Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, orator and wit, was a terrifically quotable fellow. His most famous observation, of course, was that "while there's life, there's hope", but he could be terrifically dry too: "Times are bad," he's said to have said, "children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."
And until the last chapters of Robert Harris' Dictator, which is the final part of his marvellously entertaining trio of novels on the great man's life, it is this wit and wisdom that has made Cicero the dying Republic's great survivor. This was a guy who, almost always, talked himself out of trouble.
So it makes for a certain grim irony that it is Cicero's famously clever mouth, with its weakness for puns and its indiscretion, that ultimately is his downfall in Dictator.
As the Republic staggers in the wake of Caesar's death and Mark Anthony's rebellion, Cicero believes he has wrested control of events. The young Octavian - who history, but not Cicero, knows is destined to be the Emperor Augustus - has on behalf of Cicero and the Senate beaten, then chased off Anthony's army. But some wonder at the threat the stripling Octavian, Caesar's heir, now poses to Rome. Not Cicero. He has cultivated the boy-man as a protege, believes he can control him and so utters the words that, when Octavian hears of them, will ultimately kill him.
"We can deal with [Octavian] later," Cicero breezily declares to another senator, "he can be raised, praised and erased."
It's a resonant phrase. And something like it has certainly been attributed to Cicero. But what makes it so pleasing in Dictator is that it is such a clever combining of novelistic flourish and reported history. And, for me at least, this is what has made this and the first two books in the Cicero trilogy, Imperium and Lustrum, such cracking good reads. For anyone remotely interested in the death of Rome's Republic, this is historical fiction that respects both history and fiction. It's a page-turner that knows its onions.
Imperium and Lustrum charted Cicero's rise from provincial lawyer to Consul to defender of the Republic. This final volume begins where Lustrum ended, with Cicero forced into exile in the wake of the Catiline conspiracy, the first major political quake to tear at the Republic's foundations. This may have been little known to those with only a passing interest in Roman history, but the events of Dictator are Rome's most famous episodes: Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, his seizing of power and his assassination. And Harris' recreation of these events is gripping, vivid and generates huge suspense even though the outcome is, ahem, well-known to history.
If the trilogy and Dictator has a minor fault, it might be with tone, which can at times be a little breathless, a little gee-whiz. The conceit of these books is that they are the near contemporary biography of Cicero written by Marcus Tullius Tiro, a slave who was, in life, Cicero's longtime secretary, his collaborator and ultimately, in Harris' books, his greatest friend.
The real Tiro is said to have written just such books, though they are lost to history. Harris, then, is a novelist imagining what those books might have been and what sort of fellow Tiro was, and in doing so he makes his fictional Tiro a little too flawless, a little too guileless, even if the Cicero that Tiro observes is very much flawed, a man whose hubris ultimately gets the better of his intelligence. But this is a minor moan for the final volume in a majorly enjoyable trilogy.
"What an adventure it has been," Cicero says towards Dictator's end. And so it was.
Dictator by Robert Harris (Hutchinson $38)