If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.
At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.
We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”
Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.
All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.
The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.
Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.
Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.
Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.
Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins
Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror