STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The writer Robert Harris spent years as a reporter. He followed the lives of politicians, and the stuff that drives people crazy about politicians is just the stuff that fascinated Harris. He loved their struggles, their gamesmanship, the ethical contortions of their daily lives. It was more than he could fit into his news reports.
Mr. ROBERT HARRIS (Journalist; Author): I have always wanted to write a novel about the excitements and the intrigues of power and the best way of doing that actually is to write about Rome.
INSKEEP: Rome, not the Rome of today, but ancient Rome which 2000 years ago was the capital of an empire. Harris wanted to write about the years when ancient Rome was a republic with elections and a Senate.
Mr. HARRIS: And to ask the question, why did this very sophisticated, centuries old democracy collapse, and what lessons does it hold for today?
INSKEEP: Robert Harris has now written a second of three novels about the years when the Roman Republic was falling apart, on its way to civil war and finally dictatorship. The latest novel is called Conspirata. It centers on a real life Roman lawyer who schemed and maneuvered as he tried to rise to the top. His name was Cicero.
Of all the amazing characters you could have chosen, Julius Caesar is just one of many figures on the stage at this point. Why did you decide to focus on this one man, Cicero, as the subject of multiple books now?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, Cicero is one of the most fascinating and attractive characters in history. He was brilliant, he was self made, and a man of great complexity who is accessible to the modern mind, I think. We can understand Cicero and he left behind more than 700 letters. In a way, this book, in particular, is a duel between Cicero and Caesar, two ambitious men, but with very different forms of ambition. Ciceros ambition is to rise within the system. Caesars desire is to smash the republic and remake it in his own image.
And the clash between these two men, who are sort of in a way almost wary friends and admirers, thats really the dynamic of the book. And I believe that Cicero has had a less good a shake from history than Caesar, who was in some ways, a monster - along the lines of Napoleon or even Hitler.
INSKEEP: And you say that you admire Cicero even though he made a lot of tactical decisions that seemed rather ugly when you look at the details of them.
Mr. HARRIS: Well Cicero is in power as consul, trying to hold the state together; the republic divided between two bitterly opposed factions. And Cicero tried to keep this show on the road, but faced a huge conspiracy organized by a dissolute nobleman. So, the first half of the book describes how he fought this conspiracy, but in fighting it, he had to go against his lifelong principle which was a belief in the rule of law and have five men put to death.
INSKEEP: And we should emphasize, although this is a work of fiction, what you've just described are actual historical events. Cicero, when he was in power, did have five men put to death without a trial.
Mr. HARRIS: Exactly, and the debate in the Senate, in December 63 BC, is probably one of the greatest parliamentary debates theres ever been. And over a distance of more than 2000 years, to be able to recreate the ebb and flow of the debate, the way opinion swung one way and then the other and then finally these men were executed, is really the core of the book, and the thing I most enjoyed doing.
INSKEEP: You portray Cicero as being the guy who is on the side of right. He takes this extreme action on the side of right, and then people who are far more evil than he are able to turn that against him and destroy him.
Mr. HARRIS: Yes, I mean I find Cicero an attractive character because he is not an extremist, he's a conciliator. Ive been very, very struck by the parallels between Cicero, actually, and President Obama: both lawyers, both outsiders in a way, both brilliant speakers, both of them presiding over a republic which seems more divided than one can ever remember. And I enjoyed the - getting behind the desk, or in the toga, of the man in charge, Cicero, who had this great weight of responsibility on him.
INSKEEP: He continually seems to be making tactical decisions, doing something that seems odious for what he believes is the greater good, but later it comes back to bite him. That happens again and again.
Mr. HARRIS: Yes, Cicero had to go around building up an alliance, going back on things he said before, a process which the uninitiated call hypocrisy, but is really the essence of power. That is, in a democracy, what you have to have. You have to have things that look like trimming and compromise. And Cicero was attacked throughout his life, and then after his death, as someone who was always willing to play both ends against the middle. And his aim was survival. But he styled himself as a doctor. He said that the role of a statesman was to be a doctor, sometimes you use one treatment on the patient and sometimes another, but your aim was the good health of the person you were treating. He said that Caesar, never for one moment, looked at politics in that way. He was only ever concerned with his own glory.
INSKEEP: I dont want to draw the parallels with the present time too closely, but basically what you are saying is, you know, you're the president of the United States; you want a health care bill, you make deals with insurance companies, they look kind of ugly; you make more deals, you give up the public option - and in the end it all blows up in your face.
Mr. HARRIS: Exactly, I mean we have the British politician Enoch Powell. He once famously said that all political careers end in failure, for such is the nature of politics and of human affairs. Unless something happens, perhaps like John F Kennedy, you're assassinated, you are cut off in the mid point in your political career - it ends in failure. It must, that is the process. Politics is never a victory. Its just the remorseless grinding forward of events. And so yes, its very easy, I think, to attack politicians for their hypocrisy. And its right in a democracy that we do that. But I did quite like the idea of trying to write a novel from the point of view of the hypocrite.
INSKEEP: Robert Harris is the author of Conspirata, a novel about the life of Cicero. Thanks very much.
Mr. HARRIS: Its been a pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt about a young Roman murder victim at npr.org.