The Catiline conspiracy as recorded by Sallust

A vigorous account of the notorious conspiracy of Catiline in 63 B.C. to overthrow the civil power in Rome, Sallust's Catiline is one of the best histories in Latin literature. The narrative is vivid and consistent, and the sketches of character are admirable in their power and conciseness. Although the author obviously hated the democratic party with which Catiline was connected, and had no great admiration for Cato or Cicero, his work is wonderfully impartial. Sallust's conception of history, indeed, as is exemplified also in his Jugurthine War, was very modern. He attempts to bring before his readers not only the incidents of history, but also their causes; further, he invariably seeks to establish the connexion between events that a contemporary would have treated as isolated facts.


I esteem the intellectual above the physical qualities of man; and the task of the historian has attracted me because it taxes the writer's abilities to the utmost. Personal ambition had at first drawn me into public life, but the political atmosphere, full of degradation and corruption, was so uncongenial that I resolved to retire and devote myself to the production of a series of historical studies, for which I felt myself to be the better fitted by my freedom from the influences which bias the political partisan. For the first of these studies I have selected the conspiracy of Catiline.

Lucius Catilina [commonly called Catiline] was of high birth, richly endowed both in mind and body, but of extreme depravity; with extraordinary powers of endurance, reckless, crafty and versatile, a master in the arts of deception, at once grasping and lavish, unbridled in his passions, ready of speech, but with little true insight. Of insatiable and inordinate ambitions, he was possessed, after Sulla's supremacy, with a craving to grasp the control of the state, utterly careless of the means so the end were attained. Naturally headstrong, he was urged forward by his want of money, the consciousness of his crimes and the degradation of morals in a society where luxury and greed ruled side by side.

The wildest, the most reckless, the most prodigal, the most criminal, were readily drawn into the circle of Catiline's associates; in such a circle those who were not already utterly depraved very soon became so under the minister and seductive influence of their leader. This man, who in the pursuit of his vices had done his own son to death, did not hesitate to encourage his pupils in every species of crime; and with such allies, and the aid of the disbanded Sullan soldiery swarming in Italy, he dreamt of subverting the Roman state while her armies, under Gnaeus Pompeius, were far away.

The first step was to secure his own election as consul. One plot of his had already failed, because Catiline himself had attempted to move prematurely; but the conspirators remained scatheless. Those who were now with Catiline included members of the oldest families and of equestrian rank. Crassus himself was suspected of complicity, owing to his rivalry with Pompeius. The assembled conspirators were addressed by had constitutional authority to grant. Thus, when news came that a Catilinarian, Gaius Manlius, had risen in Etruria at the head of an armed force, prompt administrative measures were taken to dispatch adequate military forces to various parts of the country. Catiline himself had taken no overt action; he now presented himself in the senate, was openly assailed by Cicero, responded with insults which were interrupted by cries of indignation, and flung from the house with the words, "Since I am beset by enemies and driven out, the fire you have kindled about me shall be crushed out by the ruin of yourselves."

Seeing that delay would be fatal, he started at once for the camp of Manlius, leaving Cethegus and Lentulus to keep up the ferment in Rome. To several persons of position he sent letters announcing that he was retiring to Marseilles; but, with misplaced confidence, he sent one of a different and extremely compromising tenor to Quintus Catullus, which the recipient read to the senate. It was next reported that he had assumed the consular attributes and joined Manlius; whereupon he was proclaimed a public enemy, a general levy was decreed, and Antonius was appointed to take the field, while Cicero was to remain in the capital.


Meanwhile, Lentulus at Rome, among his various plots, intrigued to obtain the support of the Allobroges, a tribe of Gauls from whom there was at the time an embassy in Rome. The envoys, however, took the advice of Quintus Fabius Sanga, and while he kept Cicero supplied with information, themselves pretended to be in full agreement with the conspirators.

Risings were now taking place all over Italy, though they were ill concerted. At Rome, the plan was that when Catiline's army was at Faesulae, the tribune Lucius Bestia should publicly accuse Cicero of having caused the war; and this was to be the signal for an organized massacre, while the city itself was to be fired at twelve points simultaneously. The insurgents were then to march out and join Catiline at Faesulae.

The Allobroges were now departing, carrying with them letters from Lentulus to Catiline; but, according to a concerted plan, they were arrested. This provided Cicero with evidence which warranted the arrest of Lentulus and other ringleaders in Rome; and its publication created a popular revulsion--the lower classes were not averse from plunder but saw no likelihood of benefit to themselves in a general conflagration of Rome.

A certain Lucius Tarquinius was now captured, who gave information tallying with what was already published, but further incriminated Crassus. Crassus, however, was so wealthy, and had so many of the senate in his power, that even those who privately believed the charge to be true, thought it politic to pronounce it a gross fabrication.

The danger of an attempted rescue of Lentulus brought on a debate as to what should be done with the prisoners. Caesar, from whatever motive, spoke forcibly against any unconstitutional action which, however justified by the enormity of the prisoners' guilt, might become a dangerous precedent. In his opinion, the wise course would be to confiscate their property and place their persons in custody, not in Rome but in provincial towns.

Caesar's humanitarian statesmanship was answered by the grave austerity of Cato. "The question for us is not that of punishing a crime, but of preserving the state--or of what the degenerate Roman of to-day cares for more than the state, our lives and property. To speak of clemency and compassion is an abuse of terms only too common, when vices are habitually dignified with the names of virtues. Let us for once act with vigour and decision, and doom these convicted traitors to the death they deserve." The decree of death was carried to immediate execution. In the meantime, Catiline had raised a force numbering two legions. He remained in the hills refusing to give battle to Antonius.

On hearing the fate of Lentulus and the rest, he attempted to retreat to Gaul, but this movement was anticipated and intercepted by Metellus Celer, who was posted at Picenum with three legions. With Antonius pressing on his rear, Catiline resolved to hazard all on a desperate engagement. In exhorting his troops, he dwelt on the fact that men fighting for life and liberty were more than a match for a foe who had infinitely less at stake.

Thus brought to bay, Catiline's soldiers met the attack of the government troops with furious valour, their leader setting a brilliant example of daring and generalship. But Petreius, on the other side, directed his force against the rebel centre, shattered it and took the wings in flank. Catiline's followers stood and fought till they fell, with their wounds in front; he himself hewed his way through the foe, and was found still breathing at a distance from his own ranks. No quarter was given or taken; and among the rebels there were no survivors. In the triumphant army, all the stoutest soldiers were slain or wounded; mourning and grief mingled with the elation of victory.

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