Monday, September 12, 2016

DICTATOR by Robert Harris (fic)

This is the final book in Harris's Ciceronian Trilogy, the others being: "Imperium" and "Lustrous." The books follow the great orator, philosopher, and Roman Consul, Marcus Tulles Cicero as he threads his way through the politics of the waning Roman Republic.  The story is narrated by his secretary, Tiro, a slave whom Cicero eventually frees.  Tiro is a natural guide to Cicero's daily life in perilous times without inserting himself into the action, except in a very minor way.

The novel opens in 58bce during one of the most contested times in the Republic.  If you have read any history of this time, it soon becomes clear that Harris has done a prodigious amount of research.  He remarkably has inserted Cicero's real words into the dialog allowing the reader to hear Cicero's voice in a easy and natural manner.  Cicero left behind thousands of letters and documents and  speeches which the real Tiro copied assiduously, along the way inventing an early form of shorthand.  It is largely thanks to the labor of medieval monks who faithfully copied and saved these precious documents that we so well know the demise of the Republic.  So it is that Cicero's words come down to us while so many others have been destroyed.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels between the politicking in the Roman Senate and what is going on in our world today.  The Romans were involved in nagging wars on several fronts, the wealth was held by a small group of aristocratic families, the poor were confined in a warren of apartments owned by slum landlords. The aging Cicero was fairly adept at the game but more than once he became enmeshed in risky moves and was banished accordingly.  The book opens on one of these exiles where he is jockeying to return to Rome as Julius Caesar is off-stage conquering Gaul and later the British Isles.  The first Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus is becoming unraveled and plots and counterplots are taking place daily making speaking out in the Senate a dangerous game.  Cicero very bravely speaks his mind over and over on the floor of the Senate when he returns from exile, only to be sent away again to govern a Provence in the eastern Mediterranean.  In order to return a second time, he promises not to involve himself in politics, but soon he is back on his game speaking out against Mark Antony after Caesar's assassination.

Cicero believed in the validity of the constitution and the Republic, nevertheless he was a catalyst in helping to bring it down.  He believed in Octavian, Caesar's nephew, when he said he would defend the Republic.  Realizing his mistake, and unable to keep his own counsel, Cicero fled again, already poor in health and close to death.  He asks: "Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based upon a citizens' militia, possibly hope to run and empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed of by its framers?  Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth destroy our democratic system?"

I highly recommend this book to lovers of ancient history and to all interested in a good story.  It helps to have read the first two books, but not necessary.  This book can stand alone, as well.  It is also a good book club choice because of the comparison with modern times.

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