Books: Dictator

If I had realized that Dictator was the final book of a trilogy I’d have tried to read the other two books first. I knew Robert Harris had written other novels about ancient Rome – I just didn’t realize they were part of a single story.

I wonder now how far I’d have gotten if I had started with Imperium. It’s been a long time since I took this long to get through a library book – I actually had to go back to the library to check it out a second time (after using up my 3-week renewal period).

It’s not that there isn’t a lot that is interesting here. Harris gives a detailed picture of Cicero’s life, both personal and political. I recognized the name Cicero from some long ago high school class, but had no real idea who he was until I started reading.

I also had remembered very little of the history of Rome. I know some of the history of the Roman Empire because it is related to church history and the history of Britain. But even having briefly reviewed the history of the Roman Republic when I was reading Augustine’s City of God a couple of years ago, I had forgotten it again.

The last years of the Republic were violent, uncertain times. We may be cynical about our politicians and the corruption in government, but while the system may be broken it’s not that bad. We do still have elections, not wars, to determine the leaders of our government.

The problem with the novel, though, is that it’s more like a biography than a novel. I kept wondering, where is this story going? And eventually I realized, it’s going wherever the life of Cicero went, and will follow whatever path he followed until his death. It just doesn’t hang together the way a novel does – or give me a compelling reason to pick it up when there are other books to read.

Other readers of course may disagree, and the majority of the reviews on amazon.com are positive. I have to admit to wondering just what they saw that made it so “riveting.” (But other readers, both of this volume and the previous two, share my view.)

I like learning history, but when I read a novel I want either a good story-line or a character I care about. A book telling someone’s life has a story-line only as interesting as the person, and Cicero just didn’t come across as someone I cared about.

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