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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-03-05 19:43
Dictator by Robert Harris
Dictator (Book Three) - Robert Harris

This is the third part of Harris' Cicero series - and it doesn't make much sense without having read the previous 2 novels, Imperium and Lustrum since it picks up right where Lustrum left off and runs through the final 20 years of Cicero's life: his exile and return, Pompey vs Caesar, Caesar's dictatorship, Caesar's assassination, the 2nd triumvirate and the end of the republic.


"Raise, praise, and erase."


But as much as especially the second half  of Lustrum captivated me, this book rushed through major events - and unfortunately also showed that Cicero, in all his idealism, didn't really learn from past events. He again put faith in people who betrayed him and/or turned out to have quite different agendas. He again tried to manipulate events, not realizing that it was he that was manipulated. In that way much of what happens with Octavian and Marc Anthony - even the ill-thought through assassination of Caesar (which Cicero had no part in but sympathized with) -, didn't offer more than what history books teach. Frankly, in some parts, there's more introspection about Tiro than about Cicero. Granted, Tiro is the narrator, but the book is about Cicero.


So, yes, this is a good book, and it concludes this trilogy in an engaging manner - but the undisputed highlight remains Lustrum where the inner workings of politics are actually put to the stand, including democracy vs the rule of the mob vs the rule of one, and Cicero's personality as a politician and as a human-being is defined.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-09-18 11:03
Lustrum by Robert Harris
Lustrum - Robert Harris

This is the second part of Harris's Cicero-trilogy. The author claims that you should be able to read this book independently, but in my opinion you should have at least some idea about the various alliances and enmities that made up "Imperium".


Lustrum spans 5 years, beginning at the eve of Cicero's 1-year consulship when a young slave, owned by Cicero's co-consul Hybrida, is found mutilated. What follows is a row of unholy alliances to thwart the attempt of overthrowing the republic by Catilina and his followers. While Cicero is hailed saviour of the republic, his adherence to the rule of law opens the door for the rise of the mob on the one side and Caesar's rule on the other, disregarding protocol and pushing through legislation via bribery and threats. The senate's power is on the decline, the government now consists of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey with narcissist Clodius ruling the mob. And Cicero has to flee into the night.


The last 100 pages or so quite honestly gave me the chills. Cicero might have thwarted the most overt attack on the republic during his consulship... but he couldn't prevent the slow decline, the rise of the mob and Caesar's usurping power. Everytime he thinks he has slain a monster, it grows back 7 more heads. And that's rather disquieting. Of course, Cicero's not without blame, either. He chose to rest on his laurels, he made pacts that later on bit him in the behind, he wasn't careful enough about whom to trust, and that's what leads to his fall from grace.


But the chilling sensation doesn't only come from the story itself, the tale of a corrupt republic that tears itself apart. No, rather than talking about the long lost Roman republic this novel feels damningly real in this age and time where we see mob-like movements on the streets and online, where we see demagogues taking control of that mob and pointing fingers (and the mob mindlessly following), where we see established parties stuck in corruption and self-annihilation, where we see so much anger, hatred and negative campaigning instead of enthusiasm and new ideas, where we see divide and conquer instead of unity and common ground. Sounds pretty relevant in the current climate to me.


Overall, a satisfying and thought-provoking novel - on to part 3.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-03-02 13:59
Conclave by Robert Harris
Conclave - Robert Harris

The pope is dead... and 117 cardinals are about to seclude themselves in the conclave to elect a new pope. No, make that 118. There are 4 favourites, but as the saying goes: Who goes into the conclave as pope, comes out a cardinal.


Although it's mostly talk and introspection, Harris manages to keep one yearning for more. Especially his point-of-view character Lomeli who presides the conclave is a surprisingly relatable protagonist, with doubts and a crisis of faith that's heart-felt, especially the conflict between faith in Christ and faith in the institution of the Catholic Church. I think that's an important difference because lots of people have lost faith in the Church but not necessarily in God or Christianity. Unfortunately, for some officials that's often the same thing and those people, now looking for a new spiritual home, are left adrift, ripe for the picking for demagogues with unsavoury goals hidden within sweet promises.


In the end it's not so much a story about the election of a new pope but of a man regaining his own faith. That's where this novel very much succeeds. As it does in portraying a range of characters, from super-progressive, to manipulative, ambitious, world-weary, some deeply flawed, others shaped by circumstances.


However, the plot itself doesn't hold many surprises and much is left unsolved (the events in the outside world, the old pope's last weeks etc), but I imagine that's due to the constraints of the conclave's seclusion which doesn't lend itself to starting investigations. Still, I was captivated throughout but mainly to see if my predictions were right (and they were, every one of them), rather than because of unforeseen twists and turns. And I could have lived with that because it's still a gripping tale of introspection and psychology. But the final twist (especially since it's obvious from a mile away) was a bit too much and went beyond credibility, even more so in modern times. I think that Harris wanted to add something unique into his story - and I agree that at some point such a development will and has to come to pass. But the way this twist was introduced doesn't necessarily mean progress for the Church itself as long as an agenda that speaks of lasting and fundamental change within the structure of the Church isn't mentionned. And let's face it, the respective character and the story itself didn't need this. So, somehow, I can't help but think of this twist as some kind of trendy publicity stunt, and an unnecessary one at that, mind you.


Therefore, the ending did put a bit of a dampener on my enjoyment of this novel - but it's still a good and suspenseful tale.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-01-24 00:43
Imperium by Robert Harris
Imperium - Robert Harris


Tiro, Cicero's slave, recounts his master's political career, starting with his case against Verres and ending with his being elected consul...



I first encountered Marcus Tullius Cicero when translating his speeches against Verres and Catilina and later on his philosophical entreaties at school. Up until now he remains my favourite Latin/Roman author/orator, and when I find time I still enjoy translating his works. But quite frankly, I didn't care at all to learn more about his political career back then. After all, he lived more than 2000 years in the past...

But lately, I rediscovered him as a political figure, not just an author whose texts I enjoy, only to find out that political systems, be they from 2000 years ago or contemporary, are not that different after all. Cicero's social standing as a "new man", meaning he's the first of his family to pursue the consulship, the highest political position in ancient Rome, often puts him at odds with the aristocrats who have held power in the republic since virtually forever and are loathe to relinquish it - and who maybe fear being replaced by those "new men". And Cicero poses a threat to them. He is the (reluctant) mastermind behind Pompey's grasp for power, he puts the governor of Sicily, Verres, an aristocrat, on trial for his misdeeds in office, and he's quite popular with the common people as an orator and lawyer.

But as Cicero advances in his political career he's forced to strike up deals and compromises. He gets caught up in a net of conspiracy, corruption, and... well... politics, and only chance helps him achieve his goals as he uncovers a plot to essentially overthrow the political system which secures him the unhoped for support of the aristocrats in the elections practically at the last minute. It's a fitting end to the book that Cicero doesn't boast his victory, that he isn't giddy with glee - but rather contemplative and aware of what he had to sacrifice along the way.

But it's not just Cicero with his witty remarks and high morals that are challenged at every juncture (with the latter sometimes even put aside) that makes this book a fascinating read. Rather, Harris manages to breathe life into the Roman society surrounding these more or less historic events. The basic story, Cicero's career, is based upon his speeches and letters to friends and Tiro's actual account of events, so the facts in this book appear historically sound. But it's much more than a mere biography. It's a glimpse into a Roman republic that is on the eve of its demise, it's ripe with corruption and the pursuit of petty self-interests. Caesar, Crassus and Pompey are already secretly spinning their nets, and one understands at the end, even as Caesar and Crassus' plot is revealed that this would only be a minor road block in their plans - even more so, because the reader of course knows what would happen just a few years after the events depicted in this novel. Caesar would declare himself dictator, and the Roman republic would finally meet its end... This knowledge, and the knowledge about Cicero's eventual fall from grace and cruel death, adds a rather bitter-sweet note to a very satisfying book.
review originally written in 2008.
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