Robert Harris’ DICTATOR
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This third book in Harris’ Cicero trilogy does not disappoint. Approaching it I was a bit apprehensive given that I knew the book would have to deal with Cicero’s inevitable slide from power and influence against the dissolution of the ancient Roman “Republic.”
Nevertheless Harris’ writing and his continued creative use of the storytelling perspective (from Tiro’s point of view, not Cicero’s) provides a fresh and exciting perspective that less accomplished historical novels often lack.
It’s hard to write a review of this book without some spoilers, so if you have little familiarity with ancient Roman history you might want to stop reading now.
Which brings us to Julius Caesar. Caesar’s rise to power (and the fall of the Republic) have been a key thread throughout the trilogy. It’s not a pretty picture. How Harris describes the impacts of Roman colonialism, the dependence on slavery, and the role of the military is masterful. While Cicero and his colleagues valued the minimal democratic values and structures of the Republic, they also benefited from the foreign plunder – sometimes human — that Caesar and his colleagues brought back from abroad.
Cicero lacked any military background and was dependent on his wits, guile, legal training, and oratory for his influence that at times was substantial. Inevitably these skills paled against the strength of the sword. Witnessing Cicero’s attempts to navigate the turbulence of the Civil War, the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the subsequent rise of Augustus is painful to watch as events outrun his wit, intelligence, and waning political influence.
Harris’ writing is the key to this trilogy’s greatness. Central to this is how he presents the evolving relationship between Tiro and Cicero. Against the backdrop of social and political turbulence we witness Tiro’s evolution into a free man from slavery to friendship. This is nowhere more poignant than the depiction of Tiro’s fatherly relationship to Cicero’s thrice-married daughter and the devastating description of her death and Cicero’s withdrawal following that sad event.
Much political and personal tumult is covered in these final years of Cicero’s life. Repeatedly we see how politics and sword were intertwined in ancient Rome and how the government derived its legitimacy from the military-supported colonization of remote provinces and their people.
As the old saying goes, power corrupts. In this book we see how all can become ensnared by its tendrils, even those who like Cicero profess to aspire to higher ideals.
Review copyright (c) 2016 by Dennis D. McDonald. Scroll down to see more reviews like this.