'Dictator', by Robert Harris - Review

By Stothard, Peter | The Spectator, October 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Dictator', by Robert Harris - Review


Stothard, Peter, The Spectator


Dictator Robert Harris

Hutchinson, pp.452, £20, ISBN: 9780091752101

Marcus Tullius Cicero was the ancient master of the 'save' key. He composed more letters, speeches and philosophy books than most writers of any epoch; but more important than any particular work was that so much survived to define his time. He had a secretary, Tiro, who can reasonably be given the credit for researching, correcting, copying and casting out his master's words. In Robert Harris's three novels of Cicero's life, Marcus Tullius Tiro, the freed slave who took his name as well as dictation from his boss, gets his full reward. Over more than 1,000 pages, the secretary is the narrator of how the world's first great republic slipped into empire, a story that, thanks to the luck of literary survival, centres on Cicero as so many histories have before.

Dictator draws on the final 14 years of Cicero's writings, beginning in the year 58 bc when, still famed and shamed for killing the Catilinarian conspirators in his consulship five years before, he chooses exile rather than an open fight with bigger, fiercer and suddenly united beasts, the plutocrat Marcus Crassus, the butcher-turned-constitutionalist Gnaius Pompeius and the genius of war and prose, Julius Caesar. How honest is Cicero -- in public and in private -- about why he is going? Compromise clashes with principle, events with expectations, until a triumphant return, and one by one the murders of all those beasts and his own murder.

Harris writes in his author's note that these years are 'arguably the most tumultuous era in human history' before the rise and fall of Hitler. …

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