Book review: Dictator by Robert Harris

ROBERT Harris concludes his Cicero trilogy in magnificent style with the brilliant and gripping Dictator, writes Allan Massie

Robert Harris. Picture: Geoffrey Swaine/REX Shutterstock


By Robert Harris

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Hutchinson, 449pp, £20

With Dictator Robert Harris brings his Cicero trilogy to a triumphant, compelling and deeply moving conclusion. The three novels are surely the finest fictional treatment of Ancient Rome in the English language. They are distinguished by mastery of the sources, sympathetic imagination, political intelligence and narrative skill. Harris has the unusual ability to combine amplitude with rapidity.

We know more about Cicero than about any other Roman. His public life is a matter of record, but he also reveals himself in his many letters and his essays. We know so much that it might have been tempting for Harris to let Cicero tell his own story. Wisely, he chose his secretary Tiro, a slave and later freeman, as his narrator. Tiro is devoted to his master, sees him as a heroic figure, yet never conceals his weaknesses.

Dictator begins with Cicero in exile, banished from Rome, pursued by his venomous enemy, the rabble-rouser Publius Clodius, and in fear for his life. The Republic is on its last legs, dominated by the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. At moments he recognises that the institutions of the Citizen Republic are no longer adequate for the Empire that Roman aggression has created. Yet he does not despair of renewing them. First, however, he has to work his passage back, and this requires him to humiliate himself before Caesar, whom he admires and distrusts. Back in Rome, his family life in disarray, he reluctantly keeps his promise not to participate in public life.

Then Caesar crosses the Rubicon, invading Italy at the head of the army which has conquered Gaul and civil war is unavoidable. The Senate, led by Pompey, withdraw from Italy – against Cicero’s advice. Reluctantly Cicero goes too. The ensuing campaign in which a strangely lethargic Pompey is defeated is brilliantly told. The all-mighty Caesar, now dictator for life, patronisingly extends his clemency to Cicero, for whom he feels both affection and admiration. But Caesar is losing touch with reality; he declares himself to be a god. We all know what happened next, on the Ides of March. Cicero was left out of the conspiracy to murder Caesar, perhaps because of his loose tongue. He approves of the assassination, though, while being horrified by the Liberators’ failure to plan ahead. They should have killed Caesar’s jackal, Mark Antony, too. 
The dictator is dead, but there has been no coup d’etat.

What follows is incredibly complicated, but Harris guides us through the political maze with masterly lucidity. It is Cicero’s finest hour as he tries to restore the Republic; yet also, as we see, one in which it is Cicero who may be losing touch with reality. He employs all his rhetorical power against Antony, and makes an alliance with Caesar’s heir, his great-nephew and adopted son, the 19 year-old Octavian. They work together, flatter each other, distrust each other. Once again Cicero’s loose tongue, his inability to resist a witticism, betrays him. The boy, he says, “must be praised, given honours and erased” (Harris translates the word “tollendum” as “erased”; better perhaps “removed” or “got rid of”.) Naturally the jest is relayed to Octavian, and when he and Antony come to terms and draw up a list of the enemies to be proscribed – wiped out – Octavian shrugs his shoulders and yields to Antony’s demand that Cicero’s name should appear on the list. Power is ruthless. Cicero has come to the end.

It’s a wonderful, dramatic, story, wonderfully told. Even a reader who knows it well will be gripped, and respond to the tragedy. The author’s research has been fully absorbed. He writes, as if like Tiro himself, he was there. It is as if he was crouched under a table , an unsuspected listener to the conversation. Everything rings true. You feel this is how it must have been. All the main actors are utterly convincing. You see why Pompey failed; it’s a brilliant portrait of a great man gone to seed, outmanoeuvred at every step by the brilliant Caesar. But you also understand why the Liberators, some of whom had been Caesar’s friends and generals, some of whom had been pardoned, condescendingly, for opposing him, concluded that he must be killed. His dominance was intolerable, and Cicero was surely right in thinking he was now suffering from megalomania, and was indeed mad. But wasn’t Cicero himself no longer in touch with reality in believing that the Republic might yet be saved and restored?

Best of all is the portrayal of the remarkable boy, Octavian. Harris lets us see his charm, intelligence, clear-sightedness and cold determination. You can understand what is beyond the scope of this novel, how, though no general himself, he came to outwit and defeat all rivals, and as Augustus, the name by which he is known to posterity, became master of the Roman world, even restoring the façade of a Republic. I don’t think the young Octavian has ever been better done.

But of course it is Cicero who is at the centre of the trilogy, and Harris gives him to us, admirable and pitiable, vain, highly intelligent, sometimes too clever by half, engaging, irritating, utterly human, as the narrator leads us with sure step through the twists and turns of a violent revolutionary time. This last novel is complete and satisfying in itself. You don’t have to have read the two previous ones to enjoy it, though it gains immeasurably if you start at the beginning with the first volume, Imperium. However if you come fresh to Dictator, you will surely want to go back to its predecessors.