July 4, 2018


Robert Harris's Cicero on stage in London (Mary Beard, 7/01/18, Times Literary Supplement)

Cicero has a lot to thank Robert Harris for. Many of us have struggled to make the Roman orator interesting for a modern audience. But I fear that my worthy PhD thesis ('The State Religion in the Late Roman Republic: a study based on the works of Cicero") have had far less effect on Cicero's modern fame than Harris's trilogy, Imperium, Conspiracy and Lustrum, which have given us back a funny, enterprising, self-ironic and clever Roman politician (with a career ending, as they all do (I'm quoting E. Powell here, who knew) in failure. In Cicero's case, that meant decapitation.

I hadn't got to see the RSC adaptation of the trilogy at Stratford, but did manage the full 7 hours worth on Saturday at the Gielgud theatre in London: a fantastically acted, theatrical box-set. It was a wonderful recreation of the wonderful Harris recreation of Cicero's career (though I still slightly regret that the first -- and my favourite -- part of the trilogy is skipped over in the interests, I guess, of time). First of all it was engagingly funny -- which is totally apt for Cicero and his testimony. True, what we witness is the bloody breakdown of the Roman Republic and the  awful violence of civil war. But Harris (and his adaptor Mike Poulton) get inside the skin of Cicero's own wit here. They remind us that, though he has tended to be treated in mainstream modern scholarship as a rather pompous stuffed shirt, his ancient reputation was as the funniest man ever. What was his problem? asked Plutarch. Simple, he could never keep a joke in. And he ended up in Pompey's camp in the war against Caesar making himself horribly unpopular by going round cracking gags. So, for all the tragedy, this is a tremendously Ciceronian performance.

If you're looking for beach books this Summer, the trilogy is fantastic.

Posted by at July 4, 2018 6:34 AM