‘Dictator’ by Robert Harris – Fine Historical Fiction, But…


‘Dictator’ by Robert Harris (2015) – 376 pages


First, I want to explain a little about my grading of the three Cicero novels by Robert Harris. I gave a grade of A- to each of the novels. Each of the novels captured and sustained my interest throughout. They are obviously well-researched, and I learned a lot about the Roman republic in the first century BCE and about the great statesman and philosopher Cicero. It was a pleasure to read such excellent historical fiction.

However I don’t consider historical fiction to be the end-all and be-all of literature. Great literature must shatter and sparkle, and I found the Cicero trilogy a bit too prosaic. This is a quality that most conventional historical novels have. Consider the following line:

“Cicero adjusted the folds of his toga.”

A novel about ancient Rome must always contain lines like the above. Of course no one can verify whether or not Cicero did actually adjust his toga at that point. For some reason togas have never caught on for men’s fashions in recent times.

‘Dictator’ covers one of the most traumatic times in ancient Roman history. First we have the battle of Pharsalus, the epic struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Then we have the assassination of Julius Caesar and the tyranny of Mark Antony, and finally the beginnings of the rise of Octavian Augustus.

“Must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?”

This is a question that is just as relevant today as it was 2100 years ago. Cicero fought with all of his intelligence and eloquence to save the republic, but he ultimately failed.

“We must be careful not to do the enemies’ work for them. To argue that to preserve our freedoms we must suspend our freedoms, that to safeguard elections we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must appoint a dictator – what logic is this?”

The republic nearly ends when Julius Caesar becomes dictator. The assassination of Caesar gives Cicero renewed hope that the republic can be saved. Things are a bit tricky for Cicero at this point, because he secretly applauds the assassination of Julius Caesar, but he must not show publicly his support for the perpetrators. However the supporters of the republic fail to seize the moment, and an even worse tyrant Mark Antony takes over.

“I tell you something, Tiro. Between you and me – I wish the Ides of March had never happened.”

Certainly the above line conveys Cicero’s changed attitude at that time, but as I was saying at the beginning, the line is a bit too obvious.

I do want to again emphasize that the Cicero trilogy is outstanding historical fiction.


Grade: A-



6 responses to this post.

  1. I see what you mean… and from the passage you quoted about doing the enemies’ work, there’s also a too-obvious political message for contemporary times. I agree with what he says about defending freedoms, but I don’t like the message to be spelled out so overtly. I can get that from a politician any time.



    • Hi Lisa,
      I see what you mean about being overtly political. Even though Robert Harris is from England, Cicero’s comments seem to apply nearly directly to the United States political situation now where it does seem our republic is in direct danger.

      My major qualm has more to do with an historical fiction overload, and I’m really looking forward to reading more imaginative fiction.

      Liked by 1 person


      • I think all our western democracies are in a quandary: here in Australia we too have to weigh up what we lose when we act to circumscribe some freedoms. So far, it’s been a case of circumscribing the freedom of those who pose a risk rather than the general population, but that in itself has generated much angst. But in France, they imposed a state of emergency for months after the last atrocity, and that was imposed on everyone.
        Part of the problem is that it should be a nuanced debate, and that’s not easily translated into novelistic dialogue.
        Still, I do very much like the sound of this trilogy:)



        • In the United States, Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States which he wants the Mexicans to pay for. It still is unclear if he hates the Mexicans or Muslims more.

          I used to like political novels back when politics made a little sense; not any more.



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