosen.
Power, money and bread drive the majority of the impulses in Harris’s Rome. It’s fascinating how pragmatic its people were. When the husband of Cicero’s daughter, who is only 20, dies, she is cast adrift by her in-laws; her dowry is handed back.
The novel, which deals with Cicero’s final 15 years, moves at a steady pace towards his inevitable fate. There are moments of unintentional, humour like when Tiro tries to argue to the exiled Cicero that possessions and rank are unnecessary, given that virtue alone is sufficient for happiness. Cicero throws a stool at him in dismay.
The novel is, though, a primer on how politics works. The insight Harris provides, with a light touch, into how tyranny operates or indeed how the greasy leavers of a modern coalition government might turn, by casting back to one of the most tumultuous periods in history, makes for a great read.
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