Interview with Robert Harris, Author of the Cicero Trilogy

Cicero Comes to Life in Modern Literature

Robert Harris, author of Dictator. Anthony Harvey/Stringer/Getty Images

About.com welcomes Robert Harris, New York Times bestselling author of such well-known novels as Fatherland, Pompeii, and An Officer and a Spy, for an exclusive interview. His latest release is Dictator (out now from Knopf), the third novel in his brilliant trilogy about ancient Rome's greatest orator and most famous lawyer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and the final days of the Roman Republic. 

About.com: Much of your work has centered around Europe during World War II or late Republican and early imperial Rome.

What attracted you to these two very different time periods and places? What parallels, if any, have you drawn, between the two?

Robert Harris: I don’t see myself as an historical novelist, or even a thriller writer particularly, but as a writer interested in power and the men and women who seek it. Those two periods – 1939-45 and 70 BC-43 BC – were times of extraordinary political upheaval, dominated by clashes of ideologies and by dictatorships. We are still feeling the effects of both today.

About.com: How did you choose Cicero's secretary, Tiro, as your narrator and ultimately a filter through which the reader views Cicero? Do you think “his” narrative represents an accurate portrayal of Cicero?

RH: I chose Tiro because he was a real-life character who did actually write an intimate biography of Cicero. He was at his master’s side for many years, took down his letters and speeches, attended the law courts and the Senate with him, saw him in private and in public.

He seemed a natural narrator.

I toyed with the idea of writing a first-person narrative from Cicero’s point of view. But Cicero was a genius, and an egomaniac, and often quite self-deluded. He would have been a most unreliable narrator.

As to accuracy – yes, I hope so. Part of the usefulness of novels such as mine, like those of Robert Graves, is that they can introduce the general reader to something like the historical truth.

About.com: What appealed to you about Cicero and the time period in which he lived? Did anything about Roman politics surprise or confound you - or even seem familiar?

RH: The end of the Roman Republic is perhaps the most interesting and dramatic era in history until the 1930s and '40s. The Roman democracy, imperfect in many respects, was nevertheless extraordinary vibrant and sophisticated. Much of Western political society is based upon it.

At the end of twelve years of research and writing, I am still amazed by how impressive it was: the annual elections, the role of the Roman people in passing laws, the public law courts. Cicero is the most modern of all the ancient Romans, it seems to me – compassionate, funny, self-made, touchy, vulnerable, and ultimately (though not always) brave.

About.com: What’s your opinion on the popular state of classics today? Do you see it as a “dying” field, as so many insist?

RH: We seem to be living through a great revival in classical history, certainly. To engage young people in learning Latin and Greek is another matter. That is a struggle, certainly in the United Kingdom, where neither is taught as much as it used to be, especially in state schools.

About.com: One issue with which Cicero wrestles is how to remain true to his ideals while staying alive in a dangerous political atmosphere. Your own interest in politics is well-noted; how have you found politicians negotiate his dilemma? Who has done it most successfully and how have they done so?

RH: I take the unfashionable view that most politicians are fundamentally decent, but are required by their trade to twist and turn to stay in business. The question is always: how far are you willing to compromise to survive? Therein lies the interest for a novelist. I also have an unfashionable fondness for pragmatists. I am suspicious of demagogues and snake oil salesmen trying to sell easy solutions. Even some of those politicians we most admire – Lincoln, Churchill – changed their minds and were inconsistent in their methods, if not their objectives.

Those are the greatest leaders.

About.com: Dictator is dedicated to your daughter, who studied classics at university. How has your understanding of antiquity developed as she immersed herself in that same world? Did she help you with your research?

RH: She loves the literature more than the politics, especially Ovid. She also has a fondness for Augustus which I do not share. We went together to Pompeii and Rome. I am delighted she studied the classical world in such depth. It is a great resource to have throughout life.

About.com: The trilogy covers a massive amount of information, with incredible attention to detail. What was your research and fact-checking process like?

RH: For two years, I did nothing but research. By the end, I had well over half a million words of notes. I should think three-quarters of what I learnt never made it into the trilogy. But I have a feeling that the reader somehow can sense that you know more than you are putting down, and that gives them a sense of solidity in the work.

About.com: In your opinion, was there any individual from the Republic or early Empire who was Cicero’s equal in political strategy or oratory? Who could give him a run for his money today?

RH: Caesar was probably his equal as an orator, and certainly his superior in political strategy. Above all, Caesar was one of the greatest military commanders in history, and that Cicero never was. Cato was clearly also an effective speaker.

No one approaches Cicero’s skill as an orator today, I fear.

There is no call for two-hour speeches. The nearest equivalent was probably Churchill, who certainly studied Cicero, especially the Philippics, which I am sure provided some of the inspiration – conscious or not – for his great speeches in 1940.

About.com: If Cicero were alive today, what do you think his opinions would be of world affairs? American and European politics?

RH: That’s almost impossible to answer. He was a genius who dreamed of eternal glory. Would such a personality even go into politics today?

About.com: If Cicero was on social media, how do you think he’d represent himself or use it as a political tool? What do you think he’d post pictures of on Instagram? Would he live-tweet Senate meetings?

RH: He would have used any tool available to make himself famous. To be constantly before the public was his aim, and to have a global audience would have been a source of great satisfaction. He had a great talent for witticisms, but combined it was a certain long-windedness. I doubt whether he would have been satisfied with 140 characters.

This interview has been edited and condensed.