Sunday 26 August 2018

Imperium, Cicero and the Rule of Law

Some view Cicero, lawyer and statesman, as the first authentic voice of western civilisation; and he left quite enough writings and transcripts for us to form an opinion.  Robert Harris, that great student of flamboyant power-playing individuals across the ages (Caesar, Stalin, Blair ...), eventually completed his great Ciceronian trilogy a couple of years ago, and it has relatively quickly been brought to the stage.  I'm reviewing it now at BQ's recent suggestion, having just yesterday seen the second helping of the two-part, seven hour epic which is based on two-and-a-bit of the three books.  (A bit late, I know, because it comes to the end of its London run early next month.)

Two-and-a-bit?  Well, the first volume, Imperium, gets just a five-minute summary by way of a flashback in Part 1.  The play starts, as does the second novel Lustrum, just before Cicero's accession to the consulate.  Even with seven hours available, compression is inevitable; indeed significant chunks (the downfalls of Clodius, Pompey and Crassus) of Dictator, the third volume, get summarised in a brief narrative passage.  This still leaves no shortage of epic material with which to develop three main themes: the equivocal character of Cicero, decidedly slippery for a man of integrity; the Rule of Law - his ostensible passion, though he plays fast and loose when he needs to;  and that what endures is what gets written down.

As with the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another broad and epic story rendered down impressionistically for the viewing audience, I'm wondering what anyone would make of it if they haven't read the books beforehand.  However, there is one aspect over which there isn't much doubt about how the audience takes things, because frequent outbreaks of laughter give it clean away.  As with many (most?) writers, Harris of course very deliberately selects and treats his subject matter in order to comment, inter alia, on our own times; and it is striking how often the audience immediately sees present-day connections - in particular, with Brexit.  In part, the stage production has annoyingly tweaked the original for this effect - a slightly modified phrase here, a wink at the audience there - but the assassination of Caesar is one example where no such deliberate pitching is required.  As in the novel, Cicero berates the conspirators for having set out on a fateful course of action with no serious thought as to what happens next, and the audience recognises an allusion immediately.  Given that the book easily predates the referendum, we may safely credit Harris with doing what he obviously intended: showing that the lessons of history are timeless.

(Another episode where the audience feel they recognise a deliberate allusion is when Pompey first struts bombastically onto the stage, complete with prominent Trumpian quiff and tan.  But that is exactly how he is described in the book, and indeed as he was played by Kenneth Cranham in the BBC/HBO Rome back in 2005 - again, greatly predating the presidential rise of the Donald.)

If I have any other complaints against the production, the biggie is how the books' narrator Tiro, Cicero's brilliant amenuensis, is played for laughs - rather like the Common Man in A Man For All Seasons (stage version, not the film).  That doesn't do him justice.  And Harris does a lot better with the characters of Mark Anthony and his wife Fulvia than does the stage play.

But these gripes are to be set alongside the bravura spectacle and excellent set-pieces, particularly at the end.  The seven hours went a lot quicker than some turgid offerings that are two-thirds shorter.  I was left with one abiding impression, and it very much centres on the Rule of Law which Cicero pontificated upon so frequently.  

Rule of law was clearly a major article of public faith in Cicero's time.  It was in Tudor times too - another era of life-and-death personality politics** - even Henry VIII had to suffer abject humiliation in the courts when he wanted to divorce Anne of Cleves.  We like to think we can rely upon it today.  How - in the teeth of ferocious and unscrupulous politicians - is to be upheld?  Is it proof against the excesses of a Trump in the USA, or a Selmayr in the EU?  Will it be proof against Corbyn/McDonnell?  We may be fascinated by watching the fall of the Roman Republic or the House of York: but we may not feel so comfortable living in such times ourselves.


Postscript:  after the performance, who should hurl himself panting onto our No.38 bus from the theatre but the actor Richard McCabe - Cicero himself, featuring in almost every single scene across the two plays.  (A tour de force - has anyone ever learned more lines?)  I can report he is a most personable chap!  Oh - and he could play Alex Salmond to complete and utter perfection (he's even a Scot): an idea for someone there ...

** Something else.  When re-reading the Harris books, I was very struck by how similar is the tenor of the Wolf Hall would-be trilogy:  a clever, diligent, ambitious lawyer of non-aristocratic origins, with a hand-picked, tight-knit and hardworking team around him, makes massive strides in public life during lethally tumultous times - and comes to a sticky end. And Wolf Hall has also been staged by the same playwright who brings us Imperium.  Note: Harris got there first.  Oh - and Harris actually completed that final volume ... get on with it, Hilary Mantel!


Anonymous said...

I haven't read Cicero's speeches, but his letters are a very good read.

Minor point: the book version of "2001" was written after the film was made.

Don Cox

Nick Drew said...

2001 - interesting. Presumably someone told Arthur C that nobody understood what the hell was going on!

AndrewZ said...

I saw Imperium without having read any of the Robert Harris books. I thought it was very good overall, providing plenty of food for thought about the nature of politics and the constant temptation to lie and cheat for any temporary advantage. I didn’t know that Pompey was portrayed the same way in the books and the BBC/HBO Rome series so my impression of the few scenes in which he appeared was that the director was exploiting the prejudices of a metropolitan liberal audience for cheap laughs. The only Brexit allusion I noticed was the very obvious joke that Tiro makes about Britain being a distant island that may or may not be in Europe, opinion being divided on the matter.

Tiro himself is rather too knowing but I suppose that any character who regularly breaks the fourth wall will come across like that. He seems like two different characters who inhabit the same person, Tiro the omniscient narrator and Tiro the slave/secretary of Cicero, but that’s because they represent the same person at two different stages of life. When Tiro takes on the role of narrator he is looking back on things that happened many years ago and is speaking with a knowledge of how the story will end.

Cicero is a classic tragic character, a man of great ambitions and great abilities who is ultimately undone by his own flaws. He is determined to defend the republic and uphold the rule of law even if it costs him his life. But his successes make him vain and boastful and he colludes in Hybrida’s corruption. Yet his most fatal flaw is that he cannot resolve the tensions between his two great beliefs. In the name of the rule of law, he lets Caesar live when he could have destroyed him and he refuses to help his ally Clodius when the latter is accused of sacrilege. In defence of the republic he fabricates evidence against Catiline and supports Octavian, who eventually becomes Rome’s first emperor.

For all his cleverness and mastery of language, Cicero does not know when to be ruthless and when to stand on principle and at critical moments he jumps the wrong way. I dare say you can suggest some modern parallels with that!

Raedwald said...

I do find it hard to like Cicero. When I read his words, I actually hear the voice of Peter Mandelson in my mind;

"those who meddle with public affairs are generally good-for-nothing men, with whom it is discreditable to be compared, and miserable and dangerous to contend, especially when the multitude is in an excited state. On which account it is not the part of a wise man to take the reins, since he cannot restrain the insane and unregulated movements of the common people. Nor is it becoming to a man of liberal birth, say they, thus to contend with such vile and unrefined antagonists, or to subject one's self to the lashings of contumely, or to put one's self in the way of injuries which ought not to be borne by a wise man. As if to a virtuous, brave, and magnanimous man there could be a juster reason for seeking the government than this—to avoid being subjected to worthless men, and to prevent the Commonwealth from being torn to pieces by them; when, even if they were then desirous to save her, they would not have the power."

He wasn't a great fan of democracy, was he? As for the rule of law, I hear the same mantra from the EU Commission - "We are a rule-based organisation" - and like Cicero, one that is prepared frequently to break the rules in order to preserve the power of the organisation.

I too see parallels - between a Republic ruled by a patrician elite who scorned the popular will and our own patrician elite.

Well, I find it hard to like him, but I do admire his cleverness. His writings found echoes centuries later in real democracies, in real republics.

I have a heterodox view of Cromwell, too, from Mantel's superb books. His personal vindictiveness in sending to the block the drunken rich kids who parodied his fallen hero Wolsey (I used to walk past his father's butchers shop in Ipswich daily), judicial murders contrived from evidence every bit as false as ever disgraced Roland Freisler's court in Nazi Germany, speaks only of his legerdemain in manipulating the process of the law.

In short, a respect for the rule of law has little to do with upholding justice, or equity, or right.

Bill Quango MP said...

Thanks Nick.
It certainly sounds worth the admission fee.

How often in hostory have great people appeared at a time of great people,
Disraeli and Gladstone.
Napoleon and Wellington
Lee and Grant
But in the republic era the list of men who’s achievements and non achievements echo down the ages. A time of giants.
Pompey should just,y be regarded as the greatest of the great for his success and wealth and leadership.
Instead, beside Caesar, he is an also ran. With Crassus. And Clodius. And Anthony. And, alas, Cicero.
Who was probably a better man than any of them.
Although Raddrrs “Peter mandelson” image does seem quite fair.

people of greatness in the age of giants, Roosevelt. Churchill. Hitler. Stalin. Mao. Who dwarfed the accomplishments of lesser mortals. Mussolini. Franco. Tojo. Who in othertimes would have been top table players. Instead of second stringers.
How do these stand against today’s colossus?


And ALL their cabinets.

Who would be considered latifundia, field slaves, in the Republic age.
Of such little value that when sold the contents of a farm holding would simply have on the itemised deed of sale,
“latifundia, more than one hundred, less than five hundred.”

Electro-Kevin said...

Seven hours of Cicero, eh ? I expect the otter's noses and baked mice were popular during the interval.

A few rumbling tummies rather than phone recordings the disturbance.

(I don't expect that McCabe will be using buses for much longer. This play is much acclaimed.)

Nick Drew said...

Yes, the baked mice and larks tongues were great.

I think I spotted a member of the Anti-Brexit People's Front in the foyer - bloody splitter!

Electro-Kevin said...

Wots the EU ever done for us ???

Bill Quango MP said...

Ek...roaming charges ?

Unknown said...

I'm typing this from Bucharest (and it's the best place I've ever been) and I must admit data roaming is bloody useful. Did I shoot myself in the foot voting leave?

Anonymous said...

Not really.
The uk could have demanded their end outside the Eu.
In the Eu, we have to await Eu wide agreement. Outside, just us.

So the determination to stand up to the providers needs to be stronger.
But the power to do so is greater.
Via tax rises. Profits and sales taxation.

Anonymous said...

ND - have you read RHC Davis' classic A History of Medieval Europe?

One passage struck me.

"Because the barbarian invasions were not sudden but gradual, it was possible for many Roman citizens to ignore their significance. Though they bewailed the fact that the times were not as good as they once had been, they tried to go on living as if nothing had changed."