January 9, 2016


'Dictator,' by Robert Harris (TOM HOLLAND, JAN. 8, 2016, NY Times Book Review)

Cicero, the Roman statesman whose talent for oratory was such that he remains to this day a byword for eloquence, has always divided opinion. A key player in the death agony of Rome's traditional republican system of government, he was lauded by his admirers as a defender of constitutional propriety and dismissed by his foes as a vacillating opportunist. Posterity has proved similarly conflicted. While America's founding fathers revered him as a model of civic duty, he was excoriated by the most formidable German classicist of the 19th century, Theodor Mommsen, as a precursor of that lowest class of writer, a "newspaper columnist." A person's attitude to Cicero can often be most revealing.

What, then, does it say about Robert Harris that he should have made Rome's greatest orator the hero not just of one novel but of an entire trilogy? Perhaps that he likes and respects politicians to a degree unusual among contemporary writers. This is not to say that he gives them a free pass. His portrait in "The Ghost Writer" of a former British prime minister not a million miles from Tony Blair was notably unforgiving, and the character sketches he provides in "Dictator" of some of the giants of Roman history, from Pompey to Julius Caesar, are similarly unsparing. Nevertheless, Harris clearly prefers activists willing to get their hands dirty to those who sit on the sidelines, preserving the spotlessness of their virtue. As a former correspondent for the BBC and political editor for The Observer, he is as well qualified as anyone to appreciate that nothing is ever achieved in a democratic system of government without a measure of give-and-take. "Dictator" is the work of a novelist who refuses to buy into the fashionable dismissal of politicians as inherently contemptible.

"How easy it is for those who play no part in public affairs to sneer at the compromises required of those who do." So declares the narrator of "Dictator" in the early pages of the novel. As he did in "Imperium" and "Conspirata," the first two volumes of the series, Harris ventriloquizes through the person of Tiro, a slave who served Cicero as his secretary and reputedly invented the Latin shorthand system. As a character, he is so pallid as to be almost invisible, barely intruding on the action except every so often to fall ill. "I seem to have been blessed," he admits, "with the sort of personality that nobody notices." Yet it is precisely this transparency that makes him so well suited to Harris's purposes. Ultimately, "Dictator" is interested in a single theme: the great game of Roman politics. Tiro, almost constantly by his master's side, provides the perfect bird's-eye view.

Mr. Harris is one of the great conservative novelists of the age.  Indeed, his worst book, The Ghost Writer, is almost laughable because (spoiler alert), the key reveal is that the Cherie Blair character had worked for the CIA, which is supposed to somehow call into question Tony's support for removing Saddam Hussein?  No, I didn't get it either.  For her secret past to be scandalous wouldn't she have had to have worked for the KGB?

But we just got a review copy of Dictator via the Amazon Vine program (happy to send it on if someone wants it) and it was terrific.  There is a fair amount of street violence and warfare, but the real thrills lie in the political manuevering and the struggle of Cicero and Cato (in particular) to preseve the Republic against the increasing dicatorial rule of the various triumvirates generally and the personal aggrandizemnent of power by Pompey, Caesar and Octavian/Augustus personally.    Simply to survive, Cicero is required to make compromises and even flee into exile periodically, disappointing allies and followers.  But these actions provide one last opportunity to save the ancient Roman Republic--with its separation of powers, term limits, universal laws, and the like.  Crucially, he--and everyone else but Julius Caesar himself--underestimates Octavian's desire for absolute power and is disarmed by his rhetorical regard for the old system.  The result is a tragedy, not just for Cicero but for Rome and the world as well.

Posted by at January 9, 2016 10:16 AM