By Robert Harris
Hutchinson (2015) h/b 449pp £20.00 (ISBN 9780091752101)
‘The good and the bad, the noble and the base….No one else saw so much, and wrote about it while it was still fresh. This is history composed without any benefit of hindsight.’ (Cicero speaking, p. 422)
This is the third and final volume in Harris’ trilogy of novels on the life of Cicero, and we have been waiting for it for exactly six years since the appearance of Lustrum. It has been well worth the wait.
H.’s idea of using Tiro as the Boswell to Cicero’s Johnson works well throughout the trilogy and especially so in this final volume. It imposes limitations on what may be narrated—Tiro cannot report things which he did not see— but this allows the focus to remain on the central character throughout and avoids having the narrative dot from one end of the Roman world to another. It combines the immediacy of a highly concerned and intelligent first-person narrator with the objectivity of a third-person viewpoint. This makes H.’s trilogy more moving and personal than (say) the Alexander trilogy of Manfredi and reminds this reader of the painful honesty of I, Claudius.
The novel seamlessly interweaves the personal and the political—as is natural in a republic where personalities often both directed and reflected political policies. It also affords a historical sweep whereby the reader sees that the process, beginning with the lex Gabinia giving Pompey wide-ranging powers against the pirates, leads inexorably to Caesar’s extended power in Gaul and on to the principate. The faithful Tiro sees his master longing to be Laelius to the various Scipios (Pompey, Caesar, Octavian) who courted him when it suited them, and we see both the vanity and the eagerness of the tireless champion of the republic who combined idealistic Greek philosophy with hard-nosed Roman politics.
H, in one sense, has it easy: Cicero has left us such a massive amount of his own writings, many of them highly personal and most of them composed in his own superb style, that he can cherry-pick the best lines from Cicero himself, and the old Roman really deserves a cut of the royalties. Clodia as the ‘Medea of the Palatine’, the letter of Sulpicius on the death of Tullia, the somnium Scipionis—all these, and above all the personal letters, all furnish the text with direct sources which convey the beating heart of events in the protagonists’ own words, freely translated (did Octavian really say ‘Your unguarded remark was catnip to them?’ [p.406]) and vividly powerful. Teachers of Latin will all give a smile of recognition at the quotation of the famous invective delivered against Clodia in the pro Caelio (p. 104) which our pupils worked on for GCSE a few years back, and I was impressed at H.’s witty rendering of the famous laudandus, ornandus, tollendus phrase (ad fam.11.20.1) as ‘raised, praised and erased’ (p.400).
This is far more than a mere compilation, however. H. is writing a novel rather than a straight history, and his job is to bring the Roman world to life and shape the events and the fine Ciceronian words into a dynamic plot. There is some fine writing here—the malarial summer described (p. 416), with the ‘saucer-eyed starving children’, or the assassins of Caesar with ‘their togas spattered like butchers’ aprons’ after the deed (p. 297). The ‘dreadful stench of likely defeat hung in the air, as acrid as burning pitch’ (p. 411), and Cicero is nicely described as having a ‘face, old and hollowed with worry’ (p. 404). The death of Tullia is astonishingly moving (pp. 272-3), and the marital disharmony between Cicero and Terentia (who outlived her husband and went on to live to be 103) is tellingly caught by terse dialogue and suspicion. Here (again) the limitation of the narrative perspective is a strength: neither Tiro nor Cicero knew exactly what Terentia was getting up to with that dodgy Philotimus, and our narrator well captures the suspicion which ate away at the relationship.
Big characters are well drawn and memorably cast—Crassus, Cato, Pompey, Caesar, Antony. The lesser men are also superbly drawn—the tearaway Dolabella who married Tullia, the feckless but useful Caelius Rufus whose case gave Cicero the chance to finish off Clodia as a force in Rome. Cicero’s brother Quintus was no better than he ought to be, and (again) Tiro watches the brothers fight and mistrust each other; and yet the bond between them ultimately overpowered their differences. Cicero was virtually a bachelor for much of the time (as was Tiro), and this is a man’s world which is depicted by a man for whom women seem to have been something of a mystery. There is no pillow-talk, no intimate sexual confessions. Poor little Publilia, whom Cicero marries when she was fifteen and he was four times that age, is given fairly short shrift in the book as (alas) she was given in life. Cicero is presented here, as he says of his persona in his correspondence, ‘not as some improbable paragon’, but rather ‘as naked as a Greek statue’ (p. 423). It is not always a pretty sight.
The main strength of the Ciceronian perspective on events is twofold. On the one hand, it allows us to see Cicero struggling to work out at each juncture what to do next and weighing up options—something we are less accustomed to seeing as we know what is going to happen. On the other, it reminds us that he was not always ready for what life would throw at him. The young Octavian (a ‘boy … short and slender, pretty-faced but with a pasty complexion pitted with acne’, p. 329) outmanoeuvres the older man, and the second triumvirate suddenly lands on him with the full force of a hurricane. The narrative passes from Mutina to the proscriptions with the sort of alarming speed which it deserves, and we see Cicero pass from elation at the ‘salvation of the republic’ on p. 396 to his despair a mere dozen or so pages later. The Indian summer of the year of the Philippics was all too brief and was doomed to be followed by his swift demise.
Ars est (of course) celare artem. You will often think, as you read, that you could have written this book, but I doubt that any of us could. There are a few typos (‘Bythinian’ for instance [p. 216]) but these will not mar the enjoyment. H. has achieved the impossible—he creates suspense in telling a story we all know inside out. He presents the death of his hero and the death of the republic together with his nice mixture of political disillusion and personal tragedy; and the figure of Cicero—flawed, fearful, and fallible as he was—comes over as one of the most human figures to emerge from the ancient world. For that we owe H. (and, of course, Cicero) a great debt of gratitude.