This may not be the ideal time to express admiration for a politician who puts his career before his country, but it can’t be helped. The third part of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, Dictator, confirms what I already suspected in Lustrum: Gaius Julius Caesar is the Roman for a villain-loving girl like me. He’s intelligent, charming, elegant, multi-talented and keen on handing out strategically thought-through pardons (to Romans, that is, not to Gallic tribes: I’m sad to say they’re pretty much history once their paths cross with Caesar’s). Perhaps most importantly of all, he also has a sense of humour. He enjoys Cicero’s jokes, even when they’re at his own expense, and you suspect that this is one reason why he has more patience with Cicero’s political to-ing and fro-ing than one would expect. Sometimes I could not help thinking that Cicero would have done better to stick with Caesar from the beginning, though I can see why some of his actions – like starting a civil war and, once in power, proclaiming himself a god – would be a little hard to swallow.
I re-read Imperium and Lustrum before moving on to Dictator and was reminded of how much I enjoyed dwelling in the world of Cicero’s Rome, as told by Harris. It’s mostly down to the author’s skill, of course. He’s a dab hand at both gripping prose and strong characterization, and the dialogues are blissfully down-to-earth and not written in the stilted historical fictionese which blights so much of the genre.The political intrigues manage to be both riveting and educational (did you know there were two Brutuses?). Descriptions related to life in Ancient Rome only occur when they’re directly relevant to the story of Cicero and his faithful slave and secretary (and the trilogy’s narrator) Tiro, who is finally granted his freedom in this last novel. But Harris is also helped by the nature of his heroes. Cicero is far from being a saint: sometimes, he even comes across as a bit of a turncoat. Tiro, who existed but whose personality is in all probability imagined by Harris, is a sweet man and perhaps the most humane of the characters – he is the only one in Cicero’s circle who shows any regret for “Caesar the man” when the latter is assassinated – but his loyalty to Cicero keeps him from ever getting on his high horse in moral matters, because then he’d be forced to judge his wily master as well.
In his sympathetic telling of the career of a man who tries to do the decent thing but doesn’t always succeed (I’m talking about Cicero here: Caesar didn’t care a scrap about doing the decent thing), Harris avoids being bogged down with an obvious moral message. I’ve read three other Harris novels apart from the Cicero trilogy: An Officer and A Spy, The Ghost and most recently, for my sins, Fatherland. They are all good, An Officer and A Spy especially: Harris always delivers on the readability front. But though he’s careful not to preach overtly, I did occasionally feel, in particular with Fatherland, like I was having my fingers slapped by a ruler wielded by a teacher with a moral mission. Moreover, Harris’s heroes tend to be dour types, intelligent but humourless – a bit like Octavian in Dictator, as a matter of fact. The more easy-going Cicero and Tiro are easily the protagonists you would most like to spend an evening at a restaurant (or a taverna) with.
Having said that, another of my favourite characters in the Cicero trilogy is Caesar’s polar opposite, the unkempt, uncompromising idealist Cato. Everyone thinks he’s a pain with his unbending adherence to an often wrong-headed moral code, but there is an engaging bluntness to his truth-telling, which has a rhetorical power of his own. Here’s a man whose moral fibre does impress me. Perhaps the trick of getting readers to swallow a dose of morality is not to try too hard.