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

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 1

High speed and racy

As the corny ‘triumph and tragedy’ subtitle suggests, Holland isn’t aiming at originality or depth. He is aiming at writing a gripping, gung-ho, boys’ own adventure narrative history of the Roman Republic, and he does it very well indeed. Rubicon won a history prize, was shortlisted for several others, and opens with no fewer than five pages of laudatory reviews from a host of famous historians and authors (Ian McEwan, A.N. Wilson, Beryl Bainbridge Joanna Trollope), many of whom chose it as their book of the year. It was even described as ‘gripping’ by Boris Johnson, than which there can be no higher praise.

Despite all this puffery, for the first 40 or so pages I was quietly horrified at the casual speed with which Holland skips through Rome’s prehistory and early history:

In a memorable manoeuvre on page 6, we are in the 360s BC in one sentence and then, two sentences later, in the 260s BC. A century flashes past in the blink of an eye.

Rome’s epic conflict with Carthage, the three Punic wars which lasted off and on from 264 and 146 BC, are dispensed with in just two pages (7 and 8) with the third and final Punic war and the destruction of Carthage knocked off on just one page (page 34). By page 10 it is already the 140s BC and Rome has conquered Macedon (the most important kingdom in Greece), Sicily and a good deal of Spain i.e Holland has skipped over400 years of history in a few pages.

The Achaean War, which marked the final ascendency of Rome over Greece and climaxed in the brutal destruction of Greece’s most prosperous city, Corinth, in 146 BC (the same year Carthage was razed to the ground) is dealt with thus:

Meanwhile, just in case anyone was missing the lesson, a Roman army spent the same spring of 146 rubbing it into the noses of the Greeks. That winter a ragbag of cities in southern Greece had presumed to disturb the balance of power that Rome had established in the area. In a war that was over almost before it had begun, a Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp, and the ancient city of Corinth reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. (p.35)

As you can see, instead of detail or analysis the reader gets a cheerfully brisk, slangy summary, which sounds like a stagey narrator of a novel, mixing a kind of tabloid journalism with dated schoolboy slang (‘rubbing their noses in it’). ‘A Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp.’ How would you characterise that sentence? Prep school patois? Anyway, the book is like this from start to finish, written in a deliberately irreverent, casual, prep school slang and hyper-vivid vernacular. No wonder Boris liked it so much.

I thought Mary Beard’s history of Rome often skipped through military and political events without fully explaining them, but Beard feels like the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with Holland’s speed of light race through Rome’s early history.

The last century of the Republic

Things begin to make sense around page 40 when you begin to realise that Holland is very much not writing a complete history of the entire Roman Republic (509 to 31 BC). Indeed, Holland has skipped through the 650 or so years between Rome’s (legendary) founding in 753 down to the 90s BC in little more than 40 pages. (An approach confirmed by the timeline at the end of the book: this is seven pages long and whereas the first page covers the 620 years from 753 to 133 BC, the remaining six pages settle down and cover 123 BC to 14 AD in granular detail. There’s the strategy of the book, right there.)

No, it’s not at all a history of the Roman Republic – it’s a racy account of the Republic’s final century from, say, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 down to Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC.

Why? Because:

  1. the last 100 years of the Roman republic is the period we have by far the best documentation for
  2. during which we know most about the characters of political leaders, because they and their supporters or enemies left copious writings, histories, speeches and letters
  3. and it’s also by far the most dramatic period, when then republican system began to break down, leading to a series of dictators and civil wars

The last twenty years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history… (p.xxv)

Holland’s account deliberately skips the legendary founding (753), the era of kings (753 to 509), the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud (509) and the long evolution of Rome’s complex political and military administration (500s to 140s), in order to get to the juicy stories, melodramatic events and larger-than-life characters of its ill-fated last century.

Thriller style

Holland or his publishers realised there was a gap in the market for a history of Rome written as page-turning thriller. It really is written in a kind of prep school variety of lurid airport novel prose. As well as processing the content, it was entertaining to try and categorise some of the effects involved:

Ending paragraphs with a sentence. Then completing it in the next paragraph, for dramatic effect

  • No wonder that Sulla loathed him. / Loathed him and dreamed of winning the same greatness that Marius had won. (p.65)
  • Free Gaul prepared itself for war. / As did Caesar. (p.245)
  • Whatever happened the Republic would endure. / Or so everyone assumed. (p.257)
  • It was Caesar who had taught the Gauls what it meant to be a nation. Now that achievement threatened to destroy him. / Or so it seemed. (p.278)

Melodrama

  • Devastation shadowed the Mediterranean. (p.34)
  • The legions moved in for the kill. (p.34)
  • It was a moment pregnant with menace. (p.73)
  • The resulting goldrush was soon a stampede. (p.42)
  • Long-held grudges, never entirely extinguished, flared back into flames. Warfare returned to the Samnite hills. (p.50)
  • Various tribunes began to strip Lucullus of his provinces one by one, snapping at him like wolves on the trail of a wounded beast. (p.165)
  • The news spread like wildfire. (p.256)
  • Senators on the make, their nostrils filled with the scent of power, scrabbled for advancement. (p.260)
  • But still the whisperings would not be silenced. They could be heard throughout the feverish, troubled capital. (p.289)
  • As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world. (p.313)

Bombastic descriptions

  • Throughout the monarchies of the East, assorted royal poodles would jump whenever the Romans snapped their fingers… (p.37)
  • The arteries of empire were hardening with gold, and the more they hardened, so the more Rome squeezed out. (p.42)
  • The cities groaned under punitive exactions; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontier, petty princelings snarled and snapped. Over the wounds of the ruined province [Asia in the 80s BC] Roman flies buzzed eagerly. (p.155)
  • The longing of the Romans for glory, which burned brightly within them and lit their city and indeed their entire empire with its flame, also cast flickering and treacherous shadows. (p.206)
  • The scent of [Pompey’s] failure hung like carrion-perfume over Rome. In the Senate scavengers whined and snarled with excitement. (p.256)

Pop psychology

  • Sulpicius was not a man lacking in principle. Causes mattered to him, even to the point of destruction. (p.67)
  • Pompey always had a nose for where the richest opportunities might lie. (p.91)
  • As ever with [Sulla], opportunism was the obverse of an icy conviction. (p.101)
  • Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web. (p.140)
  • Pompey could fuss with territories as though they were counters on a gaming board, rearranging them as he pleased, handing out crowns, abolishing thrones, the still-boyish master of the fates of millions. (p.179)
  • As the two rival armies sparred nervously with each other, jabbing here, feinting there, [Anthony] was always in the thick of the action, dashing, tireless, the most glamorous and discussed man on either side. (p.319)
  • The female of the Ptolemaic species had always been deadlier than the male. (p.328)

And the sometimes obsessive iteration of stock phrases

  • The Venetian fleets, taken by surprise, were wiped out. (p.273)
  • The invaders were summarily wiped out. (p.273)
  • The garrison of one legionary camp was ambushed and wiped out. (p.277)
  • The senators in Pompey’s train, impatient for action, wanted Caesar and his army wiped out. (p.320)

Above all Holland’s really obsessive reiteration of his central idea, repeated literally hundreds of times, that all Roman aristocrats were bred and trained and lived for ‘glory’ – a word which appears on every other page.

It is Roman history rewritten by Lee Child. Or maybe by the scriptwriters of Dallas, with an occasional dash of Barbara Cartland or Jilly Cooper or writers who glory in posh, stereotyped and simplified characterisation.

A tiny epitome of this is Holland’s frequent use of the word ‘whore’. In the olden days we described these as ‘prostitutes’ and I remember the good work of the English Collective of Prostitutes back in the 70s and 80s in trying to change the law to protect its members. In our value-neutral, woke times we nowadays refer to them as ‘sex workers’. Holland’s insistence on using the word ‘whore’ is a small symptom of his determination not to write some fuddy-duddy, academic tome but a rollicking Texas barnstormer of an airport novel, where men are men and women are either high society hostesses or whores, goddamit!

  • The necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-price whores. (p.14)
  • [Naples] ancient streets had recently begun to fill with tourists, all of them keen to taste the Greek lifestyle – whether by debating philosophy, complaining to doctors, or falling in love with a witty, well-read whore. (p.48)
  • Throughout his life Sulla deployed his charm as a weapon, on politicians and soldiers as much as on whores. (p.70)
  • Sulla, who had spent his own twenties running after whores… (p.103)
  • It would have been as insulting for Cato to be labelled a demagogue as for a matron to be confused with a whore. (p.233)

Key players

But precisely because he does focus entirely on the action-packed 1st century BC, and dwells on the lurid and blood thirsty and over-the top personalities of the key players, you do certainly emerge (slightly punch drunk) with a much more vivid sense of the characters of the successive strong men who plunged the Republic into civil wars and internecine bloodshed.

In Holland’s account the swing year is 89 BC, a year of two wars. In Italy the widespread revolt of the Italian allies and confederates against Rome, demanding equal rights and freedoms under the law, had amounted to a cruel civil war, with ethnically identical Italian people massacring each other the length and breadth of the peninsula.

But the so-called Social War coincided with the revolt of King Mithradates of Pontus in Anatolia, which hugely raised the stakes. For a ruling class constantly athirst for glory, the prospect of victory in the Social War overlapped with the potentially huge riches to be won by whoever was chosen to go and reconquer the East.

Gaius Marius makes his first appearance on page 56 as the 60-year-old leader of the Roman army sent against the Italian rebels during the Social War, 91 to 87 BC. Marius was fabulously rich and successful, having held the consulship a record six times (p.65).

Gaius Pompeius ‘Strabo’ (p.58) ‘treacherous and brutal’ (p.117) very unpopular in Rome but led successful campaign against the Italians and so was a necessary ally for Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (p.62) took over command in the Social War from Marius, leading a huge army of 13 legions which besieged and massacred the Italian rebels.

It’s with this cast that series one of Rubicon – having scooted through the previous 500 years of Roman history in the blink of an eye – really gets under way. For as Sulla brought the Social War to an end he fell into rivalry with his old commanding officer, Marius, about who would lead the army to Asia to defeat Mithradates. Sulla was elected war leader, but Marius politicked against him.

Sulla’s first march on Rome Briefly, Sulla was still campaigning against the Italians when he received the news that command of the army about to be sent to the East to fight Mithradates, and which he had lobbied hard to be given, had been rescinded and given to his arch rival, Marius. Not only that, but the staff officer who brought the message was to replace him in his command against the Italians. When Sulla announced this to his assembled troops and introduced the staff officer his men promptly stoned the messenger to death and clamoured for Sulla to lead them on a march on Rome. No Roman had done this before. Armies were meant to be in the trust of a consul, until he was replaced and handed over command.

The model of insurrection Sulla marked the advent of a completely new type of conflict, war, leadership and politics. The later civil war between Caesar and Pompey and then between Caesar’s assassins and the second triumvirate, followed the model of military insurrection, seizure of the capital and paying off of personal scores established by Sulla. There are two eras in the history of the Republic – Before Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC, and Afterwards (p.71).

Sulla’s coup Sulla busted laws and conventions by a) leading his legions on Rome b) crossing the holy boundary, the pomerium, within which no Roman was meant to bear arms (p.72) c) actually sacking the city, commanding his troops to retaliate with fire arrows against civilians chucking roof tiles down on them. And once he had established martial law and set his soldiers at all key points d) he set about executing his opponents. Lists were published and opponents hacked down in public buildings or the streets.

Sulla’s arch enemy Marius fled south and then across the sea to Africa, where he planned a comeback and revenge.

Lucius Cornelius Cinna was one of the two consuls elected in 88 BC after Sulla had taken Rome. Cinna publicly criticised Sulla but then was forced to make a pledge, along with his fellow consul Octavius, not to remove any of Sulla’s legislation (p.70).

Having massacred his opponents or driven them into exile, Sulla finally sailed with his army for the East to deal with Mithradates’ rebellion. Cinna, one of the two consuls he left behind, promptly reneged on his promise not to tamper with Sulla’s laws but was forced out of Rome by his fellow consul Octavius who stayed loyal to his absent master. Once Sulla was out of Italy, Marius returned, joined forces with Cinna, and they marched on Rome and seized power. Cinna’s fellow consul, Octavius, was hacked down in his consul’s chair and his head brought to Cinna who displayed it from the public Rostrum. These were not the ways of the old Republic.

Having returned to Rome, Marius arranged to hold an unprecedented seventh consulship but was an old man, exhausted after a life of fighting, took to debauchery and was dead in a few weeks. And so Cinna now emerged as the regime’s new ‘strongman’ (p.117). He arranged, contrary to all the rules, to hold the consulship for three years in a row, precisely the kind of sustained grip on power which the constitution was supposed to prevent.

In other words, all restraint had been lost and Roman politics had descended to warlordism and gang warfare. Political life had been ‘brutalised’ says Holland, in a phrase which reminds me of the immediate post-war years in the Weimar Republic. Once that element of street violence has entered the political domain it is very hard to remove it because you’ve shown people who are prepared to use it, that it works.

When, after three years of campaigning against Mithradates and rebellious Greek cities, Sulla wound up his affairs in Greece and gave notice of returning with his legions to Italy, Cinna tried to rouse Rome’s home legions to resist him, but the troops mutinied and, in confused circumstances, Cinna was killed. So both Marius and Cinna were dead.

On Sulla’s second march on Rome he was joined by the glamorous and fabulously successful young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who was to become known as Pompey the Great (p.90).

Also to his side came the scion of one of Rome’s most noble families, Marcus Licinius Crassus (p.89). Crassus’s father had opposed Marius and been murdered, as had his brother, and his entire family estates confiscated.

Marius had died but had been replaced by his confident and able son, who had rallied the anti-Sulla forces. In other words Rome’s ruling class was by the late 80s BC completely polarised between the group Holland calls ‘the Marians’ and Sulla and his supporters. The conflict between the two parties got mixed up with a final rebellion by the Samnites in the mountains east of Rome who took advantage of the confusion to launch an attack on Rome itself. Sulla hastened his march and, with crucial help from Crassus’s wing of the army, defeated the Samnites at the Battle of the Colline Gate, before marching into Rome for a second time, posing as its saviour and its undoubted ruler (p.92).

About 6,000 Samnite fighters had been taken prisoner or turned themselves in. Sulla ordered them penned up in the Field of Mars an then systematically slaughtered. Then he set about executing all his political opponents, first and foremost every member of the Marian party (p.99). An entire section of Rome’s political class was annihilated. Bounty hunters were paid to track down abscondees, who brought back their severed heads for Sulla to inspect before releasing the fee.

Huge estates were confiscated or passed into the hands of leading figures in Sulla’s party, most notoriously his vital left-hand man at the Colline Gate, Crassus. Sulla himself became the richest man in Roman history (p.101).

Sulla’s conservative revolution

Throughout his course of actions Sulla was convinced he was reforming the Republic and returning it to its purity. Holland describes how he set about trying to purify and rationalise the constitution. He did this by redefining the cursus honorum. He change the numbers of the main posts of office which aspiring politicians had to progress through (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul, censor), set age limits under which they could not be held, defined the number of years gap between holding them. Since one of the political attacks on him had come from a tribune he passed a law declaring that anyone could still be elected tribune, but that anyone who had held the tribunate was ineligible for any further office In this and numerous other adjustments to the rules, he tried to ensure that the kind of bitter conflict which had led to his own rise, could never take place again.

In 81, with no warning, Sulla resigned his posts and abdicated his authority. He served as a conventional consul for one more year and then abandoned public life altogether. So feared was he, and so thoroughly had he extirpated his enemies, that he felt safe to abandon power, a move which puzzled later generations and historians to this day. He returned to the hard living of his youth, holding huge parties, frequenting the demi-monde, before dying, possibly of liver failure, in 78 BC (p.111). At which point the baton was passed on to a new, younger generation, two leading luminaries of which were Pompey and an ambitious young man named Julius Caesar.

Competition and glory

‘The clash of wits, the fight for pre-eminence, the toiling day and night without break to reach the summit of wealth and power…’ (Lucretius)

One massive point which comes over again and again is that Roman society was based on unbridled and unrelenting competition, especially for the ‘glory’ associated with victory in war.

  • It seemed self evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, towards a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. (p.24)
  • Competitive elections were crucial to the self image as well as the functioning of the Republic. (p.25)
  • A system that encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated a dynamism so aggressive that it overwhelmed all who came near it. (p.30)
  • …a state where ruthless competition was regarded as the basis of all civic virtue. (p.34)
  • the Roman desire to be the best (p.34)
  • Traditional Roman morality…fostered competition as the essence of life. (p.62)
  • In Rome a man was reckoned nothing to be nothing without the fame that accrued from glorious deeds. (p.64)
  • …a society where prestige was the principle measure of a man’s worth. (p.76)
  • Competition for honours had always been the lifeblood of the Republic (p.
  • …the Roman appetite for competition and glory. (p.109)
  • Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining characteristic of a citizen. (p.111)
  • Child rearing, like virtually every other aspect of life in the Republic, reflected the inveterate Roman love of competition. (p.115)
  • Because he had simultaneously neutralised the tribunate and doubled the size of the Senate, [Sulla’s] legacy was one of increased competition. (p.123)
  • As they had always done, established families dominated the competition. (p.123)

Competition for military glory and the prestige of holding high office was drummed into every upper class boy from the youngest age. This culture of unrelenting competition served Rome well for centuries, transmitted to its army which never gave up, accepting defeat after defeat but always coming back with more men and arms and, ultimately, conquering all enemies.

However, Holland repeatedly makes the obvious point which arises from the Sulla era which is that, in the bitter rivalry which developed between Marius and his successful general Sulla, somehow this all-consuming competitiveness which had once been such a positive motivating force, turned rotten, spilled over from politicking into military coup, seizure of the capital itself, bloodbaths of enemies, and so on.

And once all these taboos had been broken, once all restraint had been lost, the same pattern was to recur again and again during the Republic’s last half century.

The Roman constitution

Holland regularly stops his headlong narrative to give explanations of various aspects of Roman political and social culture and the Roman constitution. Obviously, Mary Beard refers to this from time to time in her chronicle of Rome but, as is her way, often only explaining an isolated aspect of it in order to illustrate a broader point, more often than not leaving the reader frustrated. Holland is much more straightforward. He stops the narrative and explains stuff. I found this surprisingly useful.

And the way he does this – intermittently – is probably wise because the whole point of the Roman constitution (we learn) was that it was a chaotic, rickety inheritance of roles and positions and posts and elections, which had accumulated over the centuries, which the Romans themselves didn’t fully understand and outsiders found baffling i.e. you couldn’t really sit down and write one definitive description, it’s best approached from different angles and perspectives. And it changed over time. And during the period Holland describes, new laws were continually adjusting and tinkering with it.

  • The Republic was as full of discrepancies and contradictions as the fabric of the city, a muddle of accretions patched together over many centuries…the Republic was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work…The constitution was a hall of mirrors… (pages 24 to 25)
  • It was the nature of the Republic to thrive on complexity (p.94)
  • Then constitution, subtle and finely modulated as it was, had evolved to restrain any violent change. (p.99)
  • The Republic had many different traditions, confused and confusing and defying codification. (p.137)

Central to the system was the hierarchy of posts the politically ambitious could seek, the cursus honorum (course of offices), mentioned above, the one which Sulla comprehensively reformed.

The cursus honorum

Military service Anyone seeking political office was expected to have seen military service. The aspiring politician would serve in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Military promotions or honours would improve his political prospects. A successful military career might culminate in the office of military tribune to which 24 men were elected by the Tribal Assembly each year.

Consuls Having ejected kings, the Romans took steps to ensure power was never again vested in one individual who ruled for a lifetime by vesting the most senior power in the state as residing in two consuls who were elected to serve for just one year (p.2). The minimum age was 42. Years in Rome’s history were identified not by a number but by the names of the two consuls elected for a particular year. Consuls were responsible for the city’s political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. They were accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of twelve lictors who bore on their shoulders the bundle of strapped rods called fasces, symbol of their power (p.64). Candidates for the consulship had to put their names forward by the start of July (p.224). Every consul, once he had finished his year in post, was given a governorship aboard (p.225).

Aedile Aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals.

Quaestor A quaestor served for a year as assistant to a more senior magistrate (p.101). Twenty quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to a governor in the provinces. They could also serve as the paymaster for a legion. Some of the quaestors were tasked with supervision of public games (p.198).

Praetor Junior in rank only to the consuls, a praetor was charged with administering the city’s laws, convening and presiding over sessions of the Senate (p.104). During the republic, six or eight praetors were elected each year to serve judicial functions throughout Rome and other governmental responsibilities. In the absence of the consuls, a praetor would be given command of the garrison in Rome or in Italy. Also, a praetor could exercise the functions of the consuls throughout Rome, but their main function was that of a judge. They would preside over trials involving criminal acts, grant court orders and validate ‘illegal’ acts as acts of administering justice.

A praetor was escorted by six lictors. After a term as praetor, the magistrate would serve as a provincial governor with the title of propraetor, commanding the province’s legions, and possessing ultimate authority within his province(s).

Two of the praetors were more prestigious than the others. The Praetor Peregrinus was the chief judge in trials involving one or more foreigners. The Praetor Urbanus was the chief judicial office in Rome with the power to overturn any verdict by any other courts, and serve as judge in cases involving criminal charges against provincial governors.

Tribune The tribunes has right of veto over bills they disliked and power to convene public assemblies to pass bills of their own. The post was considered sacrosanct and so tribunes were not allowed to leave Rome during their tenure (p.27).

The Senate A body of about 300 older men, elected to the Senate because they had held one of the other ‘magistracies’. The Senate didn’t actually make any laws but debated legal and political matters and issued decrees which had no binding force but the magistrates did well to take into account (p.37). During Sulla’s reign of terror he executed or drove into exile so many senators that the number fell to 100 but during the period of his reforming rule, he packed it with new blood, expanding its number to 600, and demolished the old Curia building and had a grand new Senate House built.

Censor The censorship was the single most powerful and influential position or magistracy, responsible for overseeing the census, held every five years to produce a detailed assessment of every household, its wealth and income and number of slaves and dependents, on which the elaborate hierarchies of Rome were based (p.96).

N.B. This series of posts is only one part in the jigsaw of the constitution. I haven’t mentioned the priesthoods, for example the priest of Jupiter, the father god of Rome, a post Julius Caesar held while still a boy. Or the pontifex maximus, the most prestigious post in the entire state, which a man held for life and came with a mansion on the Via Sacra, in the Forum, in the heart of Rome (p.199).

Nor any of the assemblies with their various rules for elections, the importance of ‘tribes’, tribunes or tribunals, or the densely structured economic and social hierarchies which applied to every citizen and determined their rights and votes and place in the grand scheme.

As Holland’s narrative proceeds, the scale of the bribery involved in each subsequent set of elections grows and grows in scale (e.g. p.225).

Other learnings

Rome was a squalid maze

Surprisingly, ancient Rome was a shambles of narrow dirty alleys and wiggly roads packed with people, horses and carts. Since the consuls only ruled for a year there was no long-term town planning which meant the city became a byword for narrow roads and alleys, temples, houses and tenement blocks called insulae looming over alleys full of mud and excrement (pages 15 to 18).

Clutter was the essence of the Republic. It spread everywhere that Sulla cared to look. It could be seen in the very appearance of Rome itself. (p.106)

Cicero has a famous quote on the state of Rome, when criticising the senator and moralist Cato the Younger (born 95 BC) which Holland translates as:

‘He addresses the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s shit-hole.’ (quoted on page 196)

[The more restrained H. H. Scullard translates this as Cicero complaining that ‘Cato talked as if he were in the republic of Cato, not in the sink of Romulus’, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard, page 117. L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters gives it as: ‘He talks as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s dunghill‘, page 39.]

As well as pausing his narrative to describe various aspects of the culture or constitution of Rome, Holland also stop periodically to give a page or two on the history and social and political function of various famous locations around the city. These are always interesting and the vivid thriller style which sometimes seems out of place in his political history works very well to bring these Roman places and the milling noisy crowds who filled them to life.

The Circus Maximus (pages 20, 122)

Right at the start of his account Holland explains how the legendary Romulus was said to have built his camp on what was to be named the Palatine Hill while Remus built his on the Aventine Hill a few hundred yards south. The triumph of Romulus marked the Palatine as the seat of Rome’s richest, later the hill of the emperors, while the Aventine became associated with the poor. It was to the Aventine that the disgruntled plebs went during the series of secessios – in effect, general strikes – when they were campaigning for equal civil rights.

The shallow valley between the two hills had been the site of games and then chariot races from time immemorial. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome, measuring 2,037 feet in length and 387 feet in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. As such it was one of the two big spaces in the city where citizens could meet and mingle and enjoy a sense of civic community. It was where politicians in power, magistrates or victorious generals could receive the cheers or boos of huge crowds (p.20). Games were organised by the class of magistrate called the aediles.

On page 122 Holland gives a brief but vivid description of the chariot races held in the circus. Although the building was huge the track itself was quite narrow with only width for four chariots and the turn at the end of each lap required the charioteer to steer close to the huge metal poles which defined the turn, the metae, without actually touching them with his chariot’s wheels, which would almost send chariot and him ricocheting to certain death.

The Forum (p.85)

Along with the Circus Maximus, the Forum was one of the two open spaces in the city where citizens could mingle freely. Originally a marsh, it was drained to provide a meeting place for squabbling tribes from the hills and so could be said to be the place where Romans learned to sort out their differences through political means. Like the rest of the city it was a jumble of discordant monuments. (p.85)

The Field of Mars (p.93)

Holland gives an excellent description of the Campus Martius and its central role in the republic’s political processes. It was originally, in this plain outside the city walls that citizens were taken and administered the oath which turned them into soldiers. Here they were ranked by wealth and status. At the top were those who could afford their own horse and so were named the equites. Below the equestrian class were five further classes ranked by wealth until you reached the lowest class, people who couldn’t even afford a slingshot and were named the proletarii.

Worth stopping a moment to consider this word: in the census the poorest citizens were defined as those who had little or no property except for their children. The Latin term for these was proles or ‘offspring’. So while the richest citizens could offer horses and arms, the poorest could only offer their proles as future Roman citizens available to colonise conquered territories – and so this class was called the proletarius (producer of offspring), singular, or proletarii in the plural.

Anyway, Holland explains how the Field of Mars evolved into the location of elections for the many magistrate positions or assemblies. The key building was the Ovile or ‘sheepfold’, an enclosure with gates and barriers, where citizens lined up to vote, richest at the front, poorest at the back. Exemplifying the Roman love of complexity, the precise order or procedure for voting was different in the case of each election or magistracy, with strict rules and protocols to be observed.

Holland gives a vivid description of the scene at a typical election, the hoisting of a flag, the blowing of trumpets, the enormous queues of shuffling citizens, the dust raised in the hot air, the tension for election days creating ‘one of the greatest excitements of Roman civic life’ (p.95). Then appearance of the candidates in their specially whitened togas (as Mary Beard tells us the word ‘candidate’ derives from the Roman for white, candidus, referring to these specially whitened togas). The milling crowd, the jeers and chatter and then, when the winning candidates were announced, cheers from their supporters and they were escorted off from the Ovile to the Capitol Hill to take up office.

In passages like these, Holland’s strategy of eschewing scholarly detail in favour of vivid description and atmosphere works very well indeed.

The Rubicon

The River Rubicon which Julius Caesar so grandly crossed with the Army of Gaul, thus decisively plunging the Republic into civil war, thus giving us a phrase we have used for centuries to indicate taking an irrevocable decision…this river was in fact so small and insignificant that nobody in later centuries, and even today, knows where it actually is.


Credit

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland was published in 2003 by Little, Brown. All references are to the 2004 Abacus paperback.

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