Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Conspirata (Lustrum)

Up this time around is Conspirata (2010; known in the UK as Lustrum), the second volume in  Robert Harris's planned trilogy about the famous Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.  The first novel (reviewed here) in the series was exceptionally good, so I was quite excited to dive into Conspirata.

Conspirata chronicles the momentous events in the year of Cicero's consulship and the succeeding four years (63-58 BC), a span of time known in ancient Rome as a lustrum (hence the original title of the novel...I guess that wasn't juicy enough for the American audience).  The novel is once again narrated by Cicero's slave Tiro, who, by virtue of being Cicero's personal secretary, is in a unique position to observe and comment on events.

After struggling to achieve his life's goal--the consulship--Cicero struggles to make a lasting mark on Rome from his post.  That is, until he uncovers a plot led by Sergius Catalina to overthrow the Republic with the aid of foreign troops (later to become known as the Catalinarian conspiracy).  After taking his case against Cataline to the Senate, to which he delivers a series of brilliant orations, Cicero uses his authority to arrest and summarily execute the five leading members of the conspiracy without a trial, effectively quashing the rebellion.

Despite being hailed as patres patriae (only the third Roman ever so honored) for his decisive actions, Cicero will be haunted by this decision for the rest of his life.  Indeed, the years following his consulship see his dignitas undermined by the efforts of Julius Caesar and his populist allies.  The culmination of this is the promulgation of a law by Publius Clodius (a rogue if ever there was one) that punishes anyone who executes a Roman citizen without a trial.  After seeing his political clout completely erode, Cicero is forced to confront the ugly truth that Rome is no longer safe for him, and he rides away from Rome in the dark of night into voluntary exile.  How's that for a grateful nation?

The story, being a retelling of history, can only be so suspenseful.  So, while it was sad to see Cicero treated so shabbily by nearly everyone in Rome, there is some consolation in knowing that he will be recalled to the center of Roman politics in fairly short order.  I certainly look forward to seeing how Harris wraps up the latter part of Cicero's life!

As an interesting side note, I was quite struck by the difference in the portrayals of Julius Caesar in Conspirata and Colleen McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series.  In McCullough's works, Caesar is a paragon of virtue who forthrightly struggles to correct the course of the Republic.  In contrast, Harris chooses to cast Caesar in a decidedly shady light.  This Caesar actively seeks to destroy the remains of the Roman republic, whether through associating with demagogues like Clodius or by "social engineering" with his opponents' wives (wink, wink. nudge, nudge).  I suspect that neither author has it quite right, and that the real man is somewhere between angel and demon.  I might check out a comprehensive Caesar biography sometime to get to the bottom of this.

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