In Conspirata Robert Harris has again written a novel of classical Rome that is rich with characters, atmosphere, historical detail, and plot. The book focuses on Cicero’s attempts to preserve the authority of the Roman Senate, and the Republic, against Caesar’s dictatorial machinations that flexibly reached both certain patrician quarters and vast tracts of the disenfranchised (but traditionally protected) popular classes, or plebes.
The major figures here are Cicero, Pompey the Great, Crassus, Cicero’s secretary Tiro, his wife Terentia, Cataline (here called Catalina), and many others, including the amoral Clodius and his sister Clodia.
Cicero is an unlikely hero in many ways, astute and yet shaky politically, not a soldier in a martial culture, and given to anxiety and unattractive dealmaking. But this makes him all the more interesting. He detects Cataline’s plot to storm and dismantle Rome and thwarts it, but this goes too much to his head, so he isn’t quick or flexible enough to outwit the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and by the end of this book, he is heading into exile (though history tells us he came back, perhaps as influential as ever.)
The novel is fast-paced and well-informed without being too technical and overly detailed. Harris does an excellent job in fleshing out characters like Crassus, Cato (the very younger), Caesar, and a raft of miscreants and plotters.
My passage through translating Cicero’s great speeches from Latin into English fifty years ago did seem to me more vivid than what I encounter here, but I’m not sure there’s much a modern author can do about this. A single Ciceronian sentence can go on for ten or fifteen lines of text. That doesn’t make for good novelizing. But at the same time, Cicero would pack so much into his long sentences that finding an end to them brought a fantastic sense of relief and understanding. He possessed a rhetorical mind equal to any. Think of Churchill because Churchill thought of Cicero; think of many another great Western orator, because they, too, thought of Cicero.
One aspect of life in Cicero’s Rome that comes through Conspirata with disturbing clarity is how dangerous and fickle it was. Cicero defended governance by the upper class, not a popular stance today, but one can see how tense and ready to burst Rome was as its wealth and decadence grew. Pompey the Great brought fantastic riches to an empire that still thought of itself as a kind of city. Caesar capitalized on the instability this wealth engendered. Then he was killed. Finally, Augustus established order, but the beloved Roman Republic was dead.
One of Cicero’s greatest legacies was bringing Greek philosophy into the Latin language and amplifying Latin to accommodate it. He was, as Harris portrays him, a thoughtful man of public affairs. Today we can look around and find few public leaders with a broad intellectual horizon. Though he does not flaunt it, Obama has such an horizon. Churchill had it and so did Woodrow Wilson. Sometimes this is a weakness, perhaps more often than not, but it’s a fascinating characteristic and introduces a kind of melancholy into learned leadership. Such figures know the outer limits of what philosophers can dream, and they know the limits of what politicians can accomplish. All too often the ultimate agent of change is war, and no one who is widely read can be an enthusiast of violence rather than reason.