Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

‘My skill is statecraft and that requires me to be alive and in Rome.’
(Cicero talking to Tiro, Dictator, page 36)

This is the third and concluding novel in the Robert Harris’s epic ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Book one, Imperium, covered Cicero’s life and career over the years 79 to 64 BC, the second novel, Lustrum, covered the five years from 63 to 58, and this concluding volume covers the last 15 years of his life, from 58 to his murder at the hands of agents of Mark Antony in 44 BC.

I’ve covered the outline of Cicero’s life in my reviews of his letters and Plutarch’s Life:

Tiro’s memoirs

As with its two predecessors, Dictator (a weighty 504 pages long) purports to be part of the multi-volume first-person memoir of Cicero written by his loyal slave and personal secretary Tiro almost 40 years after Cicero’s death:

I still possess my shorthand notes…it is from these that I have been able to reconstruct the many conversations, speeches and letters that make up this memoir of Cicero (p.37)

A summary cannot convey the skill with which Harris plunges you right into the heart of the toxic politics of republican Rome, or into the mind of Tiro, the shrewd, literate observer of the dilemmas and experiences of Cicero, a figure who combined wit and dazzling oratory with a profound interest in contemporary philosophy and, above all, deep embroilment in the complex power politics of his day. It is an utterly absorbing and thrilling read.

Tiro is aged 46 when the narrative opens (p.40).

Sources

Because there is so much information flying in from different places about so many events, Harris relies much more than in both the previous books combined on actual historical documents, on Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the early part (for example, pages 147 to 148), then on the letters to and from Cicero, for example to and from his lifelong friend Atticus.

Like the preceding two novels Dictator is divided into two substantial parts:

Part one – Exile (58 to 47 BC)

‘Exile’ is a slightly misleading title as Cicero was only in exile from Rome for 18 months, returning in late 57 BC. And it doesn’t really refer to a spiritual or political exile either since, once he returned to Rome, he was right back in the thick of political intrigue and returned to his position as Rome’s leading barrister.

The narrative begins exactly where Lustrum broke off, with Cicero, Tiro and a few slaves secretly leaving Rome at night due to the threat against his life issued by the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. Clodius issues a law saying anyone who gives Cicero help, food or fire within 500 km of Rome is liable to execution.

They clandestinely travel south but their attempt to sail to Sicily is blocked by the governor (p.7). Travel back across Italy to Brundisium (11). Nightmare sea crossing to Dyrrachium (13 to 15). Governor of Macedonia, old friend Apuleius Saturninus, sends a message saying Cicero can’t stay with him (16). But one of Saturninus’s junior magistrates, the quaestor Gnaeus Plancius, offers to put him up in his town house in Thessalonika. News of Cicero’s wife and family’s mistreatment back in Rome (21). His luxury house has been burned down, the land confiscated and a shrine to ‘Liberty’ erected.

Clodius and his gangs have complete control of Rome. His sort-of ally Cato the Younger has been packed off to serve as governor of Cyprus (22). Atticus tells him about a fight between Gnaeus Pompey’s men and Clodius’s men for possession of the son of the King of Armenia, a hostage held by Rome, in which one of Pompey’s friends is killed. This decisively turns Pompey against Clodius and he now regrets having supported Cicero’s exile (24).

Unexpected arrival of the fierce ex-gladiator Titus Annius Milo, who has just managed to be elected tribune and offers his services to Cicero, accompanied by a really hard-looking gladiator named Birria (30). He explains he offered Pompey the services of 100 hardened gladiators to confront Clodius’s gangs in exchange for Pompey helping him (Milo) get elected tribune. Pompey himself has been attacked and forced back to his house by Clodius’s gangs so now he whole-heartedly wants Cicero back.

But there’s a catch: Cicero must ‘reassure’ Caesar i.e. promise not to oppose him. So Cicero’s exile will be ended if he agrees to truckle to the Triumvirate. Milo says he must send a letter and emissary to Caesar in person, so Tiro sets off on the long journey across the Adriatic, up Italy and finds Caesar doing his assizes at a town called Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul (41).

Publius Crassus, son of Marcus, spots Tiro in the queue of supplicants and takes him to see the great man in person. Tiro finds Caesar naked on a table being given a massage by a big black man (46). He scans Cicero’s letter in which he promises to meekly support Caesar’s legislation and keep out of politics and simply signs it ‘Approved’ (48). (While waiting, Publius shows Tiro copies of the Commentaries Caesar is writing, the annual account of his campaigns which he is having published back in Rome to win support – see my reviews of Caesar’s Gallic Wars for a summary. Harris also uses it to meditate on the appalling atrocities Caesar carried out against the Gauls, see below.)

Atticus is sending him letters from Rome keeping him informed and tells him that although Clodius’s gangs are still beating up their opponents (including Cicero’s brother, Quintus) the tide is turning against him. Friendly senators arrange a vote of the entire citizenry which is unanimous to have Cicero’s exile ended (52) and then restore full rights of citizenship (57).

Cicero’s triumphant march from Brundisium to Rome, feted and welcomed at every village and town. Reunion with brother Quintus who he hasn’t seen for 2 years (while he’s been off serving with Caesar in Gaul) (61). A vivid description of his triumphal entry into Rome and the ceremonies around his restoration as a citizen (63).

Because his house was demolished, Cicero’s household move in with brother Quintus. The two wives do not get on, but Cicero’s marriage to Terentia is under strain. She gave him her full support on the understanding he would be a success. Exile was the extreme opposite of success and exposed her, back in Rome, to any number of threats and humiliations (65).

Straight back into toxic politics. In return for his support in having his exile rescinded, Pompey wants Cicero to propose a bill giving Pompey executive control over Rome’s food supply for the next five years (68). This will redirect the people’s loyalty from Clodius’s crowd-pleasing back to Pompey, an establishment figure.

Clodius still has control of street gangs and sets a crowd to besiege Cicero and his family in Quintus’s house (73 to 78) until they smuggle a slave out to fetch Milo and his gladiators who see off Clodius’s thugs.

Next day Cicero presents Pompey’s grain powers bill in the senate and wins a huge ovation, supporters carry him to the rostra where he addresses a cheering crowd and then introduces the man of the hour, Pompey (81-81). Pompey accompanies Cicero home and tries to strong arm him into becoming one of the 15 food commissioners; is disgruntled when Cicero refuses (he’s only just got back to Rome and his family), so Pompey bullies Quintus into reluctantly taking up a post in Sicily (82).

Vivid description of Cicero presenting his case to the College of Pontiffs to have ownership of his (ruined) house returned to him, claiming it was never properly sanctified, helped by the discovery that the so-called Statue of Liberty Clodius set up in the ruins is actually a half-naked statue stolen from Greece where it adorned the tomb of a famous courtesan. Clodius’s case is laughed out of court and the land restored to Cicero to rebuild his mansion (85-89).

But workmen starting to rebuild it are attacked and Clodius’s gangs throw firebrands onto Quintus’s house nearly burning it down (93), forcing the family to go and stay at Atticus’s empty house. Eight days later they are walking along the Via Sacra when they are attacked by Clodius and a dozen of his hoods carrying cudgels and swords and only escape by dodging into a nearby house (94).

Terentia shows Cicero the weals on her back where she was savagely whipped on the orders of Clodia, Clodius’s fearsome sister, while Cicero was in exile (96)

The affair of Dio of Alexander, philosopher from Alexandria who had come to Rome to petition against the return of the pharaoh Ptolemy and is one day found murdered. Ptolemy is staying with Pompey and so suspicion falls on him, specifically on one of his managers, Asicius. Pompey strong-arms Cicero into defending him (100). Asicius chooses as alibi the young protege of Cicero’s, Calius Rufus. Now this smooth young man had defected from Cicero to Clodius in the previous novel. Now Cicero meets him and realises he has fallen out with Clodius. Cicero discovers his affair with Clodia ended badly with her accusing him of trying to poison her.

Pompey lobbies for a bill giving him sole command of a commission to restore Auletes to power in Egypt. Crassus is so jealous he pays Clodius to launch a campaign to stop him. Meetings and speeches to the people are broken up in violence. Cicero is delighted because it heralds the end of the Triumvirate (105).

The Rufus strategem (pages 105 to 122)

Cicero learns Rufus is scheduled to prosecute Lucius Calpurnius Bestia for corruption. Bestia was a creature of Cataline’s and so a sworn enemy of Cicero’s but Cicero conceives a Machiavellian plan. First Cicero amazes everyone by volunteering to defend Bestia, does a great job and gets him off. Irritated, Rufus issues another write against Bestia. Bestia comes to Cicero for advice. Cicero advises the best form of defence is attack; he should issue a counter-writ. More than that, he should meet with Clodius and Clodia and get them to join his case. They loathe Rufus. With them on his side Bestia can’t lose. Delighted, Bestia goes away, meets with Clodius, and issues a writ against Rufus accusing him of a) murdering the Egyptian envoys b) poisoning Clodia (110).

Cicero chuckles. His plan is working. He takes a puzzled Tiro on a visit to Rufus and finds him disconsolate: just the accusation means his budding career as a lawyer is in tatters. To Rufus’s amazement Cicero offers to be his defence counsel. Neither Rufus nor Tiro understand what is going on.

First day of the trial passes without Cicero’s intervention. Clodius is one of the three prosecutors. He depicts his sister (Clodia) as the innocent victim of a cruel libertine (Rufus). On the second day Cicero takes to the stage (trials were held on raised platforms in the Forum) and proceeds to lay into Clodia with unparalleled fury and accuracy, describing her as a whore, a courtesan, Medea, hinting at her incest with her brother, depicting her as having countless lovers, depicting him as the sensual immoral seducer of a boy half her age (Rufus) and she the daughter of an infamous, merciless, crime-stained, lust-stained house. Clodius is infuriated, Clodia sits motionless. Cicero eviscerates her in front of a cheering Roman audience who end up pointing their fingers at her and chanting ‘Whore, whore, whore.’ It is said she never went out in public again (122).

And this entire elaborate scam? Revenge for Clodia having his wife, Terentia, whipped. Cicero presents the result to his wife as a gift and atonement for her sufferings during his exile.

Cicero makes one more intervention in politics. Next day he speaks in the Senate to the bill to assign 20 million sestercii to Pompey for his grain commission but he uses the opportunity to ask whether they should reconsider the land reform legislation Caesar passed before he left for Gaul. This pleases the anti-Caesarians but infuriates his supporters, not least Crassus (125).

He makes an evening visit to Pompey’s villa outside Rome, politely greeting the great generals’ beautiful young wife. Pompey tut tuts over Cicero’s speech against the land reform but Cicero goes on the offensive saying Crassus’s insensate jealousy of Pompey is far more dangerous than anything he, Cicero, can say. Pompey agrees. Cicero comes away well pleased at his work undermining the unity of the anti-republican triumvirate (130).

Tired, Cicero takes a holiday at Cumae, in a villa left to him by a rich tax collector he did some legal work for (126). They notice it’s surprisingly empty for the time of year (132). Then dusty soldiers approach. Scared, they receive them and they turn out to be envoys from Luca.

After Cicero’s disruptive speech, Crassus went to see Caesar and they then summoned Pompey to what turned into the Conference of Luca, designed to shore up the Triumvirate. Now this soldier has brought an ultimatum to Cicero. He must shut up. He must stop criticising the triumvirs. He must reverse his position and support the land reform.

And astonishes him by telling him Pompey and Clodius have been publicly reconciled. Crassus and Pompey are going to stand for election as consuls. If they stood in the summer they would fail. But the elections will be delayed because of the escalating violence Clodius will provide. By the time it’s safe enough to hold election in the winter, campaigning season in Gaul will be over and Caesar will send thousands of his soldiers to vote for Pompey and Crassus. When they have finished their year as consuls they will be awarded provinces, Pompey to Spain, Crassus Syria. These commands will be for five years, and Caesar’s command in Gaul will also be extended.

Altogether these plans are known as the Luca Accords (136). If Cicero doesn’t support them, bad things will happen to him. After the soldiers leave Cicero is shaken but furious with Pompey. Can’t he see he is being turned into Caesar’s dupe? He is securing Caesar the few more years he needs to thoroughly subjugate and pillage Gaul and then, when he’s done, Caesar will return to Rome and dispense with Pompey.

But Terentia intervenes. She is fed up with Cicero thinking he and he alone must save the Republic. There are hundreds of other senators and ex-consuls. Let them do something about it for a change. Cicero knows he is right. After this ultimatum from the three most powerful men in Rome he realises his time is up. He should back away from active politics (139).

Vivid description of Cato the Younger returning from two years as governor of Cyprus with vast wealth (140). He is shocked at the Senate’s obeisance before the Triumvirate and at Cicero’s pessimism. From now on Cato becomes the leader of the opposition to Caesar (143). Cicero kowtows. In the Senate he humiliatingly withdraws his suggestion that Caesar’s land reform be reviewed – and receives a letter of thanks from Caesar (146).

(150-154) Portrait of Crassus as he prepares to set off on his military campaign against the Parthian Empire. He is only interested in looting everywhere and amassing as much money as possible. It is unpopular with the people. Cato makes speeches against it, declaring it immoral to commence a war against a nation Rome has treaties with. But when Crassus asks for Cicero’s support the latter is happy to invite him and his wife round for supper and pledge his heartfelt support. Anything to appease the Triumvirate and get them off his back. Tiro notes the slack, dilettantish behaviour of the officers who accompany Crassus, a sharp contrast with the whip-smart and efficient officers who surround Caesar. (This is all by way of being anticipation of Crassus’s disastrous defeats and miserable death in Syria the following year).

Over the next 3 years Cicero writes and rewrites the first of his works, On the Republic. Harris has Tiro give a useful summary (p.156):

  • politics is the most noble of callings
  • there is no nobler motive for entering public life than the resolution not to be ruled by wicked men
  • no individual or combination of individuals should be allowed to become too powerful
  • politics is a profession not a pastime for dilettantes
  • a statesman should devote his life to studying the science of politics in order to acquire all the knowledge that is necessary
  • that authority in a state must always be divided
  • that of the three known forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and people – the optimum is a combination of all three, since kings can be capricious, an aristocracy self-interested, and an uncontrolled multitude is a mob

Tiro has a severe fever during which Cicero promises to finally make him free – description of Tiro’s manumission

Crassus is killed at Carrhae – Harris chooses to quote Cassius’s long message as read out by Pompey to the assembled senators

detailed description of the affray which leads to the murder of Clodius – Cicero defends Milo at his trial but can’t be heard above the barracking (p.194)

Cicero is forced to go serve as governor of Cilicia as the political situation in Rome intensifies. Tiro doesn’t want to go but Cicero persuades him with the offer of buying him the farm he’s always wanted (p.198). Terentia wants him to play the traditional Roman governor and fleece the province for everything he can but Cicero knows this will play into the hands of his enemies as well as being against his temperament (202).

En route to take ship at Brundisium, the party is invited to go stay with Pompey at his nearby villa. They discuss the political situation. With Crassus dead the triumvirate is now an unstable duumvirate. Because Caesar has now successfully conquered and pacified all of Gaul, the question becomes what to do about him. Caesar wants to stand for the consulship in absentia to ensure that he gets it and secures immunity from prosecution which the office provides (204).

In Athens discussion with Aristatus, leading exponent of Epicureanism (206). He argues that physical wellbeing, the avoidance of pain and stress, is all. But Cicero argues that physical illness and pain are unavoidable and so the Epicurean notion of ‘good’ is weak and vulnerable. A more robust notion of the Good is needed, namely the moral goodness of the Stoics which endures no matter what state our body is in. Which inspires Cicero to write a guide to the Good Life.

Harris skimps on Cicero’s governorship, giving a very brief account of the one military campaign he led, to besiege the capital of a rebellious tribe. He omits two aspects described in Cicero’s own letters, namely a) his difficult relationship with his predecessor who just happened to be a brother of his bitter (and dead) enemy, Clodius and b) his very real achievement of setting a ruined province back on its feet, reducing taxes, reviving trade and administering justice fairly. You can see that these nuts and bolts aspects of actual administrative work don’t fit the thriller template.

Before his governorship is quite over, Cicero packs and sets off back to Rome, accompanied by Tiro and his entourage. He detours via Rhodes to visit the tomb of his tutor in oratory, Apollonius Molo. However, the winds change and block them there. Finally they sail on to Corinth but Tiro is taken very ill and eventually cannot be moved. He is left in the care of a banker friend of Cicero’s who he was not to see again for 8 months.

So he is forced to watch from a distance as the Roman Republic collapses for it was in January of that year, 49 BC, that Caesar crossed the River Rubicon and sparked civil war against Pompey, the defender of the constitution and senate.

Harris uses a series of Cicero’s actual letters to describe events. Pompey panics, thinking Caesar has his entire army with him (whereas he only had one legion) and orders the authorities to evacuate Rome and head east, ultimately holing up in Brundisium before sailing for Greece.

Caesar just fails to stop him then, without ships of his own, is forced to march back to Rome. En route he stops off at Cicero’s house in Formiae and has a brief meeting. He asks him to come back to Rome, to address the senate supporting him. Cicero refuses. Caesar is angered but leaves.

Cicero realises he must throw in his lot with Pompey and heads back to Greece. Tiro travels from his sickhouse to rendezvous back in Thessalonika, the same house where he spent his exile. Everyone is miserable (226). Cicero talks to Pompey, attends meetings. 200 senators are there with their families and staffs, bickering and politicking.

Caesar finally secures a fleet and sends half his army to Dyrrachium. Pompey marches there and surrounds his camp. It settles down into trench warfare, with the soldiers yelling abuse at each other and the occasional outbreak of fraternisation. Defectors tell Pompey about a weak place in Caesar’s defences so he attacks there. In a confused fight it is generally thought Caesar lost. Next morning his fortifications are abandoned. He is marching east into Greece. Pompey resolves to chase him and also strikes camp. Cicero’s son, brother and nephew all march off, but he doesn’t like war and elects to stay in a villa near the now liberated town of Dyrrachium (249). Cato is put in charge of forces there.

It is here that, weeks later, rumours reach them of disaster. Then Labienus arrives in a terrible state having ridden for days from the disaster that was the Battle of Pharsalus, 9 August 48 BC (252).

The senators and leaders who stayed behind at Dyrrachium hold a meeting and resolve to fight on and rally the Pompeian forces at Corfu, an island and so defensible.

And so amid scenes of chaos and panic the Pompeian forces pack up and sail for Corfu. Here another summit meeting is held in the Temple of Jupiter. Cato proposes Cicero be their leader, but Cicero laughs out loud and says he is fit for nothing. In his opinion they should immediately sue for peace in order to end the bloodshed. Pompey’s son Gnaeus is incensed by Cicero’s defeatism and goes to stab him with a sword, only Cato’s restraining words prevent him and save Cicero’s life (259). Cato lets anyone who wants to, leave, so Cicero slowly rises and walks out:

out of the temple, out of the senatorial cause, out of the war and out of public life. (p.260)

In Patrae they are delighted to come across Cicero’s son, Marcus, his brother Quintus and young nephew, who all fought in the battle but survived (260). Cicero speaks tactlessly of the meeting of leaders he attended, ridiculing them and their cause, not realising how deeply it was offending these three men who put their lives at risk for the cause. This prompts a furious tirade from Quintus in which he expresses a lifetime of resentment at being forced to play second fiddle to his oh-so-clever brother and he and his son walk out (264).

Heart-broken at this family rupture, Cicero returns to Italy accompanied by Tiro who has been away three full years. They find the region round Brundisium controlled by a legate of Caesar’s, Publius Vatinius, who, however, Cicero defended in a trial and so is helpful (267). Cicero is given a villa under guard for his protection and only slowly realises that he is in fact under house arrest while Vatinius finds out what Caesar wants done with him.

Cicero and Tiro realise this is life under a dictatorship: no freedoms, no magistrates, no courts, no elections. One lives at the whim of the dictator.

Cicero’s heart sinks further when Vatinius tells him that while Caesar is absent on campaign, Italy is ruled by his Master of Horse (traditional post for second in command) Marcus Antonius. Cicero and Antonius have always had a distant relationship but there is an underlying animosity because Antonius’s stepfather, Publius Lentulus Sura, was one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death in 63 BC (as described in detail in the previous novel in the series, Lustrum).

Depressing months of house arrest follow. Cicero is deeply upset by the rift with his beloved brother. All the news is of death, including that of Milo the gladiator and Cicero’s promising pupil, Marcus Caelius Rufus (269). Then they all hear news of the the miserable end of Pompey, treacherously stabbed as he went ashore in Egypt (270).

In the spring of 47 the news is that Caesar is still in Egypt with his alleged paramour, Cleopatra. Cicero is still stuck in Brundisium. His beloved daughter Tullia makes the dangerous journey to visit him. Her husband, Dolabella, now ignores her completely and has affairs. Worse, Tullia brings news that his wife, Terentia, has been conspiring with her steward Philotimus, to plunder his estate and belongings for years. Cicero’s private life is in ruins.

Then a letter comes from Caesar, no less, announcing he is returning to Italy and will come to visit Cicero. Soon afterwards Cicero is summoned to meet the dictator at Tarentum. Cicero is rising there with an entourage of cavalry and lictors when they encounter the huge column of Caesar’s army. The dictator dismounts from his horse, greets Cicero and walks with him.

It is a perfectly genial conversation. Cicero asks to be relieved of the damned lictors who still accompany him everywhere because he still, legally, is governor of Cilicia, but are a damned inconvenience. Caesar agrees on the spot. But shouldn’t that take a vote in the senate? Caesar replies: ‘I am the senate’. Caesar politely says he isn’t sure he wants Cicero back in Rome making speeches against him. Cicero assures him that he has utterly retired from politics. He intends to devote his life to studying and writing philosophy. Caesar is pleased. Then Harris has Cicero ask one of the Great Questions of History: Did Caesar always aim at this outcome, a dictatorship? No, is Caesar’s swift reply.

‘Never! I sought only the respect due my rank and my achievements. For the rest, one merely adapts to the circumstances as they arise.’ (p.281)

The thoughtful reader reels at the impact of these words, on the light they shed on the real processes of history, and this encounter makes you review everything, the long complex violent sequence of events which has led to the collapse of the Roman Republic and Cicero’s hectic chequered career which has brought the two men to this encounter on a dusty road amid a huge entourage of battle hardened soldiers. Then Caesar mounts his horse and gallops off (282).

Part two – Redux (47 to 43 BC)

They head back to Rome but Cicero decides to stop and live outside the city, at his country house at Tusculum (287). Description of the house. Here he settles down to translate the best of Greek philosophy into Latin (289). He starts with a history of oratory he called the Brutus and dedicated to him, though the dedicatee didn’t like it (290).

He divorces Terentia (286). They still have much in common but she’s been robbing him blind, stripping his properties of their furnishings and selling them off.

Cicero gives oratory lessons to Caesar’s exquisite lieutenant Aulus Hirtius (who is rumoured to have written many of the commentaries on the Gallic War) (291). He is soon joined by Gaius Vibius Pansa and Cassius Longinus as pupils of Cicero (292). Cassius admits that he regrets allowing himself to be pardoned by Caesar and confides in Cicero that he has already planned to assassinate Caesar (292).

Tullia’s errant husband Dolabella is back from fighting in Africa. He asks to come visit Cicero and Tullia. He tells them about the war in Africa, about Caesar’s great victory at Thrapsus, and about the hideous suicide of Cato (297). The deep impact on Cassius and Brutus, both of whom were related to Cato i.e. shame for having accepted Caesar’s pardon and living on under his dictatorship. Cicero writes a short eulogy to Cato (299).

Caesar holds four triumphs in a row and absurdly lavish games (300) but during one of them his chariot’s axle snaps and he’s thrown to the ground. Caesar’s clemency, forgiving errant senators (302). He pardons many of his enemies, notably Brutus, some said because Brutus was his son by his long-term mistress Servilia, herself half sister of Cato.

Cicero is forced to marry the totally unsuitable Publilia for money (Tiro reviews the three eligible i.e. rich candidates) (306). Description of the wedding including the disarmingly simple Roman marriage vow (‘Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius’) (308). After only a few weeks the marriage isn’t working (309).

His daughter Tullia comes to stay to bear the child she was impregnated with when Dolabella visited (she had been staying with her mother since the divorce). But she is ill with tuberculosis. She gives birth to a healthy boy (named Lentulus) but never recovers. Death bed scene, Cicero holds her hand, she dies peacefully in her sleep (312).

Stricken with grief, Cicero flees his young wife and hides himself away in a succession of friends’ houses and remote villas, writing a handbook of Greek philosophy about consolation (314). Eventually he divorces Publilia (315), and invites Tiro to join him in Tusculum where he sets about dictating the Tusculan Disputations (317). There are to be five books cast in the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and his student:

  1. On the fear of death
  2. On the endurance of pain
  3. On the alleviation of distress
  4. On the remaining disorders of the soul
  5. On the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life

One must train for death by leading a life that is morally good:

  • to desire nothing too much
  • to be content with what you have
  • to be entirely self sufficient within yourself so that whatever you lose, you can carry on regardless
  • to do no harm
  • to realise it is better to suffer an injury than inflict one
  • to acknowledge that life is a loan from nature which must be paid back at any time

‘Such were the lessons that Cicero had learned and wished to impart to the world’ (319).

Dolabella comes to visit. He is back from the war in Spain. He was badly injured. He asks to take possession of his son by Tullia, and Cicero agrees. Dolabella tells Cicero the fight in Spain was different from the other campaigns, more hard fought, more bitter. When Pompey’s son Gnaeus was killed in battle, Caesar had his head stuck on a lance (321). They took no prisoners. They killed 30,000 enemy i.e. Roman troops. Many of the enemies he pardoned after the earlier wars had fought against him. Caesar has returned a different man, angry and embittered.

Cicero continues turning out books at speed. Burying himself in Greek philosophy , reading, studying, dictating to Tiro, all help him manage his grief over Tullia’s death. He writes On the nature of the gods and On divination.

Caesar is a changed man, angrier, more controlling. His grasp on reality seems to have slipped. He writes a petty-minded riposte to Cicero’s eulogy of Cato. His infatuation with Cleopatra leads him to set up statues of her in Rome, including in temples. He has himself declared a god with his own priesthood (323). He announces a grandiose plan to take 36 legions (!) to the east to smash the Parthian Empire, march back round the Black Sea conquering all the territory, approach Germany from the East to conquer and pacify it. Basically, to conquer the whole world (323). Alexander the Great.

Cicero goes to stay on the Bay of Naples. On the Feast of Saturnalia he gives all his staff presents and finally, after years of prevaricating, gives Tiro the farm he’s always yearned for. It is described in idyllic terms but the thing that struck me was that is staffed by six slaves and an overseer. This doesn’t cause a bump or hesitation in the description by Tiro, the ex-slave (330).

Caesar sends a letter announcing he will drop by. Cicero is thrown into a panic and makes massive preparations. Caesar arrives with his entourage and cohorts of soldiers. Dinner conversation. Caesar flatters him by saying he enjoyed reading the Tusculan Disputations. This leads Cicero to ask Caesar whether he thinks his soul will survive his death. Caesar replies he doesn’t know about anyone else, but he knows that his soul will survive his death – because he is a god! Simples. Cicero concludes the intensity of his isolation, achievements and responsibility have driven him mad (328).

Caesar is made dictator for life. He has the seventh month of the year renamed July. He is given the title Emperor and Father of the Nation. He presides over the Senate from a golden throne. He has a statue of himself added to the seven statues of the ancient kings of Rome. Harris repeats the famous story that at the Lupercal festival Mark Antony repeatedly tries to crown Caesar with a laurel wreath, though the crowd boos (331).

Caesar plans to leave Rome on 18 March 44 BC to commence his huge campaign in the East. A meeting of the Senate is arranged for the 15th or Ides of March, to confirm the list of appointments to all the magistracies which Caesar has drawn up for the three years he intends to be away.

On the morning of the fifteenth Cicero and Tiro get up early and arrive at the Senate ahead of time. The meeting is being held in the theatre built by Pompey because the old Senate house still hasn’t been rebuilt after Clodius’s mob burned the old one down on the day of his funeral in 52.

Harris manages the tense build-up to one of the most famous events in Western history, the assassination of Julius Caesar very well. Tiro gives an eye witness account the main point of which is confusion and delay. Caesar was warned by a soothsayer and his wife’s bad dreams not to attend the session and so the assembled senators mill around increasingly impatient for hours. Eventually Caesar arrives having been cajoled into coming by Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators.

Assassination of Caesar (338). Conspirators retreat to the Capitol Hill. Cicero meets them and is staggered that they have no plan (347). Instead of seizing power they expect the republic to magically reconstitute itself. Leaving this vacuum is their tragic mistake (353 and 368). Lepidus moves troops into Rome and takes control. The assassins address the crowd but don’t win them over:

A speech is a performance not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect. (p.349)

Meeting of the Senate at which Antony makes a commanding speech calling for compromise and amnesty for the assassins (358). Several sessions of the Senate trying to reconcile the parties. Nervously the assassins agree to come off the hill and negotiate with Antony, the serving consul after both sides have given hostages (as in The Gallic Wars, the only mechanism for gaining trust between chronically suspicious partners.)

So Caesar’s assassins and supporters sit in a further session of the Senate, which agrees to keep magistrates in place, Caesar’s laws unaltered, then agrees with Antony’s suggestion that Caesar’s will is opened and read publicly (364).

The big surprise of Caesar’s will, that he leaves three-quarters of his estate to his nephew Octavianus, who he legally adopts and is to be named Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (367).

Five days after the assassination there is a grand funeral for Caesar, complete with elaborate cortege. Tiro thinks it was stage managed by Fulvia, Antony’s venomous wife. It climaxes with Antony’s speech to the crowd in which he drops all pretence at reconciliation and says Caesar was cruelly murdered by cowards (370). Antony displays Caesar’s corpse and then says he left the people 300 sestercii each in his will to inflames the crowd. When the pyre is lit the crowd go mad, tear off their clothes and throw them in, loot nearby shops and chuck furniture on. Then go rampaging through the streets attacking the houses of the assassins. They tear Helvius Cinna the poet to pieces under the misapprehension he is Cinna the conspirator (372). The assassins leave Rome.

Cicero flees Rome and devotes himself to writing, producing in feverish outburst the books On auguriesOn fateOn glory, and begun sketching On Friendship (375). Visitors from Rome bring stories of Antony’s high handed behaviour.

One day Cornelius turns up with a short skinny kid with pimples. This is the famous Octavian who is staying with neighbours (there is ambiguity about his name so Harris gets the boy himself to tell everyone he wants to be referred to as Octavian, p.377). Octavian butters Cicero up and seeks his advice. He has no small talk. He is a logical machine.

An extended dinner party at which Octavian’s father, advisors, some of Caesar’s senior officers and Cicero discuss what he should do. Cicero is blunt. Go to Rome, claim your inheritance and stand for office. He tells Tiro he doesn’t think the boy stands a chance but his presence will undermine Antony.

Cicero sends Tiro to attend the next meeting of the Senate (he is too concerned for his own safety to go). Tiro witnesses Antony award himself the command of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul for five years and arrange other allies in positions of power. Octavian is nowhere to be seen. He visits Cicero’s son-in-law Dolabella. Cicero wants the dowry which accompanied Tullia back. Instead Dolabella gives him a document which assigns Cicero as Dolabella’s legate in Syria. He doesn’t have to do anything but it gives him the legal right to travel and Greece and immunity for 5 years (385).

Cicero and Tiro travel to Brutus’s family home at Antium to discuss what the leading assassins should do. Brutus’s mother Servilia is disgusted at the thought her son will be merely handed on of Pompey’s grain commissioners, but Cicero advises Brutus and Cassius to take these posts and wait on events (388). But the real point is the assassins are falling out among themselves and have no plan.

Cicero moves on to another of his properties. He is working simultaneously on three books, On friendshipOn duties and On virtues (391). Reluctantly Tiro decides it is time to quit Cicero and go live on that farm. He is 60. Cicero accepts it calmly and returns to his work. Tiro’s farm (393). Nonetheless, he still frequents spas and there overhears gossip about Rome, opposition to Antony.

He meets again Agathe, the slave girl he paid to have liberated but never to to see again. With her freedom she worked, saved money and bought the spa where Tiro has bumped into her (398). [Right at the end of the narrative we are told her full name is Agathe Licinia and she owns the baths of Venus Libertina at Baiae, p.488).

Cicero comes to visit him on the farm. Antony is failing, and Brutus and Cassius have determined to revive the opposition. He is energised and going back to Rome to throw himself back into the fray. His daughter’s dead, he’s divorced from his wife, he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t mean to but Cicero is so charismatic that…he lures Tiro back into his service (402).

It takes them 8 days to travel to Rome. The roads are dangerous. Gangs of Caesar’s demobbed soldiers roam the countryside, stealing, killing, burning. People are terrified. Once in Rome Cicero attends the next sitting of the Senate and makes a speech against the corruption and distortion of the law by Antony. This becomes known as the First Phillippic, in a jokey reference to the speeches Demosthenes delivered against the Macedonian tyrant, Philip II (411).

Antony replies with an excoriating speech to the Senate dragging up every disreputable scrap he can about Cicero, and highlighting his flip-flopping support for great men as signs of a self-seeking sycophant (412).

It is December 44 BC. The military situation is chaotic. There are no fewer than seven armies with different leaders (413). Octavian’s army occupies Rome. Antony is in Brundisium trying to bribe legions returned from Macedonia into supporting him. Octavian makes a speech about calling his adoptive father the greatest Roman, to applause from the crowd. He leaves Rome, Antony exits it but then has to speed to one of his legions which Octavian has bribed away. Chaos.

Cicero’s second Philippic against Antony, packed with scurrilous gossip and accusations of corruption (418). Cicero explains his position to Tiro and Atticus: Antony is the enemy, ‘a monstrous and savage animal’ (432), often drunk dictator in the making. Octavian, with the name of Caesar and many of his legions, is the only force which can stop Antony. Atticus wisely asks whether Octavian will not himself then become dictator. But Cicero naively thinks that he can control and steer the young man, in order to restore the Republic (421).

Cicero meets Octavian at one of Atticus’s houses by Lake Volsinii. Harris is in his element. He imagines the power plays and negotiations. Octavian agrees to be guided by the Senate if Cicero persuades the Senate to give him imperium and legal authority to fight Antony (426).

Antony has marched with his legions to besiege Decimus Brutus, governor of Cisapline Gaul, in the town of Mutena. Brutus remains loyal to the state and Senate, so Antony is clearly everyone’s enemy. Cicero makes a big speech in the Senate claiming the state is being rescued by the boy Octavian. This speech became known as the Third Philippic (430). When he goes out to repeat it to the people in the Forum he is drowned by cheers.

BUT when the Senate meets early in January 43 Cicero is shocked when both new consuls (Hirtius and Pansa) and other senators reject his criticism of Antony and hope peace can still be negotiated. Next day Cicero makes the speech of his life, the Fifth Philippic in which he scorns any peace overtures to Antony, proposes he be declared an enemy of the state, and that Octavian be given full official backing (438).

But the next day Antony’s wife and mother are presented in the Senate. If Antony is declared an enemy of the state, his property will be confiscated and they will be thrown out on the streets. To Cicero’s disgust this moderates the Senate’s decision from open war down to sending peace envoys.

A month later the peace envoys return from Mutena, where Antony is besieging Decimus. Antony refused all their proposals and made his own counter-proposals including 5 years command of Further Gaul. Once again a debate in the Senate where Antony’s friends and relations sway things. Once again Cicero rises the following day to utterly condemn Antony as the instigator of war. As Cato was Caesar’s inveterate enemy, so Cicero has made himself Antony’s.

The two consuls lead a conscript army off to face Antony in the north. The leading magistrate left in Rome, the urban praetor Marcus Cornutus, is inexperienced and turns to Cicero for advice. Thus at the age of 63 he becomes the most powerful man in the city, dictator in all but name.

It takes a while for despatches to return from the north and when they do they initially tell of a great defeat of Antony. Cicero is triumphant. It is the most successful day of his life. But then further despatches reveal that not one but both consuls were killed in the Battle of Mutena. Then Decomus Brutus reveals that his weakened army allowed Antony to flee with his over the Alps.

Worst of all, word has got to Octavian of some casual slighting remarks of Cicero’s. Octavian warns he is not prepared to be subordinate to Decimus, as the Senate ordered. Since there are 2 vacancies for consul, why can he not be made one? (He is only 19; the lower age limit for the consulship is meant to be 43.)

In May 43 Antony and his army arrived at the base of Lepidus, who was meant to be holding Gaul for the Senate. Instead he goes over to Antony. He claims his troops mutinied and wanted to join Antony’s.

When official news reaches the Senate Cicero is called on to make a speech summarising the situation. This is that Antony, far from being extinguished, is more powerful than ever. Deep groans from the senators. To Cicero’s horror the traditionalist Isauricus announces that he has swung his power and influence behind Octavian, and offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, and proposes that Octavian be allowed to stand as consul in absentia. In other words, Octavian has dropped Cicero. In his shock, Cicero gives a speech crystallising his political beliefs in a nutshell:

That the Roman Republic, with its division of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s noblest creation (p.475)

And goes on to say that, for this reason, he thinks Octavian should not be awarded the consulship. It’s precisely this kind of bending of the rules which brought them the rule of Pompey, then Caesar. This speech places Cicero, for the first time, directly against Octavian’s wishes.

Crucially, he points out to the Senate that even if Lepidus goes over to Antony and Octavian is of increasingly uncertain loyalty, they can call on the legions commanded by Brutus in Syria and Cassius in Macedon. The point is that, without realising it, Cicero is creating the conditions under which Octavian and Antony will unite as the Caesarian party and declare war on the army of the assassins.

At the end of the new month of ‘July’ they learn that Octavian has struck camp, crossed the Rubicon with his army and is marching on Rome. Cicero had repeatedly assured the Senate of Octavian’s good intentions. Now he looks naive at best, Octavian’s tool at worst (476).

Legions arrive from Africa and Cornutus assures they will be loyal. But when Cicero goes to address them they remain resolutely silent. What do his fancy words about ‘liberty’ mean to them? They want money (480).

Next day the African legions mutiny and join Octavian’s. Cornutus kills himself in shame. Octavian’s troops now occupy Rome. Cicero contemplates suicide, but goes to see him. Their relationship has completely changed. Octavian tells Cicero he has organised to have the consulship, and who his fellow consul will be, an obscure relative who will be a puppet. Soon he will go to meet Antony and Lepidus. He recommends Cicero leaves Rome. Go to Greece and write philosophy. He won’t be allowed to return without permission. Don’t write anything against Octavian. Octavian is the new dictator (483).

Broken in spirit, all his hopes crushed, Cicero retreats to his country villa at Tusculum (485). They hear Octavian has set up a special court to try Caesar’s assassins. Then that he has left Rome with 11 legions, marching to confront Antony.

A month goes by and he conceives the idea of collecting all his letters. Tiro has kept all of them. He unpacks them. Cicero has them read out in chronological order. His whole hectic public and private life. He is fully aware that they amount to:

the most complete record of an historical era ever assembled by a leading statesman. (p.487)

So he instructs Tiro to assemble his letters in the right order, then make several complete copies to be hidden and preserved. Atticus, always keen to ingratiate himself with everyone, averse to all risk, insists that all his letters to Cicero are burned, burns them with his own hands. But copies of the rest are made and Tiro sends his copies down to his farm to be hidden for posterity.

At the end of November 43 Cicero sends Tiro into Rome to recover the last of his papers from his properties. That night there is screaming in the streets. Tiro learns the devastating news that Antony, Octavian and Lepidus have joined forces to create a Second Triumvirate. They have published a list of hundreds of senators and knights who have been proscribed: their properties are to be confiscated and a bounty of 100,000 sesterces on their heads. Both Marcus and Quintus Cicero are on the list (490).

Panic, pandemonium, the city at night is full of death gangs seeking out the proscribed men in order to kill them, cut off their heads, and present them to the auditors. In mad haste, Tiro tells the remaining slaves in Cicero’s houses to flee, scribbles a message to be taken by courier to Cicero at Tusculum telling him to flee to his villa on the small island of Astura, then follows in a carriage.

It’s several days before Marcus and Quintus arrive on the shore. It’s the depths of winter, it’s raining, they look bedraggled. Tiro had a slave go and hire a boat in nearby Antium to carry them down the coast and abroad, but Quintus refuses to get in it.

They spend a miserable night in the little house on the island. Cicero elaborates on what happened: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus have met in Bononia and struck a deal to divide the empire between them. They’ve agreed to fund their armies by the simple expedient of killing the richest 2,000 men in the republic and seizing their property. To vouch for their good intentions they each agreed to include in the list someone dear to them: Antony his uncle, Lucius Caesar; Lepidus his own brother; and Octavian, after several days of holding out, Cicero, his former mentor and adviser (494).

They set off by ship but the seas and the winds are against them. Ten men are rowing the ship but it makes almost no headway. They put into a cove, beach the ship and try to shelter from the elements under the sails. Misery.

Next morning Tiro wakes to find Cicero gone. There is a path up from the beach. Tiro finds Cicero wandering along it, distracted. He tells Tiro he plans to head back to Rome to kill himself on Octavian’s doorstep. He’ll die of the shame. No he won’t, says Tiro. Cicero will just be captured and tortured to death, then decapitated. Reluctantly Cicero turns and returns with him to the beach.

They all embark back in the ship and set off rowing again. But it is hard going, the wind against them, the seas heavy. Cicero recognises the headland of Caieta and knows he has a house nearby. He insists they dock at a small jetty. Tiro checks the villa hasn’t been occupied by soldiers or death squads but it appears untouched so he sends slaves to fetch Cicero from the beach and tells the housekeeper to light fires and prepare a bath.

They sleep deeply but are wakened next morning by a slave saying soldiers are coming. Cicero insists on having a bath and dressing formally. Only then will he enter the litter Tiro has arranged and is being carried down to the sea to board the ship when they are cut off by a dozen legionaries. The slaves turn about face and carry the litter hastily back up the path but are met by more legionaries.

The tribune leading the soldiers turns out to be one Caius Popillius Laenas. By a supreme irony he was one of Cicero’s first clients in law. He defended him against a charge of parricide when he was a measly 15 year old and got him acquitted on condition he join the army. Oh the irony (which Harris appears to havey confected; none of this is in the historical accounts I’ve read).

Popollius orders the centurion under him to execute Cicero. Cicero is utterly resigned and insists they do it while he lies back on the litter, assuming the position of a defeated gladiator. And so with one stroke of his sword the centurion cuts off the head which composed some of the greatest speeches and works of literature in the Latin language. Little good they all did him in the end.

They then chop off his hands and put them all in a basket and depart. Tiro hears Antony was so delighted by the hands he gave Popillius a bonus of a million sestercii. Antony had Cicero’s head and hands nailed to the public rostra as a warning to anyone else who opposed the triumvirate. It is said that Antony’s wife, Flavia, who hated Cicero, stuck needles through his witty tongue (502).

Tiro and the slaves carry Cicero’s body down to the beach and burn it on a pyre. Then he headed south to his farm. Quintus and his son were caught and executed. Atticus was spared because he had helped Fulvia when anti-Antony feeling was at its height.

All the loose ends are neatly tied up and Harris gives Tiro the briefest of spaces, just one page, to reflect on the extraordinary life he has described and the epic times it sheds light on.

My work is done. My book is finished. Soon I will die too. (p.503)

The Victorians achieved moving literary effects by writing too much. Modern writers strive for the same emotional impact by writing too little.

It is a moving and emotional end because Cicero’s life itself was so awesome and his end so wretched. The facts themselves are very moving for the reader who has accompanied Cicero this far, however. Harris’s treatment is a little disappointing. He winds up the narrative by telling us that Tiro marries that slave girl he freed all those years ago, Agath,e and they often spend the evenings together reminiscing. Sounds like a Disney movie or the Waltons.

And he quotes the passage from Cicero’s work, The Dream of Scipio, where Cicero tells the statesman to look down from the vast heavens on the insignificant earth and dismiss the petty activities of humans.

Ah, but that’s what politicians all say when their careers are over. Contrary to all Cicero’s preaching in his literary works, the consolations of philosophy are feeble compared with the full-blooded excitement of action.

Key words

Politics

As I made abundantly clear in my reviews of the first two books, these are novels about politics, not in the broad theoretical sense, but in the narrow sense of the day to day scrabble to win and then maintain positions of power in the state. One of the many pleasures of the previous books is the way Harris has characters state sententiae – maxims or sayings about politics – which are perfectly meaningful in their context but framed in such a way as to be widely applicable to any time and place, including our own.

  • There is always this to be said of politics: it is never static. (p.51)
  • ‘Nothing in politics can be planned in advance for seven years.’ (p.137)
  • It is the most important rule in politics always to keep things moving. (p.433)

But having got into the habit of writing out all the apothegms in all three books made me realise there are far, far fewer uses of the word, and hardly any zingy apothegms about it in this one.

Power

I think the word ‘politics’, central to the previous two novels, is superseded in this one by use of the word ‘power’, signifying a shift in subject and in historical events. With the advent of the Triumvirate the time for petty politics passes and is replaced by the more naked manipulation of power.

And then, possibly, the word ‘power’ is itself superseded half-way through the book by ‘war’. And neither Cicero nor Tiro can make casual, knowing generalisations about war since neither of them are soldiers.

It’s a subtle, lexical indication of the way the focus of a novel supposedly about Cicero shifts its emphasis, spreads it more widely, in this novel. Well before the end of part one the energy centre of the narrative, as of Cicero’s world, has shifted to Caesar. Caesar is the true protagonist and Cicero an increasingly passive cork floating on the huge ocean of disruption and war he causes.

With the outbreak of civil war Cicero – and the text – become increasingly reliant on letters and third person accounts of events scattered all round the known world (Greece, Egypt, Spain).

And then, after the assassination of Caesar, not only all the characters but the narrative itself feels adrift. Retreating to the country, Cicero tries to make sense of the fast-moving series of events where no-one is in control, certainly not the assassins, but not Mark Antony either.

It’s in this chaos that slowly emerges from the confusions of the narrative the cold-eyed, steely determination of young Octavian who is to astonish the world by mastering the chaos created by his elders. Initially Octavian is keen to meet Cicero, ask his advice, when he departs with his army keeps in touch by letter. But when he hears about Cicero’s fateful slighting remark, he goes ominously silent. No letters, no replies, no despatches.

Octavian’s silences signal the text’s final abandonment of Cicero. Tiro’s narrative continues to focus on Cicero’s activities and attitudes but the narrative has moved through three key words – politics, power, war – and the final buzzword is nothing, nothingness.

The authorities in Rome hear nothing about Antony for months, Cicero hears nothing from Octavian for months. But in this ominous silence they are cooking up the Second Triumvirate, which will seize power and unleash an army of assassins whose aim is the end of all words. The end of Cicero. The end of the text.

The law

A little into this one I realised I’d been missing the importance of an obvious subject, the law. Cicero was first and foremost a lawyer. He made his name with the Verres case (described in great detail in part one of Imperium). Even when he ducked out of politics he continued to advocate cases in the courts. And what comes over very loudly is that in ancient Rome the law had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with fancy notions of ‘Justice’ but was entirely a tool of political manipulation, attack and revenge.

Trials in ancient Rome were wildly different from modern trials. They involved a jury of scores, sometimes hundreds (75 jurors were sworn in for the trial of Rufus, p.116), were conducted in the open air with the Roman crowd watching, sometimes in their thousands. Speeches were astonishingly ad hominem, not only dishing up all kinds of dirt on the accused and witnesses but also on the opposing advocates, who were often accused of the most grotesque crimes themselves.

Above all, cases could descend into violence as the onlookers behaved more like a football crowd than the limited number of public allowed into a modern court, and started yelling or applauding or booing, or sometimes throwing things, and sometimes invading the platform where the trial was being conducted.

So much highfalutin’, self-serving rhetoric surrounds the practice of the law but the Roman reality was obvious a shambles. Harris has Cicero tell Rufus:

‘My dear Rufus, have you learned nothing? There is no more honour in a legal dispute than there is in a wrestling match.’ (p.108)

War atrocities

As always, I am appalled at the gross violence, war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Roman army:

  • Dyrrachium is still recovering from the fate ordained by the Senate in the 150s, namely razed to the ground and its entire population of 150,000 sold into slavery
  • Harris makes room for a scene in which Tiro reads through Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic Wars and works out that by Caesar’s own account, he has been responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 Gauls and Germans in just one campaigning season (p.45)
  • Metellus Nepos reads out a despatch from Caesar to the senate in which the great man admits that of the 65,000 strong army of the Nervii only 500 were left alive (p.70)
  • Caesar’s lieutenant wins a great naval battle against the Celts, has their leaders executed and their entire nation sold into slavery. (p.147)
  • Caesar lures 430,000 members of the Usipetes and Tencteri tribes across the Rhine and then annihilates them. (p.148)

It is notable that the only member of the entire ruling class who protests against this behaviour is Cato, who makes a speech in the senate saying Caesar should be declared a war criminal, removed from his command and prosecuted. His suggestion is shouted down.

Even Cicero does’t care that much about these atrocities. But Tiro does. Harris has Tiro dwell on them with horror and this confirms for me, not that Tiro is a sensitive soul, but that he is the representative of the modern liberal consciousness in the novel. Tiro would be a more interesting character if he were either malicious or unreliable. Instead he is the simplest kind of narrator possible, the loyal friend of the protagonist who reports everything he sees with utter honesty. And is as appalled as a Guardian editorial by violence and war.

Family ties

  • The stern republican Brutus was the nephew of the stern moralist Marcus Portius Cato (140).
  • Julius Caesar married off his daughter Julia to Pompey.
  • Mark Antony was the stepson of Publius Lentulus Sura, one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death. One among many sources of enmity between the two men.
  • Cassius Longinus was married to Brutus’s sister.
  • Domitius Ahenobarbus was married to Cato’s sister.
  • The consul Marcus Philippus was married to Caesar’s niece (142).
  • Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew.

Dated diction

In my review of Lustrum I mentioned the way the thriller, as a genre, uses stereotypical characters, situations and language to guarantee an enjoyable read. The characters and events may be unpleasant (betrayal, murder etc) but the shape and feel of the incidents is almost always super-familiar and, in a paradoxical way, despite being superficially unpleasant, at a deeper level, cognitively reassuring.

I meant to mention something else I noticed, which is that Harris’s characters often speak like characters from a 1950s British movie. I mean they use a reassuringly old fashioned and very pukka diction.

Some of the reviewers suggest Harris has rewritten Roman history for our times, and insofar as his narrative focuses on cynical abuses of political power that may be true. But I was struck by how very 1950s the language of a lot of the characters is. They often reminded me of characters from Ealing Comedies or the St Trinian’s movies.

It first struck me when Cicero talks about one of the other characters as ‘not being such a bad fellow’.  From then on I noticed this 1950s upper-middle class professional register.

‘Very well, young man, that’s enough’ (p.29).

On page 107 Tiro refers to Bestia as ‘the old rogue’. Who uses the word ‘rogue’ any more unless they’re talking about the Star Wars movie Rogue One or a ‘rogue state’ or maybe describing a ‘loveable rogue’ in a review of a movie?

Bestia had with him ‘his son Atratinus, a clever lad’.

When characters address each other they’re likely to say things like, ‘My dear Rufus…’ or ‘My dear, poor boy…’ Atticus speaks with the overemphasis typical of the English upper-middle classes: ‘Tiro, my dear fellow, thank you so much for taking care of my old friend so devotedly‘ (p.113). And:

  • ‘What an utter villain that fellow is.’ (Cicero about Crassus, p.154)
  • ‘The man’s ingratitude is unbelievable!’ (Milo on Pompey, p.178)
  • ‘I am delighted to meet you! My wife has always talked of you most fondly.’ (Dolabella to Tiro, p.296)

Now you could argue that the dialogue is a bit old fogeyish as part of a broader authorial strategy by which Tiro’s language as a whole has a definite oldster tinge, like the pages of an old paperback which have yellowed with age.

I slept, and very deeply despite my anxieties, for such was my exhaustion… (p.499)

Not ‘because I was so exhausted’ but ‘such was my exhaustion’. It’s not exactly Victorian or really old diction and it’s not dominant in every sentence; but at moments when he has a choice, Harris always chooses the more old-fashioned, stiffer phrase.

Presumably this dated tinge is a conscious effort. I can see it has two intentions: one is to subtly convey that this is a 2,000 year old document describing a lost world. It is meant to feel, not archaic exactly, but slightly dated, in order to convey its pastness.

The other, more obvious motivation, is that the narrator is 100 years old. Tiro is an oldster. So of course his turn of phrase would be dated, even in his own time. When you ponder that fact, you could argue that the phrasing throughout the book is not dated enough.

But at the end of the day this is not a literary work, but a popular novel, a historical thriller and its default prose style is the crisp, factual manner of the thriller and most literary effects are clinically dispensed with in order to achieve its strong, direct, intelligent but simple impact.

Scraps

Cicero tells Tiro that Cato is the only one of them who clearly sees they they’re on the road to ruin (p.149).

Tiro the slave (p.20). His (sketchy) thoughts about slavery (p.226).

Caesar is like a whirlpool (p.147).


Credit

Dictator by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2015. All references are to the 2016 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009)

The senate was not the arena for brute force. The weapons here were words, and no one ever knew how to deploy words as well as Cicero. (p.184)

‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’ he asked me, and then he answered his own question. ‘These,’ he said, gesturing towards his books. ‘Words. 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.’ (p.402)

This is the middle novel in the Robert Harris’s ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Cicero is an excellent historical figure to dramatise for at least two reasons.

1. We know more about Cicero than any other figure from the ancient world. a) He wrote a prodigious amount, not only his speeches as an advocate but books about oratory, philosophy, politics and morality, most of which have survived. when he writes about Cicero, Harris has an unprecedented amount of primary source material to refer to. b) The extraordinary survival of some 1,000 letters from and to him, many from the leading figures of the day such as Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius, Marcus Junius Brutus, Marcus Antonius, Gaius Octavius and others. Harris says as much in his Author’s Note, where he says he’s used, where possible, Cicero’s own words from letters or speeches (for example Cicero’s lament at feeling lonely after his brother and best friend both leave Rome, page 344, which is, I think, a direct quote from one of Cicero’s letters).

2. The second reason is that Cicero was right at the heart of the web of allegiances and alliances which made up the toxic politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. He was consul at the time of the Cataline conspiracy, he was important enough to be invited to join the first triumvirate in 60; when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, Cicero was one of the half dozen figures in Rome whose opinion he really valued. In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination Cicero advised the killers and, after they were defeated, he became a sort of mentor to Caesar’s heir, young Octavian and a bitter opponent of Mark Antony.

No other figure was as central to the high politics of the age or left such an extensive documentary record.

Tiro the narrator

As I thoroughly explained in my review of the first novel in the trilogy, Imperium, the novels are narrated by Cicero’s slave and private secretary Tiro, a real-life figure who Cicero devoted several letters to praising and thanking and who we know was responsible for editing and publishing Cicero’s letters after his death.

I had been his secretary for sixteen years by this time and there was no aspect of his life, public or private, with which I was not familiar. (p.13)

In other words, Tiro is the perfect person for a narrator, the amanuensis and secretary to Cicero, observer and analyst of his behaviour as Dr Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

The premise of all three books is that Tiro is writing his memoirs long, long after the events he recounts, just a few years before the start of the Christian era and Tiro is a very old man of nearly 100. The three novels are represented as the memories of this old man, looking back at particularly high points in the life of his lord and master, as he himself witnessed and recorded them at the time.

Two parts

The first novel was in two parts. Part one, ‘Senator (79 to 70 BC)’, led up to Cicero’s career-making prosecution of a corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres. Part two, ‘Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)’ covered his campaign to be elected consul, which becomes entangled with a major plot by Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to stitch up control of the Roman state. Taken together it covers 15 years.

This book covers the next five years in Cicero’s life and career (which explains the title, the Latin word lustrum referring, among other things, to the religious sacrifice offered every five years by the state officials known as ‘censors’ and so, by extension, to a period of five years. This is clearly explained in  an epigraph to the book and is referenced in the text on page 392). Once again the novel is divided into two parts:

Part one – Consul

This covers the dramatic and fateful year of 63 BC and gives a compelling and thrilling description of the slow escalation of the crisis which developed into Lucius Sergius Catalina’s conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state. I’ve described the events in my review of Sallust’s Cataline War, but Harris brings it astonishingly, vividly, harrowingly to life, unforgettably conveying the astonishing, unbearable pressure Cicero came under, as the lead consul in Rome, of proving the existence of the conspiracy and then punishing the conspirators.

The climax of the Cataline conspiracy is the agonised decision to execute the five patrician senators who were foolish enough to be Cataline’s accomplices in the city and allow themselves to be caught (Cataline himself was hundreds of miles away, safely protected by the army raised by his colleague Manlius). It was an agonising decision because the executions were carried out without a formal trial, solely on the basis of a vote in the Senate, and this rash act would come back to haunt Cicero.

Part two – Pater Patriae

This covers the next four years, 62 to 58 BC, describing a number of key events which followed in the aftermath of the conspiracy. Beneath a blizzard of more overt incidents and challenges, the two underlying themes are the unstoppable rise of Caesar and his creation of the First Triumvirate (in 60 BC), and the concomitant rise of the slippery young demagogue Publius Claudius Pulcher, aided by his clever sexy sister, Clodia.

No words can convey the vividness with which Harris describes both the key players in late re[publican power politics, but also the gripping shifts in the endless political powerplay which Cicero finds himself trying to ride and survive.

The book contains many thrilling, nerve-biting scenes, but maybe the most shocking or heart-stopping is the moment when Caesar, doubly powerful in his roles of pontifex maximus and consul, forces the senator Lucius Lucullus to apologise for opposing him in the senate on his knees, commanding he do so like an outraged monarch, and the old general, realising he has no choice and creakily sinking to his knees to beg forgiveness of the dark-eyed force of nature which is Caesar, and the entire senate looking on in silent impotence (p.408).

The book rises to a climax as Clodius triumphs, being first adopted by a plebeian family, then winning the tribuneship, proposing a range of populist measures (a free grain dole for every family) before moving in on his old enemy, Cicero, by proposing a bill accusing him of murder in having the Cataline conspirators executed without a trial and enacting that:

It shall be a capital offence to offer fire and water to any person who has put Roman citizens to death without a trial. (p.417)

This innocent-sounding measure spells death for all around Cicero, his wife, his household and all his friends. The only way not to imperil all of them is to flee the city as quickly as possible and so that is how the second novel ends,

Power

Above all these books are about power, political and personal and Harris brilliantly and thrillingly conveys the world of the Rome’s senior aristocracy where every meeting, every dinner, every conversation is dominated by politics, not just chat about the powerful but every meeting between the social elite was politics: the jungle of social rivalry never stops and never ends.

‘From now on everything is to be written down.’
‘Yes, Senator.’
‘We’re heading into dangerous waters, Tiro. Every reef and current must be charted.’ (p.28)

Because every single reef and current conceals threat, power plays, the strategies and power plays of immensely rich and powerful people like Caesar (with his ‘divine recklessness), Crassus and Pompey, the populares or populists, on one side, and the leaders of the optimates or aristocratic party such as Quintus Lutatius Catulus, Quintus Hortensius (Cicero’s rival to the title best lawyer in Rome) and father of the senate, Vatia Isauricus.

In this way he cut through the posturing and sentiment to the nub of the issue which was, as it always is, power. (p.49)

Ancient and modern

One of the features of the first book was the way the narrator, Tiro, Cicero’s freed slave and secretary, not only loyally described all the events, meetings, conversations and so on which he witnessed, but also drops in comments and reflections – on people, places and situations. Above all Harris has him drop generalisations about the nature of power, especially political power, which are carefully phrased so that they can be applied to contemporary British politics as much as to ancient Roman politics. The result is a pleasant psychological shimmer, where the reader registers the comment’s appropriateness to the plot but also realises it can be applied to much more recent events.

  • Sura was a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together. (p.18)
  • It is one of the tricks of the successful politician to be able to hold many things in mind at once and to switch between them as the need arises, otherwise life would be insupportable. (p.31)
  • ‘Unfortunately,’ replied Cicero, ‘politics is neither as clean as a wrestling match, nor played according to fixed rules.’ (p.80)
  • The really successful politician detaches his private self from their insults and reverses of public life, so that it is almost as if they happen to someone else. (p.81)
  • ‘This is the business of politics – to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next.’ (p.92)
  • ‘In politics one cannot always pick and choose one’s enemies, let alone one’s friends.’ (p. 114)
  • ‘There’s nothing more fatal during an election campaign than to appear unconfident.’ (p.124)
  • There are times in politics, as in life generally, when whatever one does is wrong. (p.137)
  • Once a leader starts to be laughed at as a matter of routine, he loses authority, and then he is finished. (p.147)
  • Politics has loyalties all of its own and they greatly supersede those to in-laws. (p.164)
  • 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. (p.186)
  • ‘You sometimes have too many scruples for the dirty business of politics, Tiro. (p.280)
  • Sometimes in politics a great weakness can be turned into a strength. (p.293)
  • He had learned from Cicero the tricks of political campaigning: keep your speeches short, remember names, tell jokes, put on a show; above all, render an issue, however complex, into a story anyone can grasp. (p.294)
  • It was yet another lesson to me in politics – an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extraordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy. (p.337)
  • ‘In politics how things look is often more important than what they are.’ (p.341)
  • Up to that point Cicero had been treating the Spaniard with a kind of friendly disdain – as a joke figure: one of those self-important go-betweens who often crop up in politics. (p.353)
  • ‘We both know how politics is played. Sooner or later failure comes to us all.’ (p.431)

Like the descriptions mentioned below, these sententiae are superficially intelligent, insightful and compelling but many, on a moment’s reflection, melt like a snowball in sunshine. They are very like the truisms and bromides (‘a trite statement that is intended to soothe or placate’) which pad out opinion columns in newspapers and magazines, which you nod agreement to then can’t remember half an hour later. For example, saying it is in the nature of politics to deal with one thing another another, is not very different from how you have to cope with one thing after another in your work, in being a parent, or life in general.  It is in the nature of the thriller, as a genre, to present a heightened simulacrum of reality which grips and thrills your imagination at the time of reading, but which you can barely remember a few days later.

A checklist of references

Having read my Plutarch and Suetonius, as well as modern historians who reference other ancient sources, I’m familiar with attributes and anecdotes about many of the key players, not only Cicero, but Caesar, Crassus, Pompey and so on. It is entertaining to watch Harris slip them into his narrative at appropriate moments, like hearing a composer slip snippets of popular songs into a symphony. Thus:

A variation on the much-repeated story that Caesar burst into tears because by the age when Alexander the Great died, having conquered the known world, Caesar had achieved nothing (referenced on p.25, and then reprised but this time with Cicero being the one mournfully wishing he’d matched Alexander on p.145) (Plutarch’s Life of Caesar chapter 11, Suetonius’s Life of Caesar chapter 7.)

Caesar telling his mother he will return pontifex maximus or not at all (p.85) (Plutarch’s Caesar, chapter 7, Suetonius’s Caesar, chapter 13).

The most famous courtesan in Rome (Flora) saying she never left Pompey’s house without bite marks on her neck (p.336) (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 2).

Actually there aren’t as many of these as there are in the first novel (or I missed some). Rather more obvious is Harris quoting directly from set piece speeches which were recorded and have survived from antiquity, namely Cicero’s ferocious attack on Catiline in the senate, and the debate about whether to execute the conspirators featuring diametrically opposed speeches from Caesar (advocating clemency and life imprisonment) and Cato (immediate death penalty) which, I think, are sourced from Sallust’s account.

When Caesar as consul drives his fellow consul to retreat to his house but continues to pass laws, Cicero is said to have quipped that the laws were being passed by the joint consulship of Julius and Caesar (p.369) (Suetonius’s Life of Cesar, chapter 20).

Realistic in two ways

The novel is vividly imagined and hugely pleasurable to read in at least three ways:

1. Sensual

The smell, the feel, the noise, the sight of Rome, its streets and people, the crowd cheering a procession, the packed and dusty Field of Mars on election day, the crowd of the white toga-wearing elite waiting outside the Senate house, the queue of clients outside every senator’s door, Cicero’s breath visible on a cold December morning, the chirping of cicadas on a hot Italian evening – the novel presents a steady stream of vividly imagined scenes which bring ancient Rome vibrantly alive (as they say).

The vivid Caesar’s pokey house in a rundown neighbourhood, or Cicero and Tiro’s visit to Lucullus’s stupendous luxury villa overlooking the Bay of Naples (p.107).

2. Socio-political

But more important is the detailed descriptions Harris gives of Roman processes and rituals, religious, social and political.

Now that Cicero is consul there are more scenes set specifically in the Senate and Harris makes this feel eerily like the House of Commons with a great central aisle separating two sets of stepped benches occupied by the opposing parties, the patricians and the populists.

  • the strange and spooky taking of the augury on the morning Cicero assumes his post as consul
  • the inauguration of the two new consults accompanied by prayers, the slaughter of a sacred bull, flags and trumpets (p.45)
  • the weird details of the Latin Festival held on the Alban Mount (p.57)
  • the dignified funeral procession for the old pontifex maximus, Metellus Pius (p.81)
  • the triumph of Lucullus (p.127)
  • the hot dusty crowd packing the Field of Mars to elect next year’s consuls and praetors (p.142)
  • the preparations for the Feast of the Great Goddess (p.211)

This vivid imagining of set pieces of the Roman constitution and procedures exceeds anything I’ve read in any other book. Harris really explains what went on at the ceremonies, how they looked and felt and smelled.

It is fascinating to read his account of the chief augur taking the auguries on the eve of his consulship and then the importance of auguries preceding all other state events, such as sessions of the Senate or elections on the Field of Mars.

It is fascinating to follow the precise sequence of rituals, prayers, the order of procession and so on involved in a classical Roman triumph up to and including the ritual strangling of the foreign kings and captives by the carnifex or public executioner (p.128).

It is illuminating to read the description of a Roman wedding, the wedding of Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia, aged just 14, to Gaius Frugi of the Piso clan (p.146).

The ceremony of adoption, even it is the travesty conducted under coercion of Clodius being adopted as a plebeian so he could stand as a tribune (pages 386 to 387).

3. Drama

Then there are scenes which are just thrillingly dramatic:

The dramatic ambush of the conspirators on the Mulvian Bridge (pages 203 to 207).

The description of the trial of Publius Clodius Pulcher for blasphemy at which he scandalously bribes the jurors to acquit him despite his obvious guilt (pages 304 to 320).

The dramatic trial in which Cicero’s once-time pupil Marcus Caelius Rufus confidently crushes Cicero’s defence of his corrupt partner as consul, Caius Antonius Hybrida (pages 369 to 384).

The reassuring familiarity of thriller tropes

So far I haven’t conveyed how immensely enjoyable this book is. It is well written, packed with interesting facts about ancient Rome, steeped with insight and intelligence into the workings of power and influence.

Harris makes it live through a hundred vividly imagined details – his description of Caesar’s ancient, venerable but shabby house in the now rundown neighbourhood of the Subura; Caesar’s distinctively dry rasping voice (p.29); Cicero and Tiro’s atmospheric visit to the augurs who take them up onto the roof of their building to observe the prevailing winds and the flight of birds.

The narrative starts at the end of December, just as Cicero is about to commence his year as consul and Rome is experiencing unusual snowfall, so the whole city is white with snowdrifts, vividly described.

A feature of thrillers is the action is all in the events and their threatening, thrilling implications, rarely in the prose style. The prose generally has to be as plain and transparent as possible in order to clearly and quickly explain the facts and let the reader thrill to their accumulating threat and implications.

Therefore thrillers are not afraid of clichés. It’s like a painter painting pictures long after the era of painting has died, because there continues to be a market for painting long after all possible avenues and permutations of painting have been exhausted.

In the same way, despite a hundred years or more of experimentation designed to expand, subvert or blow up the novel as a literary form, the thriller genre continues to thrive, generating endless new novels telling similar stories and using time-honoured techniques and phraseology. Just because there is no longer a literary avant garde doesn’t mean books don’t continue to sell. In fact more novels are sold every year than ever before in human history, just as there are more TV shows and more movies than ever before. More of everything.

There has to be an arresting opening sentence and event:

Two days before the inauguration of Marcus Tullius Cicero as consul of Rome, the body of a child was pulled from the river Tiber, close to the boat sheds of the republican war fleet. (opening sentence)

An evil antagonist:

‘Damn Caesar!’ said Cicero suddenly. ‘There’s nothing dishonourable about ambition. I’m ambitious myself. But his lust for power is not of this world. You look into those eyes of his, and it’s like staring into some dark sea at the height of a storm.’
(Lustrum, page 34)

The baddies confront each other in tense standoffs:

Catalina’s eyes glittered and his large hands contracted into fists. ‘My first ancestor was Sergestus, companion of Aeneas, the founder of our city – and you dare to tell me to leave?’ (p.169)

And the phenomenally charged confrontation right at the end between a miserable, defeated Cicero being hounded out of his beloved Rome and Julius Caesar, brisk in his shining armour, mustering his legions to set off for his command in Gaul. When Caesar offers Cicero the legateship with him which would ensure his safety from prosecution, Cicero realises he must turn it down:

‘Thank you for your consideration,’ replied Cicero, ‘but it would never work.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because…what is wicked about you Caesar – worse than Pompey, worse than Clodius, worse even than Catalina – is that you won’t rest until we are all obliged to go down on our knees to you.’ (p.439)

Sudden alarms:

I was woken by fists pounding on the front door. I sat up with a start. I could only have been asleep for a few moments. The distant hammering came again, followed by ferocious barking, shouts and running feet. (p.148)

And the hero realising a conspiracy is afoot:

Cicero grabbed my arm. ‘So the actual crime will be to help keep me alive? They won’t even give me a trial.’ (p.418)

All very, very well done and yet, somehow, utterly predictable. The cosy familiarity of thriller tropes extends down to the level of individual sentences and metaphors. These are good in their way, but utterly familiar and slip down like an iced drink by the swimming pool at a Mediterranean resort. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome in the depths of winter:

The smoke from the altar fires was curling above the temples. I could smell the saffron burning, and hear the lowing of the bulls awaiting sacrifice. As we neared the Arch of Scipio I looked back, and there was Rome – her hills and valleys, towers and temples, porticoes and houses all veiled white and sparkling with snow, like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom. (p.44)

‘Like a bride in her gown awaiting her groom’ – a metaphor which has been around as long as fiction, for centuries, predigested and processed by the reader with barely a flicker of recognition.

Portraits of Rome

Speaking of Rome, I slowly realised that Harris describes Rome so regularly, in different seasons and moods, that it is obviously part of a concerted strategy to make ‘Rome herself’ a character in the novel. This wasn’t so apparent in Imperium (or I just missed it) but seems to me a deliberate tactic in this novel. At the same time I think these descriptions demonstrate the reliance of this kind of thriller on cliché and stereotype. There are never any surprises; things always exactly fit the mood and needs of the narrative.

The strategy is apparent from the start, when Harris paints an opening picture of Rome as the capital of a great Mediterranean empire but nonetheless stricken with social and economic turmoil, resulting in a decadent febrile atmosphere – which, of course, suits the writer of a tense thriller down to the ground.

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumour and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorising 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. (p.8)

Then, here is Tiro’s description of Rome in midsummer:

It was one of those endless hot summer days when the sun seems reluctant to sink, and I remember how still it was, the motes of dust motionless in the shafts of fading light. On such evenings, when the only sounds even in the city are the drone of insects and the soft trilling of the birds, Rome seems older than anywhere in the world; as old as the earth itself; entirely beyond time. (p.130)

‘One of those endless hot summer days’ – see what I mean be generic description: this sentence could come from any one of hundreds of thousands of popular novels. Here is Tiro’s description of Rome at the height of the Cataline panic:

By the time Cicero set off for the temple, tightly protected by lictors and bodyguards, an atmosphere of real dread hung over the city, as tangible as the grey November mist rising from the Tiber. The streets were deathly quiet. Nobody applauded or jeered; they simply hid indoors. In the shadows of their windows the citizenry gathered, white-faced and silent, to watch the consul pass. (p.182)

Here is Tiro’s description of Rome on the night Cicero finally confirms the Catiline conspiracy to the senate:

We stepped out from the library onto the narrow terrace. Down in the valley, the effect of the curfew was to make Rome seem as dark and fathomless as a lake. Only the Temple of Luna, lit up by torches on the slope of the Palatine, was distinctly visible. It seemed to hover, suspended in the night, like some white-hulled vessel descended from the stars to inspect us. (p.226)

Good, isn’t it? Efficient, effective and highly atmospheric but, for me, ultimately, soulless. Harris’s prose tastes of chrome. It feels a beautifully designed, expensive sports car, recently washed and gleaming in the sun. Perfect of its kind.

Terentia

We get to know all the characters well, from the public figures such as Caesar, Crassus, Hortensius, Catalina, Clodius, Cato, Lucullus, Metellus, through to members of Cicero’s household, his brother Quintus and above all his fearsome wife Terentia. Harris steadily builds up a portrait of Terentia as not conventionally attractive but radiating personality and determination and fierce in argument.

It was around this time that Terentia began to play an important role in Cicero’s consulship. People often wondered why Cicero was still married to her after fifteen years, for she was excessively pious and had little beauty and even less charm. But she had something rarer. She had character. She commanded respect, and increasingly as the years went on he sought her advice. She had no interest in philosophy or literature, no knowledge of history; not much learning of any sort, in fact.  However, unburdened by education or natural delicacy, she did possess a rare gift for seeing straight through to the heart of a thing, be it a problem or a person, and saying exactly what she thought. (p.98)

Cicero had married Terentia for her money and it was her money which funded his successful campaigns to  gain magistracies and so enter the senate. Harris rarely mentions her without adding to the impression of fearsome redoubtability:

  • Was Caesar hinting by this remark that he wanted to seduce Terentia? I doubt it. The most hostile tribe of Gaul would have been a less gruelling conquest. (p.24)
  • I must not forget Terentia, who carried a heavy iron candle-holder at all times, and who would probably have been more effective than any of us. (p.177)
  • Terentia had the coolest head present. (p.421)

This gives the impression of painting a character, the kind of thing which people like in their fictions – except that it is all very familiar, the politician’s wife as fearsome termagent, the protagonist’s wife the only person he’s truly afraid of. It feels like another fictional cliché. One of the descriptions of Terentia raising merry hell in Cicero’s household for some reason triggered a memory of Les Dawson dressed as a northern housewife, wearing a hairnet over her curlers and brandishing a rolling pin ready to pick a fight with her henpecked husband.

Tricks of oratory

Harris has Tiro from time to time share with us Cicero’s tips for delivering an effective speech. Presumably these are taken from Cicero’s writings about oratory.

  1. Cicero’s first law of rhetoric, a speech must always contain a surprise. (p.52)
  2. The bigger a crowd is, the more stupid it is.
  3. When addressing an immense multitude it is always good to invoke the supernatural and call on the gods. (p.73)

Finally

All the texts we have from republican Rome were written by the elite. Not aristocrats, necessarily, but nonetheless from the wealthy, slave-owning upper classes. (As a side issue it’s notable that two of the most memorable writers from the period did not belong to this class, but were men on the make, Cicero and Caesar, whose writings were motivated, in part, by the need to prove themselves and improve themselves and lift themselves up into the ruling class. The writings of both men are heavy with self-promotion. LinkedIn literature.)

In all these thousands of pages we never hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people, meaning farm workers, labourers, shopkeepers, businessmen, merchants, tax collectors and the millions of ordinary people who populated the Roman Empire.

Which makes it all the more striking that the narrator of all three of these Cicero novels is a slave. Well educated, highly literate, shrewd and tactful, Tiro is an idealised narrator and it is only occasionally that he reminds us that he is not free. He is utterly reliant on his master for food, lodging and protection and must obey his orders at all times.

Tiro’s character is ‘dramatised’ a bit more in this novel than the previous one because Harris gives him a love interest, namely a slave girl in the household of the super-rich retired general, Lucullus. She is called Agathe and is assigned to Tiro to give him a bath and massage after his long journey to Lucullus’s palace to deliver a message (not in his own right, only because he is Cicero’s secretary) and proceeds, easily and casually, to have sex with him, as nubile young women often do in thrillers written by men, from James Bond downwards.

Tiro glimpses Agathe on a couple of other occasions (pages 307) and on the final occasion is saddened to see she is so worn out with slave life that all her softness and beauty has gone. She doesn’t even recognise him (p.424). But it’s not a major plot strand, in fact it’s very minor, but her presence serves to bring out what may be obvious but I’ll say anyway: the entire Cicero trilogy, consisting of over 1,200 pages, is a slave’s eye view of republican Rome.

I don’t want to belabour the point but it is a mark of the thriller’s lack of depth or seriousness, its determination to remain no more than an intelligent poolside read, that Tiro’s condition as a slave and dependent is from time to time mentioned but the state of slavehood, the central fact of the narrator’s life, is nowhere really explored.

Two or three times Tiro mentions he’d like to gain his freedom and set up on a nice little farm. Three quarters of the way through the book, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, about to set off for a governorship in Macedonia, promises Tiro his freedom when he returns (p.324).

And right at the very end, as Cicero is being forced into exile, he magnanimously gives Tiro his freedom and tells him to leave him, as being in his presence jeopardises his life. But Tiro promptly rejects the offer of freedom and pledges to remain Cicero’s slave, secretary and confidante, as the pair, along with a couple of other (unnamed) slaves, scuttle through the midnight streets to elude Clodius’s henchmen, bribe their way out of one of the city’s gates, and set off into exile.

This is a very moving scene to end the long narrative on and yet…To me what was striking was that… these are novels written by a slave in which the condition of slavery is never really broached or investigated or dramatised or experienced.

Tiro mentions that he’s a slave, as you might mention needing to buy a new car or get your roof fixed. It is referred to half a dozen times as a fact. But the condition of slavehood is never really adequately dramatised or investigated, the psychology of slavery not at all. Tiro remains to the end a timid version of the sensible, intelligent but perpetually impressed Dr Watson-style sidekick, in awe of his large-than-life master, observant, obedient and respectful.

This is an immensely enjoyable book, on multiple levels. But the absence of meditation on this subject is a reminder of the limited ambitions and rewards of the thriller as a genre.

Catullus

The poet Gaius Valerius Catullus was, during the period covered by the novel, madly in love with Clodia, sister of the disreputable Publius Clodius Pulcher who is a central figure in part two, and wife of Metellus Celer. Harris makes a sly reference to Catullus without mentioning him by name, designed to please the cognoscenti, having Celer tell Cicero, who’s come round on a social call, after Clodia is quite rude to him before walking off:

‘Well, there it is. I wish she talked to you as much as she does this damned poet who’s always trailing round after her…’ (p.340)

A reference to Catullus, for anyone who’s read a bit around the subject. Probably the book contains more sly amused references like that, not all of which I got.


Credit

Lustrum by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2009. All references are to the 2010 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

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Roman reviews

De republica by Cicero (54 BC)

The best possible political constitution represents a judicious blend of these three types: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.
(De republica by Cicero, fragment of Book 2)

De republica was written by the Roman lawyer, orator, politician and philosophical populariser Marcus Tullius Cicero between 54 and 51 BC. It is variously translated into English as The Republic, A Treatise on the Commonwealth, On the state or On government.

Cicero was not himself a philosopher or political theorist of note. This work was one among nearly twenty in which he translated the best of Greek philosophy into Latin, pulling various Greek theories together into new texts and introducing or inventing Latin terms to translate Greek ideas. Because of the purity and eloquence of his Latin many of these texts were preserved throughout the Middle Ages as teaching aids, and were revived during the Renaissance. In this way Cicero’s works played a central role in preserving the philosophical, moral and political ideas of the ancient world into the modern era and shaping their revival.

The Republic is cast as a dialogue, the form immortalised by Plato (427 to 327 BC). Unlike a manifesto or treatise a dialogue isn’t a straightforward statement of views. Having a number of people debate various opinions makes it more of a teaching or heuristic form. Students can be asked to study the work, then to describe which viewpoint they support and why.

As with Cicero’s other dialogues, The Republic studiously avoided controversy by being set in the past among long dead characters. It is set in the country villa of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger. Scipio was a Roman general and statesman who led the third and final war against Carthage, personally overseeing its siege, capture and utter destruction, as vividly described in Richard Miles’s history of Carthage. Scipio also restored order after assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC and mediated between the political factions.

The Republic takes place in Scipio’s estate over three consecutive days. Each day is described in two books, with an introduction by Cicero preceding the dialogue of each book, making six books in all.

  • Book 1 – Scipio outlines the three types of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) and asserts the best type is a mix of all three
  • Book 2 – Scipio gives quite a detailed outline of early Roman history in order to show the evolution of the Roman constitution
  • Book 3 – Philus and Laelius engage in a set-piece debate about whether pragmatic injustice (Philus) or ideal justice (Laelius) are intrinsic to politics
  • Book 4 – is a discussion of education
  • Book 5 – considers the qualities of the ideal citizen in government
  • Book 6 – considers the character of the ideal ruler

The Republic survives only in fragments. Large parts of the text are missing. Books one to 3 survive in significant chunks, but the from the fourth and fifth books only minor fragments survive, and all the other books have a distressing number of missing passages.

The only part of the sixth book which survives is the final section, a relatively short passage in which Scipio tells his guests about a dream in which he was whirled up into space and shown the structure of the universe. This has survived because it was the subject of a commentary by the neoplatonist philosopher Macrobius and this part of the text, along with Macrobius’s commentary, became very popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with their profound interest in astrology and astronomy.

The best preserved parts of the text discuss constitutions and political theory but it is important to realise that this was only part of Cicero’s aim. The discussion of constitutions fills only a third of the book. For Cicero ‘politics’ wasn’t a narrow profession but a branch of philosophy which dealt in a broader way with human nature and ethics as demonstrated in societies. This explains why the treatise deals with different types of constitution early on in order to get on to the more important subjects of what kind of citizen and what kind of ruler are required to create a perfect state. The best kind of state is not a dry technical question, comparable to modern debates about different voting procedures: the best kind of state produces the best kinds of citizens and the best kinds of rulers (optimus civis) and so must be considered in the broadest context.

The characters

The discussions take place between no fewer than nine named individuals who are given speaking parts.

Scipio was maybe the most pre-eminent figure in mid-second century BC Rome, a very successful general who, however, a) did not abuse his power as later generals such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar did and b) was a noted patron of artists and writers such as the Greek historian Polybius. You can see why Cicero hero worshiped him.

Other characters

  • Gaius Laelius: close friend and associate of Scipio, consul in 140 BC, promoter of the study of literature and philosophy, practical and down to earth.
  • Lucius Furius Philus: consul 136 BC, orator, a man of great personal rectitude who takes on the defence of injustice, in book 3, for the sake of the debate
  • Manius Manilius: consul in 149 BC, a venerable legal expert.
  • Quintus Mucius Scaevola: Laelius’s son-in-law, a legal scholar and patron of the young Cicero.
  • Spurius Mummius: conservative and anti-democrat.
  • Quintus Aelius Tubero: Scipio’s nephew, tribune c. 129 BC. Legal scholar dedicated to Stoicism.
  • Gaius Fannius: consul in 122 BC, follower of Stoicism, historian and orator. Son-in-law to Laelius.
  • Publius Rutilius Rufus: a politician admired for his honesty, dedicated to Stoicism.

Book One

Missing its preface, the text we have starts in mid sentence and mid argument. Cicero is arguing against the Epicurean belief that the educated man should hold aloof from politics in order to preserve his calm. On the contrary, Cicero argues that the highest form of moral activity and of virtue consists of the practical application of morality in the practice of statecraft.

Then Cicero the narrator hands over to the supposed discussion held at Scipio’s house where his guests ask Scipio’s opinions.

The conversation starts with one of his visitors talking about the rare phenomenon of two suns being seen in the sky. But Scipio repeats the Greek idea (Aristotle) that there is little we can know about the workings of the cosmos whereas we very much can study human beings, how they behave, morality, epistemology and so on, and that’s what we ought to do.

Scipio follows his Greek predecessors in claiming that human beings seem to have an innate compulsion to live together in communities i.e. we are not a solitary species (Book I, section 39). When this happens there are three ways communities of humans organise their power: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Each has its merits:

Kings attract us by affection, aristocracies by good sense, and democracies by freedom. (I, 55)

Each has a dark side, when it becomes corrupt. Monarchy becomes despotism, aristocracy becomes oligarchy and democracy becomes mob rule (I, 44).

Personally, Scipio thinks a careful mixture of all three is best (I, 69), but if he had to pick just one it would be monarchy. This is because there is only one king god in heaven, Jupiter (I, 57). Every family has only one father and a king is like the father of his subjects (I, 54). There can be only one ruling element in the human mind, which is sovereign over all the other passions, and this is Reason (I, 60). Only one person can run a household, only one person can be in charge of a ship, only one person can treat us for illness. And when people are deprived of a just king they are like orphans.

But the weakness of rule by a king is that when they go wrong, they go really wrong and become tyrants. Therefore the most stable and also the most ‘just’ form of government is one which permits a balance of power between the different classes and so is ‘equally just to all ranks of society’ (II, 55). He thinks this has best been achieved by the Roman constitution with its balance between the powers of a king (vested for one year only in the role of the consuls), the moderating influence of the aristocracy (embodied by the wisdom and experience of the senate and a voting system heavily skewed towards the rich and ‘best’ in society) and the voice of the people (expressed in the office of tribune of the plebs and the voting power of the people’s assemblies).

Book two

Scipio/Cicero come to the bold conclusion that the best possible political constitution in the world is the one created by their Roman forebears and handed down to himself and his contemporaries, the inheritance of Rome, ‘the greatest State of all’!

This is as laughably self-centred as the great German philosopher Hegel pondering deeply and concluding that the best possible way to organise a society was…the constitution of the Prussian state of his day! Or the booming confidence of late Victorians that the British Empire with its constitutional monarchy was the best imaginable form of government.

He gives a deeply traditional and patriotic account of the founding of Rome by the wise and godlike Romulus and the cumulative constitutional innovations of the traditional and legendary seven kings of Rome, dwelling on each of them at some length and the great virtues of the Roman people:

The Roman people became strong, not by chance, but through their own good sense and their firm system of values… (II, 30)

The underlying point of book two is that the Roman constitution wasn’t created by one wise lawgiver (cf Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Athens) but developed and evolved over a long period, with successive rules adding processes, creating the complex voting procedures, organising the population into tribes but also, for voting purposes, into centuries, and setting up assemblies where they could debate. What struck me is how close this is to the justification of English traditionalists for the English constitution, which is nowhere written down but amounts to a tangle of precedents and traditions.

This is sort of interesting but it is history not philosophy or political theory, history with occasional comments. The notes to the Oxford University Press translation point out where Scipio differs from the more comprehensive account given by Titus Livius (Livy) in his history of Rome written 10 or 15 years later, which is indicative of the way the account of sort of interesting but mainly of academic interest.

At the same time as the thinking is fairly simplistic there’s also something hyperbolical and exaggerated about Scipio’s diction:

As soon as this king turned to a mastery less just than before, he instantly became a tyrant, and no creature more vile or horrible than a tyrant, or more hateful to gods and men, can be imagined ; for, though he bears a human form, yet he surpasses the most monstrous of the wild beasts in the cruelty of his nature. (II, 49)

The underlying thought is as simple minded as a fairy story, but the language has the vehemence of a rabble-rousing political speech. Either way, it often has neither the depth or sober objective language you might expect from ‘philosophy’.

In section 54 Scipio makes explicit why he is reviewing early Roman constitutional history in such detail: it is to point to examples of the wise men who created new and useful innovations. Publius Valerius emerges as a notable example, the man who demonstrated his wisdom by: moving house from the top of the Velian Hill where the kings had lived; passing a law forbidding a Roman citizen from being flogged or put to death without appeal; had a colleague elected as co-ruler, to be called consuls, and decided that they would rule on alternate months and be guarded by lictors only for that month.

This brings out something he’d mentioned earlier which is the aim of this discourse is not to debate the theoretical nature of an ideal state, as Plato did in his Republic, but to describe the practical reality of such a state and, especially, the qualities required of the Ideal Stateman to run it.

Towards the end of book 2 Scipio recapitulates:

I defined the three commendable types of States and the three bad types which are their opposites. Next I demonstrated that no single one of these types is the ideal, but that a form of government which is an equal mixture of the three good forms is superior to any of them by itself. As for my using our own State as a pattern, I did so, not to help me to define the ideal constitution (for that could be done without using any pattern at all), but in order to show, by illustrations from the actual history of the greatest State of all, what it was that reason and speech were striving to make clear.

The ideal statesman:

He should be given almost no other duties than this one (for it comprises most of the others) – of improving and examining himself continually, urging others to imitate him, and by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens. (II, 69)

Here you can see how, lacking any knowledge of economics or class or social or technological developments, no financial theory and no knowledge of the vast amounts of data we have been collecting about ‘society’ since the industrial revolution and which underpin all modern politics – in this huge vacuum of knowledge Cicero, like Sallust and Plutarch, conceives of politics as being predominantly about individuals and, this being so, overly obsess about the character of the Ideal Statesman, completely omitting the proficiency in economics, law, and statistics which modern politics call for, and the way the huge structure of the state bureaucracy measures outcomes by data: inflation, unemployment, GDP, health outcomes and so on.

By contrast with the vast complexity of the modern state, Cicero’s image of the Ideal Ruler is closer to fairy tale than modern political theory: ‘…by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens.’

I suppose it represents an enormous shift from a theory based on morality and ethics to one based entirely on utilitarian values: does it work, is it good for the economy, for most people, is it good for my core voters, these are the questions a modern politicians asks.

And the absence of the huge body of theory and statistical information which forms the basis of modern politics explains why political ‘philosophy’ from Plato, through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and well into the modern era relied on analogies rather than data. They had nothing else to go on. So they compared the ideal state to a well-ordered mind, or to the human body where all the parts have to co-operate, or to the harmonious movements of the celestial bodies through the heaves; or compared Reason’s control over the mind to a father’s control over his sons or a master’s control over his slaves (III, 37) etc etc. Analogy rather than data.

All this is sweet and lovely but like a child’s colouring book compared to the complex technocracy of the modern state. Immersing yourself in a text like this continually reminds the reader of children’s books and fairy tales.

Book three

Fragments in which Cicero explains that despite our failings, humans have inside us the divine fire of Reason. He briefly sketches the invention of language (interesting) and maths before moving onto teachers or truth and moral excellence blah blah which, when put into practice, leads to the art of governing.

Comparison of philosophers, who teach moral excellence and best conduct through words alone, and statesmen, who promote moral excellence and best conduct through actions and laws. Clearly the latter are more effective and important (III, 7).

The 12 or so pages of fragments we have of book 3 indicate that it was conceived as a debate between Laelius and Philus about whether injustice is a necessary part of political rule, whether it is inevitable and unavoidable. What gives ancient books like this their flavour is the inclusion of myths and legends and fanciful imagery which, to repeat myself, are more like fairy tales than political analysis. Thus Philus kicks off his presentation of the case that injustice is an inevitable and necessary part of politics by asking his audience to imagine they are flying in a chariot of winged snakes:

If one could visit many diverse nations and cities and examine them, travelling about in Pacuvius’ famous ‘chariot of winged snakes’ one would see first of all in Egypt, a land which has escaped change more successfully than any other, and which preserves in written records the events of countless centuries, a bull, which the Egyptians call Apis, is deemed a god, and many other monsters and animals of every sort are held sacred as divine. (III, 14)

When he gets going, Philus makes a persuasive argument that there is no such thing as natural justice, nature does not implant justice in the human mind, there are no universal laws. On the contrary, the point of his metaphor of flying over the countries of the Mediterranean is to survey just how varied and irreconcilable all their laws, and customs and religions are with each other. QED: there is no one universal law or notion of justice.

No fewer than 80 leaves of book 3 are missing. From references and summaries in other, later authors we know some of the contents. Apparently Philus makes the anti-Roman point that empire is nothing but stealing other people’s lands and goods. Romans hold aggressive generals to be epitomes of valour and excellence (‘He advanced the bounds of empire’ is their highest compliment) when they are, of course, the same as all other aggressive conquerors of all other nations. The fact that the Romans have priests formally declare war just shows their hypocrisy in dressing up greed and criminality in fancy words.

When we come back to the actual text Philus makes the simple (and, to the modern mind, sympathetic) argument that the kind of mixed constitution supported by Scipio doesn’t derive from Virtue and Wisdom but from the simple fact that each rank (or class) fears the power of the others and so seeks to check it (a proto-Hobbesian view, maybe). The mother or justice is not nature or virtue but weakness and fear.

The good life is based, not on virtue, justice and selflessness, but on looking out for yourself and your family, on practical assessments of what will bring you most benefit. And as with families so with states: dress it up how you like, statecraft and international affairs are based on brute assessments of power and self interest. And they should be (III, 28).

This is thrilling stuff and the editor of the OUP edition (Niall Rudd) notes that, once Philus has finished his case, Laelius, who follows and argues the contrary case, can’t really rebut his analysis and so ignores his points to argue something slightly different, which is the importance of the notion of justice for the administration of a state.

It is symptomatic of the conservatism and narrow-mindedness of Roman thought that this negative, cynical and so unpopular point of view is attributed to a foreigner, a Greek, the philosopher Carneades and that when Laelius speaks, he roundly attacks it for its immorality and calls Carneades ‘a filthy scoundrel’ (III, 32).

Laelius proceeds to give a positive but very naive definition of law as a Platonic fact of nature, eternal and unchanging, which all men must obey, which sounds magnificent and is obvious tripe:

True law is right reason in agreement with nature. It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. It summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions… It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it… We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God who is the author, proposer and interpreter of that law. (III, 33)

Laelius appears to go on to describe how this eternal law was embodied and followed by specific Romans from history, but we have only fragments.

Then Scipio comes back in as the main speaker, recapitulating his idea of the three types of government, asking which one is the ‘true’ meaning of a republic. The text breaks off abruptly just as the speakers were going to address the merits of the uncorrupted versions of the three types.

Book four

The subject of book four is clearly intended to be Education and address the question: what kind of education is best for citizens of the ideal state? As with the other books, Cicero does not proceed from philosophical first principles, as per Plato, but ranges far and wide through Roman and Greek history, comparing practices and laws. But the book is in, to quote Rudd’s words, ‘a pitiful state’, barely four pages of fragments. The longest fragment is where a speaker is made to explain at length why poets and playwrights should not be allowed to pillory statesmen and generals (IV, 11 to 12).

This, in my opinion, is the problem with all theories which start out by defining Virtue and Morality and The Good and so on – they always lead to strict definitions, which themselves inevitably lead to very strict rules about encouraging said Virtue and Suppressing Vice or anything which demeans or criticises Virtue or encourages Vice.

And so, by a few easy steps, these arguments all-too-often arrive, with the ‘noblest’ of intentions, at state censorship: the censorship of Cromwell’s England, revolutionary France, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Taliban Afghanistan and any number of authoritarian regimes in between. Anyone who sets out to define or justify Absolute Values ends up defending absolutist states. (Discuss)

Book five

This was evidently meant to address the character of the Ideal Statesman but is even more fragmentary than book four, with only sections 3, 5, 6 and 7 surviving (each book originally had up to 100 sections) and a handful of scraps barely making up 3 pages of a modern book.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse. Where are the great men of yesteryear? This developed into a stereotyped genre or topic during the Middle Ages which was given its own name, the ubi sunt (‘where are they?’) topos.

Long before living memory our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of our forefathers. (V, 1)

But:

What remains of those ancient customs on which he said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. (V, 2)

Oh woe. But then every generation feels it is living in a uniquely degraded era when the great institutions it inherited from the past are collapsing and where are the Great Leaders of yesteryear and the end times are upon us. But they never are. We muddle through and 20 years later people look back to that time as a golden age.

I spent most of the 1990s ashamed of living under the government of the bumbling poltroon John Major – and yet now I regularly read articles which look back to the 90s as a golden age. Plus ca change…

Book six

In even worse state than book 5, with barely a page and a half of disconnected fragments. What does survive intact is the passage which was intended to conclude the entire book. In current editions this is numbered sections 9 to 29. It is the concluding passage in which the main speaker, Scipio, tells his companions about a dream he had. In this dream he is whirled up into heaven and sees a) the structure of the solar system and the universe and b) the smallness of the earth and the littleness of human existence. This passage has survived because the 4th century AD Roman grammarian and philosopher Macrobius wrote an extensive commentary about it. This commentary became very popular during the Middle Ages, helping to define the medieval view of the cosmos and surviving in multiple copies. So, in this roundabout manner, these 20 sections of Cicero’s book survive.

In the Dream Scipio describes how his adoptive grandfather comes to him and predicts the future, namely that he will be elected consul, destroy Carthage and be given a triumph in Rome, before being sent to end the war in Spain and serving as consul a second time.

But this is just the beginning. He is introduced to the spirit of his father, Paulus, who explains how souls are derived from the stars (they are now standing in the middle of the sky among the stars) before being consigned to a body down there on earth. How can you escape from the body and join the other spirits? Here is the point of the vision and the climax of the book’s entire consideration of political theory: you get to heaven by doing your patriotic duty.

Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives, and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. (VI, 16)

Cicero shows his difference from the Greek philosophers he copied in his very Roman emphasis on the practical. After all the fine talk about constitutions and justice and the character of the statesman, what matters is doing your patriotic duty.

There is a kind of path for noble patriots leading to the gate of heaven… (VI, 26)

The true part of a man is his mind, not his body. The mind is immortal, godlike. The best way to employ this godlike mind is in activity for the safety of one’s country. Minds which have devoted themselves to this cause will fly more quickly to heaven (VI, 29). If Cicero was standing to attention saluting the flag with tears running down his face while the national anthem played, the intended conclusion of his book could hardly be more sentimentally patriotic.

Which makes sense because this is precisely how the entire book opens. The very first sentence reads: ‘Had it not been for his sense of patriotic duty […] would not have delivered our country…’ (I, 1) and goes on to assert:

I simply state this as a basic fact: nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease. (I, 1)

So it might rope in a number of other subjects along the way, but De republica is fundamentally a work of Roman patriotism.

Thoughts

I found The Republic hard to read for two reasons. It really is very fragmented – the text is continually breaking off mid-sentence with parentheses telling you that 2 or 4 or 80 (!) pages are missing, so that you resume reading a lot further along in the original text, when the characters are discussing a completely different subject. It’s like listening to an old-style LP of a classical symphony that is so scratched that you barely get 20 seconds of melody before it skips 20 seconds or several minutes. Very disconnected. Snippets.

But there’s a deeper problem with the book which is its lack of sophistication, which makes it, ultimately, boring. The best preserved passage in Book One tells us there are three forms of government and each has a debased version, which makes for a neat, schematic table but is, ultimately, useless for our current needs, in Britain, in 2022.

When Scipio argues that monarchy is the best of the three types because there’s only one king of the gods, only one person can be in charge of a household, and only one element, Reason, which controls the mind…well, these are quaint ways of thinking – using child-like analogies rather than data, as I explained above – which have a sort of historical interest, but they’re not ideas anyone alive today would waste their time espousing.

And most of the contents are like that. Of antiquarian interest but nothing much to make you sit up and think. The actual history of the late republic, when Cicero was writing, is much more thought-provoking than this essay.

I appreciate that Cicero was writing a kind of abstract, a pedagogical text designed to raise the standard of political discourse in his own time – but in actual fact, nothing he wrote affected the fate of the Roman Republic in the slightest, and it is highly symbolic that the head that conceived these highfalutin ideas and the hands that wrote them were chopped off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. That was the utterly unscrupulous, deeply, immoral and justice-free reality of Roman politics.

A list of analogies

Once I’d realised that Cicero’s thought is guided more by analogies than data or statistics (of which he has almost no concept, apart from election results and the size of armies), it amused me to collect analogies from the last few books, although too late to compile a definitive list.

The mind rules over the body like a king over his subjects or a father over his children. The mind rules over its desires like a master over his slaves. (III, 37)

The sun is the mind and regulator of the universe. (VI, 17)

As the god who moves the universe is immortal, so the soul which moves the body is immortal (VI, 26)

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP, so that I abandoned reading both their translations. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the extensive notes, scholarly and interesting. There is a useful list of names and also an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero, translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd, was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Civil War by Julius Caesar – 2

Julius Caesar’s own account of the civil war he fought against Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and his successors from 49 to 45 BC is divided into three parts. I have previously summarised parts one and two. This is a summary of the third and final part.

Part 3: The great confrontation (112 sections)

1 to 6: Caesar in Italy – Pompey’s preparations

Caesar returns to Italy where he temporarily takes the title dictator in order to carry out the legal functions of the absent consuls and senate. He oversees elections in which he is elected consul for the next year, 48 BC. Caesar adjudicates legal cases, solves bankruptcy cases, officiates at the Latin religious festivals, then relinquishes the dictatorship and hurries to Brundisium.

Here he is presented with an ongoing shortage of ships. Pompey has had a whole year in which to gather forces in Greece and Asia, which Caesar proceeds to itemise. Thus Pompey holds all the ports along the Adriatic coast and Caesar lists the squadrons and their officers, with Marcus Bibulus in overall command. (This Bibulus had been aedile then consul in the same years as Caesar and had a number of bitter grievances against him.)

7 to 19: Negotiations in Epirus

Caesar manages to ferry some legions over to Palaeste but many of the ships returning to transport more are intercepted by Bibulus and burned, with their crews and captains aboard. The Pompeian Marcus Octavius besieges Salonae and the townspeople resort to desperate measures to break the siege.

Caesar sends a peace envoy to Pompey. Obviously it is carefully crafted for inclusion in this narrative and cannily states that the best time to negotiate is while both sides are equally balanced. Caesar offers to disband his armies in 3 days if Pompey will do the same and both submit to the adjudication of the Senate and people of Rome.

In the meantime Caesar marches to Oricum where the townspeople disobey the Pompeian commander Lucius Torquatus and open the gates to him. He marches on to Apollonia where the people, again, refuse to disobey a) a consul who b) has been accepted by the entire Italian people, so that he commander, Lucius Staberius, is forced to flee. Same happens at Byllis, Amantia and all the towns of Epirus who send envoys promising to obey Caesar.

Pompey is marching his army at top speed to Dyrrachium but is panicking, with troops deserting. Near the town Pompey orders a camp built and makes his senior officers, centurions and men renew their oath of allegiance. Beaten to Dyrrachium, Caesar builds a huge camp nearby and decides to spend the winter under tents.

Caesar’s next cohort of troops to be transported from Brundisium is setting out when the commander receives message that the entire coast is patrolled by Pompey’s navy and turns back. One ship continues, is intercepted, and everyone on board is put to death. That said, Pompey’s navy can’t put into any of the ports which are now controlled by Caesar and so run short of food and drinking water.

A Pompeyan officer named Libo asks to see Caesar and offers a truce. But when he refuses to send envoys on to Pompey Caesar realises he’s playing for time. Bibulus, commander of the Pompeian fleet, contracts illness aboard ship and dies. Caesar hears after the war that when his closest advisers began to discuss peace with Pompey the latter shut them up by asking rhetorically what he could want from a life or reputation granted by Caesar i.e. to live at Caesar’s will? I.e. Pompey would never have listened to Caesar’s peace proposals.

The two armies are camped not far from each other either side of the river Apsus, and the common soldiers arranged a ceasefire. This was escalated into a formal meeting between officers, with the soldiery on both sides wanting peace. But Caesar emphasises it was the Pompeian officers who refused compromise. Caesar’s legate or second-in-command for his entire command in Gaul, Titus Atius Labienus, has gone over Pompey’s side and makes a haughty speech demanding Caesar’s head. After that, no negotiations are possible.

20 to 22: Trouble in Italy

A digression describing the short career of Marcus Caelius Rufus who makes several ill-conceived political initiatives in Rome, before being banned from political life and expelled from the city. Nonetheless he invited back the rabble rouser Titus Annius Milo from exile in Massilia and together they try to foment a kind of slave rebellion in central Italy. But when Milo offered money to a garrison Caesar had put in place in the town of Cosa, they killed him on the spot. End of revolt and digression.

23 to 30: Antony runs the gauntlet

The Pompeian Libo takes a fleet of 50 ships and blockades Brundisium, capturing some military and grain transport ships. Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) sets a trap and captures one of Libo’s ships. Also, after a while, they run short of water, since the entire coast is manned by Caesarians, so Libo abandons the blockade. It is now January 48 BC, one year after Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

Caesar implores reinforcements and eventually Mark Antony and Fufius Calenus sail a fleet of troops across the Adriatic, pass Dyrrachium, where they start to be pursued by Pompeian forces, but by good fortune, make port at Nymphaeum. The Pompeian ships out at sea were hit by a gale and many driven ashore and wrecked. Caesar makes one of many comments about the sheer luck involved in warfare.

Both Pompey and Caesar learn where Antony has landed (with 3 legions of veterans, one of recruits and 800 cavalry) at the same time, strike their camps and go to join/attack him. Pompey gets there first but, as Caesar approaches from behind, realises he risks being caught between two armies and so retreats to Asperagium.

31 to 38: The lieutenants in Macedon

Description of the wretched behaviour of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio as governor of Syria, extorting and mulcting the province, before being summoned by Pompey to Macedonia.

Meanwhile, having linked up with Antony, Caesar sends envoys to nearby parts of Greece to test their loyalty. A rather complicated description of the reception of three separate envoys Caesar sends to different parts of Greece, leading up to a confrontation between Scipio – who force marches his army into central Greece – and the Caesarian Gnaeus Domitius Domitian, with 2 legions and 500 cavalry.

39 to 58: Stalemate at Dyrrachium

Caesar leaves the port of Oricum in the charge of Manius Acilius and marches inland. Pompey’s son Gnaeus storms Oricum with a sophisticated attack, then goes on to Lissus where he burns the thirty transport ships left by Antony. A very effective young admiral, aged only 26 or so.

Caesar marches to Asparagium to confront Pompey, sets camp and next morning brings out his army in battle array to settle the issue. But Pompey doesn’t rise to the bait. Caesar adopts a different strategy and force marches his legions back to Dyrrachium. Pompey builds a camp on a defensible height.

It now becomes clear the war is going to last a long time. Pompey refuses a direct fight and his strong fleet controls the entire coast, preventing Caesar getting supplies or reinforcements from Italy. Caesar decides to surround Pompey’s camp and blockade it. Pompey counters by building a long wall, dotted with forts designed to encompass as much territory as possible. This leads to constant sniping and skirmishing between the sides along these extended lines, which Pompey always wins.

It’s an unusual position. Normally an army besieges another when the other is a) defeated or tired and b) numerically smaller. Here Caesar has fewer forces than Pompey’s which a) had not fought at all b) were numerically superior and c) were better provisioned. Caesar, however, dries up Pompey’s water supplies, leading to great hardship.

Around section 50 there is a gap in the manuscript and when it resumes we are in the middle of a set of firefights in which Pompey appears to have tried to break out of his fortifications, being only with difficulty forced back. One particular Caesarian fort stood alone against a Pompeian legion for four hours and, when it was finally relieved, Caesar generously rewarded and promoted its leading fighters.

Every day Caesar lines up his army offering to fight but Pompey refuses. Caesar sends envoys out to towns further and further afield in Greece to win their loyalty. Caesar sends Aulus Clodius, a mutual friend, to parlay with Scipio, who is now in central Thessaly and in a powerful position, both as Pompey’s father-in-law and as commander of an army in his own right. But after initial talks, on the following days Aulus is excluded from conferences and nothing comes of it.

Caesar’s tactic of surrounding and starving out Pompey begins to work. Horses are going short of provisions, men are going hungry.

59 to 74: Setbacks for Caesar

Pompey takes advantage of the insider knowledge of two Gaulish chieftains who Caesar had promoted, brought with him and trusted, but who had become corrupt, extorting and embezzling money. When Caesar berated them for this they fled Caesar’s camp with money and Gaulish men and went over to Pompey. They now provided Pompey all the information he needed to break through a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications down by the sea, massacring Caesarean cohorts, until Antony arrived and stabilised the situation.

In a second battle, there is a confusing description of an attack on a lesser camp Pompey had partly abandoned which leads at first to success by Caesar, then, when Pompey arrives with reinforcements,  to the panic-stricken rout of Caesarean forces trapped between various defensive walls. When the rout is complete, Pompey parades his prisoners and Labienus has them all executed in sight of their comrades. One’s tentative sympathy for Labienus for standing up to Caesar’s illegal behaviour shrivels and disappears.

In a rare moment of reflection, Caesar comments that Pompey’s forces made a very big mistake in attributing this victory to themselves when the cause of the catastrophe had mostly been the panic of Caesar’s own side, who crushed and trapped each other in their panic to escape the constricting fortifications.

The Pompeians boasted they had won a great victory when it had not been a battle at all, had not been fought in an open space, when most of Caesar’s forces had been prevented from coming to the rescue by the tight space. Above all they showed a failure to grasp the fundamental contingency of battle where big events can hinge on tiny accidents.

They did not recollect the common chances of warfare, how often trifling causes, originating in a false suspicion, a sudden alarm, or a religious scruple, have entailed great disasters, whenever a mistake has been made in an army through the incapacity of a general or the fault of a tribune; but just as if their victory were due to their valour and no change of fortune could occur, by reports and dispatches they proceeded to celebrate throughout the world the victory of that day (Book III.72)

In other words, pride before a fall. Hubris.

75 to 81: Caesar moves to Thessaly

After this setback, Caesar assembles his army and makes a big speech to restore morale (we have read scenes like this in the Gallic Wars). Then Caesar that night abandons the whole siege strategy and sets them off in stages marching south inland towards Apollonia. For the next few days Caesar adopts the same tactic, sending the baggage off ahead at midnight, then setting the unencumbered troops off a few hours later.

Caesar summarises the strategies going through both his and Pompey’s minds. He is interested in drawing Pompey away from the coast and his supply lines, but risks getting caught between him and Scipio’s army, so is keen to reach Apollonia as soon as possible to link up with the legions he had assigned to Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus.

Unhappily for Caesar, Domitius had meanwhile struck the camp he’d built near to Scipio’s and gone foraging for food i.e. making it harder for Caesar to hook up with him and combine against Scipio. But, as it happened, he encountered the treacherous Gauls mentioned above. They parleyed in peace and the Gauls boasted about their Famous Victory and that Caesar had turned tail and run. Thus alerted to what Caesar was doing, Domitius sent out scouts, contacted and then linked up with Caesar’s army.

Caesar marches on to Gomphi, the first town in Thessaly whose ruler, Androsthenes, hearing exaggerated rumours of Caesar’s defeat, had defected to Pompey, withdrawing his population into the town and sending messages to Pompey asking for quick help.

Bad idea. Caesar invests the town as soon as he arrives and by the end of the afternoon has stormed its walls and given the town over to his troops to plunder and make an example of. He then hurried on to Metropolis, which had also defected and the townspeople barricaded themselves inside. Caesar presented some survivors from Gomphi who, when they told their story, the Metropolitans opened their gates and threw themselves on Caesar’s mercy, He was very careful to preserve them from harm and so the message was spread around the region that Caesar was merciful and it was alright to submit to him.

Caesar marches on into open countryside where crops are ripening. Since food is a constant worry for an army on the move, he decides to make this the base of operations.

82 to 84: Pompey follows

Pompey arrives nearby, makes camp, addresses his troops, makes Scipio joint leader. Caesar mockingly describes how everyone in Pompey’s camp was now over-confident of victory and how all Pompey’s political hangers-on were already squabbling about who will get which magistracy or priesthood once they returned victorious to Rome, the kind of petty politicking which Cicero describes the letters he wrote from Pompey’s camp (Atticus. XI.6).

It is impossible not to enjoy Caesar’s gloating. He may be a genocidal military dictator but he was shrewd, effective and extremely experienced. Throughout his account he emphasises the role even tiny tremors of fortune can make to outcomes. And so we realise the profound foolhardiness of Pompey’s hangers-on and their bickering and arguing about who shall have which office and who shall confiscate which dead Caesarean’s property back in Rome. They think war is as guaranteed as a bought election, as bribery and suborning in politics, not realising how contingent it can be.

But he who remains most focused and mindful is able to take advantage of those little reversals of fortune. So while Pompey’s entourage politicked, Caesar brought out his forces every day and practised and trained on the plain between the two camps.

85 to 101: The battle of Pharsalus

Caesar does this for several days in a row but Pompey refuses to bring his army out to face him. Eventually Caesar abandons hope of tempting Pompey to an open battle, and was striking camp and had begun actually marching off in search of fresh cropland, when he noticed that Pompey’s army had that morning come out a little further from their ramparts than was customary. He has finally agreed to fight.

Caesar gives a (presumably fictional) account of Pompey’s speech to his advisers, saying they will wrap the battle up by using overwhelming cavalry on Caesar’s exposed right flank. Then Labienus is made to give an over-confident speech, introducing an oath that he will not re-enter the camp unless as victor and making all the other leaders swear it. Reminds me of the ofermōde of Earl Byrhtnoth at the Battle of Maldon a thousand years later. In other words, this is a very literary motif.

Caesar describes his deployment of his forces, then his final speech to his men, reminding them of his repeated attempts to negotiate peace. (Hmm, is this what you would say to an army to fire them up before a battle? Or is it placed here for purely political effect?)

Expecting Pompey to rely on his cavalry and knowing his own is weak, Caesar made the vital decision to post an unusual fourth line of infantry borrowed from each legion behind his own cavalry. And so when Pompey’s cavalry attacked, it at first stunned and moved backwards Caesar’s men. But at the height of the engagement Caesar ordered this fourth line to come out from behind his cavalry and attack Pompey’s cavalry from the side. This confused and panicked Pompey’s cavalry and they took heavy casualties then fled the battlefield to the nearest hill.

This was the decisive moment of the battle. Seeing his cavalry repulsed, Pompey left the battlefield and went to his tent in his camp. This fourth line then massacred Pompey’s slingers and archers who had been left exposed by the flight of the cavalry, then attacked the main block of his infantry from the side and behind. That was enough to break Pompey’s lines and create a rout.

The Caesarians pursued them right up to the walls of their camp, scaled them, opened the gates and rampaged. They discovered the tables of the generals laid with fine wine and food expecting a victory feast.

Meanwhile Pompey removed his general’s insignia, mounted a horse and fled out the back gate. He rode to Larissa, picking up a few senior officers on the way and reached the coast with an entourage of 30, where he went aboard a civilian grain ship, plunged in despair.

A significant number of Pompey’s army escaped to nearby hills. Caesar told his men not to plunder the camp but come with him. He built a wall fencing the Pompeian survivors from the river i.e. water, then waited. In the morning they all came down and surrendered, pleading for their lives. Caesar granted them all clemency, and ordered his men to treat them well, sending the legions with him back to the camp to rest.

Caesar claims that of Pompey’s army about 15,000 fell but 24,000 surrendered. He captured 180 military standards and nine eagles. He describes it as the Battle of Thessaly (the name of the region) though later history came to call it the Battle of Pharsalus (the nearest town).

Caesar cuts away to news of the victory arriving at a) Brundisium, where another Pompeian fleet was blockading the Caesarians and b) at Sicily, where Caesar’s fleet was suffering from an attack of fireships led by Gaius Cassius.

102 to 105: The death of Pompey

Pompey flees by ship through the Greek islands, to Mytilene, to Cilicia, and on to Cyprus. Everywhere he and the lieutenants who followed him went they found the towns and citadels closed against him.

Pompey raises money from tax collectors in Cilicia and sails to Pelusium in the Nile Delta. (Caesar includes none of the details which Plutarch included in his Life of Pompey a hundred years later, not mentioning Pompey’s intention of collecting his wife Cornelia and youngest son Sextus from Mytilene, or the council of advisers he convened to discuss where to go next and which reluctantly settled on Egypt.)

Caesar gives a very schematic account of the conversation among the advisers to young King Ptolemy XIII when they hear of Pompey’s arrival on the coast of Egypt. Caesar bluntly describes Pompey going in a small boat to the Egyptian shore where he was murdered by Achillas and Lucius Septimius. It’s interesting to compare and contrast Caesar’s blunt unornamented account with the more artful and unbearably moving account of Plutarch.

Caesar arrives in ‘Asia’ i.e. the west coast of Turkey, and devotes a half a page to describing the various omens and prophecies of his victory which he discovers had been observed out in the superstitious East.

106 to 112: Caesar at Alexandria

Caesar takes half his troops by ship to Alexandria. He lands and takes it upon himself to adjudicate in the civil war between young Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra. This had a legitimate basis. Old king Ptolemy Auletes had been deposed by his people and only restored by the money and army raised and sent by Pompey/Rome. Before his death Auletes had written a will dividing the kingdom between his eldest son and daughter and asking the people of Rome to see that it was carried out. Caesar had a copy of this will which had been found at Pompey’s camp.

But while he was debating all this with young Ptolemy Caesar learned that an Egyptians army was approaching Alexandria, led by the same Achillas who murdered Pompey. Caesar is mocking of its make-up of ex-slaves, criminals and Romans gone to seed.

But it leads to serious fighting, as the Egyptian army seizes most of the city, trapping Caesar and his much smaller forces in a particular quarter. The main threat comes in the harbour where the Egyptians attempted to seize the 50 warships which they had sent to help Pompey and which had now returned to base. With these the Egyptians could cut off Caesar’s escape or prevent him being supplied. Caesar manages to lead an attack on these ships and burns them all.

Then he secures the Pharos, the island which controls Alexandria’s harbour and fortifies the part of the city he holds. Ptolemy’s younger daughter, Arsinoe, goes over to the attackers but soon sows dissent and splits its leadership. Meanwhile, the king’s tutor and regent Pothinus continued sending messages of encouragement to Achillas until he discovered by Caesar and executed.

And so ends in mid-struggle Caesar’s account of the Civil War, explaining why the narrative continues without a break into the separate text known as The Alexandrian War.

Thoughts

Obviously the book has an epic feel, overflowing with compelling details about one of the most turbulent and tragic events in classical history. It’s breath-taking in itself to be reading the eye witness accounts of the central protagonist in one of the great events in Western history, as if we could read Napoleon or Hitler’s diaries.

But the real eye-opener is Caesar’s stamina. He came straight from carrying out eight years of relentless warfare in Gaul into a further five years of intense civil war in theatres all around the Mediterranean. Caesar’s ability to manage all this, to get up every morning with full commitment, a ferocious grasp of detail, making the right calls about tactics and strategy, about political manoeuvring, assessing a never-ending stream of opponents and allies, is quite breath-taking. Superhuman stamina and ability. No wonder many contemporaries came to think of him as a god.

The war instinct

There is a certain keenness of spirit and impetuosity implanted by nature in all men which is kindled by the ardour of battle. This feeling it is the duty of commanders not to repress but to foster, nor was it without good reason that the custom was instituted of old that signals should sound in every direction and the whole body of men raise a shout, by which means they thought that the enemy were terrified and their own men stimulated. (III.92)

Video

There are many videos of the Battle of Pharsalus. I found this one clear and thorough.


Related links

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 9. Greek democracy versus Roman liberty

A theme which threads through Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, SPQR, is the difference between Greek notions of democracy and Roman ones of liberty.

Although Romans had lots of elections, for a wide range of officials, starting with the annual election of consuls, although the Romans voted on the passage of laws, voted for or against wars and so on – Rome was never really a democracy and the Greek word δημοκρατία or dēmokratia was never central to its political culture (p.189). That role was played by the concept of libertas or liberty (p.291).

Romans fought for, and about, liberty, not democracy. (SPQR p.189)

Politics was the province of privileged, rich and literate Romans (the only people who have left extended texts which we can study). To stand for election to any political office in Rome you had to be phenomenally rich and pass a financial test that comfortably excluded most citizens. The fundamental value of Roman politics was not anything like the voice of the people, but the liberty of the citizen against any form of oppressive government (even if ‘citizen’ mostly meant, in practice, the relatively small number of wealthy citizens who made up the intricately interlinked ruling elite. This was the group Cicero referred to the optimates, derived from optimi, meaning ‘the best’ men in the state, in other words, the wealthiest and best connected, p.227).

Against kings

The fundamental meaning of libertas as being against oppression went back to the Romans’ overthrow of their kings in the early 500s and the establishment of their republic. 450 years later, a cabal of assassins murdered Julius Caesar in the name of this ‘liberty’, fearing that he was about to become a dictator for life, little less than a king. They had coins struck which showed the daggers used to kill Caesar alongside the pileus, the cap worn by newly freed slaves, and the words Ides referring to the Ides of March when the assassination took place (p.295). Daggers and freedom. The assassins called themselves the liberatores, the liberators. Assassinating the tyrant was, in their view, vital to preserving libertas.

The EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC showing, on one side, Brutus’s profile, on the other the freedom cap, the daggers and EID MAR denoting the Eidibus Martiis or the Ides of March, 15 March, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated (p.295).

Liberty means different things

The trouble with libertas as a slogan, though, is that ‘freedom’ means different things to different people. It is one thing to rally huge crowds in city centres chanting for freedom and the overthrow of dictators from Caesar to Ceaușescu. But once you’ve overthrown the tyrant, what do you do next?

Because libertas is an empty slogan onto which people project their own fantasies and desires – millions of conflicting wishes and hopes – it is inevitable that revolutions in the name of a liberty in which everyone has vested their deepest hopes will turn out to be disappointing. You cannot fulfil everyone’s dreams and fantasies of a better life, especially in exactly the kind of turbulent, crisis-ridden times which give rise to revolutions in the first place.

Inevitable, too, that in the chaos of conflicting wishes and plans and parties which follow a revolution, someone will eventually have to step in and establish order – as Caesar tried to do as the Roman Republic collapsed, was assassinated before he could make the attempt, and as his adopted heir, Octavian , finally succeeded in doing.

Greek demokratia

For the Greeks, by contrast, dēmokratia was in intrinsic part of the administrative system of their states (well, some of them; ancient Greece was divided into numerous city states and not all of them implemented ‘democracy’ as it was understood in ancient Athens). The Athenians believed that their democratic system was created after the expulsion of the last in a series of ‘tyrants’ at the end of the 6th century BC (at pretty much the same time as the Romans had expelled their last king, Tarquin the Arrogant – p.128).

But without getting bogged down in a mass of historical detail, the basic point is clear: Democracy is a practical, implementable policy and everyone knows what it means: it means all adults get to vote for their leaders and key policies of state. Liberty, on the other hand, is a great rallying cry for revolutions to overthrow kings and tyrants and dictators (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, the French revolutionaries said they were fighting for, p.129). But once this is achieved, what next? Unlike democracy, liberty is not a practical, implementable policy – it’s just a rallying cry and a slogan.

The liberators

The conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar in the name of libertas, thinking they were eliminating a tyrant in order to restore the values of the Republic. Instead they ushered in 14 years of bitter civil war which, after a series of unstable power-sharing arrangements, led to the rise of Octavian, a ruler much stronger and more ruthless than Caesar would ever have been. Murder in the name of liberty led, in fact, to the decisive overthrow of the Republic they set out to preserve.

The French revolutionaries executed Louis XIV in the name of liberté but instead created an ever-intensifying Reign of Terror which, after a series of unstable constitutional experiments, led to the rise of the Europe-wide dictator Napoleon, a ruler far more sweepingly dictatorial than any king had been.

The paradox of liberty

The paradox that overturning a dictator in the name of ‘liberty’ often leads to the rise of an even more repressive ruler than you got rid of, is captured by a quote from Tom Holland’s history of the Roman Republic, Rubicon. He quotes the lawyer, orator and politician Cicero expressing puzzlement that Caesar’s assassins had definitely overthrown the Tyrant – and yet, the Republic and the ‘Freedom’ they claimed to be reviving went on to collapse:

“Freedom has been restored,” Cicero noted in perplexity, “and yet the Republic has not.” (quoted in Rubicon, page 352)

Something like this happened 2,050 years later during the so-called Arab Spring, when liberals and intellectuals and disaffected crowds in Libya and Egypt and Syria set out to overthrow their repressive rulers (Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad) but ended up with political chaos,  a collapse into warlordism, or a ruler tougher and more repressive than the one they overthrew.

Moral of the story

If you’re marching in the streets to overthrow a dictator don’t do so in the name of ‘Liberty’, because the idea will be hijacked by the canniest political operator or strongest warlord or toughest general on the scene, who will then twist your ideas out of recognition, twist them till they’ve turned your idea of liberty to fit into their idea of Order and Security.

Write ‘Democracy’ on your banners because the simple call for regular elections to chuck out corrupt leaders and elect new ones cannot be talked away, reinterpreted or redefined. It is a clear, simple, practical programme, and so likelier to be achieved.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe (2014)

Having read quite a lot about Rwanda and Congo, I felt I needed to read up on their neighbours, finding out about other African nations radiating out from the central core of the Congo. Trouble is that books about them are hard to find, for example, there don’t seem to be any books about Burundi’s civil war, 1993 to 2005. Either that, or the existing books are heavy academic works, often collections of essays, which weigh in at £30 or £40 and can’t be found second hand. Reading between the lines, no-one in Britain cares enough about these countries to write, publish or read books about them.

Daniel Metcalfe’s travelogue was one of the few paperbacks I could find about Angola and seemed like an affordable way of finding out about the recent history and current shape of Angola, Congo’s large nation to the south, and one of the participants in the Great War of Africa. I didn’t really take to the personality created in the text and found it a grim read whose occasional attempts at humour didn’t come off. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it as giving a very good overview of Angolan history, along with first hand accounts of the tremendous disparity between the oil super-rich and the majority of the population which remains dirt poor, and for the vivid descriptions of his excursions into the (generally very unattractive) interior. The net effect of the book is to make Angola sound like an awful place.

Angola historical overview

Angola is the seventh largest country in Africa (Wikipedia). It was first reached by Portuguese sailors in 1484 and the current capital city, São Paulo de Loanda (Luanda), was founded in 1575. (It was conquered by the Dutch in 1640 and briefly ruled by them till 1648, when the Portuguese resumed control.)

The Portuguese didn’t penetrate far inland, instead creating a series of coastal ports and trading entrepots. The main commodity was Africans as Angola became one of the main locations of the transatlantic slave trade, which was well established by 1600, with around 10,000 slaves a year transported. Most of them went to Portugal’s other vast colony, Brazil, a thousand miles across the stormy Atlantic.

Throughout the 18th century Portugal slowly conquered various tribes and kingdoms in the territory they claimed, and pulled natives into the global economy, forcing them to produce raw materials such foodstuffs and rubber. Brazil won its independence in 1822 and Portugal abolished the slave trade in 1836, illicit trading being policed by the anti-slavery Royal Navy. But generally Portugal still only had a very thin, coastal presence.

It was only at the time of the Berlin Congress of 1885 and the late nineteenth century Scramble for Africa that the Portuguese made sustained attempts to penetrate further inland, to explore, conquer and claim the territory of what was to become the modern territory of Angola.

Part and parcel of this late 19th century conquest was the widespread imposition of forced labour on the hapless natives, hard forced labour under the compulsion of the whip, to turn out agricultural goods to be shipped back to the motherland. (It was a Brit, Henry Woodd Nevinson, who exposed the extent of the exploitation in his book A Modern Slavery, published in 1908, the year King Leopold was forced to hand over his barbaric rule in the Congo over to the Belgium state.)

Soon afterwards Portugal entered a period of political turmoil triggered by a coup in 1910 which overthrew the Portuguese monarchy (the same year, as it happens, as the Mexican Revolution) to establish what became known as the First Republic. One of the republic’s many liberal reforms was ending forced labour in the colonies.

However, the First Republic suffered from chronic instability and was overthrown in 1926 with the advent of António de Oliveira Salazar, who established the so-called Estado Novo in the 1930s. This new regime came to be known as the Second Republic as Salazar established an authoritarian corporatist state in Portugal. As part of the ‘return to order’ the New Order reimposed brutal forced labour in its colonies.

Portugal stayed neutral throughout the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War while millions of Angolan natives slaved to produce agricultural products for Portuguese consumers and profits for Portuguese companies. Appalling conditions led to a high death rate among workers and a scandalously high infant mortality rate of 60%. Critics wrote reports calling for change in the 1940s and 50s but were ignored or imprisoned.

A workers’ protest starting in a cotton company in 1961 led to widespread rebellion across Angola which was suppressed with much bloodshed (p.114). This and the uprising of Bakongo in northern Angola are now seen as marking the start of the Portuguese Colonial War, which lasted from 1961 to 1974 and involved not just Angola but Portugal’s other colonies in Africa, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

The wars were as ruinous and futile as the Vietnam War and ended in the full independence of the three African countries involved, after elements in Portugal’s own army overthrew the authoritarian civilian government on 25 April 1974 in what came to be known as the Carnation Revolution (pages 71 and 135).

There was a year delay while the new regime established itself and while peace talks to end the colonial wars dragged on. The Alvor Agreement of January 1975 called for general elections and set the country’s independence date for 11 November 1975. Hooray!

Except that the country was almost immediately plunged into a civil war between the three main anti-colonial guerrilla movements: the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

The FNLA were eliminated in the first year but the conflict between the other two refused to be settled and dragged on for decades, becoming one of the leading proxy wars between the Cold War adversaries, the USA and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets and Cuba backing the communist MPLA government and the Americans funding and supplying the anti-communist UNITA.

UNITA developed some bases inside Zaire, to Angola’s north, with the support of Joseph Mobutu, Zaire’s western-backed dictator, but were mostly based in the south, enjoying support from the apartheid South African regime which was funneled through the state immediately south of Angola, Namibia, itself a colony of South Africa which was experiencing its own war of independence. (Namibia won independence from South Africa in March 1990.)

This being Africa there was also a strong tribal element in the civil war. The MPLA was primarily an urban-based movement in Luanda and its surrounding area and was largely composed of Mbundu people. UNITA was a predominantly rural movement mainly composed of Ovimbundu people from the Central highlands who make up about a third of the population (pages 123 and 133). Obviously there was overlap and complexities. There are many more tribal groupings in the country and allegiances and membership shifted and complexified over time.

The Angolan civil war raged from 1975 to 2002, 27 years of massacre and destruction which not only left an estimated 800,000 dead, but displaced over 4 million people and devastated the country’s infrastructure, leaving it one of the poorest in the world. In 2003 the UN estimated that 80% of Angolans lacked access to basic medical care, 60% lacked access to water, and 30% of Angolan children would die before the age of five, with an overall national life expectancy of less than 40 years of age. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line (p.70).

Whole families sat and begged on the rubbish-strewn streets [of Luanda] that stank of animal and human excrement. (p.49)

Metcalfe writes that the population of Luanda is 4 million, but a recent Guardian profile (see below) gives it as 7.8 million and that this number is set to double by 2030.

So from the start of the independence struggle in 1961 to the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola suffered 41 years of hurt and wasted lives.

Daniel Metcalfe

Daniel Metcalfe studied classics at Oxford then went to work in Iran and travelled around central Asia, material which he used for his first book, Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia (2009). This is his second book, and is actually not so much one journey as an account of three journeys across Angola undertaken in (I think) 2010, with follow-up visits.

Right from the start Metcalfe describes himself as a financial journalist and his bio says he’s written for the Economist, Guardian, Financial Times, Foreign Policy and the Literary Review. In other words, he initially appears just the kind of pukka chap that has formed the backbone of English travel writing for the last hundred years, all of whom went to top private schools (Evelyn Waugh [Sherborne], Wilfred Thesiger [Eton], Eric Newby [St Paul’s], Colin Thubron [Eton], Bruce Chatwin [Marlborough], Jan Morris [Lancing]). So I was expecting references to tiffin and cricket, or a trip to the little known Luanda polo club or some such. Posh boy eccentricity.

I was wrong. Metcalfe doesn’t have the de haut en bas tone of the classic English chap abroad; quite the opposite, he’s keen to rub in what a man of the people he is, travelling with only a grubby backpack in the cheap and chaotic minivans ordinary Angolans use, cadging a night’s kip on the sofas or packed beds of all sorts of random acquaintances, and having at least two severe bouts of food poisoning.

But with the thought of the Great Tradition of English Travel Writing in mind I couldn’t help being struck by a sense of the text’s belatedness. What I mean is that earlier travel writers described to their readers distant and exotic lands a) which none of the readers had travelled to or knew much if anything about and b) which were largely ‘unspoilt’.

Metcalfe’s book arrives in the internet age when:

a) there is no ‘distance’ or ‘remoteness’ any more – any of us can Google articles about Angola and its history, geography, tourist features, festivals, national costume and so on and find out more or less everything contained in this book; and

b) Angola is definitely ‘spoilt’, ruined in fact, but in two senses of the word: i) the cities, towns and landscape are still recovering from 40 years of destruction, for example tourists are advised not to wander anywhere off the beaten track because the country is still covered in millions of unexploded mines; and ii) every conceivable tourist attraction has been photographed, thoroughly documented, posted on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.

Metcalfe is therefore labouring in a genre which is almost obsolete. These days a travel writer has to work very hard to find anywhere that millions of Western tourists haven’t already trampled and photographed to death, and then has to work up in their prose a sense of enthusiasm for sights or experiences which bored locals experience every day and post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on.

The book’s structure

São Tomé and Príncipe then mainland Angola

In a bid to be quirky and original Metcalfe starts his journey by flying in to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, two archipelagos based round the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which are themselves about 87 miles apart and about 150 miles off the northwestern coast of Gabon. This far from the mainland, they were uninhabited till the Portuguese discovered them and populated them with Africans. The islands became an important entrepot for the slave trade as well as slave plantations producing coffee and cocoa. The islands became independent alongside Portugal’s other colonies in 1975 and form the second-smallest African state after the Seychelles.

Metcalfe visits the capital cities of each island and is shown round a rotting old plantation house. He learns about the semi-fictional slave king who led a Spartacus-style slave rebellion, ‘Rei Amador. He tells us it has the smallest economy in Africa, 80% of which is contributed by foreign donors ie it’s not really a viable state at all.

But the main story is that oil has been located near the islands, which are therefore teetering on the brink of becoming very wealthy, but there is general anxiety that, as with every other ‘petrostate’ (like in nearby Nigeria), the money will end up funneled into the hands of a tiny super-rich elite while the rest of the islanders continue living in poverty.

Then he flies to mainland Angola where he makes three journeys, carefully indicated on the book’s one and only map. A throwaway remark reveals he seems to have made at least two trips to the country: he tells us he first visited Angola in 2010, then two years later, in 2012 (p.83).

Anyway, it’s not really a journey into Angola but maybe five distinct journeys:

  • down the coast from Luanda to Benguela
  • from Benguela inland to Huambo and then to the remote town of Cuito Cuanavale
  • then, after returning to Luanda, from Luanda directly inland to Malange and then Saurimo
  • then north up the coast into Zaire province, to the heartland of the old Kongo kingdom, M’banza-Kongo, to the oil town of Soto
  • then flying into the enclave of Cabinda which is part of Angola but separated by the mouth of the river Congo which is inside the Democratic Republic of Congo

A well-ruined country

The bottom line about Angola seems to be that it has been ruined at least three times over. First by the brutality of Portuguese rule which enforced harsh forced labour on most of the population well into the 1960s, doing little to create a decent infrastructure such as roads and schools, or to foster an educated middle class. Second, by the 40 years of warfare, first for independence, then the terrible, futile and ruinous civil war.

But what really strikes Metcalfe is the ruin brought since the civil war ended by the arrival of OIL. The Angola he flies into is now a ‘petrostate’ with a huge gulf between the overclass of politicians and businessmen who have made themselves fabulously rich on the proceeds of oil, drive huge four by fours, live in gated mansions, stay in gleaming hotels – and the great majority of the population (of 33 million) who scrape a living off the land (periodically stepping on one of the millions of abandoned landmines) or make a living by working the utterly corrupt life of the cities. Thus despite the billions of dollars pouring into the treasury from oil revenue, Angolan life expectancy is among the lowest in the world, while infant mortality is among the highest. A third of the population can’t read or write.

José Eduardo dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA, once, back in the olden days, a ‘Marxist’ party, was Angola’s president for almost four decades. During the oil boom his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, was ‘awarded’ numerous lucrative contracts, thus becoming Africa’s richest woman. She is nicknamed ‘the Princess’ and at the time this book was written, was said to be a billionaire. So much for Marxism. Interestingly, she attended the elite fee-paying St Paul’s School for Girls in London before going on to become a billionaire.

London, where you can launder your drug or organised crime money through any number of willing banks, invest in shiny new riverfront developments, pick up some multi-million dollar artworks for your portfolio, and drop in to see your son or daughter being educated at one of its elite private schools. Convenient for oligarchs and kleptocrats from all nations.

Angola is a country divided between a small, super-rich, oil-rich elite, and the rest which helps to explain why everything is diabolically expensive, even the most basic food and drink. Luanda is routinely voted the most expensive capital city in the world (p.45). This is apparently because the agricultural sector is in such a state that almost everything has to be expensively imported. Even the most basic hotels and restaurants are beyond his budget. This isn’t a tropical paradise where you lounge in cheap cafes enjoying the streetlife. Luanda is a city where he trudges along busy with his backpack while shiny four by fours roar past on their way to hotels, cocktail bars and restaurants which are wildly beyond his reach.

Author’s persona

I felt vulnerable, exposed and ill equipped. (p.44)

Right from the start Metcalfe presents himself as a down-at-heel traveller with a backpack, ‘an unaffiliated writer’ (p.68), himself slightly confused about his motives for going, blessed with some contacts but relying on wit to busk a lot of the journey.

This pose would have been cool in the 1960s or 70s but in the age of the internet and modern, luxury, all-expenses-paid travel journalism, it comes over as a bit forced and contrived. I did the backpacking thing back in the day. In the 1970s I hitch-hiked round Europe and then round America because I was 18 and genuinely didn’t have any money or ‘contacts.

But it seems to me that worldview, that cultural possibility, has gone. A few short years later friends with their first jobs in the City were flying Club Class to New York or Sydney. In the 1990s the barely employed could afford to fly to Ibiza or Phuket. Hitching with a backpack was no longer at the cutting edge of anything. As airplane tickets and travel costs, generally, plummeted in the 1980s and 90s, ‘roughing it’ became a quaint throwback to a simpler age.

And as the internet has given access to every hotel and every restaurant and almost every person anywhere in the world, there’s no excuse not to have rung ahead, booked and organised everything.

I arrived at Saurimo at midnight, with not a clue where to stay. (p.225)

For a journalist who’s written for the Financial Times and the Economist, who mentions elsewhere that he looked up contacts and had names and addresses of businesspeople, NGOs, charities and various other contacts before he left London, to reduce himself to this impoverished state seemed a bit contrived.

It’s a running gag that Metcalfe’s backpack gets put on the wrong plane and flown to the other side of the world by mistake and it takes a week or so for it to be returned to Luanda airport for him to collect. In another age, and in another writer’s hands, this might be funny, but here it comes over as pathetic.

On not one but two occasions he manages to get food poisoning – once from eating the in-flight sandwich on the plane from Sao Tome to Luanda, once from eating prawns at an all-day party in Luanda – and we are treated to descriptions of him lying on a sofa moaning for days on end punctuated by sudden dashes to the shared toilet. Possibly this is meant to be comic but it comes over as squalid.

Because he can’t afford to stay in the ruinously expensive hotels, he cadges beds for the night on the sofas of strangers. As I say, in another age and in the hands of a more stylish writer, this might come over as cool or funny, but in this account it comes over as shabby, and wilful, a choice to do things the most difficult, dirty and sordid way. The impatient reader thinks, ‘Enough with the backpacker chic, already. You should have just negotiated a better advance from your publishers or with the FT Travel section or with any number of upmarket travel mags. Then you could have stayed in all those gleaming hotels and we wouldn’t have had to read about you roughing it on the sofas of hospitable Luandans who barely know you.’

When Metcalfe sticks to the fact he is very interesting indeed. He gives solidly researched, thorough and authoritative accounts of a wide range of historical issues from the first founding of the country, the slave trade, the ups and downs of 20th century Portugal. He is especially good on the history of the long bloody civil war, which he cuts up into passages which are deployed throughout the book at appropriate moments or in the relevant towns where key battles occurred.

A good example is his trip to the remote town of Cuito Canavale in the south-east of the country, where a 6 month long ‘battle‘ brought together all the combatants in the war for a confrontation whose ending can now, in retrospect, be seen as a turning point not only in the Angolan war but for the wider region (leading Cuba to withdraw its forces and South Africa to grant Namibia its independence).

His encounters with numerous people like businessmen and entrepreneurs, staff at NGOs like the HALO mine-clearing charity or Save The Children, passengers on numerous coaches, cafe owners and academics, geologists and ‘oilies’, street rappers and hawkers, manic minibus drivers and drunk taxi drivers, miserable bar owners and fierce museum keepers, Congo kings and holy men, each shed factual information on Angola’s past and present and are uniformly interesting.

But when he tells anecdotes about the travelling itself, they come over as strangely limp and dead. This is a really good factual primer for Angola (albeit ten years out of date) but when he writes about himself and his ‘adventures’, Metcalfe is a peculiarly charmless writer. Maybe part of this is because so many of the people he meets are depressed, defeated and downbeat and their negative mood affects the author and, thus, the reader, too. Angola does sound like a grim place.

  • We sat down, exhausted and somehow a bit sad. (p.211)
  • Living in Luanda seemed to drive him to despair. (p.215)
  • The king was playing his part but I couldn’t help feeling it was all a bit sad. (p.238)
  • I sat, by now stained and a bit depressed, pondering my destination, unaware of how bad the next eighteen hours would be. (p.286)

I wasn’t surprised when the tough son of the household where Metcalfe dosses in Luanda, Roque, reveals that he tried to commit suicide a few years previously (p.258). Somehow it’s that kind of book. There are flickering attempts at humour, but for the most part it’s pretty downbeat.

One of the saddest things about Angola is the decimation of the wildlife. Most of the wild mammals have been exterminated. He has a passage about the last few remnants of the once flourishing giant sable or palanca negra gigante and meets a worn-down conservationist who is trying to save it from extinction (pages 214 to 219). Despair and sadness. Metcalfe even travels through a region where there are no birds. The skies are empty. Everything is dead.

Anti-tourism

The book amply demonstrates why Angola is on no-one’s tourist trail.

There is really no tourism here. There is nothing to visit in Luanda, except for one or two clapped-out museums that are invariably closed. Walking is pretty much out, due to the threat of muggings, not to mention the polluted and pungent streets. There are no taxis… Excursions into the country are generally a no-go. The few eccentric tour leaders who do venture into the empty national parks explain that most of the game has been shot and eaten and numbers haven’t recovered yet. Hiking or bush-walking is definitely not an option, due to the millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance, most of them unmapped. And there are diseases, lots of them: yellow fever, dengue fever, sleeping sickness, typhoid, rabies and rampant falciparum malaria (that’s the worst kind)…

In short, Angola is an anti-tourist destination, and certainly no place for a backpacker. The only sane kind of visit is brief and on business, with someone to meet you, lodge you and cover your laughable expenses, before you are gratefully shuttled out on a non-Angolan liner. (p.46)

Then there are the police, ‘feared for their erratic behaviour and drunken extortion of passersby’ (p.47). And the absurd expense of everything. And the street crime. And the dedicated stonewalling obstructive Soviet-style bureaucracy you face every step of every process designed to wear down and crush any applicant for anything, as he finds out when he tries to get his visa extended or goes the labyrinthine process required to apply for an audience with king Muatchissengue Watembo of the Chokwe people (pages 232 to 239).

Eastern bloc-style obstructionism which is reflected in the hyper-suspicions of the police who stop him and demand to see his papers countless times, with or without then bullying him into giving them a bribe to let him go on his way (the Angolan police being ‘renowned for’ their demands for gasosa, p.230). Far from being relaxed and casual like Congo, Angola has overtones of being a police state. ‘Basic education, sanitation and health care are all awful’ (p.45).

Basically, Don’t go.

Highlights

Marxist capitalism

Metcalfe is good at explaining the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Marxist’ MPLA government. Even as it bought communist textbooks printed in Moscow and Havana to indoctrinate generations of schoolchildren against the capitalist enemy, it set up a massive corporation, Sonangol, which functioned on purely capitalist lines. When the first oil was found in the 1970s the franchise and money was handled by Sonangol who, over the following decades, developed into a huge corporation with interests in every aspect of the economy, almost a parallel economy in its own right.

At its heart was MPLA leader and president José Eduardo dos Santos, known as ‘the magician’ for his skill at keeping all political factions onside by the skilful doling out of contracts and backhanders. The elite surrounding him were known as ‘the Futunguistas’ after one of the many presidential palaces. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the MPLA made a smooth transition to capitalism because they had, in fact, for years, already been practising it (pages 72 to 75). These former Marxists now have their noses ‘deep in the trough’ of the purest capitalism. Mobutu only with oil. Transparency International ranks the country as almost bottom of the league table of corruption.

The ruling class of Angola has misplaced, disappeared, embezzled and creamed off tens of billions of dollars for themselves, leaving most of their compatriots in abject poverty. Why on earth should Western governments give them loans and Western aid agencies step in to treat the poor and ill when more than enough money exists in the government system but Angola’s leadership refuses to use it for good, preferring to loot their own country?

Slavery and degredados

He gives a good brief history of the slave trade, pages 100 to 106. The academic he interviews, Fernando Gamboa, makes the familiar point that slavery was already a well-established practice among African tribes before the Europeans arrived, but they massively increased its scale and ‘efficiency’ as a business (p.198).

I was more intrigued to learn that a) Angola’s second city, Benguela, was founded in 1615 in totally unsuitable location near a swamp which resulted in the earliest settlers dying like flies (very like the early English settlements in Virginia at the same period); and b) that, like Australia, it was forcibly settled by transported convicts or degredados. Unlike the convicts Britain sent to Australia, who were often guilty of relatively minor offences such as stealing a loaf of bread, these degredados were hard core villains, mostly murderers. Being hard core urban villains they were unsuited to agriculture but took to the slave trade like ducks to water, and also ensured the city had a ‘hellish reputation well into the nineteenth century’ (p.100).

The Salazar regime (1932 to 1968)

What comes over about Salazar’s Estado Novo regime is its dusty, down-at-heel backwardness, its narrow-minded closedness, its petty bureaucracy and inefficiency. Visiting diplomats, especially Americans, thought he lived in a parallel universe. This helps to explain his response to the rebellions of 1961 which was total refusal to accept reality, negotiate or relinquish the colonies, and instead his insistence on fighting on to the bitter end which meant that, long after Europe’s other imperial nations had bitten the bullet and given their colonies independence, Portugal continued fighting its bitter wars to retain them (pages 114 to 118).

White flight

As the scale of the civil war became clear, between 1975 and 1976 pretty much the entire white population of about 300,000 left, flying back to Portugal in what Metcalfe refers to as ‘the great airlift’ (p.124). That included all the administrators, civil servants, the police, engineers, designers, builders, architects, managers of the education and health systems, doctors and teachers, everyone who ran everything left the relatively unskilled, untrained Angolans to figure out how to run a modern country in the middle of a brutal civil war. The result: services ceased to function, education and health ceased, ministries shut down, the rubbish piled up in the streets, no-one knew what to do (pages 72 and 136).

The irony is that once the civil war had ended and the oil boom began in the Noughties, lots of Portuguese flocked back to the country for its boomtown opportunities and, by a spooky coincidence, there are, once again, about 300,000 expatriate Portuguese in Angola.

Sex trade

Oxfam’s regional director Gabriel de Barros explains how girls as young as 12 are traded by families to rich men in return for financial support, the resulting rise in teen pregnancies, STDs and AIDS (pages 108 to 111).

Huambo

Originally named Nova Lisboa, Huambo is the capital of the fertile highlands and was beautifully laid out by Portuguese planners to become the new centre of their empire in the 1920s and 30s. Unfortunately, it then became an epicentre of the civil war, the landscape around ravaged by war, littered with mines, and the town fought over again and again, climaxing in a 55-day-long siege in 1993 which eviscerated it. The government enforced a press blackout and in 1993 international journalists were busy in Somalia and Yugoslavia so the world never got to hear about it.

Landmines

The countryside is littered with millions of mines, anywhere between 6 and 20 million, no-one knows. Never stray off the path, don’t climb rocks or walk round a bridge. Any prominent or beautiful natural feature was targeted. For the foreseeable future they must all remain off limits (p.124).

Queen Njinga

An extended passage giving the life of the remarkable Nzingha Mbande (1583 to 1663) who rose to be Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in present-day northern Angola. She fought for 30 years to maintain the independence of her kingdoms against the encroaching Portuguese and to later generations became a symbol of resistance. The most notable things to emerge from the account are that she supported the slave trade, but insisted it be carried out according to the old customs; and the stories that she dressed as a man, insisted on being called a man, dressed her guard of women as men, and made her many male lovers dress as women if, that is, these later stories are true (pages 198 to 206).

Chockwe art

Metcalfe visits Chockwe country and even manages a (bizarre) audience with the old but still revered Chockwe king. The Chokwe people once ran an empire which covered parts of modern-day Angola, southwestern Congo and northwestern parts of Zambia. There are about 1.3 million people living across that territory. The Chockwe are famous for their sculpture art, which fetches high prices in the West.

Wooden statuette of a Chockwe princess

The role of Cuba in the civil war 1975 to 2000

Castro’s communist Cuba saved the Marxist MPLA government. In 1975 as Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA took more and more territory and advanced on the capital, Cuba flew in thousands of soldiers who stabilised the situation then reversed UNITA’s advance. Cuba’s involvement in Angola was deep and long. Between 1975 and 1988 over 300,000 Cubans served in Angola (p.212). Rejected in most of South America, snubbed by the North Vietnamese, unable to get a purchase in Mobutu’s Congo, Angola provided an opportunity for Castro to dream of spreading his revolution around the developing world. Now all that sacrifice seems utterly pointless. You could say that the 300,000 Cubans who fought to keep the MPLA in power ended up helping Isabel dos Santos to become the richest woman in Africa. Thus, as Shakespeare put it, does the whirligig of Time bring in his revenges.

The last phase

The last phase of the civil war from 1999 to 2002 was the most brutal. Metcalfe dwells on the character of the larger-than-life, brutal, charming, paranoid UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi. Like president Habyarimana of Rwanda, like Mobutu and Kabila of Zaire and the Congo, Savimbi genuinely believed in black magic, spirits and witches.

By the 1990s there were frequent burnings of dissidents and accusations of witchcraft in UNITA areas. In one case, Savimbi himself ‘discovered’ a woman spying on him by flying over his house at night. Suspected women and children would be dragged to a stadium and set alight. Anyone who dared to speak against o mais velho risked execution, including any woman who refused his advances. (p.246)

Lovely to see the old traditions being kept alive. Jeane Kirkpatrick, America’s representative to the United Nations, called Savimbi ‘one of the authentic heroes of our time.’ Hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants were terrorised by UNITA, press-ganged into working as porters, cooks or prostitutes. The MPLA government rounded up entire regions and confined them in camps. In the final months of the war as many as 4 million people were displaced, a third of the entire population.

M’banza Kongo

On his third journey, Metcalfe cadges a lift north in a battered Land Rover with the staff from a Save The Children refuge in the town of M’banza Kongo in the north-west of Angola. Back in the 1480s when the Portuguese discovered the river, the Kongo empire stretched for hundreds of miles north and south of the river mouth and far inland. Metcalfe retells the sorry saga of how initial optimism on both sides of the cultural contact quickly deteriorated as the Portuguese realised the potential of the Kongo people as slaves. In Metcalfe’s account it was the discovery of Brazil in 1500 and the quick realisation that it had great potential for sugar plantations but lacked manpower, which transformed the situation.

500 years later Metcalfe visits the homes and refuges in M’banza Kongo which house the large number of children who are thrown out of their families every year for being evil spirits. Belief in witchcraft, spirits, kindoki (a kind of witchcraft or possession by evil spirits) and the power of fetishes is universal and when any ill luck befalls a family its most vulnerable members – children and to a lesser extent the elderly – are blamed.

Update

Metcalf’s book was published in 2013. Apparently, since then, some of the gloss has gone off the oil boom so that the planes and top hotels are no longer as busy as they were. But the structural divide between super-rich elite and everyone else remains, as evidenced in this photo essay published in the Guardian.

MCK

Protest song by anti-government rapper MCK who Metcalfe interviews (pages 83 to 88).

Portuguese terms

Recurring words and ideas include:

  • assimiliado = African who, according to the Portuguese colonial system, had reached an approved level of civilisation; comparable to the évolués in francophone colonies
  • bom dia = good morning
  • candongueiro = mini bus
  • confusão = a metaphysical state of chaos and confusion before which mere humans are helpless
  • contratado = Portuguese form of forced labour
  • empregada = home help /servant
  • feitiço = fetish or the spell is controls
  • garimpeiro = unofficial diamond miner
  • mestiço = mixed race
  • musseques = shanty town
  • pula = slang for white person
  • roça = plantation-type farm run on forced labour
  • soba = official

Fluffs

The book is generally well proof-read and typeset, but I did spot a couple of errors which humorously point towards a new use of language:

  • As she flocked cigarette ash out of the window… (p.27)
  • I felt huge a sense of excitement. (p.54)
  • There are railroads totally some ten thousand miles. (p.124)
  • They grew rich on commerce between the Zanzibar and the Atlantic… (p.229)
  • A strange period ensued when neither war nor peace reined… (p.243)

The title of the book is explained on page 144.


Credit

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe was published by Hutchinson books in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Arrow Books paperback edition.

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Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff (2003)

Nobody likes empires but there are some problems for which there are only imperial solutions. (p.11)

Nations sometimes fail, and when they do only outside help – imperial help – can get them back on their feet. (p.106)

A bit of biography

In the 1990s Ignatieff managed to combine being a tenured academic, a journalist making extensive foreign trips, and a TV presenter. Without planning it, Ignatieff fell into a rhythm of publishing every 2 or 3 years short books chronicling the unfolding of the failed states he visited, and the chaos which engulfed some countries after the end of the Cold War.

These short but engaging studies build up into a series of snapshots of the new world disorder unfolding through the 1990s and into the post 9/11 era, mixed with profound meditations on the morality of international affairs and humanitarian intervention:

  • Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism (1994)
  • Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (1997)
  • Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (2000)
  • Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (2003)
  • The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (2004)
  • The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (2017)

Ignatieff’s disappearance from British TV and radio around 2000 is explained by the fact that he moved  from London to America to take up a post at Harvard. The gap in the sequence of books listed above is explained by the fact that in 2005 he was persuaded to stand as an MP in the Canadian parliament, that in 2006 was made deputy leader of the Canadian Liberal Party and in 2009 became Liberal Party leader. Under his leadership the Liberals lost badly in the election of 2011 and Ignatieff quit as party leader. He went back to teaching at university, in betweentimes undertaking extended trips to eight non-Western nations which form the basis of his most recent book, The Ordinary Virtues published in 2017.

Empire Lite: Introduction

Three of the four chapters in this book started out as magazine articles published in 2002, so very soon after the seismic shock of 9/11. The premise of the book as a whole is that America is an empire which refuses to acknowledge the fact.

The Americans have had an empire since Teddy Roosevelt, yet persist in believing they do not. (p.1)

But America is not like any previous empire, it doesn’t have direct control of colonies, it is an ’empire lite’, which Ignatieff defines as:

hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risk of daily policing. (p.2)

Nonetheless, America is the only global superpower, spends a fortune on an awesome array of military weapons and resources, and uses these ‘to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests’ (p.2). Imperial activities.

In this book Ignatieff sets out to look at the power and, in particular, the limits of America’s informal empire by looking at three locations he knows well and has covered in previous books, in former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Previously he has covered states collapsing into anarchy and attempts to bring peace, now he moves on. This book:

deals with the imperial struggle to impose order once intervention has taken place. (p.vii)

It focuses on the dilemma that many states in the modern world are failed or failing and some kind of intervention is emphatically required – and yet intervention is dogged with problems, notably:

  • the practical limitations of what can be achieved
  • the tension between what the intervening power (almost always America) wants to achieve, and the wishes of the local population

After 9/11

This book was written during the year following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, after George Bush had declared a ‘War on Terror’, and just as America was limbering up to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein on the controversial pretext of confiscating his weapons of mass destruction. This book was completed and sent to the publishers in January 2003 and the invasion of Iraq began on 20 March 2003.

In other words it was conceived and written in a very different climate of opinion than his pre-9/11 works and 9/11 dominates its thinking. Ignatieff says ‘the barbarians’ have attacked the imperial capital and now they are being punished.

And yet he warns that the ‘War on Terror’ may turn into a campaign without end. He quotes Edward Gibbon who, in his history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, attributes the fall to what is nowadays called ‘overstretch’, trying to extend imperial control to regions beyond its natural borders. The Americans cannot control outcomes everywhere. This book sets out to examine the ragged edges where American hegemony reaches its limits.

Ignatieff says the terrorists who attacked on 9/11 co-opted grievances and the rhetoric of Islam into an unabashed act of violence. Violence first, cause later. What is worrying is the huge wave of support they garnered in parts of the Islamic world which feels it has been oppressed and humiliated for generations. It’s not just the obvious example of the Palestinians, oppressed by America’s client state Israel (Ignatieff mentions the pitiful inadequacy of the 1990 ‘peace treaty’ which set up the Palestinian Authority) but of dissident voices all across the Arab world.

9/11 highlighted the limitations of American control in Islamic states. America has poured billions of dollars into Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and yet Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the Pakistanis founded, trained and supervised the Taliban which was giving Al Qaeda hospitality at the time of the attacks. And, as we have seen just a month ago, the Taliban were to prove impossible to extirpate and have just retaken Afghanistan after 20 years of supposed ‘nation building’.

America may have unrivalled power but it has not been able to build stability wherever it wants on its own terms. (p.10)

Problems of empire

Ignatieff bubbles over with ideas and insights. I was struck by his idea that the central problem of empires is deciding which of the many demands for the exercise of its power, it should respond to. This is a fascinating insight to apply to the history of the British Empire, which was a continual one of never having enough resources to properly deal with the endless flare-ups and problems in the numerous countries it claimed to manage. Eventually it became too expensive and too complicated for a country brought to its knees by two world wars, and we walked away. The mystery is how we hung on for so long.

Now the Americans face the same problem. Ignatieff interprets the crisis in Afghanistan as a result of the way the Americans spent ten years lavishly funding and supporting the anti-Soviet resistance (in reality a congeries of regional tribal groupings which we gave the blanket name the mujihadeen). Then, when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, so did the Americans; walking away and letting the highly-armed tribal groups collapse into prolonged civil war, out of which emerged the extremist Taliban who were to give shelter and succour to al-Qaeda ten years later.

Another way of putting this is that America hoped, with the end of the Cold War, to benefit from a ‘peace dividend’: to reduce its armed forces, withdraw from various strategic parts of the world, job done. On the contrary, as Ignatieff’s previous books have shown, imperial withdrawal from countries around the world did not lead to an outburst of peace, love and understanding but to the complete or partial collapse of many states and the emergence of new kinds of conflict, of ethnic wars, ‘ragged wars’, chaotic wars, and widespread destabilisation.

In these zones of chaos have flourished enemies of the West, and of America in particular and now, in 2002, as Ignatieff was writing these pieces, American rulers have to make some very difficult decisions about where to intervene and how much to intervene, and for how long.

Chapter 1. The Bridge Builder

The bridge in question is the bridge over the River Neretva in the centre of the town of Mostar in southern Bosnia. The town actually takes its name from the bridge, which is called the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Serbo-Croat and the bridge-keepers, known as mostari, who guarded it.

The Stari Most was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most visited landmarks, and is considered an exemplary piece of Islamic architecture. It was erected in 1566 on the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin.

During the Yugoslav civil wars Mostar suffered two distinct conflicts: after Bosnia-Herzogovina declared independence in April 1992 the (mostly Serb) Yugoslav Army went in to try and crush its independence. They were opposed by militias set up from both the Croat and Bosnian Muslim population (which both made up about a third of the city’s population). In June 1992 the Croat-Bosniak forces successfully attacked the besieging Yugoslav Army and forced them to withdraw. Lots of shelling and shooting resulted in the town’s historic buildings getting badly knocked about, but not the bridge.

The bridge was destroyed as part of the second conflict, for after jointly seeing off the Serbs, tension  then grew between the Croats and Bosniaks. In October Croats declared the independence of a small enclave which they called ‘the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’, supported by neighbouring Croatia and this triggered the Croat–Bosniak War which lasted from 18 October 1992 to 23 February 1994.

The Old Bridge was destroyed by Croatian forces on November 9, 1993 during a stand-off between opposing forces on each side of the river. It’s said that more than 60 shells hit the bridge before it collapsed. The collapse of the bridge consolidated the complete ethnic compartmentalisation of the city into Croat west bank and Muslim east bank.

What’s amazing is the enmity that lingered on after the ‘end’ of this small war. The town actually had six bridges and some of the others survived but adult men were forbidden from crossing over to ‘the other’s side. Ignatieff tells the story of a Muslim lad who drove over one of the surviving bridges to visit a Croatian girl he’d known before the division. On the way back he was shot in the back of the head by the Croat checkpoint guards and his car slowed to a halt half way across the bridge as he died (p.33). To understand the Yugoslav catastrophe you have to get inside the minds of the soldiers who did that.

While UN peacekeepers eventually moved in to supervise the fragile peace, the European Union considered how to repair the devastated infrastructure all across the former Yugoslav states. Ignatieff meets the man charged with rebuilding the famous Mostar bridge, a French architect named Gille Pequeux. Ignatieff spends time with him, learning how the Frenchman is doggedly studying whatever architects plans still survive, analysing the ancient techniques the Ottomans used to cut the stone and carve runnels along the inward-facing sides which were then filled with molten lead to tie them together, in every way trying to make the reconstruction as authentic as possible.

Ignatieff drolly points out that the president of Turkey offered to fund the rebuilding the bridge as a symbol of Turkey’s long-term presence/contribution/imperial occupation of this part of Europe. The EU politely turned down the offer and insisted it was done by one of their own. So it is drily ironic that the much-lauded rebirth of this ‘symbol of multiculturalism’ entailed a diplomatic rebuff of an actual gesture of multiculturalism (p.36).

But rebuilding bridges and houses and hospitals and mosques is easy. Reconciling the people who live and work in them is much harder. Ignatieff is blunt. The EU and America have spent over $6 billion ‘reconstructing’ Bosnia but it is still ruled by the crooks who rose to power during the wars and a big part of the aid money, like aid money anywhere, is routinely creamed off by corrupt leaders and administrators.

Leaders of the rival communities never meet and rarely talk. They only get together for the photo opportunities required to make a show of unity for the press and EU officials to ensure the all-important foreign aid cash keeps flowing.

For our part, the West is disillusioned. Real reconciliation has not taken place. Corruption is endemic. Some of the refugees have returned to their homes but for many ethnic cleansing achieved its goals. Many of the locals still hate each other.

And so Ignatieff points out that rebuilding the bridge is as important for the morale of the interventionist West as for the locals. We need it to prop up our delusions that opposite sides in a civil war can be reconciled. That our costly interventions are worthwhile.

This lovely essay rises to a poetic peroration:

The Western need for noble victims and happy endings suggests that we are more interested in ourselves than we are in the places, like Bosnia, that we take up as causes. This may be the imperial kernel at the heart of the humanitarian enterprise. For what is empire but the desire to imprint our values, civilisation and achievements on the souls, bodies and institutions of another people? Imperialism is a narcissistic enterprise, and narcissism is doomed to disillusion. Whatever other people want to be, they do not want to be forced to be us. It is an imperial mistake to suppose that we can change their hearts and minds. It is their memory, their trauma, not ours, and our intervention is not therapy. We can help them to rebuild the bridge. Whether they actually use it to heal their city is up to them. (p.43)

Beautiful rhythm to it, isn’t there? Lovely cadences. The flow of the prose beautifully embodies the flow of the thought which is both clear and logical but also emotive and compelling. Ignatieff writes like this everywhere: he is lucid, logical, but also stylish and evocative. He’s the complete package.

Chapter 2. The Humanitarian as Imperialist

Opens in 2000 with Ignatieff attending a press photo shoot given by UN representative in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, and a Spanish general, who have persuaded two local Kosovar politicians, one of them a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army nicknamed ‘the snake’, to accompany him to the site of an atrocity. In the night someone laid a landmine. This morning a van driving between two Serb villages ran over it, it detonated, killing two outright and blowing the legs off the one survivor. The two Kosovar politicians say the required words, about the need to change hearts and minds. Koucher delivers his patter. The photographers snap, the new crews record, then it is over and everyone jumps into their cars and speeds off.

Ignatieff accompanies them to a Serbian monastery. Father Sava, the head of the monastery has been chosen as a ‘moderate’ leader of the minority Serbian community left in Kosovo when the war ended in 1999. Attacks on Serbs are continuing on a daily basis. Kouchner and the Spaniard assure Father Sava they are doing everything they can. It doesn’t much matter since the simmering Serb community doesn’t believe either Sava or the UN. Not when members of their families are blown up or shot every day.

The international community is having to rebuild Kosovo from the ground up, rebuilding its entire infrastructure, economy, everything, making it ‘the most ambitious project the UN has ever undertaken’ (p.51).

Once again Ignatieff repeats that the West ‘want’s noble victims and doesn’t know how to cope when the victims turn on their former oppressors.

Bernard Kouchner

All this is by way of introduction to a long profile of Bernard Kouchner. Being Ignatieff, he sees Kouchner not so much as a person but as a walking embodiment of the way the entire doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has changed and evolved over thirty years.

Ignatieff says Kouchner came of age during the heady revolutionary days of Paris 1968. In a change-the-world spirit he volunteered to go serve as a doctor with the Red Cross in Biafra. However, he drastically disagreed with the Red Cross ideology of neutrality, non-intervention and non-reporting, removed his Red Cross armband and was among the founder members of the French organisation Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders. These guys are more prepared to call out aggressors and killers. Ignatieff considers the pros and cons of the two positions, Red Cross’s studied neutrality, Médecins’ engagement.

Ignatieff claims Kouchner also pioneered the involvement of the media in humanitarian aid, realising people need to be shocked out of their complacency by images of horror and starving children on their TVs. He has been involved in various publicity stunts which drew down a world of mockery from liberal commentators but do, generally, publicise his causes.

It is Kouchner, more than anyone else, who created the modern European relation between civic compassion, humanitarian action and the media. (p.61)

Kouchner parted from Médecins when the latter won the Nobel Prize in 1999. This is because Kouchner had moved on from thinking aid organisations should speak out about evil, murder, massacre, human-engineered famine and so on, but had progressed to a more assertive position – that humanitarian organisations needed to get involved in political attempts to combat evil.

Aid organisations talk about ‘civil society’ and the ‘humanitarian space’ but Ignatieff says Kouchner thought this was an illusion. Aid agencies are supported and enabled by nation states. More than that, some crises aren’t humanitarian crises at all, they are crimes. Thus Saddam Hussein attacking his Kurdish population, trying to exterminate it and driving it up into the mountains to starve to death wasn’t a ‘humanitarian crisis’, it was a crime against humanity. Situations like this don’t call for the discreet, neutral aid providing of the Red Cross; they must be opposed by force.

This led him to become deeply involved in French and then UN politics. In 1988 he became Secrétaire d’état for Humanitarian Action in 1988 in the Michel Rocard cabinet, then Minister of Health during Mitterrand’s presidency. He served in the European Parliament 1994 to 1997, chairing the Committee on Development and Cooperation. He became French Minister of Health 1997 to 1999 Lionel Jospin’s government, and then served as Minister of Health for a third time, 2001 to 2002.

Ignatieff says Kouchner’s positions, then, aren’t interesting conversation pieces, but have influenced French government action. Thus his position influenced the French decision to back the UN resolution to send a peace-keeping force into Bosnia, part of which was meant to protect Sarajevo and Srebrenica. This failed miserably, with the Serbs bombing Sarajevo for years, and rounding up and exterminating 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica under the noses of the 300-strong UN force.

The logic of this sequence of events is that only force can work against evil aggressors, and it was this thinking which finally led the Americans to intervene when they ordered air strikes against Serbian positions in defence of a Croat advance; and then the sustained bombing of Belgrade from March to June 1999 to persuade the government of Slobodan Milošević to stop the massacring of Albanian Kosovars.

So the appointment of Kouchner as UN Representative to Kosovo in 1999 was full of historical ironies and meanings. This was the man who had led humanitarian intervention away from the studied neutrality of the 1960s, through active calling-out towards ever-growing aggressive intervention against the bad guys. So it is the evolution of Kouchner’s theoretical positions which interests Ignatieff.

In this chapter he reiterates what are, by now, becoming familiar points. One is that the intervention is ‘imperial’ in a number of ways. First and foremost, imperialism means powerful states compelling populations in weaker ones to behave how the powerful ones want them to. But all this talk about reconciliation is far from disinterested altruism: the European nations want to sort out the Balkan issue and impose peace and reconciliation so as to remove a source of political instability which could (in an admittedly remote scenario) draw in either Russia or Turkey. More immediately, to cut off the influx of the Balkans’ most successful exports, which he drily lists as organised crime, drugs and sex slaves (p.60).

Second, as in his essay about Bosnia and Afghanistan and in The Warrior’s Honour, is that Ignatieff is very, very sceptical about the chances of anything like genuine reconciliation. The same ethnic groups are now at daggers’ drawn and will do everything they can to harm or kill members of the opposing groups. He claims that Kouchner was taken aback by the ferocity of the tribal hatred he encountered when he first arrived (p.63), and depicts Kouchner, when he’s not performing for the cameras, as an exhausted and disillusioned man.

As in the essay on Mostar, he asks why the victims should be obliged to conform to the Western stereotype of the noble-minded victim? In reality, the second they had the chance, the ‘victims’ have turned the tables and are carrying out a campaign of revenge killings and terrorist atrocities against the Serbs still stuck in north Kosovo who haven’t been able to flee to the safety of Serbia.

Ignatieff sees Kouchner as an imperial viceroy who has been parachuted in to try and rebuild the country and prepare it for ‘autonomy’. He calls it a ‘protectorate’ with a pretence of local autonomy but where rule actually stops with the imperial viceroy, as in the Raj, as in the British and French mandates in the Middle East between the wars. If that was ‘imperialism’, surely this is, too.

Once again, Ignatieff makes the point that maybe what Kosovo needs is not a moderately independent-minded Kouchner, but an utterly independent-minded General MacArthur, who was given a free hand to rule Japan as he saw fit for six years. Maybe what the Balkans need is not less imperialism, but a more naked, out and out, assertive imperialism. Do this, or else.

(In the event Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008. As of 4 September 2020, 112 UN states recognised its independence, with the notable exceptions of Russia and China.)

Chapter 3. Nation-building Lite

Max Weber said a state is an institution which exerts a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence over a given territory. Generally, this monopoly is channeled via the institutions of a professional police service and an army. In a Western nation the police are subject to an elected politician and their work feeds into an independent judiciary, while the army is trained and led by professionals.

In a failed state, weapons are everywhere and the use of violence is widely dispersed. Usually, after a period of anarchy, warlords emerge who control the application of violence, at least in their territories, but often only up to a point, and sometimes cannot control permanent low-level street violence.

The essence of nation-building is to get weapons out of circulation – out of the hands of warlords, paramilitaries, criminal gangs and punks on the street – and restore that monopoly of violence which is one definition of a functioning state; and in so doing to create a space in which non-violent politics, negotiation, discussion and compromise, can be encouraged. It may still be a violent and corrupt state but it is, at least, a starting point.

Ignatieff points out in The Warrior’s Honour that, in quite a few failed states round the world, this is now harder to do than ever before, because modern weapons are so cheap and easily available. Some societies have become soaked in guns and it’s hard to see a way back to unarmed civility.

Ignatieff gives specifics about the history of Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion, the West’s backing of the mujahideen who, once the Soviets left and the West walked away, degenerated into a civil war of regional warlords. But his interest, as always, is in the principles and theory behind it.

He repeats one of his central ideas which is that nation-building takes a long, long time, and gives a striking example. America’s own nation-building, starting with the Reconstruction after the civil war, arguably took an entire century, up until the civil rights legislation of 1964 finally abolished discrimination against Afro-Americans (p.85).

Reconstruction in Germany and Japan took about a decade, but in both the nation-builders were starting in states with well-defined borders, established (albeit corrupted) institutions, and ethnic homogeneity. The populations of both countries wanted to be reconstructed.

He makes the point that one of the secrets of success for an empire is the illusion of permanence, of longevity. As soon as you announce you’re leaving, all the vested interests rise up and jockey for power. This is vividly demonstrated by the absolute chaos into which Congo plunged at independence, as provinces seceded and new parties jockeyed for power using extra-political means i.e. guns and coups.

Ignatieff says the Americans have a poor track record on this issue, and a reputation for walking away from chaotic states when it suits them. This means local warlords realise they just have to mind their manners and bide their time. What Ignatieff didn’t know in 2002 is that the Americans would stay for an epic 20 years but, the same rule of permanence applies: as soon as Joe Biden announced they were leaving, people all across the country realised the Taliban would swarm back into power and began making arrangements accordingly, i.e. Afghan police, army and local governors defecting to them within days, so that the entire Afghan security apparatus melted away and the Taliban were in Kabul within a week.

Not so easy, running an empire, is it? Maybe the thousands of American academics who loftily criticise Britain’s chaotic withdrawal from Palestine or India will reflect on the cracking job their boys did in Afghanistan.

Ignatieff makes another snappy point: how can American Republican administrations, who are fanatically opposed to Big Government, find themselves spending tens of billions of dollars creating huge administrations in foreign countries? Easy. They get the Europeans to do it. The Americans are good at fighting (Ignatieff says that, in a sense, America is the last warlike nation in the West) so they handle the bombs and drones and special forces. The Europeans then move in with the peacekeeping police forces and the droves of humanitarian aid agencies, building schools, hospitals etc. Yin and yang.

Chapter 4. Conclusion: Empire and its Nemesis

He describes modern Western nation-building as ‘imperial’ because:

  • its essential purpose is to create stability in border zones essential to the security of the great powers
  • the entire project rests on the superior armed might of the West
  •  no matter how much ‘autonomy’ is given to local rulers, real power rests in Washington

In addition, he points out how all empires have to ration their interventions. It is a sage point, which sheds light on the British Empire. You have limited resources: which of the world’s endless trouble spots can you afford to address? Ignatieff points out the basic hypocrisy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ which is that it is only carried out in places which are convenient or important to the West. The West is never going to intervene in Chechnya or Crimea or Xinjiang because they are the preserves of other empires.

The new imperialism is not only lite it is impatient. The British gave themselves generations to prepare the populations of India for independence. The UN gives places like Kosovo or Afghanistan 3 years before they have to hold their first elections. Hurry up! This is costing us money!

No imperialists have ever been so impatient for quicker results. (p.115)

Why? The short attention span of the modern media, always hurrying on to the next story. (It took, by my calculation, about ten days from the American departure from Afghanistan being the biggest story in the whole world to being completely ignored and forgotten about.) And the election cycle in democracies. Whatever plans you put in place now, at the next election in a few years’ time the leader of the opposition party will be promising to bring our boys home and save everyone a shedload of money.

This conclusion takes its title from a reflection on the enduring force of nationalism. In the end the European empires were defeated by the indomitable force of the colonies’ nationalist movements. This was the lesson the Americans should have learned from Vietnam. It wasn’t their weapons which won the Viet Cong victory, it was their nationalist vehemence. Nationalism always trumps empire.

Nationalism will always prove to be the nemesis of any imperial nation-building project. (p.117)

Ignatieff didn’t know this when he wrote these lines, but they apply to the American invasion of Iraq. They overthrew a dictator and promised to bring peace and plenty, so were utterly unprepared for the violence of the forces that attacked them from all sides.

Thoughts

1. So Ignatieff’s message is that if liberal humanitarians really want to intervene to do good, they should really intervene: go in hard, defeat the bad guys, disarm them, force parties to the negotiating table, and run things themselves, setting up strong national institutions and teaching squabbling factions what democracy looks like in practice. And they have to do this for years, decades maybe, until the institutions and mindsets of civic society have been thoroughly inculcated. And only then leave. In other words, imperialism. Not the kind of imperialism which exploits the native populations and rips off their raw materials. An altruistic imperialism, a humanitarian imperialism. But imperialism all the same.

2. When Ignatieff devotes a chapter of The Warrior’s Honour to the growing sense of weariness and disillusion with humanitarian intervention, I suspected he was talking about himself. This book shows a further deterioration in his attitude; I mean, he has become markedly more cynical

Across the board hopes have been crushed, ideals have been compromised, ambitions have been stymied. Much of this may reflect the appalling history of the 1990s, but I also think some of it may be a projection of Ignatieff’s own growing disillusion.

You feel this downward trajectory when he says that Bernard Kouchner arrived in Kosovo in July ‘talking about European values, tolerance and multiculturalism’ but by Christmas this had been revised down to hopes for ‘coexistence’ (p.63). Kouchner simply hadn’t anticipated the hatred and the intransigence which he found in Kosovo. So many aid workers and proponents of humanitarian intervention don’t. In Blood and Belonging Ignatieff refers fairly respectfully to ‘the international community’. Eight years later he refers to it as:

what is laughingly referred to as the ‘international community’. (p.97)

He is particularly disillusioned with the international aid industry, which he sees as almost a scam, a locust swarm of very well-paid white Western graduates, who fly in, can’t speak the language, pay over the odds for everything thus pricing the locals out of accommodation and food, stay hunkered down in their armoured enclaves, drive everywhere in arrogant white 4 by 4s, and cook up huge projects without consulting any of the locals. All the Afghans he talks to complain to Ignatieff about the NGOs’ arrogance and condescension. It is the colonialist attitude with email and shades. In this book he has taken to referring to the aid organisation community dismissively as the ‘internationals’.

In this book Ignatieff is as clever and incisive and thought-provoking as ever. But sometimes he sounds really tired.


Credit

Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff was published by Vintage in 2003. All references are to the 2003 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 2

‘What is more human than war?’
(Michel Ducraux, head of the Red Cross delegation in Kabul)

Chapter 3. The seductiveness of moral disgust

This rather pompous chapter title conceals something much more simple, which is: Don’t give up on trying to help the victims in disaster zones because you’ve become disgusted by the endless stories of brutality and barbarism. Or: avoid becoming disillusioned.

Ignatieff describes how, for the first four or so years after the collapse of communism, there was a lot of brave talk in Western diplomatic, academic and media circles about the ‘peace dividend’ and the ‘new world order’. Those years saw the international community energetically intervening in crisis situations around the world – overseeing elections in Cambodia, throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, creating a safe haven for the Kurds, attempts to end the civil war in Somalia, UN intervention in Bosnia.

There was hope that the huge budgets previously devoted to war would be redirected into foreign aid. But now, as he writes in 1998, the early 90s feel like a vanished era and he describes how that optimism lapsed under the impact of a series of failures and disasters, marked by the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide (pages 89 to 91).

So this chapter considers how to keep the cause of international humanitarian intervention alive, and how to make it more practical and effective.

I. On the road with Boutros Boutros-Ghali

The first half of the chapter is an account of a fascinating week Ignatieff spent as a member of the small press pack accompanying United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who held the position from January 1992 to December 1996). Boutros had had a big impact: when he took over the UN had 4,000 peacekeepers worldwide; three years later it had over 70,000.

Thursday 13 July 1995: on the plane heading south from Cairo. Srebrenica has fallen, the Dutch UN peacekeepers have been taken hostage, Muslim men have been separated from their women and driven off never to be seen again. Ignatieff cross questions Boutros who insists the UN has done as much as it could. If they had not been in Yugoslavia things would have been worse. They have set up refugee camps. But when it comes to intervening in actual conflict, the UN are negotiators and you have to wait till parties are ready to come to the negotiating table.

Friday 14 July 1995: Nayarubuye, Rwanda. The town where the inhabitants have decided to leave the dead from the genocide unburied as a memorial to the genocide. Fergal Keane is show round it in his book Season of Blood. Ignatieff says the UN force in Kigali could have done more. The genocidal militias were spurred on by Radio Milles Collines; the UN contingent could have shut it down. Machete-wielding gangs roamed the streets of Kigali; UN tanks could have stopped them. The reduced UN contingent did set up a safe haven at the soccer ground and protected the famous Hotel Rwanda, but then was forced to sit and watch three months of genocide. It was an epic fail by any standard. Now, one year later, key members of the genocidal regime are in the vast Hutu refugee camps in eastern Zaire, where they are being housed and fed by the same UN which failed to prevent the genocide.

Saturday 15 July 1995: Luanda, Angola. Boutros flies in to check on the ceasefire agreement between Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels and the government of Eduardo dos Santos. In the twenty year civil war half a million people died and an oil-rich country full of potential was turned into a wasteland. Now the UN tries to keep the peace in this ruined land.

The United Nations has become the West’s mercy mission to the flotsam of failed states left behind by the ebb tide of empire. (p.79)

Ignatieff notes that the UN has had to step in and administer failed or stricken states. He names Mozambique, El Salvador, Haiti, Namibia and Cambodia, to which we, in 2021, could add Iraq, Syria, Libya, let’s see what happens next in Afghanistan. After meeting with President dos Santos, Boutros and his entourage fly to the jungle base of the guerrilla leader Savimbi. The two men embrace. Diplomacy means dealing with murderers, that’s what it is.

Sunday 16 July 1995: Gbadolite, Zaire. Boutros, his team and the little pack of journalists which includes Ignatieff flies to the vast luxury jungle complex of President Mobutu. He keeps them waiting then arrives in a limo with entourage and charms everyone. Then smoothly promises Boutros he will not harm the Hutu refugees in their huge camps in eastern Congo. Three weeks later he breaks his promise and his troops start emptying the camps using whips and guns. [I’m not sure this is correct. All the other sources I’ve read claim that Mobutu supported and maintained the Hutu refugees. But maybe Ignatieff is referring to one event in what was a very confused situation, in the refugee camps, which went on for years.]

Monday 17 July 1995: Bujumbura, Burundi. Burundi is a kind of mirror image of Rwanda. It, also, is split in this great ethnic divide between Hutus and Tutsis, but instead of the Hutu majority in power (as was in the case in Rwanda, leading up to the genocide) the Tutsi minority have remained in power.

Forced by the ‘international community’ to hold genuine elections (as most third world countries were, after the end of the Cold War), in 1993 Burundi finally elected a Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, its first ever Hutu. His reforms antagonised soldiers in the Tutsi-dominated army and he was assassinated in a failed military coup in October 1993. This led to the Burundian civil war, in reality a series of massacres around the country, which dragged on for years and in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed. Ignatieff pays tribute to a remarkable man, which is worth recording:

To stop Burundi from disintegrating, the secretary-general appointed a special representative, Ahmed Ould Abdallah, an indefatigable fifty-five-year-old Mauritanian diplomat, who bears himself with the imperiousness of a Saharan chieftain. In April 1994, on the night that the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali airport, Abdallah went on radio and television to prevent false rumours from precipitating a bloodbath. He sat up all night with the army chief of staff, phoning the local commanders and ordering them to remain in barracks. Most observers credit Abdallah with saving Burundi from the genocidal frenzy that overtook Rwanda next door. (p.85)

Ignatieff describes Abdallah as being on the phone all the time to local politicians, instructing them to keep a lid on things. He, personally, goes out on the streets, meeting the leaders of militias in ethnically cleansed towns, telling them to curb the violence or they will all be swept away. It’s a portrait of remarkable bravery. As always Ignatieff is interested in the theory or principle behind events, and sees in Abdallah a form of ‘preventative diplomacy’.

Ignatieff sits in on the meeting Boutros chairs with the country’s political elite. Tutsis and Hutus sit on opposite side of the table and won’t look each other in the eye. One by one they retell their long stories of grievance and offence: the Tutsis did this to us; no, the Hutus did this first. It is the behaviour of five-year-olds in a playground. Boutros waits till the end, then harangues them, telling them they are grown-ups, they are politicians, and the art of politics is compromise. You talk, negotiate and compromise with people from the other side; you don’t try to exterminate them.

II. The limits of UN power

That evening in the hotel Ignatieff interviews Boutros. Doesn’t he ever get tired of all this? Doesn’t he yield to ‘The seductiveness of moral disgust’? (So that’s where the chapter title comes from.)

Boutros has an important message. He tells the leaders of all these screwed-up countries that the ‘international community is watching them’ and monitoring their behaviour, but he adds an important rider. The United Nations will not save them. He manages down their expectations. Lots of leaders think they can behave like petulant children and the UN will somehow fly in and rescue them from the consequences. But in reality the UN is much more powerless than it seems, tied to ‘mandates’ which are thrashed out by the Security Council. When even the most liberal power in the world, America, refused to let UN forces in Kigali intervene in the Rwandan genocide, then you realise how impotent it is.

In reality all the UN can do is try to steer opposing forces to the negotiating table. They are Relate for countries mired in civil conflict, but in order to change the forces in a country have to want to change. The UN can broker deals and then it can police what was agreed – but the conflicting parties have to agree to want to make a deal in the first place. Boutros gives the Israelis and Palestinians as an example. How long did it take to get them to the peace table?

III. Maybe we should be more imperialistic

Ignatieff describes how, by 1995, the euphoria and optimism which followed the collapse of communism has evaporated. He reflects that the problem of foreign intervention of the past 5 years had been too half-hearted. The West is hobbled by post-imperial guilt. We lob a few shells at the bad guys then withdraw, expecting things to get better, but by and large they only get worse. For such a card-carrying liberal, Ignatieff surprises the reader by asserting that maybe we need to be more imperial, more interventionist and more assertive.

What if General Schwartzkopf had been made the MacArthur of Iraq, toppling Saddam and given free rein to rebuild Iraq as MacArthur rebuilt Japan? What if America had responded to the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu with full throttle aggression, had defeated the warlords or dragged them to the negotiating table, and were now policing the UN-supervised reconstruction of the country? What if NATO had responded immediately to the Serbian uprising in Bosnia in 1992 with air strikes and an aggressive ground campaign, which had prevented the creation of new concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, the long agony of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica? (p.94)

The West maintains the arrogant assumption that we know best, and reserves the right to intervene where and when we see fit, but then always does so a) too late and b) half-heartedly, withdrawing whenever as soon as anyone gets shot or public interest wanes and moves onto the next disaster somewhere else.

IV. Disillusion and disgust

So now we get closer to the core of his argument. Ignatieff thinks he detects a new mood of disillusion throughout the diplomatic community which has spread to some of the aid workers. What’s the point? What’s the point applying sticking plasters to countries whose leaders are hell-bent on mass murder and social destruction? So this chapter amounts to Ignatieff wondering aloud whether the entire project of Western intervention has reached the end of its tether or needs to be rethought.

V. Ideologues of disillusion

Ignatieff describes this wave of disgust and disillusion as if it’s a ride washing over the Western world and goes on to mention two of its leading thinkers or idealogues (definition: ‘Someone who espouses a particular ideology, particularly a political one.’), namely Samuel Huntingdon and Robert Kaplan

Samuel Huntingdon

Samuel Huntingdon (1927 to 2008) was an American political scientist, adviser, and academic who spent over half a century teaching at political science at Harvard University, as well as spells advising the governments of South Africa and Brazil. He became famous among the chattering classes for his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This predicted that, with the end of communism, global conflict would in future be caused by clashes between ‘cultural’ forces, by which he religious and ethnic blocs. He predicted that the Western world would find its most severe antagonist in the Islamic world. Most liberals pooh-poohed this idea as reactionary until 9/11 turned the world upside-down and gave his ideas renewed popularity.

Huntingdon took a relativistic view of human rights and democracy, seeing them as achievements of Western civilisation were not necessarily appropriate to other cultures. Therefore foisting our values on other countries and cultures was not only morally wrong but a practical mistake.

Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.

Ignatieff was writing very soon after Huntingdon’s book was published and takes strong issue with it. Huntingdon appears to be saying this kind of civilisational clash is fated and predestined whereas Ignatieff very strongly disagreed. For Ignatieff, the whole point of Yugoslavia and Rwanda is not that they were fated, but that specific rulers chose to whip up ethnic nationalism in order to stay in power. Civic nationalism was a realistic alternative for these countries but specific leaders chose to neglect that path. At the opening of chapter 2 Ignatieff ridicules Huntingdon’s idea that the war in Croatia was a ‘clash of civilisations’ by reducing it to absurdity, saying that Huntingdon’s theory implies that there is some kind of invisible line between the farmhouse full of Serbs that he (Ignatieff) is holed up in and the farmhouse full of Croats 250 yards away, and that this represents the borderline ‘between civilisations’.

Robert Kaplan

In February 1994 i.e. only a year or so before Ignatieff began writing his book, American journalist Robert D. Kaplan published an article in the Atlantic Monthly titled ‘The Coming Anarchy’. He had been on a tour of West African states and had seen for himself the anarchy and chaos in many of them (Liberia, Sierra Leone) and the example of the failed state Somalia on the opposite coast.

Kaplan predicted that, with the end of the Cold War, conflict of ideology would be replaced by conflicts caused by multiple overlapping causes, a congeries of causes which would be difficult to disentangle and impossible to control (p.98).

  • environmental deterioration would bring ever-increasing conflict over resources
  • impoverished rural populations would migrate to cities, creating huge unstable urban areas liable to splinter along ethnic or cultural lines
  • cultural or ethnic groupings would supersede political borders, creating regions of conflict which cross traditional borders
  • the post-modern world would be a confusion of cross-cutting identities, systems and allegiances

Ignatieff summarises Kaplan’s view as predicting that future conflicts won’t even be dignified by the phrase ‘civil war’, they will ‘wars of disintegration’, fought over drugs, resources, control, power – a return to pre-modern warlordism. The West and its economically advanced partners in Asia (Korea, Singapore, the advanced parts of China) will go from strength to strength, leaving vast areas of the globe to become ‘a subrational zone of semipermanent violence’.

Ignatieff doesn’t explicitly counter Kaplan’s vision. On paper he ought to be against it because Kaplan, like Huntingdon, has such a fatalistic tinge. But Ignatieff summarises his view simply as the most famous representative of what can be called the modern chaos theory.

Three questions

Instead Ignatieff ends this essay by asking three questions in light of the Bosnian war:

  1. When is it necessary for outside powers to use military force in civil wars?
  2. When is it right to back a minority’s claim to secede from a state?
  3. How can civilian populations be protected from the consequences of civil wars?

Trying to define answers to these questions turns out to be very tricky in the context of the complexity of the Yugoslav wars, but one theme emerges. Half-assed intervention may do more harm than good. UN supplying food to refugees of both sides may have encouraged both sides in the war to fight on. Claiming to provide ‘safe havens’ which turned out to be anything but, was arguably very harmful. But then the West refused to counter Serb aggression and let the Serbs bomb Sarajevo into ruin for four long years! On the other hand, sending in limited numbers of UN troops to try and monitor ceasefire lines and so on, gave hostages to the enemies. Once they were in place, more aggressive intervention, such as air strikes, became impossible for the Serbs would have massacred or taken the UN troops hostage.

To summarise:

The chief threat to international security in the post-Cold War world is the collapse of states, and the resulting collapse of the capacity of civilian populations to feed and protect themselves, either against famine or interethnic warfare. In a world in which nations once capable of imperial burdens are no longer willing to shoulder them, it is inevitable that many of the states created by decolonisation should prove unequal to the task of maintaining civil order. Such nations have achieved self-determination on the cruellest possible terms. Either they are torn apart by ethnic conflict, or they are simply too weak to overcome the poverty of their people. (p.105)

What is needed is a more imperial approach, by which Ignatieff means a really long-term commitment to bring peace and then spend decades rebuilding a state with the kind of civic institutions we enjoy in the West. But this, also, is fraught with risk and probable failure. It may be that peoples in a failing state come to hate each other so much that only a third force can enter and hope to restore peace and order. But the experience of colonialism is that quite quickly both sides will unite against the peacekeeper. After all this is what happened in Northern Ireland where the British Army initially went in in 1969 to protect the Catholic community from attacks by Loyalists. But they hadn’t been there long before a sequence of incidents led the Catholic community to hate their presence and there followed nearly 30 years of violence on all sides.

And of course Ignatieff was not to know it, but the Americans were to try follow his admonition to be more not less imperialistic in Iraq and Afghanistan this century.

In Iraq overthrowing the dictator turned out to be the easy part and then trying to create a peaceful civil society proved impossible as the country collapsed into waves of insurgencies. In Afghanistan, we have just seen the end of twenty years and over a trillion dollars worth of investment which is that the ‘state’ everyone involved claimed to have created was overthrown in less than a week by the Taliban and their theocratic rule has been restored to what it was before 9/11. And after all that effort Afghanistan remains one of the poorest, least educated places on earth.

Ignatieff thought the West was ‘disgusted and disillusioned by its failed attempts to intervene in civil wars, keep the peace and try to build nations, back in 1998. I wonder what his position is now?

Chapter 4. The Warrior’s Honour

This is the longest chapter in the book and gives it its title. It opens with a long factual account of the origin of the International Red Cross, starting with Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessing the Battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859, and then volunteering to help treat the tens of thousands of casualties which clogged the town in the aftermath of the battle. He returned to Switzerland, dazed by what he had seen, began consulting with experts in the areas of medicine and law, war law, and in 1863 the founding charter of the Red Cross was published in Geneva.

Ignatieff follows the Red Cross’s history through the cataclysms of the twentieth century, showing how rules and processes were added, the most important being the organisation’s studied impartiality, bolstered by the way that the entire international committee remained Swiss until relatively recently, and  its commitment to secrecy i.e. it has historically refused to turn over details of participants in war crimes etc to various international courts, because doing so would jeopardise its ability to operate in future warzones.

It comes over several times that the International Red Cross does not pursue justice and it does not campaign for human rights. Its job is to police the laws of war. It polices the implementation of the Geneva Codes. As Wikipedia explains:

The Geneva Conventions are rules that apply only in times of armed conflict and seek to protect people who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities; these include the sick and wounded of armed forces on the field, wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea, prisoners of war, and civilians.

In practice, as the Red Cross representative in Kabul explains, this means trying to calmly convey to warlords and militias the basic rules:

  • don’t shoot the wounded
  • don’t fire on ambulances
  • don’t target hospitals
  • don’t attack civilians
  • don’t torture prisoners

As Ignatieff summarises:

The Geneva Conventions are not about justice but about good treatment. (p.193)

And again:

Dunant’s original genius lay in his acceptance of war as an essential ritual of human society, which can be tamed but which will never be eradicated. (p.156)

Along the way Ignatieff points out that Dunant knew from the start that its principles of care for the victims of conflict no matter what their origin, ethnicity or involvement would not be enough to guarantee its future. Dunant also relied on the warrior’s code.

Ignatieff explains that almost all soldiers across all cultures, across all periods, have codes of honour, codes they operate by. Just being a mighty fighter isn’t enough. In general soldiers, whether Samurai or native Americans or Aztecs or medieval knights have operated by agreed codes of behaviour. He explains how the Red Cross has played along with these codes in various situations, matching its humanitarian aims to protect the weak and treat the sick with the nearest thing available in the warrior codes of the culture it found itself in.

However, things have changed. When his account continues into a detailed consideration of the role played by the Red Cross in the Yugoslav wars, he points out the organisation came under real stress. Both the Croat and Serb governments licensed the establishment of paramilitaries which were encouraged to carry out ethnic cleansing which their parent governments, and armies, could deny responsibility for (p.133). As part of this freedom from responsibility some of them attacked Red Cross convoys. The Red Cross were too late to help the inhabitants of Vukovar. The Red Cross were powerless to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. Red Cross officials were traumatised to discover the Serbs had built the first concentration camps in Europe since the Second World War near Banja Luka.

These cumulative failures made Red Cross staff and managers wonder the organisation was relevant any more. Or whether war had changed so much that its role needed to be reconsidered (p.140).

Worse, was the advent of a new feature of the wars of chaos, namely child soldiers. Young teenagers have maybe fought in armies through history, but entire units of children armed with machine guns was a new phenomenon. It was most salient in Africa, especially the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Here teenagers, often stoned out of their minds, lorded it over roadblocks and machine gunned people at random, including several Red Cross missions.

In both instances, the warrior code which Dunant knew his organisation relied on, was not just breached but had ceased to exist.

Ignatieff applies the same interpretation to the civil war in Afghanistan. He flew into Kabul 3 days after the former communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, had been caught by the Taliban who had just taken Kabul, tortured to death, castrated, beaten to a pulp and his body dragged round the street behind a lorry before being hung from a traffic pole.

Ignatieff laments that, for most of its history, Afghan warriors fought by a code, not least limited by its subsistence agriculture. They fought after the seeds had been sown and until harvest time. There were in-built modes of restraint. But after the Soviet invasion of Christmas 1979, the Americans poured weapons into the country and these, along with what the Soviets left behind when they abandoned the place in 1989, made it one of the most heavily armed countries on earth. Once the Soviets had gone the mujahideen militias of this deeply tribal country fell to attacking each other, with a technology which didn’t require a winter break. By the time Ignatieff arrives, year-round fighting with bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades and mortars had reduced most of the towns and cities to rubble. Ignatieff tells us that in all the warzones he visited he had never seen such devastation as 1996 Kabul.

The latter part of the essay analyses in detail the moral basis of the Red Cross’s work. Even some of its own staff think it should take a more proactive stance on human rights. But the veterans know its mission is narrower and darker than that. Its appeal to the warrior code may be a slender basis for action, a slender hope. But it also may be all that separates war from utter savagery.

But times have changed. For most of human history states have endeavoured to secure a monopoly of violence and vest it in a specialised warrior class, ruled, as mentioned, by a warrior code. But modern technology has removed much of the interaction of ‘soldiers’ in the West, who are increasingly technicians; while the rest of the world has seen an unprecedented flood of weapons, billions of small handguns, and endless amounts of the light, cheap and reliable Kalashnikov rifle.

The result is that poor, weak, post-colonial states often cannot enforce that monopoly of violence. What state collapse means is that violence passes into the hands of private armies, militias, paramilitaries, warlords, gangsters, drug cartels and so on. One commentator has described them as ‘ragged wars’. Many of them are hardly wars at all, but conflict between criminal gangs fighting for control of drugs or raw resources, such as the precious gems and minerals of eastern Congo.

a) It is very difficult for any society to claw its way back from such total collapse.

b) None of the purveyors of violence listed above conform to any warrior code. They have not been trained in the art of restraining and channeling violence. The result is unrestrained savagery. Barbarism.

Ignatieff delivers a surprising conclusion. What the world needs is states. Before humanitarian aid, or general aid programmes or economic development, these countries need states which control professional armies with trained leaders. These armies can then disarm the militias and paramilitaries and enforce a return to peace. This may mean not intervening in civil wars and letting a victor emerge naturally – then supporting them to restore the state’s monopoly on violence. Only under these conditions can there be any hope of a return to the basic stability which is required before any kind of social or economic development can be undertaken.

Chapter 5. The nightmare from which we are trying to awake

The past is an argument. (p.174)

The final chapter is a consideration of the purpose and effectiveness of truth and reconciliation commissions. The most famous one is the one set up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, but there were also attempts to air dirty secrets and establish the facts about the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.

These commissions are based on shaky propositions:

  1. That a ‘truth’ agreed by everyone can ever be achieved.
  2. That a direct analogy between individual psyche and national psyche.

We know that some people can be cured of crippling neuroses or obsessions or depression or other mental symptoms if they can be made to face up to traumatic experiences from the past; if they can ‘work through’ their ‘issues’. Bit it’s wishful thinking to imagine the same can happen for nations. A nation is not a person, doesn’t have a ‘mind’ and an ‘unconscious’.

Still, on the plus side, may people were brought ‘closure’, particularly by concrete information about what happened to their loved ones who went missing decades ago. They were tortured to death by the Chilean police or dumped out of helicopters into the sea by the Argentine air force.

Ignatieff suggests a kind of hierarchy of outcome, or a series of waystations, for these kinds of commissions, in order of attainability:

  1. truth
  2. reconciliation
  3. justice

Truth He draws a distinction between truth and justice. It’s one thing to get all sides to agree on a narrative of events (the ‘truth’), it’s quite another to get them to agree on an interpretation of what those events mean. After all, they’re likely to be coming from very different perspectives.

He says some international supporters of truth and reconciliation processes were disillusioned when the military in both Argentina and Chile refused to take part and refused to accept any blame or responsibility.

A truth commission can winnow out the facts upon which society’s arguments with itself should be conducted. But it cannot bring these arguments to a conclusion. (p.173)

Reconciliation is difficult because of the identities people all-too-often create around their plights and experiences. Both victors and victims create narratives which entrench their status, how both sides refuse to acknowledge any guilt or responsibility, how time hardens these myths into stone. Compromise becomes impossible.

Ignatieff takes us on a whistlestop tour of such T&R commissions. These include the ones about the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, which the military of both nations took part in but ensured their scope was severely limited. The one carried out in Germany after reunification.

The glaring fact that one has never been a public admission of guilt or acknowledgment carried out in Russia. Russia was never de-Stalinised and therefore continues to bear the burden of unspoken guilt, creating two Russias, one of the hundreds of thousands of liberals and intellectuals who are well educated and ashamed of its murderous past, and the tens of millions of party members who feel no guilt about the past, who take their medals and awards to their graves, who resent the liberals as traitors and foreign agents, who play into the hands of Putin the patriotic Russian nationalist.

The title of this chapter is a famous quotation from James Joyce, to be precise Joyce’s character Stephen Dedelus in his novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ The character, like Joyce, was conscious of Ireland’s stifling attachment to its grievances and oppression which almost guarantee that the same situation recurs over and over again, like the recurring nightmare of a trauma victim.

The only way to awake from the nightmare is to acknowledge the trauma and try to lay it to rest. Ignatieff praises President Alwyn of Chile who publicly apologised to the victims of Pinochet’s repression, and German Chancellor Willi Brand who got down on his knees in front of a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto. These gestures by leaders opened up a space in which millions of their citizens could also come out into the open and make gestures of apology. Saying sorry opens the door for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Ignatieff is full of scorn or anger that none of the leaders of the six post-Yugoslavia states have apologised for anything.

Vengeance

In the last pages Ignatieff offers a striking new interpretation of the idea of vengeance. He makes the brilliant point that vengeance is usually considered a low, dishonourable act, vulgar and crude. But it can also be interpreted as a strongly moral devotion to keeping faith with the dead, by continuing their work, by acting on their behalf. Thought-provoking idea…

But it doesn’t change the facts on the ground that vengeance tends to an eternal cycle of violence as sons take revenge for their fathers who took revenge for their grandfathers, and so on endlessly, just as the Serbs and Croats of 1992 were encouraged to avenge their grandfathers of 1942. Something must break this cycle, some act of penance or reconciliation. And the first step towards that is understanding of the other side and their hurt, no matter how difficult or repugnant that might be.

Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together. (p.190)


Credit

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

New world disorder reviews

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff (1998) – 1

The family of nations is run largely by men with blood on their hands. (p.82)

The main title and the picture on the cover are a bit misleading. They give the impression the entire book is going to be an investigation of the honour or value system of the many groups of soldiers, militias, paramilitaries and so on involved in the small wars which broke out across the world after the end of the Cold War.

Not so. This book is more varied and subtle than that. The investigation of ‘the warrior’s code’ is limited to part of the longest section, chapter 3. No, in the introduction Ignatieff explains that his overall aim in this collection of essays is not to investigate them, the people massacring each other in failing states, but to examine why we in the rich West feel so obliged to intervene in foreign countries to bring peace, feed the starving etc.

The narratives of imperialism are dead and buried but they have, according to Ignatieff, left us with ‘the narrative of compassion’. Why? Is this a novel development in world history, that the rich nations feel such a connection with the poor and such a moral obligation to help them? If so, what does this mean in practice? And why do our efforts seem doomed to fail or fall far short of what is needed? In which case, what is needed to bring peace, order and fairness to the trouble spots and failed nations of the world?

Introduction

Ignatieff sees the modern culture of international human rights and the conviction of so many in the West that we have to help the poor in the developing world – all those refugees and victims of famine or conflict – as a new development in human history, ‘a crucial new feature of the modern moral imagination’.

Our moral imagination has been transformed since 1945 by the growth of a language and practice of moral universalism, expressed above all in a shared human rights culture. (p.8)

I’m not totally convinced. It’s been a long time since 1945, the founding of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The situation he describes in 1998 as if it was a sudden new thing was actually the result of a long evolution of legal understanding and organisational practice. The UN, aid agencies and charities have been working since the end of the Second World War, changing and adapting.

And the sudden sense of ‘crisis’ he describes in his 1994 book Blood and Belonging and in this one, may have seemed suddenly more real and acute at the time but now, looking back, tends to seem part of a continuum of disasters, which includes Biafra and Congo in the 60s, the killing fields of Kampuchea 1975 to 79, the first Gulf War 1991 before he was writing, and 9/11, the Darfur genocide (2003 to the present), the collapse of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, the Libyan civil war, the Rohynga genocide and so on, after.

On the one hand, taking the long view, maybe he’s correct that it is a newish phenomenon that people in the West, spurred on by television news feel a moral obligation to help people in the Third World caught up in crises. But I can immediately think of two objections. One is that my recent reading of Victorian explorers and politics shows that the plight of people in the developing world was widely publicised back then, in the 1870s and 1880s, by explorers and missionaries writing books, newspaper articles and going on popular lecture tours. Which in turn inspired societies to be set up to help people in poor countries.

In particular I can think of the Bulgarian Uprising of 1876 which was suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, which sent militias into Bulgarian villages and murdered men, women and children. Maybe 30,000 Bulgarians died in all and the bloody repression was widely reported in Britain and became known as the Bulgarian Atrocities. The Liberal politician William Gladstone wrote a famous pamphlet about it which castigated the pro-Turkish policy of the British government of the day led by Benjamin Disraeli. Eye-witness accounts of western journalists who visited the burned-out Bulgarian villages and described the dead bodies lying everywhere were very widely reported in the European and British press.

All this is not really much different in spirit from the eye-witness accounts of Saddam’s gassing of Halabja or the Serb mass murder at Srebrenica, nor from the way these atrocities were widely reported in the West, and they anticipate journalistic denunciations of the inaction or impotence of the British government which have rung down the ages.

So the basic structure and content of reporting foreign atrocities has been around for at least a hundred and fifty years. On the other hand, maybe there is something to Ignatieff’s claim that television, in particular in the 1980s and 1990s, brought these disasters into everyone’s living rooms with a new urgency and prompted calls for action and triggered mass charitable movements.

He’s thinking of Live Aid from 1985, and that certainly felt like a truly epic event. But surely it was part of a continuum of public sympathy and charitable donation? There had been huge publicity about the Biafran civil war and famine 1967 to 1970, many pictures, news footage, public outcry, pressure on the government to intervene. I’ve seen Don McCullin’s photos of the prolonged Congo Crisis from that decade, ditto. In 1971 the Concert for Bangladesh raised money for UNICEF’s work in the new country born in famine and war, for the first time mixing consciousness raising about an international disaster with fund raising and popular culture.

Like most journalists and commentators, Ignatieff is making the case that the thing he’s writing about is dramatically new and requires his urgent analysis, which, on a bit of investigation, is sort of, maybe new-ish, has new aspects, has become more far-reaching, but is at heart not quite as dramatically novel as he claims.

Chapter 1. The ethics of television

This first chapter focuses on this issue. It reflects Ignatieff’s conviction that one of the things which is new in the 1990s is the way disasters in faraway countries are mediated by television.

He describes the way television news is selected, structured and edited, the way it is a genre in its own right. Fair enough, I used to work in TV news, I know very well what he’s talking about. But hand-wringing about the positive or negative effects of TV now seems very dated, very 1980s and 1990s. Things have, to put it mildly, moved on. He was writing before the internet and a full decade before smart phones and social media began. How people get their news, and how it is packaged for their slick consumption, has dramatically changed. But I find this whole media studies approach to newspapers, telly and social media profoundly boring.

Excitable commentators these days have transferred their moral panic from TV to social media and not a day goes by without hand-wringing articles about the devastating impact of Facebook and the rest. Who cares. It’s not interesting because:

  1. it is an over-analysed subject thousands of articles which all end up with the same conclusion – something must be done
  2. and yet little or no practical result – thousands of articles saying how terrible Facebook is and yet and Facebook is still there
  3. so ultimately it’s boring; in the 1990s people kept on watching TV news despite hundreds of articles and books saying how bad our addiction to TV was, and now, 25 years later, people carry on using Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok and all the rest of them, no matter how much the chattering classes tut and tsk

Ignatieff summarises the argument of his first chapter thus:

  • the moral empathy mediated by television has a deep philosophical history, namely the emergence of moral universalism in the Western conscience (which he traces back to Montaigne and Locke)
  • moral universalism (no man is an island; any man’s death diminishes me) is permanently at odds with moral particularism (we should worry most about family, friends and our own people)
  • in the second half of the 20th century moral universalism has increasingly taken an apolitical siding with the victim
  • there is a moral risk involved, which is that too many pictures of too many victims leads to indifference or, at worst, disgust with humans and misanthropy
  • this risk is increased by television’s superficiality as a medium, people watch, are shocked for 30 seconds, then immediately distracted by something else, then something else, then something else: picture of disasters, famines and so on become hollowed out, the viewer becomes more and more blasé

I dislike writing about morality because I think it has so little applicability to the real world. Give a moral philosopher a minute and she’ll start describing some improbably complex scenario designed to force you to make some kind of ‘moral’ decision you would never face in real life. (‘Imagine you have the power to save the world but only by killing an innocent child, would you sacrifice one life to save billion?’ – that kind of thing. Time-passing undergraduate games which have no application to real life.)

I also dislike writing about morality because morality is so endless. It is a bottomless pit. There is no end of moral hand-wringing… but at the same time most moralising writing has little or no impact on the world. It’s a paradox that moral philosophy ought to be the most practical and applicable form of philosophy, but is often the opposite.

I also dislike writing about morality because it is often sloppy and superficial. This first chapter is by far the worst in the book. To my surprise Ignatieff bombards us with cultural references which he himself (ironically, in light of his accusations that television is superficial) treats very superficially. He namechecks the history of Christianity, Roman slave society, early enlightenment philosophers like Montaigne and Bayle, then leaps to the French literary critic Roland Barthes, mentions the racism inherent in imperialism, explains some Marxist theory and practice, namechecks the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the American politician Robert MacNamara, the theorist of colonialism Fritz Fanon, gives a list of post-war atrocities, civil wars and famines then a list of international charities, a snippet from Don McCullin’s autobiography, the Vietnam War, Bosnia, the Rwandan genocide, CBS’s nightly news, the New York Times, Goya’s Horrors of War, Picasso’s Guernica.

See what I mean? It’s magpie philosophy, feverishly jumping from reference to reference. ADHD thinking. Compare and contrast with Blood and Belonging. In that book each 30-page chapter was set in a specific location. Ignatieff met and interviewed a cross-section of people from the country at length, who we got to know and understand. Their lives and experiences then shed light on the place and the situation and allowed Ignatieff to slowly draw out more general ideas about the world we live in.

This first chapter on telly is the opposite. It addresses a tired theme with a machine-gun rat-a-tat-tat of highbrow references, thrown out at such a rate that there isn’t time for any of them to acquire depth or resonance. I started skipping paragraphs, then entire pages.

This introductory essay shows Ignatieff at his most modish and pretentious and wrong. Take, for example, his passage on the way the state funerals of President Kennedy, Winston Churchill or Lady Diana were covered on TV.

These are the sacred occasion of modern secular culture, and television has devised its own rhetoric and ritual to enfold viewers in a sense of the sacred importance of these moments: the hushed voices of the commentators; loving attention to uniforms and vestments of power; above all, the tacit inference that what is being represented is a rite of national significance. (p.31)

This is not only pompous pretentiousness using breathy metaphors to dress up the bleeding obvious, but it is also largely wrong. The funeral of a much loved president or prime minister kind of is a rite of national significance, there’s no ‘tacit inference’ about it. Television has not ‘devised its own rhetoric and ritual’ for covering these events: I think you will find that funerals had a fair bit of rhetoric and ritual about them centuries before TV came along, in fact a key aspect of Homo sapiens as a species appears to be the care we’ve taken to bury people, as evidenced by graves from up to 80,000 years ago. All telly has done is develop technical ways of covering what were already highly rhetorical and ritualised events. As to ‘the hushed voices of the commentators’, well, you do tend to keep your voice down at a funeral, don’t you. As to attention to ‘uniforms and vestments of power’, again I think you’ll find people at presidential and prime ministerial level have always paid a lot of attention, since time immemorial, to wearing precisely the correct outfits at a funeral, complete with the insignia of office or medals for military types.

In other words, this paragraph is dressing up the obvious in pretentious metaphor to make it sound like insight. But it isn’t thinking or valuable analysis, it’s just being a smart-ass. Having ‘proven’ that TV has a semi-religious, ritualistic aspect, Ignatieff goes on to use this as the basis for further argument. But the argument, as a whole, fails, because it is based on precisely the kind of assertion and rhetoric demonstrated in this passage, rather than on the facts and real insights which characterise Blood and Belonging.

This first chapter, about TV, ends up by concluding that watching a 90-second TV news item isn’t as informative as reading a good newspaper or magazine article about the subject, let alone a book. Well… that’s not a very original or useful thought, is it.

The final few pages call for television journalism to completely change itself in order to give more information about the world. That way, via detailed discussions of gathering crises, viewers might get to learn about famines and wars before they broke out. This transformed TV might help viewers to understand the world so much better that we could all prevent atrocities and catastrophes before they happen.

  1. This is so utopian as to be laughable.
  2. The entire chapter now feels utterly out of date. My kids don’t watch any TV news (and neither do I). All they know about the world comes to them via their feeds on Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok and a host of other social media apps I’ve never heard of.

Blood and Belonging is a brilliant book because it examines in detail the political situations of half a dozen part of the world and

  1. although they’re nearly 30 years old, his snapshots of moments in each country’s history remain relevant to this day because they continue to be excellent analyses of the basic ethnic and political situations in each of the countries
  2. so acute is his analysis of different types of nationalism that the general principles he educes can be applied to other nationalist crises elsewhere in the world and still today, in 2021

Whereas this essay about the special power of television news not only felt contrived and superficial at the time (when I first read it, back in 1998) but has dated very badly and now feels relevant to no one.

Chapter 2. The narcissism of minor differences

Chapter two is much better because it starts from a specific time and place. It invokes the time Ignatieff spent in a village in Croatia holed up with Serb paramilitaries in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse, an observation post from which the bored soldiers occasionally take potshots at the Croats, in a similar ruined building two hundred and fifty yards away. How did it come to this?

This chapter picks up themes from Blood and Belonging and digs deeper. The most obvious thing to an outsider like Ignatieff is not the way Serbs and Croats come from distinct ethnic and religious groups, or represent the so-called Clash of Civilisations (the concept promoted by Samuel Huntingdon which became fashionable in the 1990s). It’s the opposite. Serbs and Croats come from the same racial stock, look the same, they speak the same language. Sure, they belong to different religions (Croats Catholic, Serbs Orthodox) but Ignatieff’s point is that hardly any of the men he talks to go to church and none of them gave it a thought till a few years ago.

Ethnic conflict is not inevitable

Ignatieff’s central point is that ethnic nationalism is NOT the inevitable result of different ethnic groups sharing one territory. Serbs and Croats lived happily together in Croatia and Serbia when both were governed by an (admittedly authoritarian, communist version of) civic nationalism.

The ethnic nationalism which tore the former Yugoslavia apart was the conscious creation of irresponsible rulers. It didn’t have to happen. Ethnic conflict is not inevitable where rulers make a sustained effort to inculcate civic nationalism at every level of their society. But once you let ethnic nationalism in, let it gain a foothold, and it quickly spreads. Go out of your way to actively encourage it – as Franjo Tuđman did in Croatia and Slobodan Milošević did in Serbia – and you get disaster.

That 600,000 Serbs lived inside Croatia didn’t matter when Croatia was merely part of a larger federal country. But when Croatia declared its independence on 25 June 1991, those 600,000 Serbs became intensely anxious about their futures.

Instead of doing everything in his power to address those concerns, the ruler of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, made a series of errors or provocations. He restored the Croatian flag. Street signs began to be changed to Croat. The government announced that Croat would become the official language of the country and taught in all the schools. All of this reminded older Serbs of the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 when Croatia allied with Nazi Germany and carried out a genocide of Serbs, murdering as many as 100,000, most notably at the notorious concentration camp at Jasenovac.

In other words, Serbs began to have real concerns that they were being quickly manoeuvred into becoming second class citizens in a place where they’d lived all their lives. Tuđman failed to address these concerns and so left the door open for the leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, to depict himself as the heroic saviour of the Serb minorities within Croatia and then the other Yugoslav states (notably Bosnia) and to send into those territories units of the Yugoslav Army (mostly staffed by Serbs) along with new Serb paramilitaries, to ‘save his people’.

A proper understanding of the sequence of events makes crystal clear that the situation came about because of the complete failure of all political leaders to maintain and promote civic society and their crude rush to whip up ethnic nationalism of the crudest kind.

Nationalism creates communities of fear, groups held together by the conviction that their security depends on sticking together. People become ‘nationalistic’ when they are afraid; when the only answer to the question ‘who will protect me now?’ becomes ‘my own people’. (p.45)

The psychodynamics of ethnic nationalism

So much for the macro scale, the large political picture. But Ignatieff is fascinated by the nitty gritty of what the individual Serbs in the basement of a ruined farmhouse think they’re actually fighting for. And here he makes some brilliant observations about how fake ethnic nationalism is and what a struggle it is, deep down, to really believe it.

He does this through a long consideration of Sigmund Freud’s idea of the narcissism of minor differences. Freud started from the observable fact that people who hate each other are often very close, for example members of the same family or husbands and wives. Nations often reserve their strongest antipathies for their neighbours, the English and the Scots.

To outsiders, these look like people who live in the same place, speak the same language, share the same values and experiences, and so on. And yet they are often divided by real antagonism. It’s as if, in the absence of all the large-scale reasons for difference, all their psychic energy is focused on the tiniest trivialest differences.

This isn’t totally persuasive, but Freud says something else. Which is that when individuals join a group,  the voluntarily suppress their own individualism in order to belong.

Ignatieff stitches together these insights to develop his own variation, which states: a nationalist takes minor differences with those around them and, in bigging up themselves and their cause, inflates them into shibboleths, into stumbling blocks, into the things which define himself and his group.

Nationalism is guilty of a kind of narcissistic attention to trivial details (how you were your hat, how you pronounce one particular letter or sound, this national song instead of that national song) and exaggeration – turning apparent trivia into a matter of life and death.

This systematic overvaluation of our story, our suffering, our language, our patriotic songs and so on always comes at the price of a systematic denigration of other people’s same attributes. An unrealistic over-valuation of the self seems to necessarily involve an equally unrealistic depreciation of others, and this depreciation is most intense at the point where the Other approaches nearest to being like you.

The nationalist thinks his tribe and nation are wonderful, special and unique; so that if someone calmly points out that they are actually pretty much the same as the other half dozen tribes of nations which surround it, the nationalist will furiously deny it, and the more alike they are, the more furious the denial.

Thus there is an anxiety at the heart of nationalism. When Ignatieff talks to the paramilitary in the farm basement he slowly realises the man has a bad conscience, a very bad conscience. When asked why he hates the Croats a couple of hundred yards away, he comes up with all kinds of reasons, many of which contradict each other. Ignatieff realises there is no reason. There is no rational reason why Serb should hate Croat or Croat hate Serb. Instead they have plunged into this mental condition of Group Narcissism in which they find psychological validation, reassurance and belonging by investing all their psychic energy in the Group Ideology, and investment which denies reality. Which denies that they were ever friends, went to the same pubs, shopped in the same shops, were married to people from the other group.

If you allow a rational consideration of the situation to enter, it undermines the unrealistic fantasy at the core of ethnic nationalism and this is why ethnic nationalists get so angry about it, furiously denying that they have anything in common with them, the others. They are all murderers and rapists; we are all heroes and martyrs. The possibility that they’re just flawed people like we are cannot be allowed otherwise it brings the entire artificial and overblown fiction of nationalist belief crashing down.

This explains for Ignatieff what he sees among so many nationalist communities which is a certain amount of fakery and insincerity. It often seems as if the politicians, ideologues, spokesmen and soldiers on the ground don’t entirely believe what they say. Inauthenticity, shallowness and fraudulence. It is if the extravagant violence with which ethnic nationalist beliefs are stated amounts to wilful overcompensation for notions the speaker knows, deep down, not to be true. He knows that his Croatian neighbour is not actually the murderer and rapist which his Serbian nationalism tells him he is, but… but to carry on being a member of the Group he has to conquer his own doubts. He has to march in line, wear a uniform and badge, get drunk with the boys and shout out patriotic songs.

All to conceal from himself his uneasy awareness that it’s all bullshit.

Ignatieff doesn’t say this but it struck me that this explains a common phenomenon, which is the documentaries you watch which interview people caught up in massacres, wars and genocides and… they themselves don’t really understand what happened. They look back and they can’t really explain why they and their friends grabbed their machetes and ran round to their neighbours’ house and hacked him, his wife and children into hunks of bloody meat, as hundreds of thousands did during the Rwandan genocide. Now, calm and quiet, sitting sedately in their garden sipping tea, they can’t quite believe it happened. I’ve noticed this in many TV documentaries about atrocities. Years later the participants can barely believe it happened.

Clearly, this is because it was a kind of mass intoxication. It was a delirium, like a prolonged party in which everyone was in a mad, feverish, drunken mood and did all kinds of wild things… and then they sobered up. Indeed Ignatieff records how everyone he spoke to in Yugoslavia expressed surprise that the boring, everyday society they knew collapsed so quickly and so completely into a Hobbesian nightmare of war and terror. They describe it as a kind of madness or intoxication.

He concludes with words of advice for liberal society which can be summarised in two strategies:

1. His analysis suggest there is a kind of basic mathematical formula at work, an inverse ratio: the more people overvalue their group, their tribe, their nation (and overvalue themselves as a part of this Heroic People), the more, as if by some fateful psychological law, they will denigrate outsiders who are not members of the Heroic People. The more intense the positive feelings for our side, the more intense our negative feelings for the other. The cure for this is, pretty obviously, to moderate our feelings for our side. To cultivate a nationalism which is proud of various aspect of our national life and culture, but not blind to its faults, not exaggerated.

We are likely to be more tolerant toward other identities only if we learn to like our own a little less. (p.62)

Because all historical precedent suggests the more you big up yourself, the more you find someone to denigrate and anathematise.

2. Nationalist intolerance works by converting real people into abstractions.

Nationalist intolerance requires a process of abstraction in which actual, real individuals in all their specificity are depersonalised and turned into carriers of hated group characteristics. (p.70)

The solution to this is to consider everyone as an individual, including yourself. Instead of thinking of yourself primarily as a member of this tribe or nation or people or group, you should consider yourself as an individual person. This then forms the basis for treating everyone else you meet as themselves individuals in their own right, and not as representatives of this or that group, with all the (probably) negative connotations you associate with that group.

The essential task in teaching ‘toleration’ is to help people see themselves as individuals, and the to see others as such. (p.70)


Credit

History judges no one. There will be no reckoning at all. (p.55)

The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff was published by Chatto and Windus in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Vintage paperback edition.

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