Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

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

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

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

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

Tiro’s memoirs

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

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

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

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

Sources

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from different places about so many events, Harris relies much more than in both the previous books combined on actual historical documents, on Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the early part (for example, pages 147 to 148), then on the letters to and from Cicero, for example to and from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

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

Part one – Exile (58 to 47 BC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rufus strategem (pages 105 to 122)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two – Redux (47 to 43 BC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key words

Politics

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

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

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

Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law

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

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

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

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

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

War atrocities

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

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

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

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

Family ties

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

Dated diction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scraps

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

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

Caesar is like a whirlpool (p.147).


Credit

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

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Lustrum by Robert Harris (2009)

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

‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’ he asked me, and then he answered his own question. ‘These,’ he said, gesturing towards his books. ‘Words. Caesar and Pompey have their soldiers, Crassus his wealth, Clodius his bullies on the street. My only legions are my words. By language I rose and by language I shall survive.’ (p.402)

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

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

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

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

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

Tiro the narrator

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

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

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

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

Two parts

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

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

Part one – Consul

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

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

Part two – Pater Patriae

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power

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

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

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

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

Ancient and modern

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

  • Sura was a man of great ambition and boundless stupidity, two qualities which in politics often go together. (p.18)
  • It is one of the tricks of the successful politician to be able to hold many things in mind at once and to switch between them as the need arises, otherwise life would be insupportable. (p.31)
  • ‘Unfortunately,’ replied Cicero, ‘politics is neither as clean as a wrestling match, nor played according to fixed rules.’ (p.80)
  • The really successful politician detaches his private self from their insults and reverses of public life, so that it is almost as if they happen to someone else. (p.81)
  • ‘This is the business of politics – to surmount each challenge as it appears and be ready to deal with the next.’ (p.92)
  • ‘In politics one cannot always pick and choose one’s enemies, let alone one’s friends.’ (p. 114)
  • ‘There’s nothing more fatal during an election campaign than to appear unconfident.’ (p.124)
  • There are times in politics, as in life generally, when whatever one does is wrong. (p.137)
  • Once a leader starts to be laughed at as a matter of routine, he loses authority, and then he is finished. (p.147)
  • Politics has loyalties all of its own and they greatly supersede those to in-laws. (p.164)
  • There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. If my work has a moral, this is it. (p.186)
  • ‘You sometimes have too many scruples for the dirty business of politics, Tiro. (p.280)
  • Sometimes in politics a great weakness can be turned into a strength. (p.293)
  • He had learned from Cicero the tricks of political campaigning: keep your speeches short, remember names, tell jokes, put on a show; above all, render an issue, however complex, into a story anyone can grasp. (p.294)
  • It was yet another lesson to me in politics – an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extraordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy. (p.337)
  • ‘In politics how things look is often more important than what they are.’ (p.341)
  • Up to that point Cicero had been treating the Spaniard with a kind of friendly disdain – as a joke figure: one of those self-important go-betweens who often crop up in politics. (p.353)
  • ‘We both know how politics is played. Sooner or later failure comes to us all.’ (p.431)

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

A checklist of references

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

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

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

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

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

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

Realistic in two ways

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

1. Sensual

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

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

2. Socio-political

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Drama

Then there are scenes which are just thrillingly dramatic:

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

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

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

The reassuring familiarity of thriller tropes

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

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

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

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

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

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

There has to be an arresting opening sentence and event:

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

An evil antagonist:

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

The baddies confront each other in tense standoffs:

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

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

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

Sudden alarms:

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

And the hero realising a conspiracy is afoot:

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

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

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

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

Portraits of Rome

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

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

Such was the state of the city on the eve of Cicero’s consulship – a vortex of hunger, rumour and anxiety; of crippled veterans and bankrupt farmers begging at every corner; of roistering bands of drunken young men terrorising shopkeepers; of women from good families openly prostituting themselves outside the taverns; of sudden conflagrations, violent tempests, moonless nights and scavenging dogs; of fanatics, soothsayers, beggars, fights. (p.8)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terentia

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

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

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

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

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

Tricks of oratory

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

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

Finally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catullus

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

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

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


Credit

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

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Plutarch’s life of Pompey

Pompey always maintained that simplicity in his habits which cost him no great effort; for he was naturally temperate and orderly in his desires. (18)

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106 to 48 BC)

This is one of the longest lives, with 80 chapters. Pompey the Great was a boy wonder general, who racked up a series of military victories, both in Rome’s civil wars and against external enemies. He was awarded unprecedented military power to fight the pirates and then prosecute the war in Parthia in the 60s BC, with the result that a growing number of critics began to think him a threat to the state.

In 60 BC Pompey entered into an uneasy alliance with the two other most powerful men in Rome, Julius Caesar (who had himself been awarded extraordinary and extended powers to fight his long war in Gaul) and Marcus Crassus (the richest man in Rome) in order to bribe and strong-arm their way to successive consulships and continually renewed generalships. It was called the triumvirate.

In the later 50s the triumvirate collapsed because a) Crassus was killed on campaign in Parthia and b) Caesar’s beloved daughter, Julia, who he had given to Pompey, died young, thus breaking the family tie between them. It left Pompey and Caesar as the two most powerful men in the state, both with devoted armies behind them, eyeing each other nervously. When his political opponents in Rome tried to end Caesar’s command in Gaul he marched with his army into Italy in 49 BC, triggering a civil war against Pompey and the army of Italy, which lasted from 49 to 45, ending with complete victory for Caesar. But by this stage Pompey was already dead, having been murdered in Egypt, fleeing from a military defeat in Greece, at which point the Pompey part of the story ends.

The life

(1) Contrasts the extreme unpopularity of the father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135 to 87), hated by his soldiers for his greed and cruelty, with the tremendous popularity of the son. Plutarch says the son was persuasive, trustworthy and tactful. Now all of this contrasts strongly with the portrait of Pompey given in the Life of Crassus, where he is made to be tactless, clumsy and anti-social. This raises the strong possibility that the characters Plutarch paints are not historically accurate or even consistent across his own biographies, but that Plutarch changes and rearranges them in the context of each life to make each life more dramatic. Artistic licence. Plutarch did warn us hat he feels more like a painter than a historian.

(2) He had a boyish youthful grace which people found attractive leading many to nickname him Alexander, after the boy wonder conqueror. Many rumours of his love affairs, for example the story of Flora the old courtesan who boasted that she never left his company without bitemarks.

(3) How young Pompey quelled an attempt by mutinous troops to murder his father and then talked round the troops.

(4) On his father’s death in 87 Pompey was put on trial for misappropriation of public funds but defended himself ably and was acquitted, in fact the judge in the case, Antistius, offered him his daughter in marriage.

(5) Plutarch associates Pompey directly with Cinna‘s death, saying that Pompey went into hiding but people thought Cinna had ordered him killed, so soldiers rose up against Cinna and a centurion pursued and killed him. 84 BC. By contrast the history books say Cinna was murdered by his own troops who mutinied rather than be sent across the Adriatic to fight Sulla in Greece.

(6) Gnaeus Papirius Carbo replaced Cinna as ruler of Rome, and Pompey, not yet 23, raised an army against him in the provinces and marched to Rome to support Sulla.

(7) Pompey defeated in quick succession the forces of Carinas, Cloelius, and Brutus, then persuaded the army of Scipio the consul to come over to him, then defeated a force sent by Carbo himself. Wunderkind.

(8) When Sulla’s army approaches Pompey ensures his looks smart and Sulla greets him at Imperator and later showed great marks of respect. When Sulla wanted to send Pompey to Gaul to help Metellus, Pompey very tactfully said he didn’t want to tread on the older man’s toes but would go if requested. He was requested, he did go and performed great feats.

(9) Sulla realised how valuable Pompey was and, once he was established in power in Rome (82 BC) he and his wife Metella prevail on the young man to divorce Antistia and marry Aemilia, the step-daughter of Sulla, even though she was pregnant with another man’s child. Political marriages. [In the same spirit Sulla tried to make Julius Caesar part with his wife, but Caesar refused and was so scared of reprisals that he went into hiding.] This was cruel on Antistia whose father had been murdered by Marius’s son, Marcus, for being a partisan of Pompey’s and whose mother had killed herself in response. Anyway, fate is fate, and Amelia had barely been installed in Pompey’s house before she died giving birth to the other man’s child.

(10) Once Sulla is secure in power in Rome, Pompey was charged with mopping up outstanding noble survivors. He was harshly judged for his delaying treatment of Carbo, 4 times consul, and but dealt mercifully with Himera and Sthenis. Perpenna was occupying Sicily until Pompey headed that way, at which he abandoned it and headed for Spain (where he was to become a grudging lieutenant to that other Marian exile, Sertorius).

(11) Sulla sends Pompey to Libya to fight Domitius Ahenobarbus. Pompey lands with a large force and defeats Domitius in a rainstorm. He arranges treaties with the cities of Libya and then invades into Numidia. It is said all this took him just 40 days and he was only 24 years old.

(12) Back at his base in Utica Pompey receives a letter from Sulla telling him to send his legions back to Italy which upsets Pompey, but his army threaten to mutiny in order to stay with him. When Pompey returns to Rome the people flock out to see him, who many are already calling Magnus or ‘the Great’ and Sulla thinks it politic to also acclaim Pompey as the great. According to Plutarch Pompey himself was one of the last to use this agnomen.

(14) Pompey asks for a triumph but Sulla refuses, saying he hasn’t even been a praetor yet let alone a consul. This was the context of Pompey allegedly muttering that more people worship the rising than the setting sun which, when he heard it, Sulla was so impressed by Pompey’s sheer cheek that he changed his mind and let Pompey have his triumph (probably in 81 BC). Pompey could easily have been elected to the Senate but it didn’t interest him so he didn’t try.

(15) Sulla resented Pompey’s popularity with the people but rarely let it show. He did, though, remark when Pompey put his name behind Lepidus‘s campaign to be elected consul in 78 BC, that Pompey had ensured that the worst man alive (Lepidus) secured more votes than the best (Catulus). Later that year Sulla died

(16) Lepidus, elected consul in 78, demanded a second consulship for the following year and, when it was refused, raised an army along with the sons of the old Marian cause. Pompey, as so often, was tasked with quelling the rebellion, defeated Lepidus at Cosa and Lepidus withdrew into Sardinia where he died the same year. Many of his supporters escaped to Spain where they joined the Marian rebel, Sertorius.

(17) Having defeated Lepidus, Pompey refused to disband his army but kept it near Rome. Many deprecated this, but it meant he was ready when the Senate ordered him to Spain to deal with the Marian rebel Sertorius. Pompey took over from Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius who was old and, to general surprise, had become addicted to luxury. This was never a problem for Pompey who was naturally moderate in all things.

(18) Pompey’s arrival in Spain rejuvenated the Roman troops. He wins a victory near Valentia.

(19) The big but inconclusive battle at the river Sucro in which he is wounded in the hand. Pompey’s respect for Metellus. The success of Sertorius’s hit and run guerrilla tactics.

(20) In 74, running low on money, Pompey wrote a famous letter to the Senate asking for more resources or saying he’d be forced to march home. LucullusPlutarch’s life of Lucullus was consul and did everything he could to get the money assigned. This was for personal reasons because he wanted to be assigned command of the army heading East to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus (the region along the south coast of the Black sea), and didn’t want Pompey to come home and snaffle this very desirable gig.

In 73 Sertorius was murdered at a dinner party by his resentful lieutenant Perpenna. Perpenna then took to the field against Pompey but had none of his victim’s agility and strategy. Pompey engaged the rebels in plain battle and slaughtered them. Perpenna and other Roman nobles were brought before him, and Pompey had them all executed.

There’s a story that Perpenna offered Pompey Sertorius’s correspondence with lots of leading figures in Rome who had been corresponding with him about overthrowing Sulla in the popular cause – but Pompey didn’t want to revive the civil war which was only just over and so burned the correspondence unread.

(21) Pompey went on to arrange peace in Spain, before returning to Italy in 71. He arrived at the height of the Spartacus rebellion, to the great irritation of Crassus who wanted to finish it off before Pompey took the credit. So Crassus hurried up and arranged a final set piece battle with Spartacus, at which he massacred the insurgents. Yet Pompey still managed to get credit because about 5,000 escaped from the main battle and Pompey engaged with them and slaughtered them. Then wrote a letter to the Senate saying Crassus certainly defeated Spartacus in battle but he, Pompey, scotched the cause once and for all.

There was widespread fear that, not disbanding his army and with so many successes, Pompey might turn into another Sulla. But he didn’t and he went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the people, for example supporting the law to have the powers which Sulla had taken away from the people’s tribunes restored to them.

(22) His influence is indicated by the way that Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome, only considered putting himself forward for consul if Pompey would back him, which he did. Both men were elected consuls in 70 BC. The story of Pompey appearing in person before the two censors to resign his military command.

(23) However, the pair spent a lot of their consul year at daggers drawn. As the year of their joint office neared its end a man climbed on the public platform they were sharing and said Jupiter had appeared in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t lay down their office till they’d become friends again. So Crassus stepped forward, took Pompey’s hand and praised him to the crowd. Having laid down his office, Pompey was seen less and less in public, and then only surrounded by a crowd to boost his sense of magnificence.

(24) Pirates A digression giving background on the rise of the pirates around the Mediterranean – caused in part because the Romans are devoting their energies to civil wars – till the pirates were said to have 1,000 ships and to have captured 400 cities. Their flaunting their power, wearing fine clothes and decorated ships was offensive. But in more practical terms the pirate plague was driving up prices and causing discontent.

(25) In 67 the tribune Aulus Gabinius proposed a law giving Pompey extraordinary power to crush the pirates, which led to impassioned speeches for and against in the Senate. But it was a very popular idea with the people.

(26) Pompey was awarded the commission divided the Mediterranean into quadrants which he assigned to subordinates tasked with sweeping them clean. In an astonishing 40 days he had routed the pirates and ended the problem in the western Med.

(27) In Rome the consul Piso conspired against Pompey, trying to limit the funding of the project and releasing ship’s crews early, so Pompey interrupted his campaign to anchor at Brindisi, march to Rome and sort things out.

Then he returned to sea, sailing East, with a stopover at Athens. Pompey closed in on the pirates’ bases in Cilicia but then amazed everyone by capturing but then setting free the pirates. He treated all of them leniently.

(28) Finally he tackles the hard core pirates at a headland off Cilicia. Pompey drove them off their boats and into a fortress which he besieged till the pirates, starving, surrendered. In less than 3 months the entire pirate problem had been sorted. He had captured 20,000 prisoners. Rather than punish them, though, Pompey very wisely resettled the pirates and their families in Greece and Asia Minor, in cities which he then granted extra land, figuring that good example, honest work and opportunity would tame them.

(29) Pompey’s dispute with Metellus (relative of the Metellus he fought alongside in Spain) who was fighting the pirates in Crete but whose authority Pompey undermined, taking the side of the pirates. Much criticism.

(30) With the end of the pirate campaign in 66 BC, one of the tribunes of the plebs, Manilius, proposes a law giving Pompey extraordinary power in the East to prosecute the war against Mithridates, taking command away from Lucius Licinius Lucullus. Debate, opposition from the nobles, but passed by the people. Pompey pretends to be vexed by the endless tasks he is given but was in reality pleased.

(31) So Pompey rallies his legions and sails for Asia Minor. Here he marches through the land, leaving nothing undisturbed that Lucullus had done. Eventually the two meet, with their armies, in Galatia. Both sets of lictors have put wreaths on their fasces but after a weary march Pompey’s are faded, so Lucullus’s lictors put their fresh wreaths on Pompey’s lictors’ fasces – which was remembered long afterwards as symbolising how Pompey had come to steal glory from Lucullus who had done all the hard work.

He’s referring to the way Pompey had a track record of arriving at the end of military campaigns and stealing the glory from, for example, Metellus in Spain and Crassus against Spartacus. Lucullus apparently compared Pompey to a lazy carrion-bird, that alights on bodies that others had killed and mocks him for having won a triumph (in 71 BC) for appearing at the end of the 3 year war against Spartacus and wiping out a relatively small number of stragglers. Right place, right time.

The two successful generals try to be civil, but behind each other’s backs, Pompey criticises Lucullus for his greed and looting and Lucullus criticises Pompey for his lust for power.

(32) Pompey’s campaign against Mithridates who shows the same ability to endlessly escape from battles and traps as he did against Lucullus. A battle fought by moonlight where the Romans massacre 10,000 Parthians.

(33) Pompey discovers young Tigranes of Armenia is in rebellion against his father, Tigranes king of kings, so allies and marches with him. The elder Tigranes comes to submit and is going to obeise himself when Pompey raises him up, sits him at his side, says he can retain his kingship and remaining provinces but a) those won by Lucullus will become Roman b) he must pay an indemnity of 6,000 talents, to which Tigranes agrees. Young Tigranes violently disagrees, insults Pompey and is put in chains. Phraates, king of the Parthians, sends an embassy suggesting the Euphrates should be the border between Roman territory and Parthian, and Pompey agrees.

(34) Pompey marches north towards and the Caucasus in search of Mithridates, and is attacked by native peoples, first the Albanians then the Iberians, both of which he thrashes.

(35) Mithridates had headed west and Pompey wanted to follow him but heard that the Albanians had rebelled again so crossed the river Cyrnus with difficulty, then marches across dry land carrying 10,000 waterskins and then crushed the Albanian army consisting of 60,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. As always, with numbers, a healthy dose of scepticism. Rumour that the Amazons fought with the Albanians but no women’s bodies were found. Note on the location and customs of the Amazons who are said to live in the Caucasus.

(36) Pompey sets off for Hyrcania but is driven back by the wild snakes. The kings of the Elymaeans and the Medes sent ambassadors to him, and he wrote them a friendly answer. The Parthian king had burst into Gordyene and was plundering the subjects of Tigranes so Pompey he sent an armed force under Afranius.

Pompey is sent all the concubines of Mithridates but doesn’t keep them, sending them back to their homes. Folk tale of one of the concubines, Stratonice, who was daughter to a very poor old man. When Mithridates took her as a concubine the old man woke up to find his house overflowing with treasure and servants. This Stratonice had been left in charge of one of Mithridates’ fortresses but handed it over to Pompey who, chastely, handed them over to the questors to be sent back to Rome.

(37) In the castle of Caenum Pompey comes across a cache of Mithridates’ correspondence showing, among other things, the people he’d had poisoned, including one of his own sons.

(38) While Mithridates was still alive and at large with a big force, Pompey did what he’d criticised Lucullus for doing and began to administer his provinces, having meetings with kings, issuing edicts and so on.

In his campaigns Pompey had reached some of the limits of the known world. In Spain he had reached the Atlantic (which the ancients thought was the Great Ocean surrounding one unified land mass). In North Africa he had also marched as far as the Outer Sea. In the East he had nearly reached Hyrcania. Now he wanted to march south through Arabia to the Red Sea.

(39) Pompey ordered a blockade of Mithridates in his base in the Bosporus (not the Bosphorus by modern Istanbul, but the area round the Crimea in the north Black Sea) and set off south. He annexed Syria for Rome and then Judaea, and made a prisoner of Aristobulus the king. He acted more and more like a mighty sovereign, dispensing justice to lower kings. He was asked to arbitrate a dispute between the kings of Parthia and Armenia. However many of his associates and lieutenants were grasping and corrupt.

(40) A notable hanger-on of Pompey’s was the Greek would-be philosopher Demetrius, who was impertinent and greedy. He used the treasure he looted in the East to buy big properties in Rome including the ‘gardens of Demetrius’. By contrast Pompey always lived in a very modest house.

(41) Pompey was on his way to deal with the king of Petra when messengers arrive bearing the news that Mithridates is finally dead. He killed himself after the revolt of his son, Pharnaces in 63 BC.

Locked up by his son, Pharnaces, Mithridates has his two young daughters poisoned then asks his bodyguard Bituitus to kill him.

The new king, Pharnaces, writes to Pompey saying he wants peace and sends the corpses of his father and entourage. Pompey is amazed at the splendour of the dead king’s accoutrements, most of which are subsequently stolen.

(42) Pompey winds up his affairs in Asia Minor then heads back to Rome in what turns into a kind of triumphal tour, stopping to be publicly praised in Mytilene, Rhodes and Athens. As he gets closer to Italy he takes more serious the rumours that his wife, Mucia, had been living a wild and debauched life, and so divorced her, winning the enmity of her family.

(43) It’s 63 BC. There is much paranoia in Rome that Pompey is returning to conquer the city as Sulla had done in 82. Crassus flees the city with his children. But on arriving at Brundisium Pompey dismissed his army, telling them to return to their homes, and continued to Rome accompanied only by close friends and entourage. This won him huge popularity and crowds turned out to cheer him in every town. He really was a golden boy (well man – aged 43).

(44) A general was not supposed to enter Rome until his triumph. Pompey asked for a dispensation to help the campaign for consul of M. Pupius Piso but Cato argued against it and it was blocked. Pompey admired Cato and suggested he marry one of Cato’s nieces and have his son marry the other one, but Cato saw through this form of bribery and refused. Nonetheless Pompey spent a fortune bribing the voters to elect Afranius consul in 60.

(45) September 61, Pompey’s awesome triumph which took 2 days. Not only was it awesome in terms of territory conquered, kings defeated and revenue brought in but Pompey’s three triumphs had been one in Africa, one in Europe and one in Asia, as if he had conquered the whole world.

(46) If he had died at this point, Pompey would have gone down as one of the greatest generals in history. Instead he was to get mixed up in politics and the immense reputation he had won would in the end go to empower his rival Julius Caesar.

Lucullus and Cato band against Pompey and, in response, Pompey found himself allying with an unpleasant character, Publius Clodius Pulcher, who dragged his name into the mud and involved him in the shameful exile of Cicero (in 58).

(47) Caesar had returned from Gaul and, seeing that Crassus and Pompey were opponents and he couldn’t ally with one without alienating the other, had the bright idea of allying with both and persuading them to join in a coalition, the triumvirate, to promote all their interests, established at secret meetings in 60. Caesar was elected consul for 59. In the same year to everyone’s surprise Pompey now married Julius Caesar’s young daughter, Julia.

(48) Pompey now organises street gangs to terrorise the opponents of his plan to get land made available for his army veterans. His strongest opponent is Cato’s son-in-law, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. A basket of dung is emptied over his head, his lictors are beaten up. The people are cowed into passing Pompey’s law. In 59 Publius Vatinius as tribune of the plebs proposed the lex Vatinia, which granted Caesar Cisalpine Gaul and IIlyricum for five years. At the instigation of Pompey and Piso the Senate added the province of Transalpine Gaul. The consuls for the following year were to be Piso, the father-in‑law of Caesar, and Gabinius, the most extravagant of Pompey’s flatterers. That is how the triumvirate administered their power.

Of their opponents Bibulus hid in his villa, Lucullus retired from public life altogether but Cato continued haranguing them in the Senate. In fact Pompey was soon seduced by his wife into retiring into private life. Caesar had disappeared off to Gaul so the political agenda was driven by Piso who got Cicero driven into exile (58) and then had Cato sent as governor to Cyprus. (Neither of these events are described in any detail, maybe because they’re dealt with in the respective lives.)

(49) Clodius then turned his scurrilous abuse against Pompey who regretted his acquiescence in Cicero’s exile. When Cicero was recalled he helped steer the passage of a corn law which placed Pompey in absolute control of Rome’s harbours, trading-places, distributions of crops — in a word, navigation and agriculture. Pompey really was the go-to guy to get things fixed.

(50) A brief note on Pompey’s success in sailing to Sicily, Sardinia and Africa to get grain. As usual Plutarch isn’t at all interested in the details but tells an improving story about Pompey’s words of encouragement to the captain of the fleet when a big storm arises as they’re about to set sail.

(51) Plutarch explains how Caesar’s time in Gaul was spent not only fighting the various tribes but in readying his army for civil strife, and in continually sending money and treasure back to Rome to bribe officials and the people to his side. Witness the conference he called at Luca in 66 to bolster the triumvirate which was attended by Pompey, Crassus, 200 men of senatorial rank and 120 proconsuls and praetors. The deal struck was that Caesar would send back enough soldiers to ensure the election of Crassus and Pompey as consuls for the following year on condition they passed a law getting Caesar’s command in Gaul extended.

(52) Cato, now back in Rome, encouraged his brother-in-law Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship of 55 but, true to the triumvirate pact, Pompey organised a gang to attack him and his entourage in the forum, killing his torchbearer and wounding Cato himself as he went to protect Domitius. It’s like the street fighting in Renaissance Italy or, more grimly, in Weimar Germany.

At the expiry of his consulship Crassus set off to be governor of Syria with authority over the entire East. Meanwhile Pompey opened his vast and splendid circus with a series of spectaculars, the one which stuck in everyone’s minds being a battle against elephants which horrified the spectators (including Cicero who records it in a letter).

(53) Pompey was criticised for his uxoriousness i.e. retiring to his villa to enjoy life with his young wife. She was devoted to him, maybe for the simple reason that among Roman men he was remarkably faithful. He was also handsome and had charming manners. Her devotion is demonstrated by the occasion on which a fight broke out in the forum and his toga was splashed with blood. His servants carried it home to be cleaned but when Julia saw it she fainted and miscarried. This sounds like an idealised folk story. Because for the purposes of the narrative she quickly has to be gotten pregnant again and nine months later, miscarry and die (in 54 BC). Pompey was distraught and wanted her buried at a family villa but the people insisted she was buried in the Campus Martius.

Plutarch then skips very quickly over Crassus’s defeat and death in Parthia (presumably because it’s dealt with at such massive length in his life of Crassus) skipping on to the main point which is that these 2 events marked the end of the triumvirate and the unravelling of the working relationship between Caesar and Pompey. He drops into graceful moralising:

So slight a thing is fortune when compared with human nature; for she cannot satisfy its desires, since all that extent of empire and magnitude of wide-stretching domain could not suffice for two men. They had heard and read that the gods​ “divided the universe into three parts, and each got his share of power” and yet they did not think the Roman dominion enough for themselves, who were but two. (53)

Beginning the slide into 25 years of civil war.

(54) The issue almost immediately was whether Caesar would lay down his command. Pompey made speeches pointing out how easily he had given up his command after returning from the East. Pompey tried to get his supporters into positions of power but discovered that Caesar had been quietly doing this for some time. Government became gridlocked and as soon as the following year, 53, a tribune suggested Pompey be made dictator. Elections of consuls stalled in 52 and even opponents such as Cato suggested Pompey be made sole consul, as being better than anarchy.

Pompey approached Cato in a private capacity to give advice, but Cato was typically priggish and said he would continue speaking his mind.

(55) Pompey marries Cornelia, widow of Publius Crassus, the son of Crassus who perished along with his father in Parthia. Critics thought it bad taste to be frolicking with garlands at a time of public crisis. He supervised public life effectively, placing soldiers at trials so they could continue without the usual barracking and intimidation. He was blamed for showing partiality in some trials but overall did a good job and was awarded governorship of his provinces for another five years.

(56) Caesar’s supporters said that he, too, deserved reward, and should have his command in Gaul extended. The suggestion was made that he should be allowed to stand for the consulship in his absence. Conservatives like Cato strongly objected, saying he should relinquish his command and return as an ordinary citizen to canvas.

(57) Pompey had a serious illness at Naples. When he recovered there was widespread rejoicing in that city and then in all the towns he passed through on his way back to Rome. Plutarch says this public support gave him a misleading sense of his own power. Back when the triumvirate was formed Pompey had sent two of the legions assigned to him to Gaul with Caesar. Now he asked for them back and they came commanded by Appius who made slighting comments about Caesar’s abilities. Pompey was fooled into thinking he had widespread support and military strength in Italy.

(58) Caesar based himself near to the border with Italy and intervened extensively in Roman politics, in particular bribing key officials in his favour and sending large blocs of soldiers to swing elections in his favour. A tribune made the suggestion that both generals lay down their arms at the same moment and became private citizens, thus not presenting a threat to the other. Opponents said Caesar was a public enemy and should simply relinquish his command, full stop, as he was not more powerful in the state and in no position to make demands of the senate.

(59) Marcellus announces that Caesar is crossing the Alps with ten legions and goes to see Pompey accompanied by the senate to call on him to save the state. But when Pompey tried to levy troops he was surprised at the poor response and reluctance. One reason was that Mark Anthony read out a letter from Caesar in which he suggested that he and Pompey give up their provinces and their armies and submit themselves to the people’s judgement. Cicero proposed a compromise that Caesar give up most but not all of his provinces and retain just 2 legions while he canvassed for a consulship. Arguments. Shouting.

(60) Now news came that Caesar was marching fast into Italy. Caesar pauses at the river Rubicon because it formed the boundary between his allotted province (Cisalpine Gaul) and Italy proper. In Cisalpine Gaul he was official commander and could do as he pleased. But crossing the river was an illegal act, and represented an invasion and subversion of the law.

Caesar took the decision to lead his army across the river and into Italy with the words ‘the die is cast’. The senate immediately asked Pompey to raise the army he had promised to protect Italy, Rome and them – but were horrified to learn that Pompey would struggle to raise a proper army. The legions Caesar had only recently sent back to him were unlikely to march against their former commander.

(61) Pandemonium in Rome, with endless rumour, an outflow of the panicking rich, an influx of refugees, collapse of magistrate authority and Pompey finding it hard to fix on a strategy. He declared a state of civil war, ordered all the senators to follow him, and that evening left the city.

(62) A few days later Caesar arrived in Rome, occupied it, ransacked the treasury for funds with which to pursue Pompey. Caesar wanted Pompey and his army cleared out of Italy before his army from Spain could arrive to reinforce him. Pompey takes his army to Brundisium, occupies and fortifies it then ferries his army ship by ship across to Albania. Caesar arrives but is held at the city walls for nine days while Pompey sailed.

(63) Caesar had sent a friend of Pompey’s, Numerius, to him with free and fair terms. But Pompey had sailed. Without bloodshed Caesar had become master of Rome and Italy. Now he set about and marched all the way to Spain to recruit the armies based there.

(64) Pompey now rallies an enormous army on lad and navy at sea. He inspires the training by taking part himself, aged 58. So many nobles flocked to him that they were able to recreate the senate.

(65) This senate passed a suggestion of Cato’s that no Roman be killed except in actual battle and no Roman cities subjected. This won even more people over to Pompey’s cause.

Meanwhile Caesar also was showing great clemency. After defeating Pompey’s forces in Spain he freely released the commanders and took the soldiers into his own service then marches back to Italy, to Brundisium and crossed to Oricum. He sent an emissary suggesting they lay down their arms, have a conference and become friends as of old. Pompey dismissed it as a trick. Pompey held the coast and dominated supplies. Caesar was hard pressed.

(66) Pompey’s allies pushed him to engage in open battle but Pompey correctly judged that a) Caesar’s army was more battle hardened after years in Gaul but b) they had less supplies – so he planned a war of attrition. Caesar struck camp and marched into Thessaly. Pompey’s supporters were jubilant and behaved as if they’d already won. He was encouraged to cross back to Italy, take total control of it and Rome. But Pompey didn’t want to a) run away again b) abandon his forces in Greece to Caesar c) bring bloodshed into Italy.

(67) So he chose to pursue Caesar, cutting his lines of communication and depriving him of supplies. Plutarch describes Pompey’s suspicions of Cato, who was with him in his camp but who he suspected would demand he lay down his command the second Caesar was defeated. Plutarch paints a grim picture of the politicking and squabbling among the politicians who had accompanied him and spent all their time criticising his plans. It affected his judgement.

(68) Pompey’s army comes out into the plain of Pharsalia. Various of his lieutenants vow not to return to camp until they had routed the enemy. That evening signs and portents are seen in the sky (as they always are). Pompey dreams he is laying tributes in the temple of Venus who was, of course, Caesar’s ancestor. At dawn Caesar was delighted to learn from his scouts that Pompey was preparing for battle.

(69) Pompey had twice as many men as Caesar, 40,000 to 22,000. But Caesar’s army assembled in quiet and confidence whereas Pompey’s were shouting and milling about in their inexperience.

(70) Plutarch takes a chapter to moralise on the pitiful tragic outcome of greed and folly which saw Roman pitted against Roman, family member against family member, when if they had united they could have conquered Scythia, Parthia even India.

(71) The Battle of Pharsalia 9 August 48 BC. Caesar’s troops scatter Pompey’s cavalry with the tactic of pushing their spears up into their faces. Then encircle Pompey’s infantry who panic.

(72) Caesar’s legions triumphed and pushed on into Pompey’s camp. Pompey left the battlefield to sit in his tent in shock, then rallied his men and rode away. 6,000 were killed. Caesar’s men found Pompey’s tents adorned with garlands, dressed for a feast. Such was their inexperience of battle and foolish hopes.

(73) Pompey escaped with a handful of companions. Plutarch paints him as mournfully reviewing the sudden collapse in his fortunes, the first time he’d ever lost a battle. He escaped to the coast and took a fisherman’s boat to a port where he boarded a merchantman. Its captain, Peticius, just happened to have had a dream the night before in which Pompey came imploring. Now he sculls up in a boat with a handful of companions in poor shape. Peticius takes them aboard and offers them a meal.

(74) They sail to Mytilene to take on board Pompey’s wife and son. He sends them a messenger. In best melodramatic tradition the messenger doesn’t say anything but his tears tell the story and Cornelia flings herself on the ground where she lies a long time motionless. Odd that this is the universal attitude of despair in these texts, compared with our modern stock attitude which would be thrashing around and ranting.

Cornelia is given a speech out of a Greek tragedy bewailing her lot, as wife to Publius Crassus, who met a miserable death in Parthia, and now wishing she had killed herself then and not brought bad luck to Pompey.

(75) Pompey is given a stock speech in reply about Fortune and they are only mortals and might rise again. Cornelia sends for her things. The people of Mytilene want to invite Pompey in but he refuses and says the conqueror will come soon enough. More interesting is the little digression in which Pompey was said to have had a conversation with the local philosopher, Cratippus, about Providence. Plutarch slips in the moral of the entire book:

For when Pompey raised questions about Providence, Cratippus might have answered that the state now required a monarchy because it was so badly administered.

The Romans mismanaged their way into a disastrous civil war.

(76) At its next stop the ship is met by some of Pompey’s navy. This has survived intact and he laments the fact that he didn’t make more use of it but allowed himself to be lured into battle far from the sea. He learns Cato rescued many of the soldiers and is shipping them over to Libya. He has been joined by his lieutenants and 60 or so senators. The plan is to recruit more men from the cities. Emissaries are sent out. Pompey and advisers debate where to hole up while they recuperate their forces. Some argue for Libya, some for far-off Parthia. But the strongest voices are for Egypt which is only three days’ sail ,away and where the young king Ptolemy owes his throne to Pompey.

(77) So they sail south to Egypt in a Seleucian trireme from Cyprus, accompanied by warships and merchant ships. When they arrive they discover Ptolemy is at war with his sister Cleopatra. Ptolemy’s advisers hold a conclave on what to do, led by Potheinus the eunuch. Theodotus the rhetorician wins the day by arguing they should kill Pompey thus pleasing Caesar and removing the threat.

(78) Pompey was in a small boat which had approached the shore. Potheinus and Theodotus deputed the task of receiving him to some Roman soldiers who had gravitated to Ptolemy’s court, Achillas, Septimius and Salvius. When the Romans saw a handful of men coming towards them in an ordinary boat, none of the pomp of the pharaoh, they sensed something was wrong. But as the Egyptian boat came up they and the Romans in it hailed them they saw other boats being manned on the shore. To fly would show lack of confidence and trigger attack. So Pompey embraced his wife who was already weeping as if he were dead, and taking a few servants, Philip and Scythe, stepped into the Egyptian boat.

(79) The men in the boat were cold and distant from Pompey. He took out his notebook to practice the speech to Ptolemy in Greek which he had practiced. As they reached the shore Pompey stretched his arm up to be helped to his feet and Septimius ran him through with a sword from behind, then Achillas and Salvius stabbed him, too. Pompey drew his toga over his face and fell.

(80) From the Roman fleet a mighty groan then they set sail and left before the Egyptian fleet could come out. The Egyptians cut off Pompey’s head and threw his body into the sea. His servant Philip waited till they’d left then scavenged along the shore for enough wood to build a pyre. Along comes an old Roman, a veteran, and offers to help, and so these two poor men built and supervised the burning of one of the greatest Romans of all.

Next day a ship carrying Lucius Lentulus comes into view, he lands and sees the pyre and asks Philip about his master’s fate, and delivers a lament as from a tragedy. Then he was captured by the Egyptians and also put to death.

Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up the loose ends. When Caesar landed and was presented with the head of Pompey he was disgusted, when shown his ring he burst into tears. He had Achillas and Potheinus put to death. King Ptolemy was defeated in battle and disappeared into the interior never to be heard of again. The sophist Theodotus fled but many years later, after Caesar’s assassination, Brutus tracked him down in Asia and had him put to death with many tortures. The ashes of Pompey were taken to his widow who buried them at his country house near Alba.


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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


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