I have a new article on Latin in popular culture up at Rosetta - this is the one I think I've mentioned a few times as forthcoming on the blog!
I enjoyed this book a lot – so much so, I even started to like Cicero a little bit. (Just a little bit). The book is perhaps slightly too long and spends a wee bit too much time on the trial of Verres, which brought Cicero to prominence and which, fascinating though it is, goes on until the book’s halfway point. This leaves the seizure of supreme command by Pompey (one of the many steps towards the institution of Emperors) a little less space, and the fight for the consulship between Cicero and Catiline (which led to Cicero winning the highest political office in the Roman republic) relatively little space at all. I would, I think, have been fairly happy to see the book conclude with the trial of Verres and save the rest for the next volume, though that might prevent the series from falling into a nice neat trilogy (and, in one of my many less bright moments, I spent half the book thinking that this was a one-volume story of the life of Cicero, and was wondering how on Earth Harris was going to fit it all in). The level of detail is great to see, though, and Harris tells as absorbing tale.
The book is packaged to attract readers of Harris’ work on more modern politics, chiefly his Fatherland, an alternative history set in a world where Hitler won Word War Two. Politics throughout the ages is clearly Harris’ main interest and he uses American political terminology to describe Roman politics throughout. Words like ‘canvass’, ‘campaign’, ‘ballot’ ‘the ticket’, ‘running mate’ and many more frequently made me feel like I was watching an episode of The West Wing rather than reading about Roman politics and the section about how the first century to vote felt terribly proud of the honour sounded exactly like the way the inhabitants of New Hampshire feel about the New Hampshire Primary (according to The West Wing, anyway, which is the source of all my knowledge of American politics. That and Dave). For the most part, these phrases work rather well – they instantly present the reader with something recognisable, with a familiar set of patterns and expectations to work with, and they prevent readers from spending half the book trying to work out what’s going on, though I think ‘bills’ with ‘amendments’ is going a bit far – we’d all recognize the words ‘law’ and ‘change’ and too much Americanisation/modernisation will, eventually, take the reader out of the story and become a distraction. The one word that really stood out as incongruous was ‘hagiographical’. I don’t doubt for a second that Harris is fully aware that this a Christian term, relating to a Christian genre which could not, therefore, have been in use sixty years before the birth of Christ. He uses the word for effect in the same way he uses ‘running mate’. But for me, like the ‘St Bernard’s Pass’, ‘hagiographical’ is just a step too far and it takes me right out of the narrative.
Harris’ narrator is Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, the inventor of shorthand, and you couldn’t wish for a more useful character as narrator – Tiro’s job was to make notes on Cicero’s work and he did write a Life of Cicero, which was unfortunately lost. Sometimes, Harris actually tries a little too hard to reassure us that Tiro really could have been present at various important meetings – since Tiro is a secretary and note-taker, I can believe in that particular narrative device quite happily without the characters having to have a conversation about it every time. On the other hand, this tactic does pay off somewhat at the end of the novel, when Tiro is, for once, excluded, and so the revelation of Cicero’s latest deal is delayed until a dramatically appropriate moment. I’ve always had a thoroughly silly liking for Tiro anyway, purely because he was portrayed in a very sympathetic manner in the first of Steven Saylor’s Gordianus books, so I’m more than happy to sympathise with him as a lead character.
Harris does sometimes fall prey to the same tactic as Massie did in his Caesar, in which just about everything Caesar ever said or did was really the idea of Massie’s protagonist, Decimus Brutus. Here, just about every major speech Cicero was vaguely associated with was written by him and he came up with all the cleverest ideas to advance Pompey. Harris has rather more justification here than Massie did though, as I suspect a lot of it is true, so he gets away with it. Pompey himself reminded me of Captain Kirk more than anything else – a supreme military commander who’s not that great at anything else and gets bored when not with the army. Caesar comes off as much sharper, politically.
The most refreshing thing about this book was the sex – there was hardly any of it! Caesar, of course, is having sex with just about every woman in Rome, as usual, but rather than calmly accepting this, Tiro is horrified when he catches Caesar sleeping with Pompey’s wife in Pompey’s own house. Tiro himself is so apparently asexual another character comments on it and Cicero appears to have sex mainly for the purposes of procreation. It is wonderful to see a portrayal of ancient Rome that does not assume that all Romans thought nothing of people getting blow jobs from slave boys in half-open tents or getting their slaves to do all the hard work for them while conducting serious discussions. I did roll my eyes when I got to the accusations concerning Clodius and Clodia sleeping together – the reason for my longstanding dislike of Cicero is that I read the Pro Caelio, in which he defends Caelius by attacking Clodia, as a borderline misogynistic attack on a woman’s character with only peripheral relevance to the case at hand. I am skeptical that either were as bad as the later tradition, which was not kind to them, makes out and I doubt they slept together – but this case won’t come up until the next book, so I’ll have to wait and see what Harris does with it. Harris does write Cicero's wife, Terentia, the only significant female character in the book, very well. Their relationship is tense, affectionate without passion, occasionally loving without being in love, often falling apart - a touching and believable account of an arranged marriage of convenience that lasts for thirty years in a culture that was entirely open to quick and frequent divorce.
Overall, this was a brilliantly written, engaging book about a fascinating character (though I still don’t actually like him – but I like Tiro). All the necessary background to Roman politics is explained and the whole thing sweeps you along nicely. A few sections start to resemble a history book as Harris fills in information between events, but for the most part this is a novel revolving around a strong set of characters, chiefly the central trio of Cicero, Tiro and Terentia. I look forward to reading Volume 2!
David Bamber as Cicero in BBC/HBO's Rome