“History,” said Marcus Tullius Cicero, “is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.” With increasing frequency, those tidings have been delivered in fiction, of which Robert Harris’s projected trilogy starring the great silver-tongued Roman himself is a splendid example. Now two volumes strong, the work purports to be a biography of Cicero written by his slave and scribe, Tiro. Such a man did exist and so, apparently, did his book, though lost long ago to one of those miscellaneous disasters to which history has also been so frequent a witness. The Tiro of these pages, an engaging character himself, is an on-the-spot reporter of the skullduggery that was Roman politics of the time and an acerbic commentator on the foibles, follies, and bold gambits of his master.
Though it can be read on its own, Conspirata continues where the first volume, Imperium, left off, that is with Cicero ascending to a year’s consulship in a republic that is corroding from within and harassed from without. It is 63 B.C. and Rome is “a vortex of hunger, rumor, anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorizing shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights, and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights.” Pompey is away in the East; Rome has the jitters. The discovery of an eviscerated slave boy, clearly killed as a human sacrifice, is an unhappy sign — but what does it mean?
It means plots are afoot, a great welter of intrigue and treachery that finally coalesces as the Catiline Conspiracy, whereby portions of Rome were to be set ablaze, any number of senators, including Cicero, murdered, and power seized in the subsequent panic by Lucius Sergius Catilina and his fellow conspirators. Under Harris’s pen — or Tiro’s stylus — the infamous scheme unfolds in a stunning sequence of double-dealing, deception, and opportunism. It is immensely enthralling and nerve-racking even though we know how it will end. I give nothing away to the student of history (or reader of novels of ancient Rome) when I tell you that Catilina and his cohorts are finally dispatched; but at that point the book is only a little over halfway to its end. Now another presence, which has been slipping in and out of the pages, becomes increasingly felt.
Ecce Caesar. “Pitiless ambition clothed in honeyed charm,” he is a master of guile and foul hugger-mugger. Inscrutable and watchful, he is nonetheless possessed, as Cicero observes, of “a kind of divine recklessness.” Though implicated in the conspiracy, Caesar is allowed to go free for lack of evidence. It is Cicero’s scruples which prevent the needful from being simply fabricated, although that would have been simple enough. Tiro (and the reader, for that matter) finds this fastidiousness oddly placed, for, as shown by Cicero’s many reversals and strange alliances — the stratagems which make up much of the story’s plot, in fact — the great orator was capable of the most ruthless pragmatism. This is only one of the occasions, as the scribe notes with gloomy hindsight, that the opportunity was lost to eradicate Caesar, without whom “the world — our world –would have been entirely different.”
Throughout the novel, Harris draws upon Cicero’s actual writings and speeches, but if we are to believe the often mordant Tiro of these pages — and why wouldn’t we? — Cicero, like most people, was as enchanted by what he could have said and embellished his speeches when he came to write them down. It’s a good joke, as is his waxing vainglorious after his victory over the Catilines, setting about the composition of his own autobiography in verse. Though no longer extant — if it ever was — Tiro tells us “It was terrible stuff!…When the mood seized him Cicero could lay down hexameters as readily as a bricklayer could throw up a wall: three, four, even five hundred lines a day was nothing to him.” At times wry, at others bemused, scandalized, compassionate, or, occasionally, rueful over the coexistence of slavery with Republican ideals, Tiro’s ironical voice is the perfect foil for what might have been simply a determined march through well-known historical events. Put another way: Robert Harris, his worldly-wise wit ever present in his creature Tiro, belongs in the company of such great conjurors of ancient Rome as Gore Vidal and Allan Massie — and not, shall we say, with Colleen McCullough.
Hindsight, foreshadowing, and, indeed, resonance with our own time, pervade the book. This, like the previous volume, is a fascinating treatment of brute politics, confounded civic virtue, and now, increasingly, demagoguery and the “Dionysian convulsions” of the masses. The Roman Republic is on its last legs; with its constitution stretched and tattered, governance is a dirty business — a necessarily dirty business — for Rome’s citizens are not, as Cicero writes to his friend Atticus, “living in Plato’s Republic,” but in “Romulus’s shit hole.”
The seeds of the decline of the subsequent empire can already be spotted and once again our own day is evoked. Pompey, returned glorious and vastly wealthy with plunder, has appropriated land, hitherto designated for the process of voting, to build a huge theatre — that is, the appurtenances of constitutional government have been replaced with those of mass entertainment. Conquest has enlarged Rome’s territory beyond the limits of peaceful rule. “We are meddling in places we know nothing about,” argues the intransigently ethical Cato. “This is going to require permanent legions, stationed overseas. And whoever commands the legions needed to control this empire…will ultimately control Rome, and whoever raises a voice against it will be condemned for his lack of patriotism.”
“I wonder,” Harris has Cicero say elsewhere, “what men will think of us a thousand years from now….We have so much — our arts and learning, laws, treasure, slaves, the beauty of Italy, dominion over the entire earth — and yet why is it that some ineradicable impulse of the human mind always impels us to foul our own nest?” The answer here, nearly two thousand years on, is that when we think of Rome we think of our dismal, unraveling future. Still, that takes nothing away from the pleasure to be had from these witty, briskly written, historically rich novels.