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

Classical Sources for the Milo Stories

A collection of the classical sources for the Milo stories. More on Milo can be found here. 

On Saving Pythagoras and the Philosophers:

Milo, who was the most renowned of wrestlers, and lived in terms of intimacy with Pythagoras, who abode long in this city[meaning Croton]. They relate that at a banquet of the philosophers, when one of the pillars in the hall gave way, Milo sustained the ceiling while they all escaped, and afterwards saved himself. (Strabo, the Geography, VI, 12 trans. Hamilton)

Statue portending to represent Pythagoras

Critical of Milo for his reliance on brawns over brains:

Nothing can be more truly contemptible than a circumstance which is related concerning the famous Milo of Crotona. This man, when he was become old, observing a set of athletic combatants that were exercising themselves in the public circus: “Alas!” said he, bursting into a flood of tears and stretching forth his arm, “alas! these muscles are now totally relaxed and impotent.” Frivolous old man; it was not so much the debility of thy body as the weakness of thy mind thou hadst reason to lament, as it was by the force of mere animal prowess, and not by those superior excellences which truly ennoble man, that thou hadst rendered thy name famous. (Cicero, Sen. 9.27, trans, Melmouth)

Whoever has a reasonable portion of strength, and exerts it to the best advantage will feel no great need of more. Milo is said to have walked the race course at Olympia, carrying a live bull on his shoulders. Which would you rather have, strength like his, or a genius like that of Pythagora? Employ the boon of bodily vigor well while it remains; when it is gone, do not bewail it, unless indeed, young men should crave boyhood, and the middle-aged should covet youth. (Cicero, Cato the Elder: Or, a Treatise on Old Age 10.33)

Marcus Tullius Cicero

On Milo and the Wolves:

It is likely that, trusting to the same strength, he met his fate as related by some, for whilst making his way through a thick wood, he strayed considerably out of the path, when finding a great log with wedges in it, he thrust both his hands and feet into the fissure, intending to split it completely, but was only able to force it enough to let the wedges fall out, when the gaping log presently closed on him, and he, being taken as in a snare, was devoured by wild beasts. (Strabo, the Geography, VI, 12, trans Hamilton)

Milo and the Wolves

Review: Everitt’s Cicero

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician
Anthony Everitt

Odds are, you have heard of Cicero. Considered one of Rome’s greatest orators, his writings are the major influence on how way we remember the last days of the Roman republic. The story of Cicero’s life is the story of end of last years of Republican Rome. The major players of the era: Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Brutus and Octavian (soon to be Augustus) all make appearances. In his role as lawyer, statesman and backroom player, Cicero was friends and enemies with all of them. From Everitt’s book, it seems Cicero was, at times, courageous in his rhetoric. At others, he was cowardly. He tried to see all the angles and jockeyed for a position ruthlessly. While often held up as a man of virtue, the truth is he was probably closer to our own modern day politicians – conniving, and willing to bend his morals if it meant getting ahead. In the end, he wound up on the wrong side of Marc Antony and was killed.

Cicero’s story from privileged provincial boy to one of the most powerful men in Rome is fascinating. I am no expert on Roman history (yet!), but this biography is excellent for the reader with a casual interest in this time period in Rome. Not only does it give us insight into what a complicated person Cicero was (arrogant and generous; brilliant in the courtroom and terrified of physical injury) it is also an excellent primer on the death of the Roman republic. The story of Rome’s decent into dictatorship, the attempt at recovering republicanism, and then the reassertion of dictatorship is the foundation of western history. Everitt’s book is a good place to get a sense of who did what when and what Cicero had to say about it.
Recommended.