Conspirata, by Robert Harris

by Robert A. Parker

This 2009 work is history as a novel—and less a novel as history, as I wrote regarding the first volume in this series, Imperium. Because its emphasis here is on history. We are immediately with Marcus Tullius Cicero in the Rome of 63 BC, as this newly elected consul (head of the Roman senate) struggles to preserve the nation’s republican government.

Meanwhile, its other characters are also historic. A young Julius Caesar hovers nearby as a threat to overthrow the republic; and Pompey, who heads Rome’s army in the eastern Mediterranean, is another threat to return at any time and assume leadership himself. Meanwhile, other adversaries to Cicero in Rome mark the difficult road he faces in preserving the Roman Republic. They include such powerful figures as Crassus, Clodius, Catilina, and, at times, the mysterious Cato.

Caesar is mainly an onlooker as this novel begins, although he does maneuver himself into the role of pontus maximus, Rome’s religious leader. The main political concern of everyone early on is Pompey, and when he will return and will he bring his army to back him up.

We follow all this through the narrative voice of Tiro, Cicero’s devoted and intelligent private secretary, a slave who transcribes his owner’s conversations and speeches. Presumably, they are largely the actual words Cicero once spoke, and through Tiro’s efforts have come down to us through history. But the loyal slave has also been given by Harris the intelligence and wit that enlivens the political and social intrigue around Cicero.

Indeed, the website Leserglede, citing this intrigue, calls this novel “a very strong tale of shifting alliances, greed, sexual liaisons, personal ambition, love, hate, and total betrayal among the elites of Rome.”

The novel is divided into two parts, the first as Cicero leads the government as the chief consul in the Senate, faces an assassination plot, and maneuvers the political process to support the Roman constitution and preserve its government. For this, he uses primarily his intelligence, his wit, and his powers of oratory. The second part concerns his next five years out of office, as he valiantly strives to prevent Pompey, first, and then Caesar from coordinating their efforts and establishing a dictatorship.

Throughout, these pages offer a marvelous interpretation of history. Yes, this is Harris’ interpretation, especially, I think, toward the end, when Cicero’s outcome verges on injustice and tragedy. But the overall result is still history. If this is a novel, however, it is not literature. For as clear as the events are, they are more a re-creation than a creation. The emphasis is more on what happens, rather than on why. The emphasis is more on narrative than on interpretation.

We witness the events, therefore, and their political impact, but we do not experience them emotionally, not as Cicero did, nor as Tiro did. We remain outside these characters’ consciousness. We are observers. We witness history, and it is vividly presented, but it does not involve us. It does not because we know it is history, we know it is foreordained, and that the characters are not in charge of their destiny, as fictional characters need to be.

But I might also note what I wrote after reading Imperium: “It is the personal side of Cicero’s life that is missing here, and that might have turned this rich novel into a truly literary work….Yet Harris might argue, with some legitimacy, that he is dealing here with historic figures, that we know what they did but that to try to enter their minds would be presumptuous, even foolhardy. That he would prefer to be faithful to events, and to make them accessible to the general reader, rather than to speculate on what those characters were like within. Shakespeare may have explored their inner thoughts, but how many Shakespeares have there been? (And how many historians would there be to jump on him, Harris, for doing this?)”

My response today is that as foolhardy as such introspection might be, it is still the road to literature, as other classical authors besides Shakespeare have shown. Although I will acknowledge that the depth, the introspection, is often done through concurrent fictional characters. Whereas, in this case, the most interesting aspect of Cicero’s personal life is his complex relationship with his wife Terentia, whom he married for wealth and position. But to examine this marriage at length would, unfortunately, deflect the reader from the political intrigue that is the heart of this novel.

Indeed, Harris himself summed up his approach to this work during an NPR interview, and it is a political approach. “In a way, this whole trilogy — and this book in particular — is a duel between Cicero and Caesar— two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition….Cicero’s ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar’s desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image. And the clash between these two men, who are sort of, in a way, almost wary friends and admirers—that’s really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good shake from history than Caesar.”

Yet, given the lack of psychological depth, there is another kind of artistry here. For the dramatic opening scene, with its discovery of a murdered boy, a human sacrifice, reverberates at the end, as it is connected to Cicero’s fate—as are many of his good actions as consul. For example, after he avoids the threat to his own life, and, as consul, is able to save Rome from the takeover by Catilina, Cicero also begins to sow the seeds of his own vulnerability, for his enemies will later take advantage of his persistent claim that he has been the savior of Rome.

In fact, Cicero exposes himself to actual prosecution, since after arresting Catilina’s co-conspirators, given that martial law existed, he permitted their execution without a trial. Which was contrary to his professed belief in the rule of law. (Indeed, the senate debate on this matter, with interventions against death by Caesar and for death by Cato is a highlight of the book,)

And so, when Cicero’s term as consul ends, the many who supported Catilina are now happy to see Cicero himself accused of bypassing the rule of law. This happens after Clodius, on trial for profaning secret female rites, and having had his alibi refuted by Cicero’s damning testimony, has bribed enough jurists to get himself acquitted—and then, in revenge, waits patiently to build a case against Cicero. Specifically, he gets elected as a tribune, and persuades his fellow legislators to pass a decree that says that anyone who aids a person who has executed others without a trial (which is Cicero) now faces the death penalty themselves.

The edict, in effect, condemns Cicero into exile, since no one can now aid him. And because to defend his own honor in a separate case he had specifically accused Caesar of supporting Catalina’s plan to subvert the government, he himself has become vulnerable. Even though Caesar has sworn to allow nothing to happen to him. Thus, the grandeur, the corruption, and, most of all, the hypocrisy of Rome is vividly portrayed, with all the political maneuvering that makes the infighting particularly fascinating.

What is interesting is that, first, Cicero, while raised in moderate wealth, is not recognized as a member of the elite. He is a self-made man. He earned his election as consul in the senate, a prestigious position, by his forthright intelligence, his eloquence, and his political smarts. And that, second, this man of justice is not an ally of the poor. For he calls them “the mob,” because he sees them being used in the power grab by Caesar and others of the elite. With the result is that he is despised by two opposing camps, both the wealthy patricians and the neglected populists.

What becomes confusing to the modern reader is that aligned against Cicero are the people he is presumably helping. These are the plebeians, the poor, the common people, who are represented by the tribunes and who have been seduced by Caesar; whereas, he seeks his allies among the nobles in the senate, as he tries to preserve the constitution and republican form of government. Which situation is contrary to today’s political environment, where we are used to the rich nobility seeking power and wealth, while it is the plebeians who seek fairness and justice.

This is the second in a trilogy of novels that recreates Cicero’s life. I enjoyed the first novel, Imperium, about Cicero’s rise to power, and this one as well. Here is a fascinating reading experience, a political thriller in its own terms, as it brings vividly to life a lesson in history. I look forward to the final volume, and expect it to be written on the same level. For what does literature matter, when an author brings to such vivid life the complexities of an ancient era? (March, 2015)

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