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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in