‘Conspirata’ by Robert Harris – The Republic is Threatened

‘Conspirata’ by Robert Harris   (2010) – 334 pages

 

 

9780743266116_p0_v3_s260x420At the beginning of ‘Conspirata’, Cicero has been elected as consul, the highest office in the Roman republic.  He shares the office with Gaius Antonius Hybrida who plays a minor role.

Being the most powerful man in the Roman republic, Cicero has powerful enemies.  Soon he finds out that Catilina, a Roman Senator, is attempting to overthrow the Roman republic and is leading a conspiracy to murder Cicero.  Five traitors are captured and sentenced to death.  Although Julius Caesar is involved in the conspiracy behind the scenes, he survives.

“They may not all plot together but they all see an opportunity in chaos.  Some are willing to kill to bring chaos about, and others just desire to stand back and watch chaos take hold.  They are like boys with fire, and Caesar is the worst of the lot.  It’s a kind of madness – there’s madness in the state.”   

After breaking up this conspiracy to destroy the republic, Cicero is hailed as “the savior of Rome” and “the father of his country”.

The trouble is that all this praise went to Cicero’s head.   When his consulship ended, he took up writing heroic poems about himself.  He bought an expensive mansion from the wealthy Crassus that he can’t afford, but arranges to get some of the money by defending one of the traitors.  The rest he borrows from moneylenders.  Pride goes before a fall, as Cicero’s faithful assistant Tiro points out:

“But I fear there is in all men who achieve their life’s ambition only a narrow line between dignity and vanity, confidence and delusion.  Instead of staying in his seat and disavowing such praise, Cicero rose and made a long speech agreeing with Crassus’s every word, while beside him Pompey gently cooked in a stew of jealousy and resentment.” 

Yes, the two most powerful military leaders in Rome, Pompey and Julius Caesar, are also receiving an acclaim which threatens the republic.  Whereas Cicero is willing to control his drive in order to save the republic, the ambitions of Pompey and Julius Caesar have no limits.  In order to achieve their goals, they make Cicero’s enemy Clodius, “a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together”, a tribune.

Robert Harris has written this trilogy of Cicero as an object lesson on the threats to a republic’s checks and balances which keep any one person, whether it is king or emperor or dictator, from getting too much power.  Cicero fought for the rule of law and statute against some powerful enemies.  Danger comes from all sides.  The rich aristocrats can use their money to buy a government which unfairly gives them even more power.  On the other side, unscrupulous politicians can enflame the mob by using racism and patriotism.

SPQRIt is a huge accomplishment for a nation to keep a rational set of legal checks and balances protecting the rights of the less rich or powerful or fortunate and not succumb to dictatorship.

 

Grade: A- 

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7 responses to this post.

  1. I have translated more of Cicero’s works than I care to remember. He is a fascinating historical figure, but I find him quite crabby at times. It’s interesting how this author chose to approach him.

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    • Hi Melissa,
      In translating Cicero’s works you are carrying on in the great tradition of Petrarch. Petrarch’s translations of Cicero are considered responsible for starting the Renaissance. If your translations are even half as influential, you can be very proud. We definitely need a new Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment now. Instead we seem to be stuck with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

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  2. I’m reading SPQR by Mary Beard at the moment, a history of Rome until the death of Commodus and the historical Cicero comes across not as some hero of the Republic but an autocrat who will put his enemies to death without trial and who obsesses over his slaves long after they have escaped his evil clutches. It feels very weird to think of a novel where this loathsome man is the good guy!

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    • Hi Alastair,
      I am looking forward to reading SPQR. I’m surprised it’s view of Cicero is so different from the usual which is that his writings were responsible for both the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Yes, he did execute five men for treason without a trial, but they were plotting to murder him. Cicero did follow the statutes of the Republic for the most part and willingly resigned his Consulship when his term ended. This was far different from the behavior of Julius Caesar and Pompey.
      Slavery was an accepted part of the Roman Republic, and Cicero could hardly be faulted for not opposing it.
      I definitely will read SPQR carefully, but at this point I still have a positive view of Cicero and see him as an advocate of the checks and balances of a constitutional government which prevents emperors, kings, or dictators from taking absolute power.

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      • It’s the modern take on his character which I find so fascinating. I was definitely brought up to respect and admire people like Cicero and it’s interesting that even in Rome itself, he was widely loathed. The ordinary Romans burnt his house down once he had fled for his life.
        The point about the executions is not so much that he did it, but how he did it – he ignored the normal legal processes and had the men executed without trial, shocking his peers. In that sense, he was as much a despot as Caesar or Pompey.

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        • Yes, even according to Harris’ trilogy, Cicero was widely loathed. Early in his career Cicero successfully prosecuted an aristocratic patrician for financial corruption, so the aristocrats didn’t like him. Caesar and Pompey, for their own power hunger purposes, inflamed the easily-misled masses, the populists, against Cicero, and he was driven into exile. Extreme dislike by the people does not mean Cicero was wrong. That is one of the lessons he teaches.
          Compared to the wild and crazy emperors who came after, Cicero seems like a quite reasonable guy.

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