Roma Revividus

Jug Suraiya is a columnist with The Times of India
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The final volume of the trilogy on Cicero’s life is a visceral portrayal of the long-lost Roman Empire
Dictator | Robert Harris | Random House UK | Pages 449 | Rs 699
The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living

The secret is out; Robert Harris is a fake. Posing as an ex-journalist turned thriller writer, Harris is really a time traveller. With the aid of some device he has invented—as mysterious as it is ingenious—he has acquired the uncanny ability to travel back in time to ages long gone, and the best part is that he can take us right along with him.

So make yourself comfortable in the passenger seat, fasten the safety belt, and enjoy the ride, which transports you to Rome in the year 58 BC. The Roman Empire bestrides the world like a colossus, stretching from what is now Syria to Spain, from the shores of northern Africa to France. But like a stricken giant oblivious of a wound that eventually will prove fatal, it is caught in the paroxysms of conspiracy, political and social upheaval and internecine war.

The brilliant orator, philosopher and statesman, Cicero, is fleeing Rome to escape the murderous designs of the tribune, Clodius, a pawn of Julius Caesar in the deadly game of thrones that he is playing against his old, once-powerful adversary. Cicero is accompanied by Tiro, his devoted slave- scribe who is the narrator of the events that unfold in this last part of the trilogy which includes Imperium and Lustrum. Together, the three books recount, through the voice of Tiro, the rise and fall of Cicero, a pivotal figure in what was then the greatest military, economic and civilisational force on earth.

The main characters in this three- part drama, apart from Cicero himself, are Julius Caesar, the all-conquering general Pompey, the plutocrat Crassus, the political fanatic Cato, and the aristocratic dilettante Clodius who will allow himself to be used as Caesar’s proxy in the power-play in which the Roman Republic is embroiled.

As told by Harris, through the mouth of Tiro, Cicero’s saga represents a 12- year-long labour of love, buttressed by rigorous academic research, and has been hailed by critics as being at par with—if not surpassing—Robert Graves’ celebrated Claudius series.

Along with scholarly knowledge, Harris brings to his task a journalistic aptitude for vivid, eye-witness description. We can hear the ringing echoes of impassioned debate in the marbled halls of the senate, taste the bitter bile of excess after the voluptuary indulgence of a night-long orgiastic feast, feel the cobblestones of ancient alleyways through the stride of leather-soled sandals, smell the stink and frenzy of the mob, that unruly and violent beast used by the wiles of politicians to serve their own devious ends, then as now.

In his Acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author notes that for the sake of authencity, he has, wherever possible, tried to use Cicero’s own words, compressed and edited, as gleaned from the authoritative Loeb edition of Cicero’s collected speeches, correspondence and other writings that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages that followed it.

Much of this material has been made available to posterity by the tireless efforts of Tiro, who devotedly wrote down almost all the public pronouncements of his master. In his Author’s Note, Harris quotes Cicero writing to Tiro in 50 BC: ‘Your services to me are beyond count, in my home and out of it, in Rome and abroad, in private affairs and in public, in my studies and literary work.’

Was Tiro also, like his master, a real-life person? According to Harris there are ‘well-attested historical facts’ in support of this. Born a slave on the family estate, he long outlived Cicero, reaching a hundred years on his deathbed.

His intellectual attainments almost rivalled that of his polymath master, whose legacy helped to give birth to the great efflorescence of the Renaissance and went on to influence Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Hume.

As Cicero’s amanuensis, Tiro invented a form of shorthand, some of which still exists today, one example being the sign for the ampersand, ‘&’.

What Harris himself does best is to invoke in the reader a frisson of the long-ago past in the noise and bustle of today. Seen through his eyes, history is not a has-been; it is the living womb of the present. And if we violate it—as we in an India, increasingly imbued with a saffronised ideology, seem bent on doing—we will commit an act of self- induced abortion.

Read between the lines, that’s the cautionary tale Tiro has to tell us.

(Jug Suraiya is a writer and columnist)