Harris’s Dictator

Dictator: A Novel

Robert Harris

The final volume in Harris’s novelization of the life of Cicero, this one covering his actions during the time of the assassination of Caesar up to his death on the orders of Marc Anthony. Cicero is one of Rome’s most memorable senators. A brilliant lawyer and rhetorician who was also deeply immersed in the political upheavals that brought Rome from a democracy of sorts to a dictatorship under Augustus.

Harris takes liberties here, for sure. For instance, we know little to nothing of the motivations of many of the actors in this time period, never mind what they actually said. And the apparent warmness between Augustus and Cicero, at least for a time, is dubious, I think. But whatever, it’s a popular novel, not a text book, and if you’re interested in ancient Rome, as I very much am, it’s a fun ride.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

Greece Over Rome: My Thoughts on Being Underwhelmed by the Aeneid

The Aeneid

Virgil (Trans Fagles)

In most things of the mind, Greece beats Rome. The Greeks philosophy is better, as are its dramas, and it epic poetry. While the Aeneid is perhaps the best piece of epic poetry Rome has to offer, Virgil was no Homer and this is no Iliad.  That Homer’s superiority to Virgil isn’t always universally accepted befuddles me. Yes, there are moments of brilliance here. For example the telling of the founding of Rome is much more narratively complex than I remember. And yes, it reads a bit “cleaner” than Homer – less repetition, etc. But did any of it move me like Priam begging for Hector’s body, or captivate me like Odysseus toying with the suitors?

No.

It’s an important work, of course, and if Rome is an interest, I’m sure you’ve read it. But as literature, at least this time around, it left me a bit bored. I felt a bit let down. I’ll probably tackle it again at some point. I wonder if it will be a different book then.

Virgil, always wishing he was Homer.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Beard’s Confronting the Classics

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations
Mary Beard

This is a collection of Beard’s reviews and essays from a number of publications, including many from the New York Review of Books. Organized in rough chronological order from Greece to the present, it is a bit of a hodgepodge. But what a wonderful hodgepodge it is.

Beard is my favorite classicist (if I can be so bold as to name someone my favorite classicist). She is a delightful writer, brilliant, and unafraid to bring call it like she sees it (Circeo, perhaps not the hero you thought?). She’s also excellent at bringing progressive political ideas to the study of the ancient world without having it come off as hackneyed or forced. If you care about classics in the contemporary world, you should care about the works of Mary Beard. This isn’t a major work by Beard, but it is a great way to dip her thoughts many aspects of Greek and Roman life and thought while also discovery scores of other books that are worth your time. If, like me, you’re early in your journey into understanding classic thought and history, this is well worth your time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Saylor’s Roman Blood

Roman Blood: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)
Steven Saylor

Roman Blood is a fun little mystery set in the last days of the Roman Republic. The book is modeled on the actual killing of Sextus Roscius and Cicero’s defense of his son for the crime. Saylor has taken many a liberty with the story and embellished off what is unknown about the incident. By doing so he has created a fun and diverting mystery that does an good job of bringing ancient Rome to life and of introducing Gordianus the Finder, the sleuth who will star in the rest of this series.

The book is better written then the average mystery and the historical figures who make appearances (including Cicero and his slave Tiro, both in starring roles) are well drawn and believable. I could have done without some of the forced humor, but the accurate portrayal of Rome, warts and all, make this a worthwhile read for anyone interested in a decent mystery or ancient Rome.
Recommended for the enthusiast.