Reading lists

Robert Harris on Cicero and Tiro

What was life like in Ancient Rome? The author introduces us to Tiro, secretary to the great orator Cicero and the narrator of Harris' Cicero trilogy

Cicero trilogy book covers

A devoted servant

The Cicero trilogy – Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator – tells the story of the life of the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero, imagined in the form of a biography written by his secretary, Tiro. That there was such a man as Tiro and that he wrote such a book are well-attested historical facts. Born a slave on the family estate, Tiro was three years younger than his master but long outlived him, surviving, according to Saint Jerome, until he reached his 100th year.

Tiro was the first man to record a speech in the senate verbatim, and his shorthand system, known as notae Tironianae, was still in use in the Church in the sixth century; indeed some traces of it (the symbol & and the abbreviations etc., NB, i.e., e.g.) survive to this day.

He also wrote several treatises on the development of Latin. His multi-volume life of Cicero is referred to as a source by the first-century historian Asconius Pedianus; Plutarch cites it twice. But, like the rest of Tiro’s literary output, the book disappeared with the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Cicero's extraordinary life

What must it have been like, one wonders? Cicero’s life was extraordinary, even by the hectic standards of the age. From relatively lowly origins compared to his aristocratic rivals, and despite his lack of interest in military matters, deploying his skill as an orator and the brilliance of his intellect, he rose at meteoric speed through the Roman political system, until, against all the odds, he finally was elected consul at the youngest permitted age of 42.

The first novel in the trilogy, Imperium, describes Cicero’s rise to power. The second, Lustrum, tells of his crisis-stricken year in office – 63BC – and of how his subsequent decision to oppose the so-called triumvirate earned him the enmity of Julius Caesar and led him to flee Rome.

It is at this desperate point in Cicero’s fortunes that the third novel, Dictator, begins. Its story encompasses what was arguably – at least until the convulsions of 1933-45 – the most tumultuous era in human history.

My aim has been to describe, as accurately as I can within the conventions of fiction, life in Ancient Rome as it might have been experienced by Cicero and Tiro. Wherever possible, the letters and speeches and descriptions of events have been drawn from the original sources. However, these are novels, not works of history: wherever the demands of the two have clashed, I have unhesitatingly given in to the former.

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