At the age of forty-eight, Cicero—the greatest orator of his time—is in exile, separated from his wife and children, tormented by his sense of failure, his great power sacrificed on the altar of his principles. And yet, in the words of one of his most famous aphorisms, “While there is life, there is hope.”
By promising to support Caesar—his political enemy—he is granted return to Rome. There, he fights his way back to prominence: first in the law courts, then in the Senate, and finally by the power of his pen, until at last, for one brief and glorious period, he is again the preeminent statesman in the city. Even so, no public figure, however brilliant and cunning, is completely safeguarded against the unscrupulous ambition and corruption of others.
Riveting and tumultuous, Dictator encompasses some of the most epic events in ancient history—the collapse of the Roman Republic and the subsequent civil war, the murder of Pompey, the assassination of Julius Caesar. But the central problem it presents is a timeless one: how to keep political freedom unsullied by personal ambition, vested interests, and the erosive effects of ceaseless, senseless foreign wars. In Robert Harris’s indelible portrait, Cicero attempts to answer this question with both his thoughts and his deeds, becoming a hero—brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave—both for his own time and for ours.
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I remember the cries of caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium—their yearning, keening howls, like animals in heat—and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.
It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.
Even though he was the oldest of our party Cicero kept up the same fast pace as the rest of us. Not long ago he had held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. He could have crushed it as easily as an egg. Now their fortunes led them in entirely opposite directions. While Cicero hurried south to escape his enemies, the architect of his destruction marched north to take command of both provinces of Gaul.
He walked with his head down, not uttering a word and I imagined it was because he was too full of despair to speak. Only at dawn, when we rendezvoused with our horses at Bovillae and were about to embark on the second stage of our escape, did he pause with his foot in the doorway of his carriage and say suddenly, “Do you think we should turn back?”
The question caught me by surprise. “I don’t know,” I said. “I hadn’t considered it.”
“Well, consider it now. Tell me: why are we fleeing Rome?”
“Because of Clodius and his mob.”
“And why is Clodius so powerful?”
“Because he’s a tribune and can pass laws against you.”
“And who made it possible for him to become a tribune?”
I hesitated. “Caesar.”
“Exactly. Caesar. Do you imagine that man’s departure for Gaul at that precise hour was a coincidence? Of course not! He waited till his spies had reported I’d left the city before ordering his army to move. Why? I’d always assumed his advancement of Clodius was to punish me for speaking out against him. But what if his real aim all along was to drive me out of Rome? What scheme requires him to be certain I’ve gone before he can leave too?”
I should have grasped the logic of what he was saying. I should have urged him to turn back. But I was too exhausted to reason clearly. And if I am honest there was more to it than that. I was too afraid of what Clodius’s thugs might do to us if they caught us re-entering the city.
So instead I said, “It’s a good question, and I can’t pretend I have the answer. But wouldn’t it look indecisive, after bidding goodbye to everyone, suddenly to reappear? In any case, Clodius has burned your house down now—where would we return to? Who would take us in? I think you’d be wiser to stick to your original plan and get as far away from Rome as you can.”
He rested his head against the side of the carriage and closed his eyes. In the pale grey light I was shocked by how haggard he appeared after his night on the road. His hair and beard had not been cut for weeks. He was wearing a toga dyed black. Although he was only in his forty-ninth year, these public signs of mourning made him look much older—like some ancient, mendicant holy man. After a while he sighed. “I don’t know, Tiro. Perhaps you’re right. It’s so long since I slept I’m too tired to think any more.”
And so the fatal error was made—more through indecision than decision—and we continued to press on southwards for the remainder of that day and for the twelve days that followed, putting what we thought was a safe distance between ourselves and danger.
We travelled with a minimal entourage to avoid attracting attention—just the carriage driver and three armed slaves on horseback, one in front and two behind. A small chest of gold and silver coins that Atticus, Cicero’s oldest and closest friend, had provided to pay for our journey was hidden under our seat. We stayed only in the houses of men we trusted, no more than a night in each, and steered clear of those places where Cicero might have been expected to stop—for example at his seaside villa at Formiae, the first place any pursuers would look for him, and along the Bay of Naples, already filling with the annual exodus from Rome in search of winter sun and warm springs. Instead we headed as fast as we could towards the toe of Italy.
Cicero’s plan, conceived on the move, was to make for Sicily and stay there until the political agitation against him in Rome subsided. “The mob will turn on Clodius eventually,” he predicted. “Such is the unalterable nature of the mob. He will always be my mortal enemy but he won’t always be tribune—we must never forget that. In nine months his term of office will expire and then we can go back.”
He was confident of a friendly reception from the Sicilians, if only because of his successful prosecution of the island’s tyrannical governor, Verres—even though that brilliant victory, which launched his political career, was now twelve years in the past and Clodius had more recently been a magistrate in the province. I sent letters ahead giving notice of his intention to seek sanctuary, and when we reached the harbour at Regium we hired a little six-oared boat to row us across the straits to Messina.
We left the harbour on a clear cold winter morning of searing blues—the sea and the sky; one light, one dark; the line dividing them as sharp as a blade; the distance to Messina a mere three miles. It took us less than an hour. We drew so close we could see Cicero’s supporters lined up on the rocks to welcome him. But stationed between us and the entrance to the port was a warship flying the red and green colours of the governor of Sicily, Gaius Vergilius, and as we approached the lighthouse it slipped its anchor and moved slowly forwards to intercept us. Vergilius stood at the rail surrounded by his lictors and, after visibly recoiling at Cicero’s dishevelled appearance, shouted down a greeting, to which Cicero replied in friendly terms. They had known one another in the Senate for many years.
Vergilius asked him his intentions.
Cicero called back that naturally he intended to come ashore.
“That’s what I’d heard,” replied Vergilius. “Unhappily I can’t allow it.”
“Because of Clodius’s new law.”
“And what new law would that be? There are so many, one loses count.”
Vergilius beckoned to a member of his staff who produced a document and leaned down to pass it to me and I then gave it to Cicero. To this day I can remember how it fluttered in his hands in the slight breeze as if it were a living thing; it was the only sound in the silence. He took his time and when he had finished reading it he handed it to me without comment.
Lex Clodia in Ciceronem
Whereas M. T. Cicero has put Roman citizens to death unheard and uncondemned; and to that end forged the authority and decree of the Senate; it is hereby ordained that he be interdicted from fire and water to a distance of four hundred miles from Rome; that nobody should presume to harbour or receive him, on pain of death; that all his property and possessions be forfeit; that his house in Rome be demolished and a shrine to Liberty consecrated in its place; and that whoever shall move, speak, vote or take any step towards recalling him shall be treated as a public enemy, unless those whom Cicero unlawfully put to death should first spring back to life.
It must have been the most terrible blow. But he found the composure to dismiss it with a flick of his hand. “When,” he enquired, “was this nonsense published?”
“I’m told it was posted in Rome eight days ago. It came into my hands yesterday.”
“Then it’s not law yet, and can’t be law until it’s been read a third time. My secretary will confirm it. Tiro,” he said, turning to me, “tell the governor the earliest date it can be passed.”
I tried to calculate. Before a bill could be put to a vote it had to be read aloud in the Forum on three successive market days. But my reasoning was so shaken by what I had just read I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was now, let alone when the market days fell. “Twenty days from today,” I hazarded, “perhaps twenty-five?”
“You see?” cried Cicero. “I have three weeks’ grace even if it passes, which I’m sure it won’t.” He stood up in the prow of the boat, bracing his legs against the rocking of the hull, and spread his arms wide in appeal. “Please, my dear Vergilius, for the sake of our past friendship, now that I have come so far, at least allow me to land and spend a night or two with my supporters.”
“No, as I say, I’m sorry, but I cannot take the risk. I’ve consulted my experts. They say even if you travelled to the very western tip of the island, to Lilybaeum, you’d still be within three hundred and fifty miles of Rome, and then Clodius would come after me.”
At that, Cicero ceased to be so friendly. He said coldly, “You have no right under the law to impede the journey of a Roman citizen.”
“I have every right to safeguard the tranquillity of my province. And here, as you know, my word is the law . . .”
He was apologetic. I dare say he was even embarrassed. But he was immovable, and after a few more angry exchanges there was nothing for it but to turn round and row back to Regium. Our departure provoked a great cry of dismay from the shoreline and I could see that Cicero for the first time was seriously worried. Vergilius was a friend of his. If this was how a friend reacted then soon the whole of Italy would be closed against him. Returning to Rome to oppose the law was much too risky. He had left it too late. Apart from the physical danger such a journey would entail, the bill would almost certainly pass, and then we would be stranded four hundred miles from the legal limit it prescribed. To comply safely with the terms of his exile he would have to flee abroad immediately. Obviously Gaul was out of the question because of Caesar. So it would have to be somewhere in the East—Greece perhaps, or Asia. But unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the peninsula to make our escape in the treacherous winter seas. We needed to get over to the opposite coast, to Brundisium on the Adriatic, and find a big ship capable of making a lengthy voyage. Our predicament was exquisitely vile—as no doubt Caesar, the original sponsor and creator of Clodius, had intended.
it took us two weeks of arduous travel to cross the mountains, often in heavy rain and mostly along bad roads. Every mile seemed fraught with the hazard of ambush, although the primitive little towns we passed through were welcoming enough. At night we slept in smoky, freezing inns and dined on hard bread and fatty meat made scarcely more palatable by sour wine. Cicero’s mood veered between fury and despair. He saw clearly now that he had made a terrible mistake by leaving Rome. It had been madness for him to quit the city and leave Clodius free to spread the calumny that he had put citizens to death “unheard and uncondemned” when in fact each of the five Catiline conspirators had been allowed to speak in his own defence and their execution had been sanctioned by the entire Senate. But his flight was tantamount to an admission of guilt. He should have obeyed his instinct and turned back when he heard Caesar’s departing trumpets and first began to realise his error. He wept at the disaster his folly and timidity had brought upon his wife and children.
And when he had finished lashing himself, he turned his scourge on Hortensius “and the rest of the aristocratic gang,” who had never forgiven him for rising from his humble origins to the consulship and saving the republic: they had deliberately urged him to flee in order to ruin him. He should have heeded the example of Socrates, who said that death was preferable to exile. Yes, he should have killed himself! He snatched up a knife from the dining table. He would kill himself! I said nothing. I didn’t take the threat seriously. He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood, let alone his own. All his life he had tried to avoid military expeditions, the games, public executions, funerals—anything that might remind him of mortality. If pain frightened him, death terrified him—which, although I would never have been impertinent enough to point it out, was the principal reason we had fled Rome in the first place.
When finally we came within sight of the fortified walls of Brundisium, he decided not to venture inside. The port was so large and busy, so full of strangers, and so likely to be his destination, he was convinced it was the obvious spot for his assassination. Instead we sought sanctuary a little way up the coast, in the residence of his old friend Marcus Laenius Flaccus. That night we slept in decent beds for the first time in three weeks, and the next morning we went down to the beach. The waves were much rougher than on the Sicilian side. A strong wind was hurling the Adriatic relentlessly against the rocks and shingle. Cicero loathed sea voyages at the best of times; this one promised to be especially treacherous. Yet it was our only means of escape. One hundred and twenty miles beyond the horizon lay the shore of Illyricum.
Flaccus, noticing his expression, said, “Fortify your spirits, Cicero—perhaps the bill won’t pass, or one of the other tribunes will veto it. There must be someone left in Rome willing to stand up for you—Pompey, surely?”
But Cicero, his gaze still fixed out to sea, made no reply, and a few days later we heard that the bill had indeed become law and that Flaccus was therefore guilty of a capital offence simply by having a convicted exile on his premises. Even so he tried to persuade us to stay. He insisted that Clodius didn’t frighten him. But Cicero wouldn’t hear of it: “Your loyalty moves me, old friend, but that monster will have dispatched a team of his hired fighters to hunt me down the moment his law passed. There is no time to lose.”
I had found a merchant ship in the harbour at Brundisium whose hard-pressed master was willing to risk a winter voyage across the Adriatic in return for a huge fee, and the next morning at first light, when no one was around, we went on board. She was a sturdy, broad-beamed vessel, with a crew of about twenty, used to ply the trade route between Italy and Dyrrachium. I was no judge of these things, but she looked safe enough to me. The master estimated the crossing would require a day and a half—but we needed to leave quickly, he said, and take advantage of the favourable wind. So while the sailors made her ready and Flaccus waited on the quayside, Cicero quickly dictated a final message to his wife and children: It has been a fine life, a great career—the good in me, nothing bad, has brought me down. My dear Terentia, loyalest and best of wives, my darling daughter Tullia, and little Marcus, our one remaining hope—goodbye! I copied it out and passed it up to Flaccus. He raised his hand in farewell. Then the sail was unfurled, the cables cast off, the oarsmen pushed us away from the harbour wall, and we set off into the pale grey light.
at first we made good speed. cicero stood high above the deck on the steersmen’s platform, leaning on the stern rail, watching the great lighthouse of Brundisium recede behind us. Apart from his visits to Sicily, it was the first time he had left Italy since his youth, when he went to Rhodes to learn oratory from Molon. Of all the men I ever knew, Cicero was the least equipped by temperament for exile. To thrive he needed the appurtenances of civilised society—friends, news, gossip, conversation, politics, dinners, plays, baths, books, fine buildings; to watch all these dwindle away must have been an agony for him.
Nevertheless, in little more than an hour they had gone, swallowed up in the void. The wind drove us forwards strongly, and as we cut through the whitecaps I thought of Homer’s “dark blue wave/foaming at the bow.” But then around the middle of the morning the ship seemed gradually to lose propulsion. The great brown sail became slack-bellied and the two steersmen standing at their levers on either side of us began exchanging anxious looks. Soon dense black clouds started to mass on the horizon, and within an hour they had closed over our heads like a trapdoor. The light became shadowy; the temperature dropped. The wind got up again, but this time the gusts were in our faces, driving the cold spray off the surface of the waves. Hailstones raked the heaving deck.
Cicero shuddered, leaned forwards and vomited. His face was as grey as a corpse. I put my arm around his shoulders and indicated that we should descend to the lower deck and seek shelter in the cabin. We were halfway down the ladder when a flash of lightning split the gloom, followed instantly by a deafening, sickening crack, like a bone snapping or a tree splintering, and I was sure we must have lost the mast, for suddenly we seemed to be tumbling over and over while all around us great glistening black mountains of jet towered and toppled in the lightning flashes. The shriek of the wind made it impossible to speak or hear. In the end I simply pushed Cicero into the cabin, fell in after him and closed the door.
We tried to stand, but the ship was listing. The deck was ankle-deep in water. Our feet slid from under us. The floor tilted first one way and then the other. We clutched at the walls as we were pitched back and forth in the darkness amid loose tools and jars of wine and sacks of barley, like dumb beasts in a crate on our way to slaughter. Eventually we wedged ourselves in a corner and lay there soaked and shivering as the boat shook and plunged. I was sure we were doomed and closed my eyes and prayed to Neptune and all the gods for deliverance.
A long time passed. How long I cannot say—certainly it was the remainder of that day, and the whole of the night, and part of the day that followed. Cicero seemed quite unconscious; on several occasions I had to touch his cold cheek to reassure myself he was still alive. Each time his eyes opened briefly and then closed again. Afterwards he said he had fully resigned himself to drowning but such was the misery of his seasickness he felt no fear: rather he saw how Nature in her mercy spares those in extremis from the terrors of oblivion and makes death seem a welcome release. Almost the greatest surprise of his life, he said, was when he awoke on the second day and realised the storm was over and his existence would continue after all: “Unfortunately my situation is so wretched, I almost regret it.”
Once we were sure the storm had blown itself out, we went back on deck. The sailors were just at that moment tipping over the side the corpse of some poor wretch whose head had been smashed by a swinging boom. The Adriatic was oily-smooth and still, of the same grey shade as the sky, and the body slid into it with scarcely a splash. There was a smell on the cold wind I didn’t recognise, of something rotten and decaying. About a mile away I noticed a wall of sheer black rock rising above the surf. I assumed we had been blown back home again and that it must be the coast of Italy. But the captain laughed at my ignorance and said it was Illyricum, and that those were the famous cliffs that guard the approaches to the ancient city of Dyrrachium.
cicero had at first intended to make for epirus, the mountainous country to the south, where Atticus owned a great estate that included a fortified village. It was a most desolate region, having never recovered from the terrible fate decreed it by the Senate a century earlier, when, as a punishment for siding against Rome, all seventy of its towns had been razed to the ground simultaneously and its entire population of one hundred and fifty thousand sold into slavery. Nevertheless, Cicero claimed he wouldn’t have minded the solitude of such a haunted spot. But just before we left Italy Atticus had warned him—“with regret”—that he could only stay for a month lest word of his presence become known: if it did, under clause two of Clodius’s bill, Atticus himself would be liable to the death penalty for harbouring the exile.
Even as we stepped ashore at Dyrrachium, Cicero remained in two minds about which direction to take—south to Epirus, temporary refuge though it would be, or east to Macedonia, where the governor, Apuleius Saturninus, was an old friend of his, and from Macedonia on to Greece and Athens. In the event, the decision was made for him. A messenger was waiting on the quayside— a young man, very anxious. Glancing around to make sure he was not observed, he drew us quickly into a deserted warehouse and produced a letter. It was from Saturninus, the governor. I do not have it in my archives because Cicero seized it and tore it to pieces the moment I had read it out loud to him. But I can still remember the gist of what it said: that “with regret” (that phrase again!), despite their years of friendship, Saturninus would not be able to receive Cicero in his household as it would be “incompatible with the dignity of a Roman governor to offer succour to a convicted exile.”
Hungry, damp and exhausted from our crossing, having hurled the fragments of the letter to the ground, Cicero sank on to a bale of cloth with his head in his hands. That was when the messenger said nervously, “Your Excellency, there is another letter . . .”
It was from one of the governor’s junior magistrates, the quaestor Gnaeus Plancius. His family were old neighbours of the Ciceros from their ancestral lands around Arpinum. Plancius said that he was writing secretly and sending his letter via the same courier, who was to be trusted; that he disagreed with his superior’s decision; that it would be an honour for him to take the Father of the Nation under his protection; that secrecy was vital; that he had already set out on the road to meet him at the Macedonian border; and that in the meantime he had arranged for a carriage to transport Cicero out of Dyrrachium “immediately, in the interests of your personal safety; I plead with you not to delay by so much as an hour; I shall explain more when I see you.”
“Do you trust him?” I asked.
Cicero stared at the floor and in a low voice replied, “No. But what choice do I have?”
With the messenger’s help I arranged for our luggage to be transferred from the boat to the quaestor’s carriage—a gloomy contraption, little better than a cell on wheels, without suspension and with metal grilles nailed over the windows so that its fugitive occupant could look out but no one could see him. We clattered up from the harbour into the city and joined the traffic on the Via Egnatia, the great highway that runs all the way to Byzantium. It started to sleet. There had been an earthquake a few days earlier and the place was wretched in the downpour, with corpses of the native tribespeople unburied by the roadside and here and there little groups of survivors sheltering in makeshift tents among the ruins, huddled over smoking fires. It was this odour of destruction and despair that I had smelt out at sea.
We travelled across the plain towards the snow-covered mountains and spent the night in a small village hemmed in by the encroaching peaks. The inn was squalid, with goats and chickens in the downstairs rooms. Cicero ate little and said nothing. In this strange and barren land, with its savage-looking people, he had at last fallen into the full depths of despair, and it was only with difficulty that I roused him from his bed the next morning and persuaded him to continue our journey.
For two days the road climbed into the mountains, until we came to the edge of a wide lake, fringed with ice. On the far side was a town, Lychnidos, that marked the border with Macedonia, and it was here, in its forum, that Plancius awaited us. He was in his early thirties, strongly built, wearing military uniform, with half a dozen legionaries at his back, and there was a moment when they all began to stride towards us that I experienced a rush of panic and feared we had blundered into a trap. But the warmth with which Plancius embraced Cicero, and the tears in his eyes, convinced me immediately that he was genuine.
He could not disguise his shock at Cicero’s appearance. “You need to recover your strength,” he said, “but unfortunately, we must leave here straight away.” And then he told us what he had not dared put into his letter: that he had received reliable intelligence that three of the traitors Cicero had sent into exile for their parts in Catilina’s conspiracy—Autronius Paetas, Cassius Longinus and Marcus Laeca—were all out looking for him, and had sworn to kill him.
Cicero said, “Then there is nowhere in the world where I am safe. How are we to live?”
“Under my protection, as I said. In fact come back with me to Thessalonica, and stay under my very roof. I was military tribune until last year and I’m still on active service, so there’ll be soldiers to guard you as long as you stay within the frontiers of Macedonia. My house is no palace, but it’s secure and it’s yours for as long as you need it.”
Cicero stared at him. Apart from the hospitality of Flaccus, it was the first real offer of help he had received for weeks—for months, in fact—and that it should have come from a young man he barely knew, when old allies such as Pompey had turned their backs on him, moved him deeply. He tried to speak, but the words choked in his throat and he had to look away.....
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cicero and the politicians around him as eerily relevant to our modern political scene. I gave read and enjoyed all three books, and the last one us as good as the first. Even though we know it ends badly for him, we want to follow his story to the end.
Those who are interested in the Roman Republic and its collapse will enjoy reading this behind the scence account by Cicero's former slave and scribe, Tiro, of what happend after their exile, to the assassination of Julius Ceasar, and the execution of Cicero himself by Ceasar's protoge Augustus.
A remarkable journey of a great champion of justice, morality and the rule of law.
I waited anxiously for this final conclusion of Cicero's life. It is a well told tale, and enjoyable to the nail- biting end. If there's one minor thing I would take exception to , it was that it ocassionally felt rushed, like the author was pressing to get through it without stopping to describe the sights and sounds. This was not the case in every chapter, and indeed towards the end of the novel he did slow down enough to paint an engrossing picture. All in all, an enjoyable excursion with some immensely powerful world figures. I will miss their company.