Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator This is the third and final volume of Robert Harris’s fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman philosopher, lawyer and statesman. I loved the previous two novels, Imperium and Lustrum, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I loved Dictator too. Until recently, I didn’t have much interest in Ancient Rome and would never have thought that I could find reading about the intricacies of Roman politics so exciting and fascinating. How wrong I was! In fact, the only negative thing I can say about this trilogy is that it has now come to an end.

Dictator covers the last fifteen years of Cicero’s life, though as the title suggests, the focus of the book is on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. At the beginning of the novel, Cicero has been forced into exile by his enemy, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and with the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus now governing Rome it seems unlikely that he will be able to return. Loyalties and allegiances change quickly in the Roman Republic, however, and eventually it does become possible for Cicero to come home, to be reunited with his family and to return to politics and the senate.

As he tries to settle back into his old life in Rome, Cicero discovers that it is not the same city he left just a year before and when the tensions between Caesar and Pompey lead to civil war, he knows he is witnessing the destruction of the republic. With the assassination of Caesar after several years of dictatorship comes the sense that Rome is entering a new era, but Cicero will face further challenges with the rise to power of the dictator’s adopted son, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire).

As Dictator is the book which brings the trilogy to a close, there’s a sadness which wasn’t present in the first two books, with the deaths of several major characters and the collapse of the Roman Republic. It’s also sad to see Cicero’s relationship with his wife, Terentia, deteriorate beyond repair. It was never a very happy marriage, but now Cicero acknowledges that Terentia has had enough:

“Only at that moment did I realise how much she must have suffered, living in Caesar’s Rome and being married to me. I cannot say I felt love for her any more, but I did feel great pity and affection and sadness, and I resolved there and then to make no mention of money or property – it was all done with, as far as I was concerned.”

Like the first two novels, this book is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, a man who really did exist and who is credited with inventing an early form of shorthand. After Cicero’s death, Tiro published his master’s letters and collected works, and is thought to have also written a biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Tiro’s role in this trilogy is primarily to tell Cicero’s story, recording his words and actions and making observations on his master’s character and the characters of Rome’s other leading figures. Here he describes meeting Julius Caesar:

“How unreal it felt to watch the approach of this titan who had so dominated everyone’s thoughts for so many years – who had conquered countries and upended lives and sent thousands of soldiers marching hither and thither, and had smashed the ancient republic to fragments as if it were nothing more substantial than a chipped antique vase that had gone out of fashion – to watch him, and to find him, in the end…just an ordinary breathing mortal!”

Over the course of the three novels we see how Cicero comes to rely on Tiro not just as a servant but also as a friend – one of the only people in the world he knows he can truly trust. Tiro’s admiration and affection for Cicero also come across strongly but this doesn’t mean he is unable to see Cicero’s faults. Through Tiro’s eyes, Cicero is portrayed as a brilliant yet flawed man, his wisdom, talent and generosity offset by vanity and self-importance. He is sometimes too quick to speak before he thinks, particularly when he is unable to resist making a joke at someone else’s expense, and this often has serious consequences. I enjoyed getting to know Cicero, with all his faults, and was sorry to come to the end of his story.

Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator are three wonderful books – well-written, well-researched and with a feeling of authenticity. Highly recommended, but try to read them in order if possible. I’m now looking forward to returning to the Roman Empire with an earlier Robert Harris novel, Pompeii.

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15 thoughts on “Dictator by Robert Harris

    • Helen says:

      I would probably never have thought about reading this trilogy if I hadn’t needed to read Lustrum for the Walter Scott Prize. I’ve never been very interested in books set in Ancient Rome so I’m surprised that I’ve enjoyed these three books so much!

  1. Carmen says:

    I’m so glad you liked this trilogy! I want to read it before the end of this year. If you want to read something on Caesar there is The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination by Barry Strauss (nonfiction, published last year).

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    Some months ago I finished Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ. He spends a good bit of time on Cicero. Somehow I did not realize what this trilogy was about but now I am anxious to read all three. Great review!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read anything by Will Durant, but Caesar and Christ sounds interesting. I hope you do have an opportunity to read this trilogy – this is one of my favourite books of the year so far.

  3. Davida Chazan says:

    Sounds interesting, but I think I’ve had my fill of ancient Rome historical fiction with all of the Coleen McCullough books (the last of which I never actually finished reading)!

    • Helen says:

      These are great books, especially if you’re like me and don’t know much about Ancient Rome. They’ve left me wanting to read more about a time period I was never interested in before.

  4. RareBird says:

    I haven’t read any of his Cicero books yet, but this review makes me bump them up on my TBR list. Highly recommend Pompeii — one of my favorite books. A great piece of historical fiction framing a satisfying mystery and super atmospheric. You can just feel the heat and danger of those days leading up to the eruption.

  5. Pam Thomas says:

    I really liked ‘An Officer and a Spy’ and I’d certainly think about reading this series, especially as I’m about three quarters of the way through Mary Beard’s SPQR, which is fascinating especially to someone whose acquaintance with ancient Rome is limited to distant Latin lessons and the Falco novels.

    • Helen says:

      An Officer and a Spy was the first Robert Harris book I read – I loved it but have found the Cicero trilogy to be even better. I’ve been considering reading SPQR, so I’m pleased to hear you’re finding it fascinating.

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