Roman Imperial Crisis and the Rise of Christianity

Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin of Tours (ca. AD 397) supports one of the key contentions of modern scholars about the rise of Christianity in the later Roman Empire, argues Drew Kaplan (’20). The benefits of Christian doctrine were twofold: it provided a series of answers to the crises and questions of the period easily understood by ordinary people, while being fully open to those who sought a deeper understanding through theological contemplation, in the manner of the Neo-Platonists.

Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus A.D. 251–253
Bronze statue of the emperor Trebonianus Gallus A.D. 251–253 (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The third and fourth centuries AD, the earlier part of the period known as Late Antiquity, were a period of great religious and socio-political transformation for the Roman Empire. What had previously been a polytheist empire ruled from Rome by a single man had become a Christian state ruled by as many as four emperors simultaneously, all the while fighting more intensely than before simply to retain what was already Roman. The decline of state power brought a renewed search for answers to metaphysical questions the old religious cults now appeared unable to answer. Throughout the empire, traditional religious practices began to shift towards rites which offered individuals an escape from the weakness of the worldly empire, and granted revelation by means of inward reflection and contemplative prayer, not just the promise of a bountiful harvest by the offering of a goat or cow at a physical temple. Amongst the rites attempting to fill the newly emerged gap was Christianity, but it was hardly the only candidate.

The reasons for the success of Christianity have been much discussed, with some scholars emphasizing the doctrinal superiority of Christianity itself, other the worldly patronage of Constantine the Great. A roughly contemporary document, the Life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus (ca. AD 363 – ca. 425), written in Latin in what is now France in the later fourth century, helps make the dynamics of European conversion clearer and more concrete for one place and time, at least.

By 371 A.D., the year St. Martin (AD 317–397) was elevated as Bishop of Tours, the empire had already seen a series of civil wars, imperial sessions, and barbarian invasions. The historian Eutropius, writing around the same time, remarked that, during the 260s A.D., “the Alemanni ravaged Gaul and invaded Italy. Dacia, which had been added beyond the Danube by Trajan, was lost at that time. Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, and Asia were ravaged by the Goths, Pannonia was ravaged by the Sarmatians and Quadi, Germans invaded both Spanish provinces and stormed the prominent city of Tarraconensis, and with Mesopotamia occupied, the Parthians began to claim Syria for themselves,” leading him to denote this period as the nadir of Roman fortune (Eutropius, Breviarium 9.8.2, my translation). Although some recovery occurred, the fourth century displayed many of the same trends. The central government vacillated between non-functional at best and near non-existent at worst, and the functions of state were reduced to little more than ensuring the army was sufficiently staffed and provisioned to keep potential invaders at bay. Eutropius reports fewer outside invasions in the fourth century than the third, but the empire was wracked with a series of civil wars, one of which brought the emperor Constantine to power, and another following his death. As historian Ramsay MacMullen points out, imperial propaganda continued to assert that the empire was well, despite growing recognition of the contrary (MacMullen 1976, 11).

The inability of the state to secure for its population physical security led to a turn towards the metaphysical. Why would the gods permit such suffering and destruction on earth, and, given that it cannot physically be halted, what sorts of metaphysical solutions are available? What is clear is that there was a great deal of anxiety which permeated Roman society in the third and fourth centuries provoked by the civil wars, barbarian invasions, and the consequent inability of the state to sufficiently respond. Classicist E.R. Dodds argues there was a growing perception in all parts of society that some sort of evil deity was responsible for these ills (Dodds 1965, 17), although this idea had earlier been outside of the traditional Greco-Roman religious conception. Another question which arose was, what purpose were humans meant to serve in this world? Polytheism accessible to the lower classes did not provide an answer to this question either.

The polytheism of the lower classes displayed in large part a transactional relationship between the divine and human. Individuals may have sought divine aid in specific circumstances and offered prayer and sacrifices when seeking divine favor either for their actions or to remedy an ill. But the polytheist worshippers had little emphasis on a standardized intimate relationship with the gods. Within Rome, imperial patronage did allow the poor to get some meat from sacrificed animals along with fellowship at polytheist festivals, but as MacMullen notes, these practices became increasingly uncommon as the empire became embattled during the third century (MacMullen 1981, 36–54). Without a strong hand to tend the religious festivals, transactional style polytheism offered little in the way of community to worshippers.

The polytheistic systems lacked a coherent uniting doctrine. As Fowden points out, polytheism could often provide answers to narrow scope questions, such as why peacocks have spotted tails, questions of a broader nature often lacked a clear and coherent answer (Fowden 2005, 522). What is the purpose of man was the sort of question polytheism struggled to answer, yet it was these sorts of concerns which were becoming more common in the age defined by anxiety (Dodds 1965, 132). These sorts of revelations were available only to those of sufficient means to devote their entire lives to philosophical contemplation. One such school of polytheist revelation was Neo-Platonism. Plotinus, a noted Neo-Platonic scholar, pondered the personal connection of individuals to the gods, and the personal relationships individuals may have with deities in his attempt to provide an answer. While Fowden notes that dualism was not a revolutionary idea at the time, when combined with the Neo-Platonic interests in purity, the renewed emphasis on dualism got at an unstated question underpinning Plotinus: why had the souls of individuals been sent to such an unenviable place as the Roman Empire during the crisis years? Plotinus provides two possible answers; either earth was a punishment for some earlier transgression of the soul in heaven, or the result of a false choice by the soul. Either way, the incarnation of the soul on earth was, in the words of Plotinus’s fellow Neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblichus, “unnatural.” MacMullen notes that a plausible interpretation of this issue was that humans had become guilty of some sorts of moral failings (MacMullen 1976, 13). To discover and correct these failings however required this depersonalization of divinity down to a power which required placation through inwardly directed moral piety. Plotinus, amongst other Neo-Platonists and other similarly ascetically oriented traditions considered a more individually aligned conception of the gods, indicative of a trend which would become increasingly central to religious devotion.

Plotonius taught that the divine permeated the world as one coherent network. Neo-Platonism provided the answer that the purpose of humans are here for “the self-realisation of God” or gods (Dodds, 1965, 22). Dualism was central to this accomplishment, because it was the soul, rather than the body, which achieved this realization. The body therefore only needed to be minimally sustained so that the individual could participate in his intellectual development. Asceticism becoming the preferred method for doing this, as it permitted the greatest allowance of contemplating the finer points of intellectual refinement while moderating bodily interference. This conception of the body does not entail its complete rejection, but rather a sort of tolerance and acceptance of the body. As Peter Brown puts it, the body “was not the true self,” instead a “perilous lower level of consciousness” the soul only occupied to its physical desires (Brown 2005, 608–9).

Peter Brown points out that these broad scope revelations came to polytheists at a glacial pace in large part because each thinker started from, if not the beginning, then quite near it (Brown 2005, 623). While communities certainly did form to further contemplate the broad questions, few individuals could afford to devote their entire selves to philosophy. Neo-Platonism also in no way offered a guarantee of revelation even for its practitioners, and the separation of ethics from spirituality set forth by Plotinus struck many of his would be follower as discomforting (Fowden 2005, 25). While Neo-Platonism as described by Plotinus did answer the anxiety-laden questions of the period, it was mainly polytheist philosophers, rather than ordinary people, who benefitted from these answers.

Christianity, by contrast, offered a far more accessible series of answers in its core texts. Christian doctrine employed similar conceptions of dualism and ascetic community to provide its answers to the questions of the age. However, the Christian ascetic communities were not necessarily organized around the revelations of a single leader. Instead of a reliance on an individual to deliver to his followers satisfactory answers, those answers were accessible to all in the form of the Bible. Brown argues that appeal of Christian doctrine, organized around written scripture rather than charismatic individuals, widened the appeal of the religion immensely. Christian doctrine guaranteed revelation simply by sincere acceptance of the necessary texts, rather than requiring potentially arduous contemplation, though this route remained for those seeking to further increase their understanding (Fowden 2005, 570). Simple acceptance of the text was likely more appealing to the lower classes, who lacked the means to apply themselves entirely to the study of scripture even if the desire existed. Individuals could find the answers they sought while retaining their worldly careers and other obligations, and had the additional benefit of Christian liturgy offering much in the way of corporeal social benefits the polytheist cults no longer provided. Christian congregations took it upon themselves to offer these services after the state could not (MacMullen 1981, 36–44, 53–54). The result was the genesis of Christian social networks within which there was only a surface level requirement of interaction with Christian doctrine. Those who sought to fully comprehend all facets of it were certainly encouraged, but to reap the benefits of the rising congregations a far lower level of devotion was all that was required.

These worldly benefits increased greatly after Christianity received official toleration from the emperor Constantine. Constantine engaged in a series of public works projects during his reign which benefitted the Christian church, all paid for out of the imperial treasury. These building projects had two effects, the provision of the church with a vast new amount of space within which to operate, and the demonstration of the sway followers of the faith now had within the empire (MacMullen 1984, 49). The significance of imperial toleration also cannot, in my view, be underestimated. The underlying message, when comparing the opulence of the Basilica of Constantine to the now modest by comparison temples of old, was clear.

However, it is equally important to consider how imperial subjects became aware of Christian doctrine and abandoned their traditional beliefs for it. The vast majority of the Roman population was composed of rural laborers. This sector of society was not drawn in by Neo-Platonism, but instead maintained the more transactional style of polytheist worship, and for whom manifest demonstrations of divine power carried more weight than philosophic arguments towards one deity over another. Conversion amongst these peoples was achieved by the demonstrations of a series of charismatic individuals devoted to the spreading of the faith, amongst them St. Martin of Tours.

St. Martin had been born in the early to mid-fourth century, and after leaving home, he enlisted in the army. Already a Christian, he became well liked amongst fellow soldiers and civilians for his demonstrable virtues. Eventually, he retired from service to form an ascetic Christian community in an abandoned villa near the city of Tours. His personal virtue also contributed to St. Martin being appointed bishop of Tours in 371 A.D. In his biography, written towards the end of his life by Sulpicius Severus, he is displayed using his personal charisma and self-assuredness in his faith to provide physical refutations of polytheism. Physical demonstration was essential, as it allowed St. Martin to meet the polytheists on their own terms.

While destroying a temple to some deity, St. Martin is confronted by an irate townsman who draws his sword to defend the temple. With St. Martin presenting his neck to the man, the man’s sword merely bounces off of St. Martin neck, the recoil throwing the man to the ground. In a more graphic episode, St. Martin is presented with the corpse of man who had died without baptism. By prayer alone, the man is revived, and becomes an ardent follower of St. Martin. The same is later done for a slave who had died by suicide (White 1988, 142). In another incident, a father stops St. Martin on the street to explain that his daughter is deathly ill and asks him to cure her. St. Martin at first begs off, explaining that the power of healing is reserved for God alone, but is eventually convinced to tend to the girl as she lay on her sickbed. Blessing her with oil, the girl was cured (White 1988, 149).

Sulpicius Severus intended the biography not only to be read simply by ascetics already convinced of the lifestyle, but also by polytheists unconvinced of the merits of Christianity though. Instead of offering an esoteric argument only accessible to those already learned in theology, Sulpicius instead meets the polytheists on their grounds, using their own epistemology against them by presenting polytheist religious themes with a Christian narrative (Stancliffe 1987, 73 – 78). Moreover, St. Martin is also depicted in himself as being similar to the rural polytheists; when elected to the bishopric, his appointment is opposed by some of the more vain and worldly bishops on grounds that St. Martin is too scruffy, and lacks the necessary cultural refinement to serve as bishop. St. Martin is depicted throughout as a man both similar to the common people with whom he interacts daily, but also above them because of his devotion to his faith. His conversion abilities rest in his demonstrated familiarity with how polytheism operated, and what sort of knowledge he might need to convince the polytheists of his offered religion. Claire Stancliffe asserts that St. Martin should not be interpreted as a miracle worker due to his demonstrations of divine power, but instead that the intent of Sulpicius is likely to allow comparisons to the early Apostles to be made (Stancliffe 1987, 157). In my view, another apt comparison comes in the mythicized Roman heroes, such as Mucius Scaevola. Both are willing to suffer greatly for their causes, which both lie somewhere between the mythic and material. There is no moment where St. Martin is unsure of his faith, and despite undergoing several religiously transformative events (baptism, episcopal consecration, and the establishment of the monastery), there is no change in his character (Stancliffe 1987, 150–151).

Sulpicius presents St. Martin acting as the leader of an ascetic Christian community, with around eighty members. Although these men chose to reject all trades and devote themselves entirely to religious worship and ministry, it was by no means required to do so to reap any benefits. To be a Christian, and to take advantage of what the Christian community offered, did not require a full surrendering of one’s self to the faith. St. Martin’s community serves as a demonstration that Christianity offered this choice; individuals were free to devote their lives to the study of scripture as they saw fit, but were equally free to continue their lives as normal, and join the community simply for the social benefits and metaphysical answers it offered without actively engaging in further metaphysical contributions. The emphasis, noted by Sulpicius, is on the experiential aspect, which required the charisma of uniquely capable leaders to deploy properly. The arguments put forth by leaders such as St. Martin then, in my view, would have appeared as less foreign, or at least easier to integrate into existing belief structures of polytheist individuals. Indeed, Origen of Alexandria admits a century before St. Martin that, for the bulk of the population, these sorts of physical demonstrations and arguments based on faith alone are sufficient to win converts (Dodds 1965, 122).

For all that may be said in praise of Christianity, equally responsible for its success in our period of discussion are the failings of polytheism. Dodds provides a succinct summation of this point; “One reason for the success of Christianity was simply the weakness and weariness of the opposition: paganism had lost faith both in science and in itself.” Dodds also notes that, by the fourth century, Roman polytheism appeared “a kind of living corpse” (Dodds 1965, 132). A degree of existential seriousness had descended onto a disparate group of religious cults which in no way were capable to directly addressing them, leaving polytheism particularly vulnerable to competing claims to truth, especially in an age where the strength of religion was defined in relation to constant and dramatic physical demonstrations (Brown 2005, 603). The intermingling of those seeking surface level answers and those engaged in deeper reflection also greatly benefitted the religion. Individuals such as St. Martin were wholly of the latter, but actively engaged the former. Evidence of the same from polytheism is lacking.

Christian communities offered a stable and welcoming community which posed few barriers to entry and was filled with individuals all working towards the same well-defined end. That polytheism did not provide the same is not an inherent failing of the system. Polytheism’s weakness was that it proved unable to adapt. Polytheists had seen no reason to change their beliefs in an age without anxiety, yet when the times changed, polytheism proved unable to adapt to the new religious demands. Christian doctrine and adherents then intervened to offer individuals what polytheism had never been required to in great quantity.

Although this has necessarily been a brief foray into the matter, the rise of Christianity appears to me as a twofold matter. First are the advantages Christianity held over polytheism, both in doctrine and the zeal of its adherents, as argued for by Fowden and Brown; but beneath them are the socio-political factors emphasized by Dodds and MacMullen. The worldly factors governed the changing metaphysical requirements of the age of anxiety, and were necessary for the doctrinal strengths noted by Fowden and Brown to flourish.

References

Brown, Peter. “Asceticism: pagan and Christian.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:601–31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brown, Peter. “Christianization and religious conflict.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:632–64. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Dodds, Eric Robertson. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge: University Press, 1965.

Eutropius. Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita. Edited by Bruno Bleckmann and Jonathan Gross. Paderborn, Deutschland: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2018.

Fowden, Garth. “Polytheist religion and philosophy.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 13:538–60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Fowden, Garth. “Religion, Culture, and Society.” In The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., 12:521–89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

MacMullen, Ramsay, and Eugene N. Lane, eds. Paganism and Christianity, 100-425 C.E: a Sourcebook. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

MacMullen, Ramsay. Roman Governments Response to Crisis, AD 235-337. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

Stancliffe, Clare. St. Martin and His Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

White, Carolinne, trans., ed. Early Christian Lives: Life of Antony by Athanasius, Life of Paul of Thebes by Jerome, Life of Hilarion by Jerome, Life of Malchus by Jerome, Life of Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, Life of Benedict by Gregory the Great. London: Penguin Books, 1998

 

 

 

 

Sallustian vs. Ciceronian: Does America Need Morality or a Hero?

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.

 Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), "The oath of Catiline" Oil on canvas (Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809), “The oath of Catiline” Oil on canvas (Wikimedia Commons)

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 (modestiaavaritiasuperbia. 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 [1963] 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.

 

Summer Funding Opportunities for Dickinson Classics Students

Thanks to the generosity of the family of Christopher Roberts (’75) the Department of Classical Studies offers funding to Dickinson classics students for summer study in Greece and Italy. The Christopher Roberts Travel Prize has enabled current and just graduated students (summer after senior year) to attend a variety of programs in recent years. Below is a list of high quality summer programs in Greece and Italy that we recommend.

To apply, please email Prof. Francese (francese _at_ dickinson.edu) as soon as possible, at any rate by January 1, 2020, with the name of the program you are interested in and how it fits into your academic program and plans.College students in ROme in front of the colossal head of Constantine.

Athenian Agora Summer Excavation

American School at Athens Summer Session

American Academy in Rome Classical Summer School

Greek in Greece–University of Patras

Vergilian Society Tours

Boston University Summer Study in Athens

Paideia Institute Living Latin in Rome