Friday, August 3, 2018

Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator

Robert Harris’s trilogy Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator takes ancient Roman politics and makes it easily comprehensible for us moderns. His Romans are depicted as dissembling, duplicitous schemers, with motivations that we can easily get our heads around.

The trilogy centers on Marcus Tullius Cicero, influential politician of the first century BC and one of the best-documented individuals who lived in that world. Our narrator is his secretary, all-round right-hand man, and literal slave Tiro. Cicero was one of the few prominent Roman politicians who did not have a notable military career, which means this story is relatively light on the military side of things but very heavy on the life of a high-flying Roman lawyer and the machinery of politics. This was the period when the Roman Republic entered its death throes, with the machinery of the state breaking apart as powerful men tried new and creative methods to subvert it.

When you cover Cicero, you cover the Republic’s final decades. The first book, Imperium, deals with the first part of our protagonist’s public life. He rose to fame through his successful prosecution of the corrupt governor of Sicily, and used the case to launch his political career; the novel ends with his election as Consul in 63 BC. This was when Pompey and Crassus were the most powerful figures in Rome. Everyone knew Julius Caesar as a politician on the rise, but he had not yet begun his formidable military career.

The second book, Lustrum (or Conspirata in some countries) covers Cicero’s time as Consul and the years immediately after. This was the age of Lucius Sergius Catilina and his failed coup d’etat which inadvertently gave Cicero his greatest chance to shine in the history books. It was also the age of Publius Clodius Pulcher, the ancient world’s version of an Internet troll who found himself in a position of power. Book Two ends as Cicero’s political enemies force him to leave Rome in 58 BC; he goes into exile in Greece, where he sits in the dark and angrily obsesses about all that has been done to wrong him.

In the third book, Dictator, Cicero returns to Rome and navigates the tough political waters of the final years of the old order, as the Republic collapses amid civil war and dictatorship (hey title drop!). In the end, he is assassinated by agents of the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC. I hope that hasn’t spoiled too many potential readers, but in all fairness, very few prominent Romans of this time period managed to die of natural causes.

Robert Harris sticks close to the historical facts, sometimes in remarkable detail. More than once I went to Wikipedia to read up on the real-life counterpart to what Harris described, only to find that his depiction of events was basically quite accurate. If you don’t yet know much about the shaky final decades of the Republic, a great deal of what you’ll learn from these books will actually be correct! But this is still a work of fiction. Cicero is one of the best-documented people of his century, and yet the patchiness of the historical record gives Harris ample room to speculate and confabulate, particularly around the quotidian details of Cicero’s life and certain episodes from his public life. This was perhaps most true during Cataline’s attempted coup: I think it was Dan Carlin who pointed out in one of his podcasts that it’s impossible for us moderns to really know what happened in the conspiracy, as most of our sources ultimately trace back to Cicero’s version of events -- obviously not an objective source of information!

In our times we’ve got this subliminal idea that the ancient Romans were these dignified men in togas, striking a pose and making a speech, always in an upper-class British accent for some reason. At least, that’s how I used to imagine them. Then the more I learned about what they were really like, the more they struck me as, basically, Klingons. Violent and more than a little alien. Harris’s Romans aren’t like us -- for example, basically all upper-class Romans own slaves, but they’re not defensive about it like nineteenth-century American slaveholders, because it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody that slavery might be considered morally wrong. And there’s plenty of casual misogyny that comes with the era, of course.

What’s more, the weirdness of antiquity is presented in a very matter-of-fact way. Many things about this Rome are strange to us; not only does this large city not have a police force, but there doesn't even seem to be an ancient police analogue that provides a similar function -- when someone hires a gang of thugs to harass you and explicitly threaten your life, you either barricade yourself in your home and wait it out, or you find your own gang of thugs.

And of course the schedule of important public events involves publicly slaughtering a bull and examining its entrails; why wouldn’t that be a thing you do?

Yet, if time travel really allowed us unfiltered access to the real people of this culture, I wonder if their mindsets wouldn’t be even stranger to us than Harris’s recreation.

Cicero himself comes across as a very intelligent and hard-working schemer whose moral core allowed him to operate with considerable flexibility. I’m sensing a very cynical view of politics in these books, though it’s hard to feel idealistic when describing this particular time period. I can overlook Cicero’s rampant bribery, on both the giving and receiving ends (assuming Harris’s depiction is approximately accurate), if this is indeed how things were done at the time. And while I don’t have to like it, I can’t single out Cicero for being a slave owner when Rome was a slave state.

What I cannot overlook is pushing through the executions of several Romans without trial in the wake of Cataline’s failed coup. Not cool, Cicero. I might have admired you as something of an admirable character at the remove of 2,000 years, but I’m afraid those summary executions are a dealbreaker, Cicero.

I can just imagine you here right now, rolling your eyes and muttering “Here we go…”. I know you never lived down those executions. For the rest of your life, your political enemies used them as a cudgel against you. But you see, that makes it worse. That means executing people without trial was not considered normal in your society. That means you don’t get special consideration by being a Long-Ago Person who followed different rules. Robert Harris did his best to conjecture what the hell motivated you, but as a modern person who grows more opposed to authoritarianism with every passing year, I must say you crossed a line on that day in 63 BC.

Or, to put it another way, now I’m righteously indignant about something that a politician did almost twenty-one hundred years ago. And it’s all thanks to Robert Harris bringing him to life.

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