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Review: Dictator

Robert Harris

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)


The book “Dictator” by Robert Harris is the third and final part of the “Roman Trilogy” – a historical novel about the life of Cicero – one of the greatest politicians, lawyers and orators in history.

This time our hero will come to live in times when the Roman Republic is experiencing real internal chaos, and all public institutions are covered or blocked by force. Cicero, not used to brutal combat, must look for all ways and refer to his greatest assets: mind and political knowledge in order to survive.

The story begins in a very depressing way. Cicero is outlawed and accused of unlawfully killing Roman citizens. Cicero, as a result of the actions of the populist Clodius, becomes a victim and loses all the honors he was previously entitled to. He must flee Rome and go into exile outside Italy. He cannot count on any help from his friends or former clients, because any help is severely punished.

Certainly Cicero, after unmasking Catiline’s conspiracy, became a hero – sometimes vain – of Rome. However, under the influence of skillful plotting and the concluded political alliance of Crassus, Pompey, Caesar and the tribune Clodius, supported by them, he became persona non grata. What is amazing here, as in the other parts, is how shifting alliances prevailed in Republican Rome, and to what extent they were unstable and insincere.

Moreover, the novel shows the tragedy of political life and the Romans themselves during the civil war. This fratricidal struggle, in which the same citizens stand on both sides, people who could or were in the same legions, was a tragedy on an unprecedented scale. Constant calling of successive generations to arms, fighting and blood in the streets, intimidation – this is how those times can be characterized. They were born only from the individual needs and goals of ambitious politicians.

Caesar himself appears to us as the worst bastard, for whom victory is more important than victims. He is focused on his own ambitions and dreams of becoming the “first” in Rome. His lust for power gradually leads him to war, a time-limited dictatorship, and eventually begins to demand recognition of his divinity. All this ultimately leads him to death, which in the common modern opinion appears to us as the worst betrayal. However, it is completely different in the book.

Summing up this part of the series, as well as the whole novel, it should be emphasized that the book has primarily historical values. The author tried to write as much as possible according to historical truth. The book is full of Cicero’s speeches, his letters, and all the quotations from his treatises. What’s more, Cicero appears to us as a great and one of the last supporters of republican ideals, who on the one hand (willingly or not) must refer to political foul play and intrigue, and on the other hand, he has great affection for his own homeland. For him and others like him, the times of the end of the republic and Caesar’s rebellion are proof of the collapse of the old ideas and the world they fought for. Caesar, being the “worst evil” of this world, started something that eventually led to the creation of the principate – the illusion of a republic. Fortunately, Cicero did not live to see these times.

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