Book Review: Conspirata by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is an author whose work I have followed with some considerable interest in the past. I first started reading his books back in high school, which feels like it was a lifetime ago today. I remember reading his book, Fatherland, which is a sort of detective story set in an alternative history where Germany won WWII, about a brilliant and iconoclastic German detective seeking to solve a murder mystery and ultimately uncovering the Holocaust, and thinking that this guy really knows how to write. It wasn't long afterwards that I read the first book in his current trilogy about the last days of the Roman Republic, concerning the life and times of one of the greatest statesmen who ever lived- Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The first book in the series, Imperium, was a solid read, which I must have gone through about 5 years back or thereabouts in paperback form; since then, I've been waiting to see what else Harris could do. Now, I finally know, and I must say that I'm rather looking forward to the next book in the series. Fans of writers like Ross Leckie are in for a treat with this one.

Roman history before Julius Caesar's time is something of a mystery to me, to be honest. I know something about the First and Second Punic Wars thanks to the aforementioned Ross Leckie's works Hannibal, Scipio, and Carthage; I know a fair amount about Julius Caesar's statesmanship and conquests; and I know a decent amount about the fall of the Roman Empire (which historically aware Manospherian doesn't?). But I must confess that the history of the Roman Republic, before Caesar transformed it into a true Empire, are rather opaque. This book remedied that by introducing me to the tumultuous life and times of Cicero, whose impact upon modern political discourse and political thought is immense.

The book basically follows on where Imperium left off, diving straight into the action with a murder-mystery surrounding a gruesome ritualistic killing of a young Smyrnian slave-boy. Cicero, at this point in history Rome's foremost lawyer and public advocate, is ascending in the Senate and eventually becomes Consul of Rome for a year. His new consulship is sorely tested by political machinations within the city of Rome by the emergence of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, which is led by a man who seeks to use the power of the mob to overthrow the storied Roman Republic. The first third of the book indeed concerns itself with little else other than Cicero's battle against this conspiracy, and his eventual triumph over it.

The pace is relentless in the first third of the book; events come thick and fast, characters rise and fall with breathtaking speed, and throughout it all you see Cicero through the eyes of his most trusted slave, Tiro. You see his attempts to steer through the intrigues of the Senate; you see him engaged in verbal battles with legends of history like Julius Caesar (portrayed here as a cold, ruthless, calculating and utterly amoral schemer), Hybrida, Cato the Younger, Mark Antony, Lucullus, and Pompey the Great. You see Cicero as perhaps he really was- a great politician, a legendary orator, and yet an all-too-human man struggling against mighty forces of history to do right by his people.

The second third of the book is where things drop off a bit; I must admit that I actually rather lost interest in the book for a few weeks as I simply couldn't see where the hell anything was going at first. At this point Cicero is basically very much caught up in his own legend, for he is widely acknowledged as the "Father of the Republic" (Pater Patriae) . Yet the methods he used to bring an end to that conspiracy- which involved executing men without a formal trial, a hitherto unthinkable violation of ancient Roman laws concerning the rights of patricians- come back to haunt him, as events move rapidly out of his control and the mob begins to assert its dominance over Roman politics, led by men like Caesar and Clodius.

The final third of the book is where Harris redeems himself by presenting a climactic battle between the forces of ancient republican virtue, embodied by Cicero and his followers, and the authority of the mob, exemplified by Clodius Pulcher and his followers. And, as anyone who knows his Roman history can tell you, the Republic loses. Mob rule becomes the true authority in Rome. The Senate loses power, and the authority of the law is made a mockery unto itself. Thus ends the Roman Republic, and thus begins the Roman Empire.

If there is one overriding theme in this book, it is that the weight of history is often immovable even for the greatest of men. Even someone as great and as skilled in oratory as Cicero could not avoid his own human frailties; even he could not wholly avoid corruption and bribery, as the book shows. Politics is a very dirty business, and the book makes no bones about taking the available historiography concerning the personalities of the time and drawing its own conclusions about what exactly went on. For instance, Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome (the same Crassus who raised six legions and finally defeated the legendary gladiator-turned-general Spartacus), entered into a deal with Cicero to let him buy his new house near the Capitoline Hill for 3 million sesterces rather than at its true list price of 14 million; this comes back to haunt Cicero later when Crassus moves to ally himself with Caesar and Pompey in forming Rome's first Triumvirate. Cicero was not above using underhanded methods to achieve necessary ends, such as his use of extra-judicial methods in ending the Second Catilinarian Conspiracy; this is precisely what comes back to bite him in the arse when Clodius and the mob assert the law that any man who executes a Roman citizen without first providing him a fair trial shall himself be killed. That law, backed by nothing other than the authority of the mob, is what forces Cicero into exile in Greece.

The one major lesson to draw from this book concerns the true dangers of mob rule. This is driven home over and over again. Cicero and his followers are portrayed as the Last of the Romans, desperately holding the line against the machinations of Caesar and Clodius and all others who would seek to subvert the ancient Roman system of laws in favour of a new system of men instead. This is a lesson that we must heed in the modern age, for the same reasons. The plebians of Rome were easily distracted with promises of free bread and land for returning veterans; indeed, the book shows very clearly that when Pompey the Great returned to Rome after his conquests in the East and his defeat of Mithridates, he promised his veterans land and wealth and threatened the very existence of the Republic itself in order to fulfil these promises.

This lesson is very appropriate for the modern day. How many times have we seen the American people misled by promises of "free" things such as "free" education, healthcare, pension money, and food? The Founding Fathers took Republican Rome as the model for the American Republic, with the same system of balances of power, only much stronger and much more robust; and yet even they, in all of their incredible wisdom, could not prevent the degeneration of their people and their system because of the mob's susceptibility to bread and circuses.

This book is not without its weaknesses. First, if you don't know anything about Roman history, you won't have the first bloody clue who half the characters are. I sure as hell didn't, and I'm better versed in classical history than probably 98% of the people I know or have ever met. Second, the pace really does drop off in the second half of the book, and with it the writing quality. It is a struggle to get through that second third, but it does get better. Third, I'm not entirely convinced by the book's portrayal of Julius Caesar. Gauis Julius Caesar is a polarising figure in history, to be sure; his supporters see him as Rome's greatest general, a man of matchless military skill and incredible political dexterity, but his detractors see him as the man who tossed aside everything that the Roman Republic stood for in order to create the Roman Empire. One way or another, Caesar's contribution to history is immense, as is his stature as a military and diplomatic strategist, and I am not entirely convinced by the idea that he was quite as amoral and conniving as he is portrayed here. Mind you, my opinions on the subject are informed by sources ranging from Robert Graves' outstanding novel I, Claudius to old Asterix comics*, so without reading something weightier on the subject I'm really not sure what is true and what is artistic license here.

Overall, if you enjoy really good, well-written, taut historical fiction that doesn't get bogged down in a lot of unnecessary details and delivers great ideas from one of history's most turbulent periods, then this is a book that will keep you well occupied and well satisfied. Very much recommended.

Didact's Verdict: 4/5, really solid read despite some uneven pacing and some difficulties with keeping all of the characters straight.

* I have very fond childhood memories of collecting Asterix comics and reading of the fearless Gaul's adventures in thwarting the designs of "Julius Caesar the Roman Geezer", so I'm not perhaps entirely without bias here...


Popular Posts