Conspirata by Robert Harris: A review

In the Rome of 63 B.C.E, there occurred a series of incidents which were to cast a shadow over the remaining days of the Republic, and indeed, to lead almost inevitably it now seems to its destruction and its remaking into the power that bestrode the ancient world as its master. At the center of these events was a man named Catalina, a populist who stood against the power of the Senate and sought to supplant it with the "power of the people." With him, of course, at its head. 

There was a vast conspiracy, involving many men of wealth and power, members themselves of the Senate, as was Catalina. There was a suspicion that among the conspirators was one Gaius Julius Caesar, although that was never proved. He was certainly friends with many of the conspirators, but then Caesar's political friendships were always opportunistic. He was always willing to make common cause with anyone who could further his aims. 

Cicero certainly believed that Caesar as well as Crassus and Pompey were involved, but, in the end, none of the three were tainted by the scandal which followed the revelation of the conspiracy. Cicero was the leader in that revelation. He was the leader in exposing several of the ringleaders. Catlina himself escaped to the countryside where he joined up with many of his followers forming an army that fought a final battle against Roman legionnaires led by their general Hybrida - or possibly by his military legate Marcus Petreius. Catalina and nearly all of his followers were killed. 

Back in Rome, Cicero had managed to trick five of the co-conspirators into revealing their plans. These five were ultimately executed at the will of the Senate. Interestingly, one of the five was the stepfather of Marcus Antonius. The ignominious death of his stepfather made the young man an enemy for life of Cicero. 

Cicero's brave defense of his city in the face of the conspiracy made him very popular with both the Senate and the people. He was hailed as the "Father of the City" and for a few years, he was one of the most beloved men in the city. Of course, in politics, such popularity is never a permanent thing. 

Cicero had a faithful secretary, a slave named Tiro, who invented a kind of shorthand and recorded Cicero's speeches as well as writing his letters for him. He was privy to almost all of Cicero's machinations. After Cicero's death, Tiro wrote a biography of him that was well-known in the ancient world, but which disappeared at some point. Robert Harris has taken up the task of recreating that biography as it might have been. This is the second volume in a series. The first was called Imperium and told the story of Cicero's struggle to become Consul. This volume deals with the year when he served as Consul, the year in which the Conspirata came to a head, and the four years beyond. 

In those four years, Cicero clashes repeatedly with Caesar and identifies him as the most dangerous man in Rome. Cicero tries to destroy Caesar. Caesar, in his inimitable style, seeks to subvert Cicero and convert him to his cause. He offers him protection when Cicero is in extremis, abandoned by his friends and allies and beset by enemies who want his blood, but Cicero, ever upright, refuses Caesar's offer and chooses exile from Rome. On the same night that he leaves anonymously under cover of darkness, on the opposite side of town, Caesar and his army prepare to set out for five years in Gaul. Thus the world turns. Thus the world changes. 

It is a remarkable story which never grows dull - for me, at least - in the telling. Harris has plenty of sources to draw from here, and I especially like the fact that the story is told from the viewpoint of Tiro. He was the fly on the wall at all of Cicero's meetings, present but ignored by the participants. He was in the ideal spot to learn all the secrets and to tell the fascinating story. Too bad his actual biography has been lost, but I suspect Harris has done a creditable job in recreating it.


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