Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Dictator by Robert Harris

(Book Review)

This is the third (and final) book in Robert Harris's Cicero trilogy.
I gave a mostly negative review to the first book in the series, Imperium.  However, despite being critical of many of the narrative choices that Robert Harris had made, I said at the time that I would probably be back for the subsequent books anyway.  I'm interested enough in the time period that I'd happily read just about any book on the subject, and plus I'm a big fan of historical fiction.

And so I came back for the second book, Conspirita, which I enjoyed much more.
And then here I am with the third and last book in the series.

The Review
I really enjoyed this book.
(I'm not sure what happened with Imperium.  It could be that I was just in a bad mood when I reviewed that book.  Or it could be that Robert Harris improved his craft with the subsequent books. I'd have to re-read the book to know for sure.)

The history that this book covers was already well-known to me (see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE , HERE, HERE, HERE , HERE and HERE).  So there was very little suspense for me in the actual story.  I pretty much knew exactly all the events that this book had to cover.  But even with a well-known story, it is still interesting to see the unique spin that a  different story teller brings to the story.  I already knew Clodius's murder was coming, but how would Robert Harris tell it?  I already knew Cicero would freeze up at Milo's trial, but how would Robert Harris explain this failure of nerves?  I already knew Cicero would be a beneficiary of Caesar's clemency, but how would Robert Harris portray Caesar at this moment?  Et cetera.
And this is the pleasure of a historical novel when you already know the history--anticipating how you think the author is going to tell the story, and then checking your predictions as you read.

This novel covers the time period of 58 BC to 43 BC.  This was a time when, to put it mildly, a lot was happening in the Roman Republic.
As Robert Harris himself says: "...[this book] encompasses what was arguably--at least until the convulsions of 1933-45--the most tumultuous era in human history..." (from the Author's Note).  And I'm not sure he's wrong.
When I first started this book, I wondered, "Wow! How is Robert Harris going to cover all these events in just 376 pages."
For comparison's sake, Colleen McCullough spread these same years over about 2 and a half books, each book close to 1,000 pages.  So how could Robert Harris do justice to these years in just 376 pages?

And yet, Robert Harris pulls it off.  He manages to cover this whole period without ever feeling like he was rushing anything.
He mostly accomplishes this by keeping the focus of the story tightly focused on Cicero.
Any events for which Cicero was not personally present are either summarized very briefly or skipped over entirely.
As a result, this book won't work for anyone interested in a complete history of the period, but it works just fine for a biography of Cicero.

Other Comments
* Each book in Robert Harris's Cicero Trilogy is about 300 or so pages.
By comparison, one book in Colleen McCullough's Master of Rome series is often close to 1,000 pages.
No doubt if Colleen McCullough had been writing this series, all three books would have been published all at once under one single binding.
Apparently Robert Harris wasn't capable of this output (and who can blame him) but if his Cicero trilogy ever goes through a reprinting, I recommend putting all three books under the same binding and just selling it as one book.

* As with the other books in this trilogy, the framing of the story is in favor of Cicero, and against Cicero's enemies.
This results in a biased view of history, but it's fair enough in historical fiction.  If you're going to expect the reader to stick around for 3 books, you need to create likable protagonists.  And so you need to tilt everything in favor of your protagonist.  (Colleen McCullough did the same thing in her Masters of Rome series, only she favored the other side of the political aisle).
Robert Harris pulls this off for the most part, but there are one or two blind spots.
Cicero, although he was a new man in Rome, usually sided with the aristocratic Senate against the populares (the populist reformers) like Julius Caesar.
The legacy of the populares is mixed.  On the one hand, they often resorted to illegal and extra-constitutional measures to get their reforms through.  But on the other hand, these were much needed reforms for Rome's poor.
Robert Harris omits everything positive about the populare legacy.  As a result,  it is stated that Caesar was very popular with the Roman mob, but never explained why.
Nor is it obvious in Robert Harris's book why the assassins of Julius Caesar weren't immediately greeted by the general population like liberators (as Cicero thought they should be.)

* Actually while I'm on the subject...
It's tempting to draw a parallel between the ancient Roman populares and modern day leftists.  But the parallels are not exact.
The anti-war crowd during this period was actually the conservatives--something Robert Harris does a good job of pointing out.
Despite the image most people have of ancient Rome--an image of armies marching in and conquering whatever they wanted to--the ancient Romans actually had laws against wars of unprovoked aggression.
They often got around these rules of course--sometimes by getting themselves invited into one side of a civil war, often by a puppet government (like the United States did in Vietnam)
Or sometimes by manufacturing a cause of war on flimsy evidence (like the United States did in Iraq).
I think it's important to remember this, because otherwise we risk exaggerating the difference between us and the Romans, and in the process forgetting some of the lessons of history.
Robert Harris does a good job of recording some of the anti-war sentiment that took place in ancient Rome.  Cato and the conservatives were convinced that Caesar's whole war in Gaul was an illegal war of aggression, and wanted to prosecute him for it.
And this anti-war sentiment popped up again when Crassus marched against Parthia--many people in Rome also condemned Crassus's war as an illegal act of aggression.
(Dan Carlin also does a good job of talking about the anti-war sentiment that grew up around Crassus's expedition against Parthia.)

* Contrary to what you read in Shakespeare, Octavian and Anthony did not immediately team-up to make war on Brutus and Cassius right after the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Instead, when Octavian originally arrived on the scene, he was an ally of Cicero, and an enemy of Mark Antony.
There followed a complex period when there was a lot of political games being played and shifting alliances until Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus finally decided to team up and form the Second Triumvirate.
Robert Harris doesn't shy away from these complex back-and-forth political negotiations, and it's all included in the book.
If you're a history nerd like me who loves this kind of detail, then this is all great.
If not, then consider yourself warned ahead of time.

*  In my review of Imperium, I complained that, among other things, the book didn't do justice to Cicero's early years and only briefly skimmed over Cicero's first case in which Cicero defended a parricide.
Robert Harris tries to bring that parricide case back in Dictator, by having the soldier who delivered the death blow to Cicero be the very one that Cicero defended in the parricide case.
It's an ironic end to Cicero's career, but it's a pity this wasn't set-up better in Imperium.  It just seems to highlight the fact that Robert Harris dropped the ball by not including that story in his first book.

* Although I was familiar with most of the stuff in this book beforehand, I'd be exaggerating if I said it was all old information.  For example Cicero's attack upon Clodia during Marcus Caelius Rufus's trial (W) was new to me.
Also Cicero's various philosophical works were also new to me as well.  (The philosophical books came up in the narrative, because the narrator would describe the circumstances that lead Cicero to write each particular book, and briefly summarize its contents.

* In his acknowledgements section, Robert Harris praises Rubicon by Tom Holland as the book which first gave him the idea for this whole trilogy.

* Moving away from Cicero, I also tremendously enjoyed one of Robert Harris's other books: An Officer and a Spy

*This is only of interest to us history geeks, but I thought Wikipedia's section on Cicero's legacy was interesting.  To quote:

Likewise, no other ancient personality has inspired as much venomous dislike as Cicero, especially in more modern times.[90] His commitment to the values of the Republic accommodated a hatred of the poor and persistent opposition to the advocates and mechanisms of popular representation.[91] Friedrich Engels referred to him as "the most contemptible scoundrel in history" for upholding republican "democracy" while at the same time denouncing land and class reforms.[92] Cicero has faced criticism for exaggerating the democratic qualities of republican Rome, and for defending the Roman oligarchy against the popular reforms of Caesar.[93] Michael Parenti admits Cicero's abilities as an orator, but finds him a vain, pompous and hypocritical personality who, when it suited him, could show public support for popular causes that he privately despised. Parenti presents Cicero's prosecution of the Catiline conspiracy as legally flawed at least, and possibly unlawful.[94]

Some of this comes out in Robert Harris's book. Robert Harris does a good job of explaining why political necessity sometimes forced Cicero to lend his public support to causes he privately despised. But Cicero's opposition to populist reforms is played down in Robert Harris's trilogy.

Video Review
Link here and embedded below.

Link of the Day
Professor Noam Chomsky & Filmmakers - Q&A for Requiem for the American Dream (4-22-16)

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