A Roman Tragedy

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Allan Massie

On a vile December day, with the Tiber running high and brown, the body of a beautiful boy is found by the water’s edge. His throat has been cut, his body slashed open and his organs removed. The magistrate at the crime scene then points out to the consul-elect that the cause of death was a hammer-blow behind his right ear. No Roman would need to have the significance explained: the boy has been killed as sacrificial bulls are killed and his organs inspected for auguries. 

This brilliant and grisly scene opens the second volume of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy. Cicero is the consul-elect and Rome is in ferment. His defeated rival in the election, the monstrous Catilina, is deep in conspiracy, plotting revolution. Speculation about the boy’s murder is dangerous. Cicero at once orders a cover-up. But the boy will not be forgotten.

Lustrum is a political novel and a novel of character. The story is tortuous, but intensely gripping. It is told from Cicero’s point of view, for the narrator is his slave, later freedman, Tiro, who is employed as his secretary and who devised a form of shorthand to record Cicero’s speeches and  all political discussions in which he engages. This is a convenient and convincing device, but it is not Harris’s invention. Tiro was indeed so employed; he later wrote a biography of his master and edited a collection of his letters. In Harris’s hands he is a sympathetic and wholly credible character.

Cicero’s year as consul was one of acute danger for the Republic, but in truth the Republic was becoming unmanageable. Institutions designed for a city-state could not be adapted to the new empire of Rome. They could not cope with the wealth that poured into the city (and was so unevenly distributed) or with the power of successful generals.  Cicero senses this, fears it, struggles against it, and we know that he will ultimately be defeated. His liberal-conservatism, based on what he called the concordia ordinum, and his belief that all that was needed was for the boni to act together for the good of the Republic were out of date. Harris, by way of Tiro, admires him, faults and all, and prepares the way for his tragic failure. Tragedy is a word too often and too easily used, but there is true tragedy, in the Shakespearean sense, in Cicero’s political life, and Harris rises magnificently to his theme.

The tragedy is all the more bitter because it follows victory. Catilina is defeated. Harris tells the story brilliantly, and even those who know how it ends will be thrilled by the tension of the conflict. Roman politics has rarely been so skilfully presented, its twists and turns made comprehensible. But Cicero, superbly adroit and sympathetic in danger and in the face of adversity, reveals his chief fault of character, which was vanity, in the hour of triumph. Rewarded with the title “Father of his Country”, he becomes boastful and silly: “O fortunatam natam me consule Romam” (“O happy Rome, born in my consulship”). Meanwhile his enemies, among them the scapegrace, Clodius, are plotting his downfall.

We know more about Cicero the man than about any other Roman, so rich are the sources, much of his extensive correspondence and many of his speeches having survived. 

Harris is faithful to the sources, but imaginatively so; he animates the raw material, so that we share his hero’s hopes, fears and perplexities. The characterisation of the other main actors in the drama is equally vivid: Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Lucullus, Clodius (and his beautiful sister-lover Clodia), and a host of other senators, tribunes and agitators parade before us as we are guided through the bloodstained labyrinth of late Republic politics. Only Caesar is mysterious-as he was to Cicero.

This is a magnificent novel, better than Robert Graves’s Claudius novels, better (I reluctantly admit) than the six books of my own Imperial sequence. The third volume will complete the tragedy. Nothing, I trust, will distract Robert Harris from finishing the work.

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