The End of the Republic

Review: Robert Harris, ‘Dictator’

Cicero denouncing Catiline / Wikimedia Commons
February 14, 2016

In his Republic, Cicero produced one of history’s staunchest defenses for a career in politics. Composed in the late 50s B.C. while the Roman republic enjoyed a period of precarious stability under the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, and styled after the famous work of Plato, the Republic first addressed the claims of those who want nothing to do with governing the state, and would prefer a quiet life unsullied by politics. Politicians, after all, tend to be "worthless," according to these critics. Moreover, who would want to try to rule a capricious citizenry, or subject themselves to "foul abuse" from "corrupt and uncivilized opponents?"

"As if good, brave, and high-minded men could have any stronger reason for entering politics than the determination not to give in to the wicked, and not to allow the state to be torn apart by such people in a situation where they themselves would be powerless to help even if they wished to do so," Cicero answered.

Throughout his career as a leading statesman in Rome, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) sought to challenge politicians who trampled on the Roman constitution and its separation of powers: the conspiratorial Catiline, the dictatorial Caesar, and the rapacious Antony. His battles against the latter two are the source material for Robert Harris’ Dictator, a riveting work of historical fiction and the last part of a trilogy about Cicero’s life. Harris, who hews closely to Cicero’s letters, speeches, and other original sources, has conducted an impressive amount of research, which allows him to condense 15 years of tumultuous Roman history into an entertaining political thriller. Siding with Cicero, Harris suggests that politics—despite its ruthlessness and unpredictability, and the unsavory compromises it requires—is a worthwhile endeavor, and thereby the highest means of fulfilling one’s civic duty.

By no means, however, does Harris offer a rosy view of the actual practice of politics. The novel begins with Cicero fleeing Rome in 58 B.C. after being ordered into exile by Clodius, an aristocratic demagogue and ally of Caesar’s. Once hailed as "Father of the Nation" for his execution of conspirators who attempted to overthrow the republic and install Catiline as ruler, Cicero now stood condemned for his measures by Clodius and the mob. Clodius’ thugs burned down Cicero’s house on Rome’s Palatine Hill, erecting a shrine to "Liberty" in its place.

Such is the fickle nature of public support. As Harris, a former journalist who enjoys close relations with some of Britain’s political elites, told the Independent in a 2009 interview, "You can't repeal human nature. People get tired of you, and you lose, it's as simple as that."

Cicero wept bitterly at the hardships his family was forced to endure during his exile. But his political legacy did not end there. After penning a humiliating letter to Caesar in which he praised his enemy’s "intelligence, resourcefulness, patriotism, energy, and command," he was allowed to reenter Rome. His capitulation was necessary, he says: "My skill is statecraft, and that requires me to be alive and in Rome." The state that Cicero returned to, however, was a republic in name only. While Cicero and his family stayed temporarily at the house of his brother Quintus, Clodius’ mob began to shout insults at the statesman and lob cobblestones from the street. The ruffians were driven away by gladiators under the control of Pompey (generally an ally of Cicero) as fighting spread into the Forum, the center of Roman politics. Political violence was the new normal. "It is the end of the republic," Cicero tells Quintus.

Harris has a knack for, as he put it to the Independent, "creating a scene, rather than just simply describing what happened." Given the belligerent nature of the last years of the Roman republic, these scenes are often macabre, such as the evacuation of Pompey’s supporters from Greece after the general’s defeat in his civil war with Caesar:

I saw the most pitiful scenes—families with all the belongings they could carry, including their dogs and parrots, attempting to force their way on to ships; matrons wrenching the rings from their fingers and offering their most precious family heirlooms for a place in a humble rowing boat; the white doll-like corpse of a baby dropped from the gangplank by its mother in a fumble of terror and drowned.

The narrator throughout is Tiro, Cicero’s trusted slave and secretary, and the inventor of the Latin shorthand system that is still used today. The device seems contrived once or twice, but mostly works well, enabling Harris to present a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the events in Cicero’s life without assuming too much about his personal thoughts.

Tiro, though sympathetic, is not unsparing. We see Cicero’s vanity, timidity, greed (he married his two wives mostly to finance his spending habits and a political career), and opportunism. After the death of his beloved daughter Tullia, he withdrew from public life and focused on writing philosophy.

He was not consulted by the foes of Caesar who plotted the autocrat’s demise, though he cheered his fateful assassination in 44 B.C. The ensuing chaos and power struggle afforded Cicero one last opportunity to reach the pinnacle of Roman political life. He returned to the Senate floor and delivered his Philippics—a series of speeches denouncing the new tyranny of Antony, Caesar’s deputy—and again earned the adulation of the public. But then Caesar’s heir Octavian (and one-time ally of Cicero) formed a second triumvirate with Antony and the senator Lepidus. They ordered that Cicero be executed along with hundreds of other senators. Antony had Cicero’s head and hands nailed to a platform in the Forum. Octavian eventually became sole ruler and ended Cicero’s venerated republic, declaring himself Emperor Augustus.

In a part of the Republic known as the "Dream of Scipio," Cicero speculates that "in no case does a person’s reputation last for ever; it fades with the death of the speakers, and vanishes as posterity forgets." Harris deserves credit for battling the truth of that claim in the case of Cicero, and reminding us that we still have much to learn from the Roman statesman. As Americans prepare for another presidential election season, the typical convulsions and contingencies of politics have emerged—along with two-bit Caesars and charlatans eager to capitalize on them. If we become so cynical about the political process that we disengage from it entirely, if the elites in society continue to neglect the interests and anxieties of citizens, and the country’s potential statesmen forsake public service for more lucrative professions, then perhaps rule by the "wicked" is what we deserve.

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