New Man from Nowhere

James Davidson

  • Dictator by Robert Harris
    Hutchinson, 299 pp, £20.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 09 175210 1

From any imaginable perspective the middle of the first century BC was an interesting time in Rome. More and more people and resources were coming more and more under the control of one single city, while that one single city was coming, not coincidentally, more and more under the control of fewer and fewer men. It is one of the great turning points in history, when you can hear the gears crash, smell the rubber burn and feel the earth slide beneath your feet; a great continental shelf buckles under history’s mantle and a centuries-old republic succumbs to the rule of one man, the first in what would be a very long line of ‘emperors’.

Other turning points in ancient history were arguably as or more important in the history of the world, but what distinguishes the end of the Roman Republic is that it is also one of the periods when the mists that inevitably obscure the field of antiquity seem briefly to clear and to present instead a startlingly bright and detailed view.

In part that is simply because the people and events were written up by ancient historians whose works have survived: historians like Julius Caesar, who chronicled his own conquest of France in a deceptively simple style that long ago endeared him to teachers of Level-1 Latin; or Caesar’s Level-2 protégé Sallust, whose endless variety of old-fashioned nouns to describe contemporary vices quickly exhausts even the most fastidious student’s ability to make moral distinctions. And nearly a third of Plutarch’s Roman Lives are devoted to men who flourished in the middle decades of the first century BC, sometime(s) friends, sometime(s) rivals, but all (well-)acquainted with one another: Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cicero.

But above all it is the writings of the last of these, Marcus Tullius Cicero, that give vividness and intimacy to our knowledge of those world-reshaping times. Cicero was a ‘new man’ from nowhere, by birth a member of the second class of Rome’s elite, the ‘equestrian order’, although by this time Rome’s ‘knights’ knew far more about mining concessions and tax-farming than they did about how to handle a horse. The class above, the senatorial order, were several times fewer in number and much inclined to keep it that way, jealously guarding access to magistracies, generalships and provincial governorships by means of an electoral system formally and informally structured in their favour. Cicero, however, broke through one glass ceiling after another, even managing to get elected consul, the top job – the first time an outsider had managed such a feat in thirty years.

He got there not through populism or breathtaking military victories, but by means of his extraordinary talent for Latin prose composition. Cicero was a great maker of speeches at a time when speechmaking still mattered. A large number of these speeches were those of a barrister defending his clients: Pro Cluentio in defence of a man accused of murdering his stepfather, Pro Roscio in defence of a man accused of murdering his father, Pro Caelio in defence of a man wrongly accused of the attempted murder of his ex-mistress, Pro Milone in defence of a man rightly accused of murdering the ex-mistress’s brother.

It may seem a bit odd that a criminal barrister should rise so high in the political firmament, but when we talk about late Roman Republican murder trials we are not talking about gang wars and domestic violence. Given the narrowness of the political elite and the thickness of their connections, few criminal trials were without substantial political ramifications, while the paucity of certainty of fact encouraged a postmodernist approach to truth in ancient Rome, where one might float terrible accusations even of parricide in the direction of one’s enemies without any serious intent.

Having made a name for himself with brilliant and occasionally brave defences of vulnerable men, Cicero turned prosecutor, acting on behalf of the communities of Sicily against their former governor Gaius Verres, a man with a good eye for works of art and guilty of the most blatant and extraordinary acts of murder, extortion and temple-robbery in pursuit of them. So Cicero alleges in the Verrines, and he does seem to have been able to provide good witnesses for quite a lot of the worst of it. This was the occasion for one of Cicero’s best-remembered ventriloquies: civis romanus sum (‘I am a Roman citizen,’ the futile phylactery shouted out by Verres’ victims pleading for a stay of crucifixion), recycled by John F. Kennedy with unavoidable bathos as ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’

This great and by no means guaranteed victory against the establishment, as well as the addition of an entire province to his list of clients, helped ease Cicero’s way. But as consul he was faced with a more dangerous variety of rogue patrician: Lucius Sergius Catilina. Catiline was a senator and the leader of a group of distressed and disaffected gentlemen who seem to have decided that the best route out of their financial, social and political problems was through an armed revolution, the murder of leading men, the instigation of a revolt of Transalpine Gauls and the cancellation of debts. They sealed their pact, according to a rumour recorded by Sallust, with a toast of human blood or, as Plutarch and others suggest, with a human sacrifice and cannibal feast.

For a while, what exactly Catiline and his friends were up to was not completely clear, as is the nature of secret conspiracies sealed with mouthfuls of human blood, and Catiline continued to attend the Senate until Cicero called his bluff with a series of rhetorical questions that would have a long and surprising afterlife:

How much further will you go, Catiline, in abusing our patience? How much longer will you make a mad mockery of us? Do they mean nothing to you, the guard placed at night on the Palatine Hill, the watches posted throughout the city, the general alarm? Do you not realise that we all know what you are up to? What you did last night, what the night before, where you were, with whom, plotting what, do you think anyone here does not know? O tempora! O mores! What times we live in! What scruples we live by!

As Cicero spoke the other senators gradually shuffled away from Catiline until he was left alone on the bench. Next day he was gone.

While Catiline marched out to quell the now outed insurgency in Tuscany, Cicero produced letters that identified five more conspirators, one an ex-consul, all well connected, and threw them in jail. Following a vote in the Senate, he had them executed. Cicero was honoured with a public thanksgiving and the honorific Pater Patriae, ‘Father of His Country’. He would never let anyone forget it.

In large part that was because things soon turned sour. At first it must have seemed an entirely trivial matter: Clodius, a young man of the distinguished Claudian family, was found in the house of the pontifex maximus, one Julius Caesar, while his wife was leading women-only rites there in honour of the never-to-be-named ‘Good Goddess’. As the affair dragged on towards a trial, however, it began to gather the weight of consequentiality. Caesar himself, who was so close to events, managed to avoid collateral damage by claiming to know nothing but divorcing his wife nevertheless on the grounds that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion. But Cicero, who had had so little to do with it, allowed himself to get involved on the side of the prosecution (his wife, Terentia, jealous of Clodius’ sister Clodia, forced him into it, Plutarch says), breaking Clodius’ alibi and thereby earning his bitter and enduring enmity, which might not have mattered so much had Clodius not, through massive bribery, got off.

As a result Cicero soon found himself in exile. Clodius transitioned to plebeian status and got himself elected tribune, passing a number of popular laws, including one that made anyone who put a Roman citizen to death without trial – e.g. Cicero – an outlaw. He even made provision for a temple of the goddess Liberty to be built on the site of Cicero’s now mob-demolished house on the Palatine.

It was more than a year before Cicero dared to set foot in Italy again. When he did, he took an elegant revenge on his tormentor by defending a former student, Caelius, against the charge that he had, among other things, tried to poison Clodia, his ex-mistress, the woman widely thought also to be the addressee of Catullus’ amorous poetry. The speech, Pro Caelio, takes a self-consciously light-hearted tone in what was a very serious trial, but the playfulness has a malicious intent: noble Clodia is treated as a common prostitute and her brother as her equal and indeed partner in debauchery. By now Clodius was being challenged on the streets as well as in the courts by a kind of anti-Clodius, Titus Annius Milo. The rivalry turned the city into a battleground. After one of these streetfights Clodius was killed and Milo put on trial for his murder. Cicero of course defended him.

This was in 52 BC and Rome was heading for the first of the three civil wars that would end the Republic. In January 49 Julius Caesar moved his army from Gaul, quoting the comic poet Menander as he crossed the Rubicon: anerriphtho kubos, ‘let the die be cast.’ Cicero took a while to join his allies, the followers of Pompey and the senatorial party, in Greece and returned from there somewhat prematurely, to enjoy Caesar’s calculating clemency.

He seems to have been taken completely by surprise by the assassination of Caesar a few years later, despite being on intimate terms with Marcus Brutus. But with Caesar and many of his most powerful contemporaries killed, Cicero suddenly found himself at the centre of power once more, attempting to put together an understanding between the Senate, the assassins and Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian aka Augustus. To this end he wrote a series of diatribes identifying Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man, as now the greatest enemy of the Republic, referring to the speeches as his Philippics, the name given to the speeches Demosthenes wrote warning of the threat posed by Philip of Macedon to the freedom of Greece in the fourth century BC.

Amazingly, it seemed for a time as if Cicero’s complex political geometry might hold, but instead Antony and Octavian entered into a formal power-sharing agreement, one of the most important elements of which was a list of people to be killed. Antony insisted Cicero’s name be included. He was apprehended as he was being carried in a litter towards a waiting boat. His head and hands were chopped off and fixed to the speaker’s platform in the Roman forum. It is said that Fulvia, Antony’s wife (and Clodius’ widow), put her hand in the dead man’s mouth, pulled out his offending tongue and stabbed it repeatedly with the pins she used to fix up her hair.

*

‘A great speech-maker’ no longer counts as much of an obituary. The truth is that Cicero was one of the world’s greatest writers of prose, not just in the way he fitted words together, sentence by sentence, clause by clause, but in the variety of tones and registers he was able to deploy: playful and earnest, high-falutin’ and brusque, relaxed and indulgent or most severe, cleverly deploying other people’s voices, real or imagined, and conjuring up what-if scenarios that made the making of fateful choices seem deceptively clear. In his parallel lives, Plutarch paired him, as Cicero had paired himself, with thundering Demosthenes, an important player in another pivotal moment, when a world dominated by classical poleis suddenly changed into a world dominated by Alexander and hellenistic kings. But in terms of style, a better comparison is with Demosthenes’ rival Aeschines, less bombastic, more varied in tone and equally deft in his use of comedic ventriloquies. But Cicero goes one step further than Aeschines by occasionally sending himself up, a self-distancing device that makes him seem more modern than he was.

Cicero had the advantage of Latin, a pathologically minimalising language that had long done without definite and indefinite articles, unnecessary personal pronouns – as in ‘(I) am’ – and other sentence fillers, leaning heavily on grammatical inflection and the listener’s ability to fill in the missing colour and transitions. This gave his eloquence much greater economy than Demosthenes’ and means that a translation of Cicero into any other language will always have to use many more words to say the same thing: O tempora! O mores!

Such economy may make Latin an excellent choice as the language of mottos, but in the wrong context or to the wrong audience its abruptness can sound as flippant as ‘veni, vidi, vici,’ especially dangerous for someone with Cicero’s reputation as consularis scurra, a ‘comical consul’. Out of context, even one of his greatest lines, from the speeches inciting the Senate to take up arms against Antony, can sound dangerously like a bon mot: ‘Et nomen pacis dulce est et ipsa res salutaris’ (‘“Peace” is a lovely word, and the thing itself is a lifesaver’). His shortest speech, according to Plutarch, was the one-word announcement that the sentence against the Catilinarians had been carried out. It sounds like an excerpt from the dead parrot sketch: ‘They are have-beens’: vixerunt. (Plutarch offers the excuse that in such a context any mention of words for death was considered inauspicious.) When Milo’s prosecutor demanded to know when exactly during the mêlée Clodius had been killed, Cicero gave him another punning response: sero [‘late-ish’/‘not soon enough’]. And it was an ambiguous bon mot on the subject of young Octavian that seems to have greased his way onto the proscription list: ‘Laudandum adulescentem ornandum, tollendum’ – something like ‘The boy is to be applauded, rewarded and sorted.’ Cicero was informed that Octavian had said he would make sure he offered no opportunity of being ‘sorted’.

It is amazing enough that Cicero’s great speeches survive, giving us a ringside seat at these momentous trials and pivotal votes. But even more extraordinary are his letters, nearly eight hundred in number plus around a hundred from his correspondents, dating mostly from the two decades following his consulship. Some of these letters were clearly written with an expectation they would be widely circulated, and contain broad statements of his positions on various issues and justifications for his politics: ‘You say my letter’ – to Julius Caesar two or three months after Rubicon – ‘has got into circulation. Not a problem. I myself have let many copy it. I want to have my views about a peaceful outcome put on record.’ And his letters of recommendation may have been collected by his secretary, Tiro, with a view to publication during his lifetime: ‘You will do me a big favour if you let him see that my recommendation has been a big help to him.’ A few letters to very posh people are written in a very pretentious style, whether or not they were meant for promulgation. But the great majority are a long way towards the more private and informal end of the publication spectrum, not meant to be shared and in a style very different from the speeches and much more difficult therefore to edit and translate. Above all, there are the letters he wrote to his friend, the wealthy equestrian businessman Titus Pomponius Atticus, filling nearly 650 pages in the Penguin Classics translation.

The letters give us a private view on great events. His first allusion to the Good Goddess scandal (‘I suppose you have heard…’) is followed by a slow realisation that his priggish attitude towards the scandal was getting him into deep water (‘I am softening by the day’), then genuine surprise and shock at Clodius’s acquittal: ‘unbelievable’. After the death of Julius Caesar, a letter to one of the conspirators opens, rather startlingly: ‘How I wish you had invited me to that most glorious feast on the Ides of March; there would have been no leftovers.’ There is a whole book of correspondence between Cicero and Brutus including a clear-sighted critique of Cicero’s policy of promoting Octavian as a weapon against Antony: ‘I will praise your foresight only when I am becoming confident that Octavian is satisfied with the extraordinary honours that have been bestowed on him.’ It’s easy to share the wonder and admiration of Atticus’ friend and biographer, Cornelius Nepos, when he first came across the (then still unpublished) letters: ‘All the details about the inclinations of the leading men, the faults of the generals, and the shifts and changes in the government of the Republic, are there written out in full.’

The correspondence also contains material for the history of the little events in ancient life that were rarely recorded: family tensions, dealings with clients, slaves and freedmen, what it was like to travel around Italy and the Mediterranean in the first century BC, study and reading, the frequent resort to Greek. In among this trove is priceless evidence for the ancient history of emotions: Cicero’s unyielding grief over the death of his beloved daughter Tullia has corrected many easy assumptions about the nature of family ties in such a notoriously patriarchal society. But most precious of all, especially in the Atticus correspondence, are the traces of Cicero’s own stumbling ego, showing all the retrospective self-consciousness of an unwitting nudist at a masked ball, trying to manage finely calibrated degrees of self-revelation.

Such a resource has hardly gone unexploited. Cicero has lent colour, pungency and sharp commentary to many histories of the late Roman Republic, and vivid detail to biographies of more glamorous contemporaries like Julius Caesar. Biographies of Cicero himself, however, have tended to be either dull or thin, the authors either overwhelmed by the data or not properly engaging with his writings at all.

*

Robert Harris is a former journalist who began by writing bestselling non-fiction about journalism, war and politics in the 20th century – Gotcha about the media and the Falklands War, Selling Hitler about the Sunday Times and the forged Hitler diaries – before turning to a kind of paranoid docu-fantasy about only slightly impossible might-have-beens: Fatherland about Nazi Germany in the 1960s; Archangel about some ‘Stalin diaries’ that reveals a plot to have Stalin reborn for the late 20th century; The Ghost about the ghosted autobiography of a British prime minister that reveals he is a CIA puppet operated by his scheming wife.

In 2003 Harris took a leap into the Roman world with Pompeii, turning the eruption of Vesuvius into a thriller – something about a cover-up in the world of ancient hydraulic engineering, about which the author clearly knew quite a lot. Soon afterwards he began writing a docu-fictional biography of Cicero which eventually turned into a trilogy: Imperium takes us from the trial of Verres through Cicero’s triumphant election to the consulship; Lustrum takes us from the Catiline conspiracy to the Good Goddess trial and Cicero’s expulsion from Rome; Dictator begins in exile and ends with Cicero’s death at the hands of Mark Antony, taking in the crossing of the Rubicon, the assassination of Caesar and the Philippics. The result has enraptured many readers, catapulting Cicero’s life onto the bestseller list for the first time since Conyers Middleton’s three-volume biography hit the stores in 1741, but has divided critics. Some have made grand claims for the trilogy’s literary merit, drawing favourable comparison with Robert Graves, whose I, Claudius was a bestseller in 1934. A minority have cut their compliments with complaints about the flat-footedness of the narrative, the thinness of the characterisation and the colourlessness of the ‘cardboardy’ prose.

The tale is told as if by Cicero’s slave-secretary Tiro and is clearly informed by a lot of research and indeed immersion in Cicero’s letters, speeches and philosophical works, now most familiar to people as the source of the Lorem ipsum font-sample text first used by Letraset in the 1960s, but once by far the most widely read and influential of all ancient philosophy in the West. Sometimes the introduction of the material is straightforward, even clunky: ‘I came across that passage in one of his speeches’; ‘Cicero quickly dictated a final message to his wife and children’; ‘There is a wonderful line in one of Cicero’s letters to Atticus’; ‘Cicero wrote me a letter … “I thought I could bear the want of you not too hard”’ – Harris’s Cicero suddenly taking on the very different prose style of the distinguished editor and translator of the letters, D.R. Shackleton Bailey. Be advised, however, that Harris sometimes feels confident enough to compose his own ancient letters, Octavian’s for instance: ‘Seriously, don’t lay it on too thick, mon vieux …’

Elsewhere the novel takes inspiration from the primary sources in rather more surprising ways. In a letter to Cassius, Cicero describes Antony ‘vomiting’ a speech up, whereas Harris describes him literally vomiting ‘a thick stream into the aisle’ from the speaker’s platform. Towards the end, Tiro presents his master with all the correspondence he has collected: ‘These letters add up to the most complete record of an historical era ever assembled,’ Cicero says, apparently channeling Cornelius Nepos. One can also detect signs of modern academic disputes, for example when Tiro has heard that it was not Marcus but Decimus Brutus who was the addressee of Caesar’s last words: ‘kai su’.

One can see why Harris chose not to construct the novels as a lost autobiography, an ‘I, Cicero’. Unlike Yourcenar’s Hadrian or Graves’s Claudius, there is simply too much of Cicero’s ‘I’, in all its gradations, still around to allow much room for making things up. The choice of Tiro as narrator could have been a brilliant one, an intimate and even a confidant, but one of much lower social status, turning a jaundiced view on his master, a ‘secret history’ by someone for whom the end of the world of the Roman Republic meant not very much at all.

But for Harris, Tiro’s main virtue is the purely mechanical one of being Cicero’s efficient transcriber. Tiro, we are told repeatedly, invented shorthand: ‘such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the Senate’; ‘my great shorthand system’; ‘I was famous throughout Rome as the inventor of a marvellous new shorthand system.’ (In fact Tiro almost certainly did not ‘invent shorthand’ in any normal understanding of the term; the story is a medieval legend based on selective reading of a misinformed passage of a Visigothic bishop of Seville.)

One might gather from all this self-praise that our narrator is a rather preening, proud and boastful slave, a type well known from ancient comedy, but in fact he has no personality at all and in the heat of the moment even the flimsiest coverings of personhood can vanish into thin air. Every now and again, we are told that Tiro’s greatest desire is his freedom and a smallholding. Finally, he achieves it. But very shortly afterwards Cicero pays him a visit: ‘I glanced around at … my goats and my chickens, my dry-stone walls, my sheep. Suddenly it seemed a small world – a very small world. I called after him: “Wait!”’ With Brutus and Cassius during the chaos after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero says something brave: ‘His words lifted our hearts. They reminded us why we were here.’ Who is ‘we’ here? Tiro’s responses to events are those of a committed member of the Roman elite, fighting for the Republic, not a former slave. We don’t know if an ancient tradition is right to ascribe to Cicero the saying ‘While there is life there is hope,’ but Tiro would have known. Yet all Harris’s Tiro can claim, correctly but feebly, is that it is ‘associated with’ him. It is as if Harris sometimes forgets that he has a licence to make things up.

Other characters are more strongly drawn but rarely in more than two dimensions. Terentia seems to be modelled on Impedimenta, the chief’s wife in Asterix. Even at 16 Fulvia is a termagant with ‘a hard, mean face’, ‘a face that was like a child’s fist, small and white and clenched’. Clodia reminded me more than anything of Jessica Rabbit, as if always accompanied by the moans of bluesy saxophones: ‘With one of her wide-eyed sideways looks,’ she ‘asked in her breathy voice if there was anything – anything at all – she could do for Cicero in her husband’s absence’; ‘alluring in a silken robe over her nightdress, and with the musky smell of the bedchamber still upon her’; ‘Stepping back but still staring at him she quickly untied her cloak and let it fall from her shoulders. Beneath it she was naked’; ‘She looked at him from under her long lashes … and swept on, leaving the faintest wash of perfume in her wake.’

Harris’s men too are cartoonish. Pompey is a buffoon who nevertheless manages repeatedly to pull the wool over Cicero’s eyes. Clodius is a giggling lech: he ‘had found a woman’s shift lying beneath one of the couches, and I watched him put it to his nose and inhale deeply’; ‘“Caesar’s wife was one of the best I ever had,” he said softly, as Cicero went by. “Almost as good as Clodia.”’ Clodia’s oft-cuckolded husband is a bluff general who says ‘fuck’ all the time, interrupting the ceremony of Clodius’ transition to plebeian status, over which Julius Caesar is presiding: ‘What in the name of fucking Jupiter is going on here? … A religious ceremony! With the man who fucked your own wife!’ Cicero himself is barely more complicated, a world-weary whinger, always moaning, groaning or sighing.

*

It may seem a bit odd that a novel so richly ‘informed’ by the real words of real people should result in unreal people so lacking in complexity, but ancient sources are not a documentary stock into which a novelist can dip his ladle to add layers of real flavour to his stew; sources have a context, an agenda, a speaker, an addressee, and when you change these around they can take on a quite different tone. Clodia’s character is cartoonish because it is drawn from the vicious caricature of the ‘Palatine Medea’ presented by Cicero in the Pro Caelio. It is strangely touching when Cicero finishes a letter to Atticus, full of news of important political events, with notice of the death of the slave who used to read to him: ‘I am writing in a state of some distress … it has affected me more than the death of a slave perhaps ought to.’ But the same statement has a completely different meaning when it is the knee-jerk response delivered to (the slave) Tiro, who has just brought Cicero the bad news. In this version Cicero is made to look cartoonishly callous: ‘“See to it that his funeral shows the world how much I valued him.” He turned back to his book, then noticed that I was still in the room. “Well?”’

Lives are by their nature episodic, with as much structure as a knotted piece of string and not much more suspenseful. Cicero’s life at least has its nodules spaced out along its length, and concludes with a bloody big finale. It wouldn’t be too difficult to give it some running themes and even a bit of architecture. If Harris’s first volume, for instance, had ended not with the successful election to the consulship but a few months later with the defeat of the Catilinarians, then the author could have ironically juxtaposed the trial of Verres, with all its emphasis on the rights of a civis Romanus, with the summary execution of the Roman citizens accused of involvement with Catiline. The connection is made, but fleetingly and not until halfway through the second volume, so the resonance is lost. Instead, Harris opens the second volume with the bestseller trope of the discovery of the corpse of a boy, the source of the blood for the conspirators’ monstrous oath, but he allows the intrigue to peter out by page 62 for the sake of more cardboard callousness, as the boy’s owner chucklingly confesses: ‘I was sickened … That lad cost me thousands.’

Harris’s Cicero trilogy is a long way from being any kind of literary masterpiece, but I am pretty sure it has no such pretensions: one reviewer of the first volume concluded that though it was not ‘vulgar or absurd’ it was ‘curiously pointless’. And what was the point of writing a new version of a life already well documented, drawing on rich and colourful, readily available sources, and filling in the gaps with his own forgeries of lost letters and implausible vomit-strewn, ‘fuck’-pocked reconstructions of events? A glib answer might be ‘in order to sell books and make some money’. But until Robert Harris came along, who in all seriousness would have thought Cicero was bestselling material? What carries the project onwards to a conclusion that many doubted Harris would ever reach is a sincere and efficiently productive fascination with a man and his world, a fascination that extends to the hero’s philosophical works, the niceties of Roman legal procedure, the political topography of the Palatine, marital interconnections and the complex machinery of Roman elections. It reminds me most of all of James Cameron’s docu-fictional Titanic, which seemed far more concerned to get the ship’s interiors right than the interior life of the characters, and yet managed to carry audiences along with its passion for brass fixtures and fittings. And like Titanic the life of Cicero is a great true story. All Harris needed to do was to step out of the way.