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Robert Harris



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TIRO, M. Tullius, the secretary of Cicero. He was not only the amanuensis of the orator, and his assistant in literary labor, but was himself an author of no mean reputation, and the inventor of the art of shorthand, which made it possible to take down fully and correctly the words of public speakers, however rapid their enunciation. After the death of Cicero, Tiro purchased a farm in the neighborhood of Puteoli, to which he retired and lived, according to Hieronymous, until he reached his hundredth year. Asconius Pedianus (in Pro Milone 38) refers to the fourth book of a life of Cicero by Tiro.

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Vol. III, edited by William L. Smith, London, 1851 [extracted]

Innumerabilia tua sunt in me officia, domestica, forensia, urbana, provincialia, in re privata, in publica, in studiis, in litteris nostris.

“Your services to me are beyond count-in my home and out of it, in Rome and abroad, in private affairs and public, in my studies and literary work.”


Part One. Senator

79 B.C.-70 B.C.

Urbem, urbem, mi Rufe, cole et in ista luce viva!

“Rome! Stick to Rome, my dear fellow, and live in the limelight!”


Roll I

MY NAME IS TIRO. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters, and his literary works, even his poetry-such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the Senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. This, along with a few legacies and the kindness of friends, is sufficient to keep me in my retirement. I do not require much. The elderly live on air, and I am very old-almost a hundred, or so they tell me.

In the decades after his death, I was often asked, usually in whispers, what Cicero was really like, but always I held my silence. How was I to know who was a government spy and who was not? At any moment I expected to be purged. But since my life is now almost over, and since I have no fear of anything anymore-not even torture, for I would not last an instant at the hands of the carnifex or his assistants-I have decided to offer this work as my answer. I shall base it on my memory, and on the documents entrusted to my care. But because the time left to me inevitably must be short, I propose to write it quickly, using my shorthand system, on a few dozen small rolls of the finest paper-Hieratica, no less-which I have long hoarded for the purpose. I pray forgiveness in advance for all my errors and infelicities of style. I also pray to the gods that I may reach the end before my own end overtakes me. Cicero ’s final words to me were a request to tell the truth about him, and this I shall endeavor to do. If he does not always emerge as a paragon of virtue, well, so be it. Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them.

And it is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power-what we know in Latin as imperium-the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual. Many hundreds of men have sought this power, but Cicero was unique in the history of the republic in that he pursued it with no resources to help him apart from his own talent. He was not, unlike Metellus or Hortensius, from one of the great aristocratic families, with generations of political favors to draw on at election time. He had no mighty army to back up his candidacy, as did Pompey or Caesar. He did not have Crassus’s vast fortune to smooth his path. All he had was his voice-and by sheer effort of will he turned it into the most famous voice in the world.

I WAS TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OLD when I entered his service. He was twenty-seven. I was a household slave, born on the family estate in the hills near Arpinum, who had never even seen Rome. He was a young advocate, suffering from nervous exhaustion, and struggling to overcome considerable natural disabilities. Few would have wagered much on either of our chances.

Cicero ’s voice at this time was not the fearsome instrument it later became, but harsh and occasionally prone to stutter. I believe the problem was that he had so many words teeming in his head that at moments of stress they jammed in his throat, as when a pair of sheep, pressed by the flock behind them, try at the same time to squeeze through a gate. In any case, these words were often too highfalutin for his audience to grasp. “The Scholar,” his restless listeners used to call him, or “the Greek”-and the terms were not meant as compliments. Although no one doubted his talent for oratory, his frame was too weak to carry his ambition, and the strain on his vocal cords of several hours’ advocacy, often in the open air and in all seasons, could leave him rasping and voiceless for days. Chronic insomnia and poor digestion added to his woes. To put it bluntly, if he was to rise in politics, as he desperately wished to do, he needed professional help. He therefore decided to spend some time away from Rome, traveling both to refresh his mind and to consult the leading teachers of rhetoric, most of whom lived in Greece and Asia Minor.

Because I was responsible for the upkeep of his father’s small library and possessed a decent knowledge of Greek, Cicero asked if he might borrow me, as one might remove a book on loan, and take me with him to the East. My job would be to supervise arrangements, hire transport, pay teachers, and so forth, and after a year go back to my old master. In the end, like many a useful volume, I was never returned.

We met in the harbor of Brundisium on the day we were due to set sail. This was during the consulship of Servilius Vatia and Claudius Pulcher, the six hundred and seventy-fifth year after the foundation of Rome. Cicero then was nothing like the imposing figure he later became, whose features were so famous he could not walk down the quietest street unrecognized. (What has happened, I wonder, to all those thousands of busts and portraits, which once adorned so many private houses and public buildings? Can they really all have been smashed and burned?) The young man who stood on the quayside that spring morning was thin and round-shouldered, with an unnaturally long neck, in which a large Adam’s apple, as big as a baby’s fist, plunged up and down whenever he swallowed. His eyes were protuberant, his skin sallow, his cheeks sunken; in short, he was the picture of ill health. Well, Tiro, I remember thinking, you had better make the most of this trip, because it is not going to last long.

We went first to Athens, where Cicero had promised himself the treat of studying philosophy at the Academy. I carried his bag to the lecture hall and was in the act of turning away when he called me back and demanded to know where I was going.

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