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Robert Harris, Lustrum

by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan
(original date: April 2010)

This is one of a number of informal pieces originally produced for the CMRS Facebook page.
It is intended to provoke discussion and further investigation rather than as a formal scholarly submission.

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

This is the second installment in a proposed trilogy on Cicero's life and times (following Imperium [2006], which presented Cicero's early career) and Harris' third novel to focus on the ancient Roman world (the first being Pompeii [2003], which dealt with ... well, you can guess). Here, through the eyes of Cicero's faithful secretary Tiro, we follow Cicero's engagement with the contentious and continually shifting political scene in Rome from 63 (the year of Cicero's consulship, dominated by the confrontation with Catiline) through to his flight from Rome in 58, following Clodius' edict against anyone responsible for putting Roman citizens to death without a trial.

This is an excellent read, and will be enjoyed by anyone who has ever taken a course dealing with Republican Rome (and anyone who has ever worked his or her way through Unit Five of Reading Latin!). One finds just the elements one expects of a work dealing with this material: vignettes of figures, both famous and not-so-famous (Catiline, Cato, Caesar, Crassus, Lucullus, Hortensius, Catulus [but not, tellingly — beyond a brief mention — Catullus], Clodius, Caelius, Metellus, Clodia, Terentia, Quintus, Hybrida, Lentulus, Curius, Fulvia, and so forth); interesting twists on the received account (for example, the ways in which Cicero here actively flushes out the conspirators by tricking them into revealing their hand); and grand rhetorical confrontations (incorporating material directly from the ancient sources).

The book will also be enjoyed by more general readers, for its compelling narrative and its central theme — the moral ambiguity that often attends political action in times of crisis, and the ease with which social and political ideals can become corrupted by personal ambition, pettiness, or mere lack of vision (hence the subscript for this volume, the nicely ambiguous "Blinded by ambition, Seduced by power, Destroyed by Rome": just who in particular is being described here?). Read in this light, much of Lustrum is a fictionalized case-study of the political dynamics set forth so wonderfully in Lily Ross Taylor's classic, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar.

The focus, then, is on the tragic rise and fall of Cicero, from his grand victory over Catiline and the latter's allies (for which he is acclaimed pater patriae), through the more sordid dealings in which he becomes entangled as he continues to attempt to influence the tide of political events in Rome (and to bolster his personal finances), to his eventual (if temporary) disgrace and banishment, as he is forced to flee Italy, abandoned by his former political allies. The novel concludes with the senatorial faction having been thoroughly routed by the likes of Caesar, Pompey, and Clodius, and with a sense that the defeat of Catiline was a mere skirmish in a much larger and more dire conflict. At its core, however, this is the tale of an essentially good man whose achievements are muddied and, eventually, undermined by his willingness to allow ends to justify means and to confuse concern for his personal status and reputation with the ideals he professes to champion. Beginning his consulship on a note of high hopes and grand principles, Cicero ends as a compromised figure, who has entered into the same sordid arena as his political opponents and been thoroughly bested at the game — a kind of "Citizen Cicero," if you will.

Despite its real attractions, however, I couldn't help but feel a certain distance from the novel and its characters. Unlike Harris' earlier Pompeii, which dealt with similar themes in the context of an almost completely fictionalized account, Lustrum must perforce follow a well-established script (much of it — so far as the Catilinian affair goes — taken from Plutarch, whose account of Cicero's life (sections 10-33) provides a useful introduction to Harris' work). This is all interesting — the defense of Rabirius, the election of Caesar as pontifex maximus, the rear-guard maneuvering of Cato, Murena's campaign for the consulship, the attack on Cicero's house by Cornelius and Vargunteius (very vividly portrayed, and much more convincingly than in the ancient sources), etc. — but it does tend to generate an aesthetic distance from the narrative, as one sees the author cunningly working in the requisite bits, with the necessary care (as in the case of Fulvia) to offer the occasional surprise. In this regard, the second half of the novel (following the death of Catiline) is by far the more satisfying, as Harris is able to focus less on events than on the constantly shifting political intrigues and various revelations regarding Cicero's weakness (both as a politician and a person).

The use of Tiro as narrator also imposes limitations. As a character, Tiro is a cipher: a well-intentioned, loyal slave who admires his master and looks on sympathetically as Cicero attempts to negotiate his way amid the political rocks and shoals that confront him. There is little complexity or interest to Tiro as an individual: his task is to be a faithful narrator, to marvel at his master's abilities and successes, bemoan his failings and his failures, and comment on the various demands posed by the life of the (Roman) politician. Reviewers have made much of this last element of the novel and have speculated on various associations with contemporary British politics, but the observation that politics is "an occupation that, if it is to be pursued successfully, demands the most extra-ordinary reserves of self-discipline, a quality that the naive often mistake for hypocrisy," or that there are "no lasting victories" in politics, "only the remorseless grinding forward of events," can scarcely stand in for nuanced characterization or thematic complexity. The fact that the characters' actions and their personalities must all be filtered through this particular narrator's personal observations, or remarks made by others in his presence, inevitably leads to a certain flatness and superficiality in the presentation, with an undue emphasis on the forward movement of events. (For an interesting contrast, published a year before Lustrum, you might compare Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, a work I highly recommend. This too is narrated by a marginalized outsider, but to quite different effect.)

It is here that a central issue in the evaluation of any historical novel must arise: to what degree does the work cause one to return to the original sources with a renewed appreciation of their significance, and with fresh insights into the specific events and individuals with which they deal? Evaluated through this lens, Lustrum lands somewhere in the second tier of historical fiction. It suggests associations between particular events, cunningly reinterprets a few well-established items in the historical record, and offers some intriguing inventions of its own, but the picture that emerges of the principal actors (Cicero, Catiline, Caesar, Crassus, Pompey) is not particularly compelling or insightful. (Cicero himself and Caesar are particular disappointments.) And the novel offers little or no concrete insight into the world of mid-first-century-BC Rome: for that, the reader is better advised to turn to the work of, e.g., T.P. Wiseman. Harris involves us in the various political intrigues of the time, but not the cultural and social milieu in which those intrigues operated. In future years, I can see myself recalling the manner in which particular events are woven into the novel's plot, but little else.

[There are possible objections to be raised on this last point as well. Harris introduces some interesting twists in the received narrative, but maintains its essential outlines — in particular, a depraved Catiline who engages in various degenerate practices and begins laying plans to assassinate the consuls, burn the city, and establish himself as monarch of Rome even while continuing to stand for the consulship. This has always been an unconvincing part of the traditional account, and suggests that a much more radical reinvisioning of the action is in order — one far more sympathetic to Catiline and even less flattering to Cicero and the established senatorial party.]

An obvious comparison is offered by the first season of the recent HBO series Rome, which begins just a few years following the events described in Lustrum. (Rome supposedly opens in 52 BC, but seems to present elements of the military situation of late 51, while incorporating, e.g., the death of Julia [54 BC] into the action.) This series has been subject to a fair amount of criticism for, among other things, its jumbled chronology, its various anachronisms, the bizarre representations of Roman religious ritual, and the shamelessly sexed-up nature of the narrative. (Cf. the article by Paul Harvey Jr. in Archaeology On-line — in many ways, Rome is designed to be an apt heir to The Sopranos, but also to stand as the I, Claudius of this generation: all of the political intrigue, personal melodrama, and British accents, but more violence, grit, and sex.) But while there is much to critique in this series, it is thoroughly compelling and offers, I would argue, a much more nuanced and intriguing portrayal of its principal figures, particularly Caesar, Pompey, Antony, and Octavius (wrongly referred to as Octavian throughout). To take but one example: the Caesar of Lustrum is cunning and intimidating, but offers little of the human complexity found in Ciarán Hinds' portrayal of the character. (The two characters to whom the series seems to be most unfair are Cicero [who, as played by the superb David Bamber, is principled and well-intentioned, if somewhat vacillating, but much too weak and unimposing an individual to imagine as a dominating figure on the rostrum] and Brutus [who comes off as a spoiled and confused young momma's boy who wishes to believe that he has ideals but with no mind or principles of his own]. Even these figures, however, are complex and nuanced when considered within the confines of the narrative.) I could imagine using several scenes from Rome to illustrate to students, e.g., the enigma presented by Caesar, the thuggish charm of Antony, or the cool ruthlessness of the future Octavian; from Lustrum I would likely cite only the clever reinterpretation of particular events or the fleshing out of certain well-established biographical details.

On the thematic/formal level, there is the difficulty that Lustrum does not in fact present the end of the story: the account of Cicero's fortunes still has several twists and turns left to offer. In the context of the trilogy as a whole, the conclusion of Lustrum will no doubt present a poignant nadir, but considered on its own merits this ending feels premature, particularly since the political themes with which the novel deals have yet to play themselves out.

In summary: Lustrum offers a compelling narrative that does indeed bring the political events of 63-58 BC to life; it is less successful in the presentation of its characters and in generating a deeper understanding of the events it depicts.

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