9 November, 2009Issue 10.3FictionLiteraturePolitics & Society

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Cicero Retold

Andrew Hammond

rothRobert Harris
Hutchinson, 2009
484 Pages
ISBN 978-0091801007

Though he lacked a noble birth, military glory, and money—the three currencies of political power in ancient Rome—Marcus Tullius Cicero won the consulship, the highest elected position in the Republic, at the earliest possible age. Overcoming provincial origins (his name derived from the Latin word for chickpea, cicer) and the status of a novus homo (“new man”), he went on to become a leader in the Senate, the bastion of aristocratic power. Before Lincoln, there was Cicero.

Yet unlike Lincoln’s career, which coincided with and (most would admit) sustained his nation’s democratic experiment, Cicero’s trajectory began at the start of his republic’s decline. In Robert Harris’s 2006 novel Imperium and his latest effort, Lustrum, we see Cicero win more and more elections as those elections matter less and less. For the real power in the late Republic did not lie in the offices themselves, but with the men who could bribe the officials.

Those men constitute a cunning cast of characters. In this fictional thriller grounded in fact, Harris balances narrative force with historical detail to give us a vision of Cicero, man of words. Where Imperium recounted Cicero’s prodigious efforts to join the inner circle of men who rule Rome, Lustrum conveys an exclusive club all too willing to tear Cicero apart: there’s Crassus, the richest man in Rome; Pompey, its greatest general; a psychopath named Catiline; the patrician pervert Clodius; and a reckless young man named Julius Caesar. Instead of the Plutarchan case studies that examine each in their isolation, however, Harris studies these characters in chorus: it’s Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers meets standing armies, assassinations, and incest. These giants of antiquity hang out in each other’s homes. House calls were never so blood curdling.

Where the early Republic was characterized by rotation and collegiality in office, the politicians in Lustrum simply cannot share. Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, and Catiline refused to bow down to rivals, or to the Republic. This collective failure is showcased best in Harris’s retelling of the Catlinarian conspiracy, one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the Roman Republic—and one that defined Cicero’s career.

Catiline, a patrician from one of the most distinguished Roman families, lost the consular election to Cicero in 63 BC. He subsequently planned a revolt, which included assassinating Cicero. Before it hatched, however, the plot was uncovered and Cicero denounced Catiline and his conspirators on the Senate floor. Cicero then strategically allowed Catiline to leave Rome, situating the legions to crush the revolt and kill Catiline on the battlefield. Events unfolded as planned and the Senate executed the remaining conspirators without trial, a fact that hung over the rest of Cicero’s public life. For his role in crushing the revolt, Cicero was given the title “Father of His Country” and the Republic gave a public thanksgiving in his honour, the first ever for a non-general.

This episode is comparatively well documented in Roman history largely because Cicero himself documented it. His manuscript, In Catilinam, along with Sallust’s detailed history of the conspiracy, Bellum Catilinae, survive to this day, as do many of Cicero’s finest speeches. Harris wisely borrows from both of these sources, letting Cicero speak for himself. An old hat in this fusion of narrative forms, Harris expertly deploys lines from Cicero’s letters to pepper the dialogue and mobilises original passages to serve as synecdoches for his speeches.

But where his research shines, Harris’ political analysis falters. Most notably, he implies—but fails to explain or explore why—the late Republic is so unruly.

Catiline’s conspiracy was not an aberration but a symptom of a disease that plagued the Republic. Despite executing the conspirators, Cicero quickly found himself squeezed by the same men and forces that fueled Catiline’s cabal—Catiline was crazy, but his supporters were not. Sure, some of them were, as a University of Chicago professor once called them, “frat boys with money”, but many of them were poor citizens and disgruntled veterans. Catiline seized on the cause of agrarian reform—promising to give land to the landless—because it had been the cause célèbre of every populist and (consequently) the bête noir of the Senate for the preceding 500 years. This agrarian promise propelled Marcus Manlius, the Gracchi brothers, and Marius before Catiline, and it was championed by Pompey and Caesar once Catiline was killed. Harris dutifully includes the details about these proposed reforms, but does not explain why they commanded such popular support—and hence, misses a crucial element of one of the central episodes of his book.

But if Harris fails in explaining the motivations of the masses, he expertly sketches the machinations of the elite. Indeed, he delivers two politicians with diametrically opposed visions of leadership in Rome, Julius Caesar and Marcus Porcius Cato. As Harris presents them, Caesar and Cato serve as instructive foils to Cicero and his political genius.

While Caesar’s career mirrored Cicero’s meteoric and unexpected rise, he never cared about the means to success—bribing, betraying, and killing his way to the top. Despite being too young for the office and in spite of his and his wife’s notorious reputation for immorality and adultery, Caesar became Pontifex Maximus, the head of religion in Rome; later, he compelled his daughter to marry Pompey, a man twice her age, in order to cement the alliance of the First Triumvirate. Many believed that he was involved in Catiline’s conspiracy.

If Caesar’s ambition was, as Harris has Cicero say, “not of this world”, Cato’s fierce attachment to republicanism was equally extreme. Bare-foot and barely washed, Cato became famous for his full-throated denunciations of the generals, the kleptocrats, and the rest of the rotten elite. It was Cato’s oratory, not Cicero’s, that convinced the Senate to execute the conspirators. A year later, Caesar’s men literally threw Cato out of the Senate. He is antiquity’s answer to William Wilberforce.

Cicero, though, is both Cato and Caesar—indeed, most great politicians are. They are vicious competitors, strategic and cunning, but idealists at the core, motivated by a vision of the state they seek to lead. Whereas Cato could not be bothered with bargains, Cicero brokered them; while Caesar relied on extralegal methods, Cicero painstakingly adhered to the law. Watching this alchemy of the compromised and the uncompromising occur in Cicero is an arresting sight, even while Rome burns.

Through Harris, Cicero tells us: “Caesar and Pompey have their soldiers, Crassus his wealth, Clodius his bullies on the street. My only legions are my words. By language I rose, and by language I shall survive.” As Harris elegantly shows, Cicero’s words made him, but could not save his country. Cicero was the consummate politician, but by his time, his country had moved beyond the republican politics of his predecessors. Cicero and Rome would not survive. And for that, we await the conclusion of Harris’s trilogy.

Andrew Hammond is reading for an MPhil in Comparative Social Policy at St John’s College. He is the executive editor of the Oxonian Review.