Read an Extract from Dictator by Robert Harris

Read an Extract from Dictator by Robert Harris


58 B.C. – 47 B.C.

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

– Cicero, Orator, 46 B.C.

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow-citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

Even though he was the oldest of our party Cicero kept up the same fast pace as the rest of us. Not long ago he had held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. He could have crushed it as easily as an egg. Now their fortunes led in opposite directions. While Cicero hurried south to escape his enemies, the architect of his destruction marched north to take command of both provinces of Gaul.

Such bitter regrets must have coursed through his mind, and yet he said nothing. Only at dawn, when we rendezvoused with our horses at Bovillae and were about to embark on the second stage of our escape, did he pause with his foot in the doorway of his carriage and say suddenly, ‘Do you think we should turn back?’

The question caught me by surprise. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t considered it.’

‘Well, consider it now. Do you imagine Caesar’s departure for Gaul at that exact hour was a coincidence? Of course not! He waited until his informers told him I’d left the city before ordering his army to move. So what scheme does he have in mind that requires him to be absolutely certain I have gone before he leaves too?’

I should have grasped the logic of what he was saying. I should have urged him to turn back. But I was too exhausted to reason clearly. And if I am honest there was more to it than that. I was too afraid of what Clodius’s thugs might do to us if they caught us re-entering the city.

So instead I said, ‘It’s a good question, and I can’t pretend I have the answer. But wouldn’t it look indecisive, after bidding goodbye to everyone, to suddenly reappear? In any case, Clodius has burned your house down now – where would we return to? Who would take us in? I think you’d be wiser to stick to your original plan and get as far away from Rome as you can.’

He rested his head against the side of the carriage and closed his eyes. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps you’re right. It’s so long since I slept I’m too tired to think any more.’

And so, more through indecision than decision, we continued to press southwards for the remainder of that day and for the twelve days that followed, putting what we thought was a safe distance between ourselves and danger. We travelled with a minimal entourage to avoid attracting attention – just the carriage driver and three armed slaves on horseback, one in front and two behind – and with a small chest of gold and silver coins that Atticus had provided to pay for our journey hidden under our seat. We stayed only in the houses of friends, no more than a night in each, and steered clear of those places where Cicero might have been expected to stop – for example at his seaside villa at Formiae, the first place any pursuers would look for him, and along the Bay of Naples, already filling with the annual exodus from Rome in search of winter sun and warm springs. Instead we headed as fast as we could towards the toe of Italy.

Cicero’s plan, conceived on the move, was to make for Sicily and stay there until the political agitation against him in Rome subsided. He was confident of a friendly reception, if only because of his successful prosecution of the island’s tyrannical governor, Verres – even though that brilliant victory was now twelve years in the past and Clodius had more recently been a magistrate in the province. I sent letters ahead giving notice of his intention to seek sanctuary there, and when we reached the harbour at Regium we hired a little six-oared boat to row us across the straits to Messina.

As we left the harbour the sea and the sky were searing blues, one light, one dark; the line dividing them sharp as a blade; the distance to Messina a mere three miles. It took us less than an hour. We drew so close we could see Cicero’s supporters lined up on the rocks to welcome him ashore. But stationed between us and the entrance to the port was a warship flying the red and green colours of the governor of Sicily, Gaius Vergilius, and as we approached the lighthouse it slipped its anchor and moved slowly forwards to intercept our passage. Vergilius appeared at the rail surrounded by his lictors and shouted down a greeting, to which Cicero replied in friendly terms. They had known one another in the senate for many years.

Vergilius asked him his intentions.

Cicero called back that naturally he intended to come ashore.

‘That’s what I’d heard,’ replied Vergilius. ‘Unhappily I can’t allow it.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because of Clodius’s new law.’

‘And what new law would that be? There are so many, one loses count!’

Vergilius beckoned to a member of his staff who produced a document and leaned down to pass it to me – it was quite a distance: I had to stretch up on tip-toe – and I then gave it to Cicero. To this day I can remember how it fluttered in his hands in the slight breeze as if it were a living thing; it was the only sound in the silence. He took his time and when he had finished reading it he handed it to me without comment.

Lex Clodia in Ciceronem

Whereas M. T. Cicero has put Roman citizens to death unheard and uncondemned; and to that end forged the authority and decree of the senate; it is hereby ordained that he be interdicted from fire and water to a distance of four hundred miles from Rome; that nobody should presume to harbour or receive him, on pain of death; that all his property and possessions be forfeit; that his house in Rome be demolished and a shrine to Liberty consecrated in its place; and that whoever shall move, speak, vote or take any step towards recalling him shall be treated as a public enemy, unless those whom Cicero unlawfully put to death should first spring back to life.

It must have been the most terrible blow. But he found the composure to dismiss it with a flick of his hand. ‘When,’ he inquired, ‘was this nonsense published?’

‘I’m told it was posted in Rome eight days ago. It came into my hands yesterday.’

‘Then it’s not law yet, and can’t be law until it’s been read a third time. My secretary will confirm it. Tiro,’ he said, turning to me, ‘tell the governor the earliest date it can be passed.’

I tried to calculate. Before a bill could be put to a vote it had to be read aloud in the Forum on three successive market days. But my reasoning was so shaken by what I had just read I couldn’t remember what day of the week it was now, let alone when the market days fell. ‘Twenty days from now,’ I hazarded, ‘perhaps twenty-five?’

‘You see?’ cried Cicero. ‘I have three weeks’ grace even if it passes, which I’m sure it won’t.’ He stood up in the prow of the boat, bracing his legs against the rocking of the hull, and spread his arms wide in appeal. He had put on a toga dyed black as a sign of mourning. His hair and beard had been left uncut for months. Although he was in the forty-ninth year of his life he looked much older – like some ancient, mendicant holy man. ‘Please, my dear Vergilius, for the sake of our past friendship, now that I have come so far, at least allow me to land and spend a night or two with my supporters!’

‘No, as I say, I’m sorry, but I cannot take the risk. I’ve consulted my experts. They say even if you travelled to the very western tip of the island, to Lilybaeum, you’d still be within three hundred and fifty miles of Rome, and then Clodius would come after me.’

At that, Cicero ceased to be so friendly. He said in a menacing tone, ‘You have no right under the law to impede the journey of a Roman citizen.’

‘I have every right to safeguard the tranquillity of my province. And here, as you know, my word is the law…’

He was apologetic. I dare say he was even embarrassed. But he was immovable, and after a few more angry exchanges there was nothing for it but to turn round and row back to Regium. Our departure provoked a great cry of dismay from the shoreline and I could see that Cicero for the first time was seriously worried. Vergilius was a friend of his. If this was how a friend reacted then soon the whole of Italy would be closed against him. Returning to Rome to oppose the law was too fraught with risk to contemplate. He had left it too late. Apart from the physical danger such a journey would entail, the bill would almost certainly pass, and then we would be stranded four hundred miles from the legal limit it prescribed. To comply safely with the terms of his exile he would have to flee abroad immediately. Obviously Gaul was out of the question because of Caesar. So it would have to be somewhere in the East – Greece perhaps, or Asia. But unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the peninsula to make our escape in the treacherous winter seas. We needed to get over to the opposite coast, to Brundisium on the Adriatic, and find a big ship capable of making a lengthy voyage. Our predicament was exquisitely vile – as no doubt Caesar, the original sponsor and creator of Clodius, had intended.

It took us two weeks of arduous travel to cross the mountains, often in heavy rain and mostly along bad roads. Every mile seemed fraught with the hazard of ambush, although the primitive little towns we passed through were welcoming enough. At night we slept in smoky, freezing inns and dined on hard bread and fatty meat made scarcely more palatable by sour wine. Cicero’s mood veered between fury and despair. He saw clearly now that he had made a terrible mistake by leaving Rome. It had been madness for him to quit the field and leave Clodius free to spread the calumny that he had put citizens to death ‘unheard and uncondemned’ when in fact each prisoner had been allowed to speak in his own defence and the punishment had been sanctioned by the entire senate. His flight was tantamount to an admission of guilt. He should have obeyed his instinct and turned back when he heard Caesar’s departing trumpets and first began to realise his error. He wept at the disaster his folly and timidity had brought upon his wife and children.

And when he had finished lashing himself he turned his scourge on Hortensius ‘and the rest of the aristocratic gang’ who had never forgiven him for rising from his humble origins to the consulship and saving the republic: they had deliberately urged him to flee in order to ruin him. He should have heeded the example of Socrates, who said that death was preferable to exile. Yes, he should have killed himself! He snatched up a knife from the dining table. He would kill himself! I said nothing. I didn’t take the threat seriously. He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood let alone his own. All his life he had tried to avoid military expeditions, the games, public executions, funerals – anything that might remind him of mortality. If pain frightened him, death terrified him – which, although I would never have been impertinent enough to point it out, was the principal reason we had fled Rome in the first place.

When finally we came within sight of the fortified walls of Brundisium he decided not to venture inside. The port was so large and busy, so full of strangers, and so predictably his destination, that he was convinced it was the obvious spot for his assassination. Instead we sought sanctuary a little way up the coast, in the residence of his old friend, Marcus Laenius Flaccus. That night we slept in decent beds for the first time in three weeks and the next morning we went down to the beach. The waves were much rougher than on the Sicilian side. The Adriatic was grey and heaving. A strong wind was hurling the white-caps relentlessly against the rocks and shingle. Cicero loathed sea-voyages at the best of times; this one promised to be especially treacherous. Yet it was our only means of escape. One hundred and twenty miles beyond the horizon lay the shore of Illyria.

Flaccus, noticing his expression, said, ‘Fortify your spirits, Cicero – perhaps the bill won’t pass, or one of the other tribunes will veto it. There must be someone left in Rome willing to stand up for you – Pompey, surely?’

But Cicero, his gaze still fixed out to sea, made no reply, and a few days later we heard that the bill had indeed become law and that Flaccus was therefore guilty of a capital offence simply by having a convicted exile on his premises. Even so he tried to persuade us to stay. He insisted that Clodius didn’t frighten him. But Cicero wouldn’t hear of it: ‘Your loyalty moves me, old friend, but that monster will have dispatched a team of his hired fighters to hunt me down the moment his law passed. There is no time to lose.’

I had found a merchant ship in the harbour at Brundisium whose hard-pressed master was willing to risk a winter voyage across the Adriatic in return for a huge fee, and the next morning at first light, when no one was around, we went on board. She was a sturdy, broad-beamed vessel, with a crew of about twenty, used to ply the trade route between Italy and Dyrrachium. I was no judge of these things but she looked safe enough to me. The master estimated the crossing would require a day and a half – but we needed to leave quickly, he said, and take advantage of the favourable wind. So while the sailors made her ready and Flaccus waited on the quayside Cicero quickly dictated a final message to his wife and children: ‘It has been a fine life, a great career – the good in me, nothing bad, has brought me down. My dear Terentia, loyalest and best of wives, my darling daughter, Tullia, and Marcus, our one remaining hope – goodbye!’ I copied it out and passed it up to Flaccus. He raised his hand in farewell. Then the sail was unfurled, the cables cast off, the oarsmen shoved us away from the harbour wall, and we set off into the pale grey light.

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