Book Review: Dictator, by Robert Harris

cv_dictatorAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This was a new genre for me, and it was the third in a series – something that wasn’t clearly indicated on the outside of the book. If I’d realised, I would have sought to read Imperium and Lustrum first. However, the lack of background for the story allowed me to approach it with my mind open – seeing its merits free of prejudice.

Dictator is about Marcus Tullius Cicero, and the story is told by Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, a former slave, who is given freedom in Dictator, but chooses to remain at Cicero’s side while he notes Cicero’s days and the events and relationships therein. Cicero himself is writing his philosophies of life, political analysis and recording his interpretations of previous scholars’ works.

Tiro is not an academic, nor a scholar. He is a common man, with both the skill of writing (being an inventor of a type of shorthand) and a steadfast loyalty to his master, who pursues the idealism of a truly republican Rome in the face of treachery, deceit, war, espionage and duplicity. Like any human, Cicero has his failings, and Tiro’s recordings of these are poignant, despairing of many of Cicero’s decisions.

In the opening scenes of Dictator (Exile, 58 BC to 47 BC)– Cicero is fleeing Rome after tribune Clodius Pulcher has banished him to beyond four hundred miles from Rome, forcing him to find refuge across the Adriatic Sea. In the meantime, Caesar (Gaius Julius), having appointed Clodius as tribune, has left Rome to wage war in Gaul.

Cicero continuously has to move from one position to another as members of the government are manipulated and swayed from supporting Cicero to decrying him for his views. The public are just as easily manipulated, and they cannot rest easy for long anywhere. Exile ends with Caesar lifting any restrictions on Cicero.

The second part –(Redux, 47 BC to 43 BC)–follows Cicero’s return to Rome, and his waxing and waning popularity and influence through the final days of Caesar (Gaius Julius), and his replacement by his nephew Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar). Tiro leaves Cicero’s service, then rejoins him in his new glory days, and remains with him as he discovers Octavian’s duplicity and deceit.

As Cicero’s popularity waxes and wanes, Tiro is with him or thinking of him. Tiro records all the events which enfold back in Rome, letters to and from Cicero, Cicero’s betrayal, his rise to sit as ruler of Rome, war against and the defeat of Mark Antony…Cicero’s last speech in the forum stated:

“I do not say that the younger Caesar is like the elder. But I do say that if we make him consul, and in effect give him control of all our forces, then we will betray the very principle for which we fight: the principle that drew me back to Rome when I was on the point of sailing to Greece – that the Roman Republic, with its divisions of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s greatest creation, and I would sooner lie choking in my own blood upon the ground than betray the principle on which all this stands – that is, first and last, the rule of law.”

A worthwhile read for those who enjoy political intrigue and period writing.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

Dictator
by Robert Harris
Published by Hutchinson
ISBN: 9780091799502

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