By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Robert Harris
Narration by: David Rintoul
Robert Harris offers a view of the Roman Empire through the eyes of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Harris’s book is “Dictator”. It is a novel about the critical transition of Rome from a republic to a dictatorship. Harris notes that it is a novel because it is an interpretation of one man’s view of the time in which he lives. Main historical events are corroborated by other sources but the view of the story is personal. It is drawn from letters and speeches composed by Cicero; along with some fictionalized recollections of Marcus Tullius Tiro (the originator of short hand), Cicero’s secretary, once slave, and then freed friend.
Cicero is a noted philosopher and politician, raised outside of Rome, who rises to the position of Consul of Rome, the highest attainable political office in the Republic. Cicero’s rise is atypical because he is not a battle-hardened warrior but a lawyer that becomes famous as a result of high-profile cases in Rome. His opinion is coveted by the most powerful people in Rome, including Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. Therein lays the crux of Harris’s novel.
Pompey and Julius Caesar are competitors for the rule of Rome. Harris’s story begins with the exile of Cicero when he accuses Clodius, an elected Consul of Rome, of being a Sybarite and dishonest man. Clodius is defended by Caesar which makes Cicero a likely opponent of Caesar in his competition with Pompey.
Because of Pompey’s reputation as a great military leader, and later as First Consul of Rome, Cicero’s banishment is reversed. Pompey orders Cicero’s return subject to an amicable reconciliation with Caesar. Cicero reluctantly reconciles while suspicious of both Pompey’s and Caesar’s motives. With a novelist’s discretion in fiction, Cicero’s wife returns from a seer who prophecies Rome will be ruled by 3, 2, 1, and none.
Pompey and Caesar join with Crassus, one of the wealthiest men in Rome, to rule the empire as a triumvirate. This triumvirate is a major step in dismantling the influence of the Roman Senate as a representative political body for the Republic. Cicero sees the triumvirate as a first step in a progression to dictatorship. He dislikes the idea of troika rule but acknowledges absolutism is ameliorated by having three rather than two leaders. The rule of three requires compromise when clear direction is not agreed upon. However, Cicero continues to agitate for Senatorial liberty.
The element of compromise required in a triumvirate is removed when Crassus is murdered in a Syrian battle which he loses. Disagreements among two have no room for compromise when the two have competing interests. Cicero chooses to support Pompey when Caesar decides to “roll the dice” by crossing the Rubicon with an army he refuses to dismantle.
Through superior generalship Caesar defeats Pompey’s larger army in a battle Pompey is expected to win. This is the battle of Pharsalus. Pompey flees to Egypt. Pompey reasons that he will be well received and that it will be possible to raise a new army. What Pompey finds is an Egyptian leader that sees Caesar as the stronger of the two leaders and chooses to behead Pompey in anticipation of a positive welcome from Caesar. Caesar is appalled and revenges Pompey’s murder by executing the Egyptian conspirators.
Leadership of Rome devolves from three to one with Julius Caesar as the sole survivor of the triumvirate. It becomes a dictatorship with little influence from the Senate and all control by Caesar. Cicero is heart stricken by the change from a governed Republic to governing by one. Liberty has become a fiction. Regardless of Caesar’s intent, his decisions become the only source and arbiter of law. This is intolerable to Cassius, Brutus, and a cabal of assassins who end Caesar’s life. The events following Caesar’s assassination imply Cicero’s complicity but his post-facto participation is as critic. He abjures the cabal for not planning some form of governance after the assassination. (One might note a parallel in America’s second invasion of Iraq.)
The assassination of Caesar fulfills the earlier noted prophesy–the three became two and then none. What is left is a competition for dictatorship. There are at least five players for the absented throne; e.g. Cassius, Brutus, Lepidus, Anthony, and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius. Octavius and Anthony become the hottest competitors and most likely successors. Octavius is favored by Cicero; in part because, as an eighteen year old at Caesar’s death, Octavius seeks Cicero’s council.
The irony of Harris’s novel is that Octavius (who becomes Augustus) joins a triumvirate with Anthony and Lepidus to return to the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic. The “none” becomes three again. As a consequence of the new triumvirate, a list of rebels is created for all who have crossed the new leaders. Anthony orders the beheading of Cicero. The cycle of 3, 2, 1 is completed when Octavius eliminates his rivals. Octavius becomes the one, the new dictator, with his wife’s support. Harris leaves the tale of Octavius’s wife, Livia, for another time.
The listener is left wondering what might have been if Rome had remained a Republic; i.e. managed by two Consuls, elected by the voters, and guided by the Senate. Many emperors later, the empire survives over 500 years; suggesting liberty is only a part of what makes nations great and long-lived.