Weekend Reading: From Robert Harris (2015): Dictator


Weekend Reading: Robert Harris (2015): Dictator 'On the flatter ground at the top of the slope Cornutus had drawn up four cohorts—almost two thousand men. They stood in lines in the heat. The light on their helmets dazzled as brightly as the sun, and I had to shield my eyes. When Cicero stepped out of his litter there was absolute silence. Cornutus conducted him to a low platform beside an altar. A sheep was sacrificed. Its guts were pulled out and examined by the haruspices and declared propitious: “There is no doubt of ultimate victory.” The crows circled overhead. A priest read a prayer. Then Cicero spoke. I cannot remember exactly what he said. All the usual words were there—liberty, ancestors, hearths and altars, laws and temples—but for once I listened without hearing. I was looking at the faces of the legionaries...

...They were sunburnt, lean, impassive. Some were chewing mastic. I saw the scene through their eyes. They had been recruited by Caesar to fight against King Juba and the army of Cato. They had slaughtered thousands and had been stuck in Africa ever since. They had travelled hundreds of miles crammed together in boats. They had been force-marched for a day. Now they were lined up in the heat in Rome and an old man was talking at them about liberty, ancestors, hearths and altars—and it meant nothing.

Cicero finished speaking. There was silence. Cornutus ordered them to give three cheers. The silence continued. Cicero stepped off the platform and got back into his litter and we returned down the hill, past the saucer-eyed starving children.

Cornutus came to see Cicero the following morning and told him that the African legions had mutinied overnight. It seemed that Octavian’s men had crept back from the countryside in the darkness, infiltrated the camps and promised the soldiers twice as much money as the Senate could afford to pay them. Meanwhile Octavian’s main army was reported to be moving south along the Via Flaminia and was barely a day’s march away. “What will you do now?” Cicero asked him. “Kill myself,” came the reply, and he did, that same evening, pressing the tip of his sword to his stomach and falling upon it heavily rather than surrender. He was an honourable man and deserves to be remembered, not least because he was the only member of the Senate who took that course.

When Octavian was close to the city, most of the leading patricians went out to meet him on the road to escort him into Rome. Cicero sat in his study with the shutters closed. The air was so close it was hard to breathe. I looked in from time to time but he did not seem to have moved. His noble head, staring straight ahead and silhouetted against the faint light from the window, was like a marble bust in a deserted temple. Finally he noticed me and asked where Octavian had set up his headquarters. I replied that he had moved into the home of his mother and stepfather on the Quirinal. “Perhaps you could send a message to Philippus and ask him what he suggests I should do.” I did as he requested and the courier returned with a scrawled reply that Cicero ought to go and talk to Octavian: “You will find him, I am sure, as I did, disposed to mercy.” Wearily Cicero got to his feet.

The big house, usually thronged with visitors, was empty. It felt as if no one had lived in it for a long time. In the late summer afternoon sun the silent public rooms glowed as if made of gold and amber. We went together, in a pair of litters accompanied by a small escort, to the house of Philippus. Sentries guarded the street and the front door but they must have been given orders to let Cicero through, for they parted at once. As we crossed the threshold, Isauricus was just leaving. I had expected him, as Octavian’s future father-in-law, to give Cicero a smile of condescension or of triumph; instead he scowled at him and hurried past us.

Through the heavy open door we could see Octavian standing in a corner of the tablinum dictating a letter to a secretary. He beckoned to us to enter. He seemed in no hurry to finish. He was wearing a simple military tunic. His body armour, helmet and sword lay scattered on a couch where he had flung them. He looked like a young recruit.

Finally he ended his dictation and sent the secretary away. He scrutinised Cicero in an amused way that reminded me of his adopted father. “You are the last of my friends to greet me.”

“Well, I imagined you would be busy.”

“Ah, is that it?” Octavian laughed, revealing those terrible teeth of his. “I was presuming that you disapproved of my actions.”

Cicero shrugged. “The world is as it is. I have given up the habit of approving and disapproving. What’s the point? Men do as they please, whatever I think.”

“So what is it you want to do? Do you want to be consul?”

For the merest fraction of a moment Cicero’s face seemed to flood with pleasure and relief, but then he understood that Octavian was joking and immediately the light went out of it again. He grunted, “Now you’re toying with me.”

“I am. Forgive me. My colleague as consul will be Quintus Pedius, an obscure relative of mine of whom you will never have heard, which is the whole point of him.”

“So not Isauricus?”

“No. There seems to have been some misunderstanding there. I shan’t be marrying his daughter either. I shall spend some time here settling matters and then I must go and confront Antony and Lepidus. You can leave Rome too if you like.”

“I can?”

“Yes, you can leave Rome. You can write philosophy. You can go anywhere you please in Italy. However, you cannot return to Rome in my absence, nor can you attend the Senate. You cannot write your memoirs or anything political. You cannot leave the country and go to Brutus or Cassius. Is that acceptable? Will you give me your word? I can assure you my men would not be so generous.”

Cicero bowed his head. “It is generous. It is acceptable. I give you my word. Thank you.”

“In return I will guarantee your safety, in recognition of our past friendship.” He picked up a letter to signal that the audience was at an end. “One last thing,” he said as Cicero turned to leave. “It makes no difference, but I would like to know: was it a joke, or would you really have erased me?”

“I believe I would have done exactly the same as you are doing now,” replied Cicero...

#books #history #noted #2020-01-10