Dictator, the third book by Robert Harris, about the life of the Roman politician Cicero – though the dictator of the title is not Cicero, but Julius Caesar.
It is an interesting period to devote to a trilogy. The story is so well known, so the element of suspense is absent. As the Ides of March approaches, we know what is going to happen. The facts of this story are easily verified.
Despite this familiarity, I found myself being drawn in. The story is told by Tiro, Cicero’s secretary/slave. He frequently transcribed Cicero’s speeches and letters, so the device of having Tiro tell the story works well. Apparently, the historical Tiro did write a biography of Cicero, but it was lost in the chaos of the times.
What draws the reader in is the dilemma Cicero faces: principles or power? Which faction does he support? Does he save himself and his family or does he ‘stick to’, as the author inelegantly puts it, his long-held principles. In the chaos that is Rome, it is hard to pick the winning side, though the reader knows which side wins.
We know who is going to play false – Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian. Cicero does not, and must choose who to stand with and where to stand in fact. Does he flee Italy or take to the provinces?
Less well known is his unhappy family story, and this provides another aspect of Cicero’s life and an insight into the customs of Rome.
Harris has his eye on parallels with the politics of both Great Britain and of the United States. Surprisingly, there are parallels with Australia as we have peacefully turned over Prime Ministers, with the rule of, not ‘vox populi’, but the rule of opinion polls and of the ‘orators’ of the airwaves, now known as ‘shock jocks’.
If you get your aediles, consuls, Pontifex Maximus muddled up there is a clear glossary at the end as well as a Dramatis Personae. I found myself referring to these from time to time.
This is a well-researched book. I have some academic background in the period and appreciated the thoroughness of the research and the sure way quite complex structures and situations were explained, without becoming a dry academic thesis.
Harris comes from a journalist’s background as well as an academic one (Cambridge). His style is that of a modern day journalist, fairly colloquial. At times, this is appropriate, at others, not. Roman senators did not run ‘on a joint ticket’.
This book is a good read. I suspect that Harris is one of those authors who, while never winning a major literary award, sells books in the thousands that are enjoyed and appreciated.
Dictator by Robert Harris is available now from Dymocks.
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