Contemporary political commentators draw a variety of lessons from the Catilinarian conspiracy, says Beth Eidam (’20), but one of the most salient is that a republic is more likely to prevail if its representatives practice restraint of power, of self, and of material desires.
The relevance of the Greco-Roman classics in Europe and the United States today is largely due to their persistence in eighteenth-century Britain and America as pillars of the education system. The history of Rome, embedded into the education of the youth, raised generations of political leaders with a firm grounding in ancient governments. The American founding fathers studied the Roman Republic and explicitly based the United States Constitution on that model (Mounk 2018). In Britain, political debacles such as the South Sea Bubble presented the opportunity for criticism through a Roman lens (Hardy 2008). While the Roman Republic suffered no shortage of political scandals to draw from, when criticizing of their contemporary circumstances American and British commentators repeatedly referenced the Catilinarian Conspiracy in particular. In 63 BC, the Roman senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (or Catiline), with the help of a group of indebted fellow aristocrats and disaffected veterans of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, attempted to overthrow the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida. Cicero exposed the plot, forcing Catiline to flee from Rome, and oversaw the execution (without trial) of the leading conspirators. The Roman historian Sallust chronicled the dramatic events of this conspiracy and its suppression twenty years or so after the events, and his work Catilinae Coniuratio remains an authority on the matter. Cicero’s speeches from the time, known as the four Catilinarian orations, survive as well, as do second-hand accounts of the affair by other ancient sources.
The popularity of the Catilinarian Conspiracy in eighteenth century and later political debate is due largely to the many varying interpretations of the affair. Hardy boils interpretations of the Catilinarian Conspiracy down to two basic approaches: the Sallustian and the Ciceronian. Influences from both the Sallustian and the Ciceronian readings can be seen in political commentaries throughout the eighteenth century and today, and show the malleability of this historical material and its utility in analyzing contemporary political controversies.
The Sallustian view reads the Roman source material as a critique of Roman decadence, excessive commercialism, and abusive politicians who value their own property at the expense of the common people. The title of this interpretation, “Sallustian,” comes from the historian’s own analysis of the conspiracy, which could easily be read as an invective against the moral depravity and luxury of the late Roman Republic. The historian framed his diagnosis of the late Republic in the antithetical comparison of Rome’s founders and his fellow citizens of first-century BC Rome. This comparison hinges upon the upright, community-based values that the Republic was built on. Sallust describes each founding virtue in opposition to a vice that he believed Catiline’s Rome cherished. One of the first virtues that Sallust praises is the humbleness of the kings who “were satisfied enough with their own things” (sua quoique satis placebant, 2.1). This ancient restraint (modestia) gave way to greed and arrogance as Rome engaged in foreign wars and grew (modestia… avaritia…superbia. 2.2–5). The shift from humble to greedy leaders was a key transformation that bred a new kind of Roman, the wealthy individual. This path to decadence is a theme that both Sallust and modern critics identify as harbingers of governmental collapse.
Another virtue that Sallust places weight on is fairness (aequitas), which he praises in the context of war and justice (9.3). The antithesis of this virtue is cruelty (crudelitas), which asserted itself when “the republic grew, and savage nations and huge populations were subjugated by force” (10.1). The introduction of cruelty spelled disaster for Rome. What began abroad would soon infiltrate the city, and personal violence became a political tool in the days of the Gracchi (130s BC) and Sulla (80s BC). These are just two examples of the moral antitheses that Sallust presents as mile markers on the Republic’s road to collapse.
Eighteenth-century British commentators adopted the Sallustian view both when dissecting the Catilinarian Conspiracy itself and when diagnosing Britain’s own political situation. Algernon Sidney, a British Republican, posited that republican governments rest on foundations of virtue, and condemned the depraved climate of Rome that made Catiline’s plot possible. “They who by vice had exhausted their fortunes, could repair them only by bringing their country under a government that would give impunity to rapine…. When men’s minds are filled with this fury, they sacrifice the common good to the advancement of their private concerns” (Hardy 2008, 433–4). Here, recalling Sallust’s own thesis, Sidney places the blame for the political climate that bred a character such as Catiline on individual avarice.
Thomas Gordon similarly identifies virtue as the basis of a successful republic and cites a contemporary British crisis in his explanation of greed. Gordon’s discussion is situated in the South Sea Bubble crisis in England in the eighteenth century. The crisis developed out of a transfer of national debt to the private South Sea Company. This shot up the value of South Sea stocks, and individuals amassed fortunes overnight through insider trading. After intense and swift inflation, the bubble popped. Those fortunes disappeared overnight, and the stockholders understandably responded with anger. Gordon responded in the London Journal, calling to mind the Catilinarian Conspiracy to illustrate the greed of the stockholders and label the Earl of Sunderland a reborn Catiline (Hardy 2008, 436). Sunderland had been involved in the initial transfer of debt, therefore providing the opportunity for the swift enrichment of the stockholders. Catiline’s own driving motivation was the desire for quick money, although he intended this just for himself. As such, Sunderland’s magnanimous gesture can only partially be branded as Catilinarian. The value in this comparison was less in identifying a contemporary Catiline, and more in outing the greed of the stockholders that inflated the situation into a bigger disaster than it could have been.
The Sallustian view still carries relevance today, with journalists often referring to the importance of a virtue-based republic. Conservative education activist Joy Pullman names “virtues key to success” as the first item in a list of similarities between Rome and the United States today. Pullman cites piety, tradition, courage, honesty, and duty as the foundational virtues of the Roman Republic, and asserts that George Washington embodied those very values as America’s first leader. French journalist and opinion writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, however, asserts that it is difficult for modern Americans to adhere to the same values that its founders did, simply because we are no longer the same nation that the founders built. In the years since 1776, the US has undergone rapid expansion across the continental US, welcomed immigrants of diverse cultures, and adopted new values and traditions. Philadelphia school student Sonali Singh looks worryingly at the hyper-partisanship that destroyed the Roman Republic and points out that there seems to be little remaining consensus on what it means to be American.
The stance of conservatives like Pullman is reminiscent of the Elder Cato’s famous desire for traditional Roman mores to prevail. Centrists like Gobry and Singh appear less moralistic but less sure about a solution. Both parties realize the value of a virtue-based republic, but the former advocates for traditional values while the latter seems to predict that some political catastrophe might bring unwelcome change. Kerby Anderson appears to support Pullman’s camp, as he observes declines in sexual morality and family life that, in his eyes, will lead to judgement. Anderson cites an author whose research found that “cultures that held to a strong sexual ethic thrived and were more productive than cultures that were ‘sexually free.’” To me, that assertion feels very conservative. Where Anderson foresees a judgment for America that will force us to return to our traditional institutions, the less conservative writers predict a disaster that will make us self-reflect and adapt. Singh quotes Jim Barron who says, “we have to reach some kind of crisis, that’s when true change will occur.” The key word here is change. Conservative commentators seem to think that the solution is to return to the moral fortitude of our founding fathers. Their opposition proposes that we do not simply return to that set of virtues but make our own. This does not mean a complete rejection of those original values, as many are still valuable. This approach simply asks for a reworking of our founding virtues into a suitable set for the 21st century. We need to understand the values of the men and women who built and formed early America, but we also need to be willing to adapt them. The true folly of the Roman Republic was, as Lily Rothman argues, its unwillingness to change.
Ciceronian interpretations that read the ancient affair as a model for enlightened leadership and how a republic should respond to a threat like Catiline also pervade medieval and modern political thought (Hardy 2008, 433). But who is that model of leadership? And who is the real villain? The name of the camp implies that the hero should be Cicero, although Sallust might disagree. Cicero is largely absent from Sallust’s account of the conspiracy. Instead, Caesar and Cato the Younger, “duo viri, ingenti animo” are afforded lengthy speeches, and Sallust devotes paragraphs to describing their admirable characters (53.25). Between the two men, Sallust seems to think that Cato was the true hero of the affair. Cato and Sallust had similar moral standards. Both were disgusted by public displays of wealth and personal enrichment of governors from provinces. So it is no surprise that Sallust made his moral ally the hero of Bellum Catilinae. In opposition to this, Costanzo Felici, an Italian humanist, rewrote his own De Coniuratione Catilinae in the sixteenth-century that praises Cicero and places him at the center of resolving the conflict (Hardy 2008, 432). Felici felt that Cicero was slighted in Sallust’s account of the conspiracy, and wanted to use the affair as an example of a powerful leader rather than a moral diagnosis. Cicero’s final decision to put the conspirators to death characterized a stronger leader for Felici than Cato, who was known only for giving a speech in the ancient sources. The ambiguity of the protagonist allowed early commentators to choose their heroes, and modern commentators continue to utilize the characters of the conspiracy in a game that either endorses or condemns their target.
One of the most popular manifestations of this “name game” occurred in 2014 when Ted Cruz adapted and delivered Cicero’s In Catilinam 1 as an attack against President Obama’s immigration reforms. Cruz’s intention, no doubt, was to paint himself as the brave Cicero who revealed the plots of a corrupt Catiline, in this case Obama. Cruz assumed that Cicero was the hero of his day and that he would earn respect himself by repeating the orator’s speech. It leads the classicist to wonder whether Cruz had read Sallust or was aware of the backlash and exile Cicero received for his treatment of the conspirators, but that is not the purpose of this paper. The only identifiable similarity between Catiline and Obama is that both acted on behalf of people marginalized by legal and political processes, Catiline advocating for debtors and Obama defending illegal immigrants under threat of deportation. The problem is, Catiline did not actually represent the disenfranchised. As ancient historian P.A. Brunt interprets the sources, Catiline only hoped and fought for a redistribution of property to restore his own wealth (P.A.Brunt, “The Conspiracy of Catiline,” History Today 13  14–21). Cruz’s attack on Obama failed as he could not with any strength liken Obama to Catiline.
One thing that neither the Sallustian nor Ciceronian interpretations seem to grasp are the historical factors that led to the fall of Rome. While this paper focuses more on the two camps above, I will attempt to briefly summarize the conditions that neither interpretation discloses. Gobry and Pullman both identify class conflict as one of the driving forces of the fall of the Roman Republic. P.A. Brunt agrees, and briefly describes this class divide in terms of representation, asserting that “within the Senate a narrow circle of noble landowners were usually dominant…[and] the mass of citizens…were subject to too many checks to permit them to assume the actual tasks of government (Brunt, p.14). As the empire grew and veterans returned from foreign wars, the land crisis exacerbated class divides as the wealthy strove to protect their fortunes and the poor were ousted from rural jobs. The land crisis provided a popular platform for the Gracchi, whose violent murders broke the stigma around power politics and made violence a political tool in Rome (emphasized by Mounk). The crisis was so dire that the effects were felt for decades, in fact, many of Catiline’s supporters were farmers looking to get rich quickly in the aftermath of the land crisis (Brunt, p. 17).
Modern political commentators are noticing the same chain of events developing in the United States today, though perhaps not to such an intense degree. While American class conflict is not necessarily over land allotments or veterans, there is certainly a glaring divide between the 1% and the poor. Although there has been a rise in political violence in the United States in recent years, it is not as dire as it was in the 1960s, and certainly not on par with Rome in the first century BC. Most commentators agree that the physical state of America today does not yet call for a revolutionary dictator such as Caesar to reorganize the entire foundation of our government. However, perhaps we are in the early years of our own Sullan era, and if we are self-aware enough to adapt we could avoid a Caesar entirely.
Between the two basic interpretations, Sallustian and Ciceronian, I find the former more indicative of the social and political factors behind the Catilinarian Conspiracy and the fall of a republic. I find it less useful to spend time arguing over hero and villain, and see more value in understanding the psyche of the players. In the luxuria of the late Roman Republic and in our modern age of capitalism and gross material accumulation, I find Sallust’s call for modestia most salient. Sallust and Sidney’s diagnoses of individual greed in the Roman Republic speak more to Catiline’s intentions with the conspiracy than did his political platform. Catiline felt slighted by losing the consulship and angry at his own poverty. His motive was desire for status and wealth, not to save the republic. A republic is more likely to prevail if its representatives practice restraint of power, of self, and of material desires. Not to say that American politicians should not desire nice houses within a short commute to the capital, but when bribery becomes part of the acquisition of those desires, or any amount of material wealth never seems to be enough, then modestia should be prioritized.
Similarly, equity seems to be an extremely important value for a successful republic. Sallust described aequitas in conjunction with the justice system, which is something the United States should strive to practice today. There is so much racist and classist inequality in the execution of justice in America that it delegitimizes our justice system. Mary Beard conceded that Rome had no “basic police force” for maintaining order, the United States has a well-developed police force but that does not mean it is utilized in the best way. If our justice system exercised more aequitas, perhaps some of the public violence we see so often now would yield.
I also think there is advantage in identifying which vices of the Roman Republic ought to be avoided by a republic hoping for longevity. Cato’s speech in Bellum Catilinae does this well. Just before Cato demands capital punishment for the conspirators, he discusses the obligation of the senators to protect Rome. Cato asserts that sloth and laziness are not the virtues of a strong Republic, rather that longevity is secured “by vigilance, action, and a good plan” (52.29). Cato condemns socordia and ignavia in the senators, but I think these vices apply to civilians as well. A republic whose population is complicit and idly stands by while powerful representatives play with their fate is doomed to fail. Cato calls for a citizenry who will question authority and take action against unjust governance. This feels similar to Gobry and Singh’s desire for Americans to take charge of reevaluating their own morality.
The most salient lessons to be learned from the Catilinarian Conspiracy are moral. Sallust, eighteenth-century scholars, and modern political commentators have done the hardest work for us in diagnosing the virtues and vices of the Roman Republic and tracking their presence in politics throughout time. All that is left is for all Americans, from the president, to Congress, to every member of this “great melting pot” to take advantage of this wealth of information. In reflecting on the virtues of the founding fathers and identifying the most important values for 21st century America, certainly some of George Washington’s legendary virtues like honesty and duty should be maintained. However, we also need to prioritize new values that specifically address the problems of the 21st-century, such as restraint and equality. I have confidence that Americans have enough patriotism to want to save our republic and I believe checking our morality is the first step.