Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dictator

Dictator
○ 2015 Robert Harris
416 pages


"Why should you be the one to stop Caesar?!"
"Who else is there?"


It is the twilight of the Roman republic.  Liberty and the rule of law are in tatters, withered by an alliance of egotists, and Rome itself imperiled by the manipulators of mobs. For Marcus Tullius Cicero, the days have never been darker. Having spoken out against the unholy trinity --  Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar -- he finds himself an exile, forced to leave behind the life of Rome for a gloomy retreat in pestilential Thessolonika.  The greatest orator in Rome has not yet said his final piece, however. Soon the alliance of ambition will tear itself apart,  and therein lies one last chance for true men of the Republic to return the ship of state to a safe harbor.  For Cicero, the  rise and fall of Julius Caesar will be the last stand of republican virtue and Cicero's own concluding moment of brilliance before winking out.  Dictator is the finale to Robert Harris' biographical trilogy of Cicero,  one fitting but sad.

As the would-be great men vie for power, Cicero struggles between despair and determination. He is exiled twice, and withdraws wearily into the countryside of his own accord another time, growing steadily more tired from a struggle that seems pointless. The ever-shifting balance of power is ever against the restoration of the rule of law,  leaving the Republic dominated by first three personalities, then two, then one, and – finally, chaos that will spell an end to not only republican liberty, but to Cicero himself.   This is not a slow fade, however. Instead, Cicero will collect himself, gathering his robes and striding into the Senate – or wherever debate can be head once a rioting mob burns the senate building down – and delivering fiery oration against those who would reduce Rome into another petty dictatorship, or maneuvering in private to frustrate Caesar and Marc Anthony’s dreams of kingly power.

The political drama might be stronger if most readers didn’t know exactly what might happen; taken as a story, removed from history, the ending is wholly unexpected, as  not until the last does Cicero’s underestimation of Octavius backfire against him and doom Rome to empire.  Another element of the story, more pervasive here given the vagaries of fortune and Cicero’s fight against gloom, is philosophy. In his periods of isolation and defeat, Cicero creates an update to Plato’s The Republic, and several commentaries on Stoicism. These aren’t woolgathering for him, either;  his appreciation for the preeminence of virtue, his practice of some Stoic precepts,  serves as his motivation to endure whatever fate sees fit to throw at him. If it means tempting death by defying Caesar – so be it.

Dictator has been a long time coming,  but it is a fitting send-off for a man hailed as a father of the nation. In Imperium we saw him rise from rural obscurity to the senate, achieving rank on his merits alone; in Conspirata, he faced down a mob to defend the rule of law, and in Dictator – when the Senate has burned, and every constitutional authority buried – he goes down fighting, thrusting his throat toward an executors knife and bidding him witness: this is how a Man dies  The conclusion rendered by Cicero’s secretary Tiro is best, however:  what matters most with Cicero is not his undeserved death, but his accomplishments in life.  He was the last man of the Roman republic, and Harris’ treatment of his life does both Cicero and the reader well.

2 comments:

  1. Bravo! You've persuaded me that I need to read the Harris trilogy. I'm off to the library soon. Thanks!

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  2. I think you will enjoy -- "Imperium" is the reason I've been reading Harris all these years!

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