A decade ago, historical novelist Robert Harris opened the first book in his planned trilogy about the philosopher, lawyer, and politician Cicero with a note from the ancient Roman statesman’s personal secretary.
The secretary, a man named Tiro who in real life invented shorthand and outlived his former master by decades, tells the reader why he has decided to offer a personal account. Tiro is nearly 100 years old and he wants to fulfill a promise made to Cicero: to convey what it was like to live during the glorious and tragic days of the republic.
“I pray forgiveness in advance for all my errors and infelicities of style,” Tiro says by way of introduction in “Imperium,” the earlier Harris novel. “I also pray to the gods that I may reach the end before my own end overtakes me. Cicero’s final words to me were a request to tell the truth about him, and this I shall endeavor to do. If he does not always emerge as a paragon of virtue, well, so be it. Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them.”
For those who find Tiro’s voice enchanting, the Cicero trilogy is a delight.
(The second book in the series, “Conspirata,” recounts Cicero’s days as one of the two Roman consuls presiding over the Senate. Cicero fends off assassination plots while battling powerful opposition on several fronts.)
This month, Harris published the final book in the series. Dictator begins with Cicero in exile and follows him through Julius Caesar’s unforgettable Ides of March, Cicero’s triumphant political comeback, and one final political conspiracy as Cicero becomes an elder statesman.
Through it all, Tiro maintains his low-key style while adding just the right mixture of digression and personal observation to maintain the verisimilitude of a diary rather than a biography. Of the future emperor Augustus, known as Octavian after being posthumously adopted by Caesar, Tiro off-handedly mentions his awful teeth while recounting a seminal meeting between Octavian and Cicero.
Tiro began working for Cicero as a slave, but was later freed. Their friendship kept them together afterwards. Recalling the first property he owned, a rural farm Cicero bought for him, Tiro slips in some of the most famous words Cicero ever conjured.
“The boxes containing my books and documents went straight upstairs into the raftered room I had selected earlier as the site for my little library. It was shuttered and cool. Shelves had been put up as I requested – rough and rustic, but I didn’t care – and I set about unpacking at once. There is a wonderful line in one of Cicero’s letters to Atticus in which he describes moving into a property and says: I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”
Those of us lacking in the specifics or even, at times, the basics, of the toga-and-sandals era need not fret. Harris-as-Tiro manages to be both an insider and a memoirist capable of providing context without sounding like an encyclopedia.
“Dictator” also includes two essential maps – this geographically challenged reader sought them out again and again – as well a list of the historical figures and a glossary of Roman political terms.
While these are necessary and helpful, don’t be intimidated. Harris is a popular novelist of the first rank, a writer who entertains above all.
“Dictator” is, more than anything, about loss. Again and again, the republic – that is, the Roman governmental system of senators and others elected by the people to run the country on their behalf – is threatened by military dictatorships. Cicero’s fortunes, and safety, ebb and flow.
And his personal life is rocky, too. His wife steals much of his wealth and they end up divorcing. He and his brother are at odds, his beloved adult daughter, Tullia, struggles through demeaning marriages and Cicero painfully learns who his friends are and are not.
Idealism costs Cicero his fortune and his marriage, circumstances foretold by Terentia, Cicero’s wife, before they separate. Cicero, in obstinate fashion, challenges Julius Caesar as Caesar manipulates his far-flung military victories into complete control of the Roman government. Capitulate, or at least compromise, and live in comfort, Terentia tells her husband.
“Haven’t you suffered enough for your opposition?” she asks Cicero. “Is there another man in the world who has endured more? Why not let others take up the fight?”
Cicero occupies a stage filled with powerful figures: Caesar, the future Augustus, the towering general and politician Pompey, the pre-Machiavelli Machiavellian political wrangler Clodius and Cato, another orator and politician determined to prevent Caesar from carrying out one-man rule.
Cicero in Harris’s eyes – and pen – comes alive with wit, verve, and vanity. He’s no saint, but he is often irresistible.
When he slyly takes on a legal case as part of a larger political machination, Cicero doesn’t mind letting his client know the naked angling of all involved.
“I see through you as clearly as if you were made of water,” he says.
Like the late Alan Rickman, Tiro, in a supporting role, often steals the show, even as he accompanies his famous boss and friend into the fray.
Listen as Tiro describes what it was like entering the Senate after Caesar was betrayed and killed by Brutus and Cassius.
“And finally when we had run the gauntlet of pleas and imprecations and entered the temple, it proved so cramped that men who hated and distrusted one another were nonetheless packed into close proximity so that one sensed that the slightest ill-judged remark might turn the thing into a bloodbath,” Tiro tells us.
This is storytelling at its finest – and not to be missed. All hail Harris for a job well done.