Monday, January 25, 2016

NEW NOVEL "DICTATOR" A TERRIFIC READ

Although I usually don't post book reviews, I'm in the midst of reading "Dictator"and find it fascinating so hope readers will find the following review an impetus to read the novel.


Dictator
ROBERT HARRIS
HUTCHINSON, $32.99

Cicero is one of the most famous figures from Roman history. Orator, legal advocate, writer, philosopher and politician, he lived from 106BC to 43BC during the turbulent era of the late Republic, which ended with the arrival of imperial Rome under the first emperor Augustus. Author Robert Harris has used Roman history in his fictional trilogy.

Dictator is Robert Harris' final book in his fictional trilogy on Marcus Tullius Cicero, which began with Imperium (2006), centering on Cicero's prosecution of Sicily's Roman governor, Verres, then Lustrum (2009), with the Catiline conspiracy its core. The dictator of the third book is Julius Caesar, whose shadow hovers throughout, while Pompey and Marcus Crassus, allies with Caesar in the trio's triumvirate, feature prominently.

Others of significance include political rabble-rousers Clodius and Milo, Mark Antony, the leading conspirators in Caesar's assassination, Cicero's family and Caesar's adopted son, Octavian. As in the first two books, Cicero's actual secretary, Tiro, narrates the story, playing his part through conversation, opinion and bearing witness to great events.

Dictator begins in 58 with Cicero exiled over the questionable legality of the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators during his consulship a few years earlier.Back in Italy and Rome in 57 he later serves a provincial governorship but returns to Italy in 49, with the civil war having begun between former confederates Caesar and Pompey, the anti-Caesareans' champion. After his victory over Pompey, Caesar pardons the "anti"-aligned Cicero, yet despite this he is sympathetic to Caesar's assassination in 44.

It is within and around these happenings Harris constructs his story and his Cicero, who in this third book feels he has been wronged by his exile and on his return despairs of his lot. Nonetheless, he still has many friends and admirers and does his best to navigate the increasingly dangerous political currents and deal with his uneven married and family life, these personal aspects compassionately couched.

Although Cicero, one suspects, would prefer to concentrate on his writing, of which he does much, he cannot resist politics, his enmity towards Antony proving unwise. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Cicero's friendship with and mentoring of Octavian: a young man largely ignored and dismissed – fatally for some – by Rome's political elite.

Harris' Caesar is a much darker portrait than one might usually find in a fictional work (and in some historical accounts). This should not surprise, as Harris has described him as having been perhaps like "Napoleon or Hitler, a genocidal maniac, the archetypal psychopath". For me, this is drawing much too long a bow.

Harris has joined other well-known writers in using Roman history for their novels – Colleen McCullough with her Masters of Rome series, also set in the late Republic; Gore Vidal wrote Julian, about the fourth-century emperor of that name; while Robert Graves, in the 1930s, gave us I, Claudius and Claudius the God, about that first-century emperor.

As well as being rewarding novels in themselves, like Harris' Dictator, with its sympathetic portrayal of Cicero, they can introduce some readers to the ancient world for the first time and maybe whet their appetites for historical accounts. Given the echoes we find of our contemporary times, this can only be a good thing.

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