Paper I did for 12th Grade Advanced Composition. Please keep in mind this is only a high school paper, and try and forgive the over reliance on a single source, as well as the oversimplification of some aspects of Roman politics.
In its last days, the republic of Rome was beginning to collapse under its own weight. Military conquests had brought in a new kind of luxury. The rich amassed all the wealth, the poor soon found themselves unemployed, since slaves did all the work. It was clear that things could not go on much longer, and many thought that change had come in Catiline. Catiline plotted to overthrow the Roman government, and to redistribute the wealth. Catiline’s plot was exposed, and he was killed in battle. Yet even today, we have a view of Catiline that is probably different from what he was really like. Catiline’s historical reputation is inaccurate, as can be seen from examining the style of ancient historians, looking at his probable innocence in the murder of Gratiadianus, and critically evaluating his first conspiracy.
Catiline was born in 108 B.C. He gained power from his support of Sullla, and was elected praetor, as well as the governor of Africa. His radical ideas about redistribution of property and abolition of debts gained him popularity with the lower classes, but fierce enemies among the rich. Failing to achieve his ends by legal means, Catiline plotted to seize control by force. Cicero was informed of the plot by his spies, and exposed Catiline to the Senate. Catiline and his fellow conspirators were killed (Kaplan).. Although it faired, the conspiracy was not without historical significance. Cicero’s place in history was largely secured by this event (Church 92).
The saying that the winners write the history book is glaringly true in the Catiline conspiracy. None of Catiline’s own speeches or writings have survived. The two main sources we have about the conspiracy come from Marcus Tullius Cicero, and Gaius Sallustus Crispus, both of whom had good reasons to place Catiline in an unfavorable light. From their writings Catiline emerges as a figure of satanic proportions. He was accused of almost every crime imaginable including murdering his brother in law, sister, step son, and wife, raping a vestal virgin, and practicing homosexuality. Virgil, in The Aenied, didn’t think twice about placing Catiline in hell. “There (Tartarus) Catiline hung from a threatening rock, and trembled to see the Furies’s faces;...” (221). There is much to suggest that neither the portrait of Catiline painted by Cicero, nor Sallust, can be taken at face value.
Cicero, to start with, was one of the most egotistical figures in classical history. As Michael Grant writes in his introduction to Cicero’s speeches, “Readers will be appalled at the boastfulness of Cicero. He blows his trumpet with an unremitting loudness which can scarcely be paralleled” (11). Ordinarily, if an orator wished to publish his speeches he would do so immediately after they were delivered, yet Cicero waited three years to publish his speeches against Catiline. He had much time to rewrite them during this period, and evidence suggests he probably did. His speeches appear to be too long for the Senate to have sat through, considering the emotion present. More likely, they were what the Romans called “altercation”, or give and take. Catiline’s supporters would shout one thing, and Cicero would respond to it (Grant 11).
In his own eyes, Cicero had saved Rome from the greatest danger possible. He wanted to make sure the rest of Rome knew that, and his reworked speeches do everything to maximize the danger Rome was in, and the depravity of Catiline. Michael Grant writes, “Cicero’s picture of his (Catiline’s) personal character...is too classically frightful and diabolical to be true” (72).
Sallust, on the other hand, had high expectations when he began his political career. In his writings, he claimed that any man who did not make himself great was no better than the animals, who lived only to satisfy their appetites. Sallust entered the political scene as a populare. His support of Gaius Julius Caesar caused him some humiliating setbacks at the beginning, but by 49 B.C. Caesar had acquired a position of power, and Caesar rewarded his friends well. Sallust was on the verge of attaining his consulship, the ultimate goal for all politicians, when Caesar was murdered by the optimates. The political scene changed rapidly, and it soon became clear that Sallust was to have no part in the changing order (Linderski).
Sallust’s hopes were dashed. He had spent all of his adult life (he was 45 at the time) trying to achieve greatness through politics, only to leave the scene a nobody. In writing his histories, Sallust had two purposes: to achieve greatness in his writings that he never achieved in politics, and to get revenge on the political system and people he felt had kept him from greatness.
Sallust admits putting his own words of criticism into Catiline’s mouth. Through Catiline, Sallust harshly criticizes the optimates, who had opposed him at every turn. Nor do the populares escape denunciations, since Sallust felt they had been unappreciative of his actions. In other words, all the anger and cynicism we normally associate with Catiline really belong to Sallust (Hutchinson 24-28).
Secondly, these histories were Sallust’s last chance of greatness, and he was taking no chances. He wanted his readers to be on the edge of their seat as they read about the Catiline conspiracy, wondering how Rome could possibly escape the danger, only to see it narrowly survive, the reader would breath a sigh of relief. Naturally, th reader had to passionately hate Catiline, and Sallust painted Catiline as a villain of the vilest nature (Hutchinson 24-28).
Sallust was not unique to his time in doing this. The ancients drew the line between history and story incredibly thin. Fact was often sacrificed for dramatization. Later historians writing about Catiline painted him much like Cicero and Sallust and, of course, made up events of their own to impress the reader. Most notably is Plutarch, who accused Catiline of killing his own brother, deflowering his own daughter, and eating flesh, while encouraging other young men to do the same (1046). No doubt these juicy crimes widened the eyes of his reader, but there is no apparent evidence behind them. Not only was Catiline never prosecuted for these crimes, but if there was any thread of rumor to these effects, you can bet Cicero and Sallust would have brought it up.
If all the crimes Catiline was charged with were believed to be true, he would not have been elected praetor or been allowed to stand for consul twice, much less have his array of powerful friends. In fact, few believed the crimes because it was common in ancient Rome to accuse an opponent of imaginary crimes. In schools of rhetoric, advocates were taught to make use of colours, a way of presenting insignificant facts, mixed with a few useful lies, to produce what appeared to be evidence of shocking guilt. “It had become a habit,” said Cicero (as quoted in Hutchinson 31) referring to this practice, even though he did it often himself. Also, in the law courts of the time, there were no rules of evidence. It was the duty of the prosecutor to create a maximum of prejudice. It is unfortunate that many of these fake crimes have leaked into history (Hutchinson 29-35).
Of all the crimes Catiline was accused of, the murder of Gratidianus was the most popular. To make sense of this, it should be understood that in the late republic, Rome had two main political parties: the optimates and the populares. To say that the optimates were primarily for looking out for the interests of the aristocrats, and the populares primarily concerned about helping the poor, would be an oversimplification bordering on falsehood, but perhaps a useful working definition for our purposes (Asimov 47).
Tensions between these two groups were always high, but it exploded under the influence of Marius and Sulla. Marius, the populare, was forced to flee when Sulla gained control of Rome. Narrowly escaping Sulla’s many death traps, Marius fled to Africa. Sulla, thinking Marius was dead, decided all was safe at home and left for Asia to conduct war against Pontus. Marius returned with an army to seize control of Rome. For many days the city stunk of rotting flesh as Marius conducted one of the most brutal massacres in Roman history. Everyone associated with the optimate party was murdered (Plutarch 478).
But Marius’s reign was short lived. He died of a stroke while his massacre was still in full swing. Sulla returned to regain control. Foremost on his mind was revenge. He wanted to conduct a slaughter of the populares that would exceed that of the optimates. He succeeded (Plutarch 556).
Among the victims was a man named Gratidianus, a native of Arpinum and related to Marius and Cicero. From what we know of Gratidianus, he was one of the few honest politicians Rome had. He attained popularity as a praetor by withdrawing bad money from circulation. Several statues had been raised in his honor, but he was a populare, and condemned as such (Hutchinson 39).
Catiline, although his political views would later change rapidly, was at this time one of Sulla’s right hand men. According to Plutarch, Catiline dragged Gratidianus to the tomb of Catulus, a former consul who had committed suicide to avoid being killed by Marius. In front of an applauding mob, Catiline broke Gratidianus’s legs, cut off his hands, and plucked out his eyes before finally decapitating him. After placing Gratidianus’s head at Sulla’s feet, Catiline added sacrilege to his crimes by washing his hands off in the sacred fountain of Apollo (Plutarch 946).
Yet there is sufficient evidence to doubt this story. Catiline remained on friendly terms with the populare senators, and was a successful candidate for high office. Of more importance, Sulla had insisted that the names of those who had received money for killing or betraying the proscribed (those killed by Sulla) were entered into the public records. In 67 B.C., when the quastor Cato made them refund this money, Catiline was never called into question (Hutchinson 40). The following year, Julius Caesar brought to court and condemned all those who had taken part in Sulla’s massacre. No mention was made of Catiline (Grant 19).
Catiline was first accused of murdering Gratidianus in De Petitione Consulatus, a book written to Marcus Cicero by his younger brother Quintus, on how to become successful in politics. Catiline was then later strongly attacked for this murder in “In Toga Candida”, a speech made by Cicero. It seems strange that Cicero would so strongly attack Catiline, when earlier the same year he had written the following to his friend Atticus, while Catiline was facing charges of extortion in Africa: “I design at present to defend my competitor Catiline....I hope if he be acquitted that he will be the more ready to join me in our common candidature....Catiline is a good citizen, a lover of honest men, a firm and faithful friend,” (as quoted in Hutchinson 43). It turned out that Cicero was not needed; all the senators of consular rank, and then consuls themselves gave testimony in Catiline’s favor, also indicating that he was innocent of the brutal murder. Based on the accusations made in “In Toga Candida”, Catiline was brought to court for the murder of Gratidianus, and prosecuted by Lucius Lucceius, an optimate and friend of Cicero. He was acquitted. (Hutchinson 39-41).
In 66 B.C., Publius Cornelius Sulla and Publius Autronius were elected consuls for the coming year. Unfortunately for them, they were never to see the day they would take office. They were found guilty of bribery, and disqualified, fined, and sentenced to permanent exclusion form the Senate and magistracies. Aurelius Cotta and Manlius Torquatus were elected in their place. According to traditional history, Sulla and Autronius believed they had spent too much money on the consulship to be defeated now. They soon came together with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, a hot-headed social revolutionary. Together the three plotted to overthrow the senate and place themselves in power.
Thinking Catiline would be sympathetic to their ideas, they approached him. Catiline eagerly accepted, and soon was dominating the whole plot. On the appointed day, Catiline was supposed to give the signal, and armed gladiators would storm into the Senate, killing all inside. Catiline, in his thirst for blood, gave the signal too soon before the gladiators had fully assembled, and the plan collapsed (Plutarch 1054).
This was known as Catiline’s first conspiracy, but it appears to be more rumor than anything else. Sallust presents it as fact, but even he has to admit that the whole thing was uncertain (Hutchinson 44). Torquatus, the consul who supposedly was marked for death, said “he had heard something of it, but believed none of it” (as quoted in Hutchinson 45). Neither a prosecution nor an enquiry was conducted, which suggests no one seriously believed the rumors. All of the so called conspirators remained on good terms with the rest of the senate, which is unlikely had the senators truly believed the conspirators planned to kill them (Hutchinson 45). Even if the conspiracy did exist, Catiline’s involvement in it was most likely minimal, if at all. R.E. Smith writes, “The truth was rather that this so called first conspiracy of Catiline was a conspiracy of two disgruntled men” (86).
To add to the confusion, two men told a different story of the conspiracy. Aedile Marcus Bibulus, and a former consul, the elder Curio, told a version picked up by some other historians, most notably Suetonius. In this version, Catiline is in the background; the two masterminds were Crassus and Caesar. On the appointed day, Caesar was to give the signal for the massacre by letting his toga fall. All the senators would be murdered, and Crassus would be set up as dictator, with Caesar as his master of the horse. When the time came, Crassus chickened out, didn’t show, and the plan was aborted (Grant 20-30).
This view also has some inconsistences in it. For one thing, it contradicts the historical view we have of Crassus and Caesar. Crassus was always cautious never to put himself in front of things, preferring to achieve his means as inconspicuously as possible (Smith 86). Caesar, at this point in his career, was known for following the Roman constitution to the letter (Smith 87). Both men were too shrewd as politicians to ever do something as daring as this. Plutarch tells us that Caesar refused the crown from Mark Antony three times, instead of just seizing power when he had the chance (Plutarch 1233). Furthermore, even if the plan had been successful, it would only have succeeded in bringing Pompey and his legions, currently stationed in Spain, back to Rome, where Pompey would have assumed the dictatorship (Smith 90).
Two-thousand years after he died, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of what Catiline really was like. Since the only information we have on him is from his enemies, it is more than likely he is different than we usually think of him. Whatever his character was, his vision was correct. The republic didn’t last much past him. The first Triumvirate was formed three years later.
Asimov, Isaac The Roman Republic Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company 1966
Cicero, Marcus Tullius Contra Catiline I-IV Rome, 66 B.C.
Church, Alfred Roman Life in the Days of Cicero New York, Bilso and Tannen, 1959
Grant, Michael Cicero: Selected Political Speeches London, Penguin Books 1969
Grant, Michael The Founders of the Western World: A History of Greece and Rome New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989
Grant, Michael Julius Caesar. New York. M. Evans & Company. 1969
Hutchinson, Lester The Conspiracy of Catiline New York, Barnes and Noble 1967
Kaplan, Arthur “Catiline” (Electronic Encyclopedia) Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. Copyright 1995
Linderski, James “Sallust” (Electronic Encyclopedia) Grolier Electronig Publishing, Inc. Copyright 1995.
Maier, Paul Josephus: The Essential Writings Kregal Publications, Grand Rapids, 1988.
Plutarch Vitae Rome 105
Smith, R.E. Cicero the Statesman Cambridge, University Press 1966
Virgilius, Publius Maro The Aeneid Rome, 19 BC
Teacher’s Comments: I appreciate your work on transitions! You have a talent Joel! I can envision you as a history scholar. You should go for it. You’re talented. Be sure to be aware of info your reader needs to know. You improved this! Nice. Watch documentary style.
Grade 98% A