A review of Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by Robert Harris and Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by Robert Harris

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) has not fared well in the popular imagination over the course of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. The sniveling toad portrayed by David Bamber in HBO’s entertaining, if at times pornographic, mini-series Rome (2005-07), was a far cry from the brilliant, courageous statesman whose ultimately doomed efforts to save the Roman republic from tyranny—as well as his voluminous speeches, letters, and works of philosophy, politics, and rhetoric—captured the minds of so many leading thinkers from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Cicero’s example exerted a powerful influence on the American Founders. For example, John Adams maintained that “As all the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher united than Cicero, his authority should have great weight.”

As a philosopher, Cicero is dismissed as merely an eclectic translator into Latin of the Greeks, himself contributing nothing original to the history of political thought. If he is given any credit at all by modern scholars, it is for the idea of human equality buried within his version of natural law, which differed from the Stoic version. (For Cicero, the “law of nature” is a moral or political law meant to apply to the entire regime, while the Stoic “reason of nature” applies only to the Stoic Wise Man who disdains politics.) For these scholars, Cicero unwittingly—because contrary to his own self-interest as a senator—saved the idea of human equality from oblivion, becoming a kind of ancient precursor to democracy and even the so-called Arab Spring.

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Against this distorted view of Cicero comes two works of historical fiction by the British novelist Robert Harris, which grapple seriously with the great Roman’s life and achievements. This is not to say Harris offers us an unqualified endorsement: one gets the sense that he is often of two minds—torn between the dominant interpretation of his subject and the actual Cicero he encounters in the voluminous written record that has come down to us. Nevertheless, a genuine sense of admiration for Cicero’s character eventually emerges—not to mention the fact that these books are really terrific reads.

Imperium and Conspirata, the first two installments of a planned trilogy, purport to tell the life of Cicero through the eyes of his slave Tiro. The first book picks up the thread of Cicero’s life at the tender age of 27, while Tiro is 24. We know that there really was a Tiro because he is mentioned by Plutarch in his life of Cicero and also by Asconius Pedianus in his commentaries on Cicero’s speeches. We also have letters to Tiro from Cicero, and Saint Jerome mentions him, too.

Tiro was not a slave in the usual sense: highly educated, he was the inventor of a system of shorthand consisting of over 4,000 symbols, some of which (&, n.b., i.e., e.g., etc.) are still in use today; he traveled with Cicero to Greece to study philosophy; and following his master’s murder, he wrote a life of Cicero that was lost in the subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire. Harris sets himself the task of recreating Tiro’s lost work, with a novelist’s license. As he puts it, the book is “a novel, not a work of history,” and what is more, “wherever the demands of the two have clashed, I have unhesitatingly plumped for the former.” Nevertheless, he says, he has “tried…to make the fiction accord with the facts, and to use Cicero’s actual words” whenever possible.

His main source for those words is the Loeb Library edition of Cicero’s works, which runs to an astounding 29 volumes. His reliance on the Loeb edition—which, with its Latin and English text set side by side, is the standard for many classrooms—is completely understandable, though it proves to be a weakness, not only because so many of the introductions to these books suffer from the influence of poor academic interpretations of Cicero, but also because it leads to numerous verbatim repetitions of what are oftentimes poor translations.

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Perhaps the most obvious and frequent example is the use of the word “state” to translate the Latin civitas, a derivative of civis or citizen. A civitas is a collection or grouping of citizens. However one might vary this translation, the term “state” is a misleading choice, to say the least, since it implies a division of public and private spheres of activity that would have been unknown to the ancients, including Cicero, for whom politics was comprehensive, forming and shaping virtually every aspect of life. It reads back into Cicero the terms of modern political philosophy—especially Hegel, in whose political theory the term plays a very large and important role—and in doing so obscures our understanding of him.

As Imperium begins, Cicero is a young, ambitious, if somewhat frail, advocate, who travels to the Greek island of Rhodes where he receives rhetorical instruction from the famed Apollonius Molon. Molon turns him into the robust orator who will, by the conclusion of Imperium, have put himself in a position to win a cliffhanger of an election contest for consul at the youngest constitutionally allowable age of 42. All are amazed at Cicero’s transformation in Rhodes, including Apollonius, who says to his student, paraphrasing Plutarch, “It is Greece and her fate that I am sorry for. The only glory that was left to us was the supremacy of our eloquence, and now you have taken that as well. Go back…go back, my boy, and conquer Rome.”

Given the abundance of material he has to work with, Harris chooses to tell his story by zeroing in on some of the key episodes and accompanying speeches of Cicero’s life. And so we are treated to thrilling recreations of some of Cicero’s greatest oratorical triumphs, such as the prosecution of the aristocrat Verres in 70 B.C., who plundered the island of Sicily—where Cicero himself had served five years earlier as quaestor (a public official of financial affairs)—and murdered many a Sicilian and even Roman citizen along the way. The story of Cicero’s prosecutorial effort takes up much of the first half of the book, while his courtroom victory ensures his fame and also launches him on a path to the consulship. Although the outcome is well known, the story of his pursuit of the highest office in the land is full of suspense and keeps the reader engaged to the very end.

Conspirata treats the five year period (a lustrum in Latin, as Tiro helpfully explains, which is also the title of the book’s British edition) comprising Cicero’s consulship and the following four years. Here, the conspiracy of Catiline—a disaffected Roman noble who plotted a populist revolution, including the murder of Cicero and numerous other senators—is the pivotal episode of the story. Anyone who has read Cicero in school surely will not have forgotten his famous J’accuse in the Roman Senate, as he turns on Catiline with words the novel gives us in English—”How much longer, Catilina, will you try our patience?” Following his humiliation in the Senate, Catiline flees Rome and is killed on the battlefield. However, several of his fellow conspirators are caught and, following a contentious debate in the Senate, sentenced to death without a formal trial—an event Tiro describes as the “crux of my story” and the “hinge” of Cicero’s life. The harrowing description of the conspirators’ execution by strangulation is a gripping scene that keeps the reader turning the pages. The conspiracy may have been defeated, but supreme irony follows: Cicero—initially hailed as a savior of the republic and dubbed pater patriae or “Father of his Country” by the Senate—comes to find himself the object of the ire of the patrician-turned-tribune Publius Clodius and his populist followers, many of whom were allies and partisans of the now-departed Catiline.Conspirata concludes with the dramatic tale of Cicero’s forced exile.

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One of the novels’ major sub-themes is the rise of the future tyrant Julius Caesar, who is scheming constantly to advance his ambition at the expense of the tottering republic. Thus, Cicero and Caesar find themselves frequently at odds, which makes the closing scene of Conspirata that much more poignant: as the book ends, Caesar is departing for his great military victories in Gaul, while Cicero is going off into an exile from which he would not return for over a year. Tiro, in one of his typically artful phrases, observes that Cicero was departing on a “journey, in the opposite direction to Caesar’s.”

If it takes Harris some time to develop a fuller appreciation of Cicero, one important reason is the way he chose to tackle his subject: through the lens of power. Indeed, the very title of the first novel, Imperium, which means power or the exercise of official political power, suggests that the desire for power alone, or mere self-interest, drove Cicero to seek the consulship. As Tiro writes at the beginning of Imperium, adapting the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid, “it is of power and the man that I shall sing.”

Yet, if we limit Cicero’s actions to a quest for power, we cannot see him in full, in the way he himself—a devoted student of the writings of Plato and Aristotle—thought the best statesmen should be seen and judged. We would instead be taking the point of view of one of the modern originators of the philosophy of power, Thomas Hobbes. But we cannot understand Cicero well, or at all really, if we read back into his thoughts and deeds the terms of Hobbesian political philosophy. Thus, one of the most impressive aspects of Harris’s Cicero is the way in which he is allowed—in a significant way by the end ofConspirata—to break out of this modern mold. The author’s appreciation of Cicero’s achievements seems to have grown the more time he spent with his subject’s words and deeds.

In Imperium, Tiro describes the “core of [Cicero’s] genius, both as an advocate and as a statesman,” as the ability to believe in something, no matter what that thing is, for the sake of victory. If we understand this about Cicero, we can then “understand his character.” This observation pairs nicely with one that comes a little later: “there was nothing, according to his philosophy, that could not be made or undone or repaired by words.” What counts, therefore, is the intensity of one’s beliefs and how effectively one employs words to convey those beliefs in a convincing manner. Whether or not those beliefs and words reflect some deeper underlying truth is a secondary or even immaterial consideration.

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Did Cicero really believe this? To answer that question requires knowing something about his “philosophy.” Tiro never tells us explicitly what it was, though the passage cited above alludes to the school of Academic Skepticism, of which Cicero considered himself to be a member. This school did not hold, in a nihilistic fashion, that there was no truth, only that the deepest kind of philosophical truth was something human beings could never fully grasp. All we can hope to determine is what is more or less probable, hence the doctrine of probabilism. In staking out this position, Cicero thought he was being most faithful to the teachings of Socrates, who, as the founder of political philosophy, established it as an inherently questioning enterprise.

On the other hand, to believe that one possesses the final answers to these types of questions would mean the ossification and eventual death of philosophy itself. Cicero faulted the leading schools of his day, especially the Stoics and the Epicureans, for making just these types of dogmatic claims. Harris’s books do not have much to say about Cicero’s opinion of Epicureanism—an apolitical doctrine that, simply put, advocated the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain—though Tiro notes more than once that Cicero’s good friend Atticus was a follower of the school’s teachings. Nevertheless, it is worth noting how Atticus is portrayed as intimately involved with Cicero’s political ambitions, at no small risk to his own life and fortunes, indicating he was a less than faithful member of the school.

When it comes to Stoicism, however, Cicero’s scorn for its anti-political bias shows through very clearly, which helps to disabuse the reader of the notion that Cicero’s own writings were simple Stoic regurgitations. Both Cicero and Tiro make frequent references to the inapplicability to actual human life of Stoicism—which celebrated as its model the imperturbable and purely rational Wise Man who operates above the all-too-emotional political fray. In Conspirata, Cicero upbraids the Stoic Cato for his formulaic approach to politics, pointing out that the “best analogy for statesmanship…is navigation,” and furthermore, to become a true statesman requires “years of skill and study, not some manual written by Zeno.” What Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and his devoted followers fail to see is that, as the character Scipio says in Cicero’s dialogue De Re Publica, “the nature of politics often conquers reason.” The true statesman, far from abandoning the hurly burly of politics, must apply the Aristotelian virtue of prudence, and adapt inflexible principles to changing political circumstances.

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If this is what Cicero was against, what was he for? To understand this it would have been helpful to have some explanation of Cicero’s characteristic teaching of the natural law, which is never mentioned in either book. This would have helped the reader and perhaps Harris himself to make better sense of Cicero’s belief that—despite or rather because of his avowed philosophical skepticism—the statesman’s pursuit of political power in light of transcendent principles could never be mere Hobbesian scheming. Instead, the most we get is an allusion to natural law and to its embodiment in the idealized Rome presented in De Re Publica when, on the electoral stump near the conclusion of Imperium, Cicero says, “Rome is an ideal. Rome is the highest embodiment of liberty and law.”

A consideration of natural law would also have revealed why the following from Tiro in Conspirata could never have been the final or complete view of Cicero himself: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. If my work has a moral, this is it.” On the contrary, Cicero understood that despite the changeability of circumstances or events, human nature itself is unchanging, and properly studied, it can provide a guide for right action in any time.

What is more, it is only this kind of understanding that makes it possible for us today to admire the timeless aspects of Cicero’s character and achievements. Harris seems to suggest as much—and to reinforce his own ambivalence about his subject—when he has Tiro celebrate Cicero’s courage early on in Conspirata: “not the least of the reasons why I loved him, despite his faults, was that he possessed that most attractive form of courage: the bravery of a nervous man.” Tiro continues that to know the risks and then face them down is the “most commendable form of valor.” Later, when Cicero refuses to join the First Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, he tells Tiro he is not afraid—whatever may come. “But clearly,” Tiro narrates, “he was afraid, and suddenly here it was again, that quality I admired the most about him—his reluctant, nervous resolution in the end to do the right thing.”

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What Tiro leaves unsaid is that Cicero’s actions are examples of Aristotle’s virtue of courage, described in theNicomachean Ethics as a perfection of a certain part of the human soul that has to do, in part, with facing down one’s fears. Aristotle’s courageous man experiences fear, as do all human beings, but he has trained himself through constant practice and habituation to choose the mean between the extremes of rashness and cowardice. Tiro’s observation about Cicero’s courage thus constitutes, at the very least, an implicit acknowledgment that the realm of politics comprehends such timeless aspects of human nature, an observation which stands in stark contrast to his earlier claim that the political arena “is only the remorseless grinding forward of events.”

As Cicero is facing exile, the result of a long series of events that followed from his suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy, Tiro reflects on “the ineluctable consequences of a deed done by a great man for honorable motives—is that not, after all, how the Greeks define tragedy?” Admittedly, Robert Harris’s presentation of Cicero is not without its flaws, but in gradually sketching for us this picture of a great and ultimately tragic figure, he offers us a man who, by the end of the second volume, has managed to escape the cramped confines into which most contemporary commentators seek to place him. In doing so, Harris has not only aided significantly in the restoration of Cicero’s reputation, he has also contributed in an important way to the revival of the belief in the possibility of true statesmanship.