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Power And Principles Clash In Ancient Republic

Writer Robert Harris knows something about the dark underbelly of politics. He was a political reporter in the U.K. for many years before turning his hand to fiction, and now, though his genre has changed, Harris' subject in a new novel, Conspirata, remains the same: politics.

"I wanted to write a novel about the excitements and the intrigues of power," Harris tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "And to ask the question, why did this very sophisticated, centuries-old democracy collapse, and what lessons does is hold for today?"

Instead of modern-day London, the web of power Harris now chronicles is in ancient Rome, at a time when the republic was beginning to fall apart. Conspirata — the second in his planned Rome trilogy — focuses on the epic battles between two of Rome's most storied figures: Julius Caesar and Marcus Cicero.

"In a way, this whole trilogy — and this book in particular — is a duel between Cicero and Caesar — two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition," Harris explains. "Cicero's ambition is to rise within the system. Caesar's desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image. And the clash between these two men, who are sort of in a way almost wary friends and admirers — that's really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good shake from history than Caesar, who was in some ways, I think, a monster along the lines of Napoleon or even Hitler."

Harris says he admires Cicero, even though, in battling Caesar and other forces in Rome, he made many tactical decisions that on closer inspection take on brutal dimensions. Still, locked in battle with Caesar, Cicero is Conspirata's hero.

"This book is really a Greek tragedy," Harris says. "The first half of the book covers the year when Cicero is in power as consul, trying to hold the state together. The republic [was] divided between two bitterly opposed factions. And Cicero tried to keep this show on the road but faced a huge conspiracy organized by a dissolute nobleman named Catalina."


The book's first half details how Cicero fought this conspiracy and how, in fighting it, he gave in to ambition, going against his devotion to the rule of law. His rejection of that principle reaches a peak when he has five men put to death, an event that actually took place and was the subject of a real debate in December of the year 63 B.C., featuring speeches from Cicero, Cato and Julius Caesar, three of ancient Rome's most famous figures.

"[It] is probably one of the greatest parliamentary debates there's ever been," Harris says. "And over a distance of more than 2,000 years, to be able to re-create that, the ebb and flow of the debate, the way opinion swung one way and then the other and then finally these men were executed, is really the core of the book, and really the thing I most enjoyed doing."

After Cicero turns his back on the rule of law, Conspirata's second half shows how tragedy came to "enfold him because of this decision," Harris says.

Cicero's argument for putting the five men to death may be a political decision that he sees as necessary on the side of what is right, but it enables his enemies — people Harris views as more purely evil — to turn his actions against him.

"I find Cicero an attractive character because he is not an extremist. He is a conciliator," Harris says. "I've been very struck by the parallels between Cicero, actually, and President Obama — both lawyers, both outsiders in a way, both brilliant speakers, both of them presiding over a republic that seems more divided than one can remember. And I enjoyed getting behind the desk — or in the toga — of the man in charge, Cicero, who had this great weight of responsibility on him."

Over and over again, Cicero's compromises come back to haunt him.

"If one is allowed to have a favorite line in your own book, I like the part where the narrator — the book is narrated by Cicero's slave secretary, Tiro — says that Cicero had to go around building an alliance [by] going back on things he said before, a process which the uninitiated call hypocrisy, but is really the essence of power," Harris says.

It's great fodder for historical fiction, but also, Harris says, a necessary ingredient in the sausage factory of democracy.

"You have to have things that look like trimming and compromise, and Cicero was attacked throughout his life and then after his death as someone who was always willing to play both ends against the middle," Harris says. "His aim was survival."

Harris' Cicero is aware of his compromises, and like any good politician, he has an apt metaphor at hand for explaining his occasional waffling — one that turns his own shortcoming into an attack on his opponent.

"He said that the role of the statesman was to be a doctor; sometimes you used one treatment on the patient and sometimes another, but your aim was the good health of the person you were treating," Harris says. "He said that Caesar never for one moment looked at politics in that way. He was only ever concerned with his own glory."

Throughout the novel, drawing parallels to contemporary politics is unavoidable. To explain the nature of politics he lays out in Conspirata, Harris recalls a quote from the British politician John Enoch Powell — "who is rather similar to the conservative ideologue Cato," according to the author. Powell said "all political careers, unless they are cut off at some happy juncture, end in failure."

"It must," Harris concludes. "That is the process. Politics is never a victory, it's just the remorseless grinding forward of events. And so yes, it's very easy, I think, to attack politicians for their hypocrisy. And it's right in a democracy that we do that. But I did quite like the idea of trying to write a novel from the point of view of the hypocrite."

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