‘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.