The Sacrifice of Palinurus (Aeneid 5.851-871)

Lucian Kapushoc (’25) discusses the meaning of the Palinurus episode at the end of the the fifth Book of the Aeneid, assesses two recent translations, those of Robert Fagles (2006 and Sarah Ruden (2021), and provides his own translation.

sketch of a crumbling grave monument overlooking the shore of the Mediterranean
Engraving by Wilhelm Gmelin (1760 – 1820) Cénotaphe de Palinurus

talia dicta dabat, clauumque adfixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
ecce deus ramum Lethaeo rore madentem
uique soporatum Stygia super utraque quassat 855
tempora, cunctantique natantia lumina soluit.
uix primos inopina quies laxauerat artus,
et super incumbens cum puppis parte reuulsa
cumque gubernaclo liquidas proiecit in undas
praecipitem ac socios nequiquam saepe uocantem; 860
ipse uolans tenuis se sustulit ales ad auras.
currit iter tutum non setius aequore classis
promissisque patris Neptuni interrita fertur.
iamque adeo scopulos Sirenum aduecta subibat,
difficilis quondam multorumque ossibus albos 865
(tum rauca adsiduo longe sale saxa sonabant),
cum pater amisso fluitantem errare magistro
sensit, et ipse ratem nocturnis rexit in undis
multa gemens casuque animum concussus amici:
‘o nimium caelo et pelago confise sereno, 870
nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena.’

At the end of the fifth Book of the Aeneid Palinurus, after being assigned by Aeneas to the vital job as helmsman for the lead ship in the fleet, falls victim to sleep and goes overboard. Clutching a fragment of the ship he shouts back in vain as he drifts off. After belatedly realizing that Palinurus has been lost, Aeneas takes the helm himself as he mourns the loss of his pilot. The last description of Palinurus is of his dead body lying unburied on an unknown shore (Virgil 5.852-872). The death concludes the seafaring portion of Aeneas’s journey but Palinurus’s presence in the story is not limited to his finale. His loss at sea fulfills a hidden promise made by Neptune that the fleet would reach Italy safely with only one crew member lost (Virgil 5.814–815). His earthly form did end up making it to shore but he was then knifed by bandits and left for dead (Virgil 6.359–361). His final fate was revealed by the Sibyl in the underworld when Aeneas is trying to cross the River Acheron, and Palinurus shows up on shore among the crowd of unburied souls (Virgil 6.337). He laments his fate and asks for passage across the river, but the Sibyl scolds him and assures him that someone would come and bury him. Palinurus delights when he finds out he will enter the underworld and that the beach he died on will be named after him.

Palinurus’ death occupies a significant place at the midpoint of the story, between land and sea, at an important turning point in Aeneas’s journey (Quint 50). With his sacrifice Virgil both emulates and contradicts Homer (Quint 1993: 91). On the one hand, Palinurus drifts through the open sea just as Odysseus did.On the other hand, Odysseus was the sole survivor of his crew, while Aeneas loses only one crewmember. While Odysseus had to give up his entire crew to get home, Aeneas had to give up Palinurus, and took his place as leader at the helm (Quint 1993: 89). If Palinurus is accepted as a stand-in for Aeneas, it also fulfills a divine plea from Dido that Aeneas be plagued by hardship and die prematurely, “unburied on some desolate beach” (Virgil 4.609–620). Palinurus, Creusa, Anchises, and Dido are some of the losses Aeneas and the Trojans sustain during the transition from Troy to Italy.

We are not meant to blame Palinurus for forsaking his duty but rather asked to see him as a victim of a cosmic fate over which he had no control. His devotion to his post and to Aeneas is shown by the broken fragment of the ship he still clings to in the water. Sacrifices such as this were meant to reaffirm the relationship between gods and humans. They paradoxically serve as reassurance that the gods are still on Aeneas’s side and his journey is still fated (O’Hara 2014: 112).  It’s not all bad for Palinurus, either. He is promised a burial and entrance into the underworld and he delights when The Sybil tells him that the beach he died on will forever be named after him. The place in Italy is still called Capo Palinuro.

Two good contemporary translations are those of Robert Fagles (2006) and Sarah Ruden (2021), who have both published impressive editions of The Aeneid unique in style and tone. In his translation Fagles balances the hopeful fate of the Trojans with sympathy for the native Italians who suffer their invasion. His tone bears strong narrative emphasis, encapsulating the themes of epic poetry and manifesting them in a world where epic poetry is no longer as common and esteemed as it used to be. The most notable aspect of Sarah Ruden’s version of The Aeneid is how she has formatted it to keep each line roughly a complete thought. This forces compression in words and ideas due to the differences between Latin and English (Ruden 2021: xxviii). The shortness helps maintain the elevated tone of The Aeneid that is absent in many other versions. The translation is as versatile as is required for such a story and retains many of the literary themes that Virgil made rich use of such as enjambment and speed. A translator’s style is present throughout the entire work and sets each version apart from the others. The coverage of a segment such as Palinurus will be equally unique.

Fagles’ style puts the reader right next to Palinurus using ecce as the imperative watch (Virgil 5.854). This creates a more personal tone that invests the reader into the fate of Palinurus with a natural buildup of suspense. The natural phenomenon of sleep is personified as a god and Palinurus’s fall happens as fast and as suddenly as one would pass out from exhaustion. The tragic undertones of the episode are realized with the direct translation of nudus as naked to complete the indecent and pitiful picture of Palinurus’ fate (Virgil  5. 872). Fagles does a good job of creating sympathy for Palinurus and then compensating equally with his eventual happy ending. Ruden provides a similar bystander perspective of the event in line for line verse which results in a more broken up sequence as to keep each line similar to its counterpart in The Aeneid and to stay within the meter. Her sentences start and stop as abruptly as one’s thoughts when battling fatigue. She discards ecce for a more impersonal tone fitting an independent reader (Virgil  5.854). Nudus turns into unburied to further lament Palinurus’s state, deprived of the proper rites and treatments of a valued member of Aeneas’s crew (Virgil 5.872). Changes in tone between versions likewise change the atmosphere and feeling in episodes like Palinurus without changing the core subject matter. Translations can make the experience more personal like Fagles or emphasize or more stoic and mythic like Ruden.

I translate as follows:

Thus he spoke to himself and Palinurus kept his hands stuck to the helm and his feet planted to the deck, rooted in place with his gaze fixed on the stars.

Hark, Sleep descends upon from on high wielding a sleepy branch, dripping with Lethaean dew and twilight power, which he waves over the temples of our oblivious helmsman; who struggled in vain as his swimming eyes began to ease.

Unanticipated weariness had already relaxed his body when Sleep, leaning over him, loosened his arms from the helm and pushed him headfirst over the rail into the rolling sea. Clutching hard onto the part of the stern he ripped off with him, Palinurus shouts in vain to his comrades back on the ship as Sleep flies off into the thin breeze.

The unaffected fleet runs its unchanged course over the sea just as Neptune had promised.

Here, the Sirens’ Rocks, once dangerous and stained white with the bones of countless sailors, now ring far and wide with the unending surf; And Father Aeneas, feeling his ship to float freely with no pilot, grabs the wheel, and guides the fleet across the midnight sea. He groans, shaken by the death of his comrade.

‘Oh Palinurus, you trusted too much in the sea and stars, and now your body will lie bare and unburied on an unnamed shore.’

My version aims to retain the personal and narrative tone that I like in Fagles with increased alliteration. The maritime nature of the episode is likewise emphasized with the use of Hark for ecce (Virgil 5.854) and sailors supplied with multorum (Virgil 5.65). Sleep is personified to a further extent and the elements of the sea and the Sirens’ rocks are played up to complete the tone.

Works Cited

Quint, David. Epic and Empire. Princeton 1993.

O’Hara, J. “Palinurus,” in Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds., The Virgil Encyclopedia, 3 vols. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

Virgil, Aeneid, Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Books, 2006.

Virgil, Aeneid, Translated by Sarah Ruden, Introduction by Susanna Braund. Yale University Press 2021.


Translating Rumor (Vergil, Aeneid 4.173-197)

Virginia Hargraves (’27) discusses the Rumor passage in Book 4 of the Aeneid, examining the recent translations of Shadi Bartsch and Sarah Ruden, then offers an adaptation of her own, based on “Rumor Has It” by Adele.

Sculpture of bird like figure wearing a Venetian style mask
Lindsey M Dillon, “Venetian Rumor”

Extemplo Libyae magnas it Fama per urbes,
Fama, malum qua non aliud uelocius ullum:
mobilitate uiget uirisque adquirit eundo,                                       175
parua metu primo, mox sese attollit in auras
ingrediturque solo et caput inter nubila condit.
illam Terra parens ira inritata deorum
extremam, ut perhibent, Coeo Enceladoque sororem
progenuit pedibus celerem et pernicibus alis,                              180
monstrum horrendum, ingens, cui quot sunt corpore plumae,
tot uigiles oculi subter (mirabile dictu),
tot linguae, totidem ora sonant, tot subrigit auris.
nocte uolat caeli medio terraeque per umbram
stridens, nec dulci declinat lumina somno;                                  185
luce sedet custos aut summi culmine tecti
turribus aut altis, et magnas territat urbes,
tam ficti prauique tenax quam nuntia ueri.
haec tum multiplici populos sermone replebat
gaudens, et pariter facta atque infecta canebat:                        190
uenisse Aenean Troiano sanguine cretum,
cui se pulchra uiro dignetur iungere Dido;
nunc hiemem inter se luxu, quam longa, fouere
regnorum immemores turpique cupidine captos.
haec passim dea foeda uirum diffundit in ora.                         195
protinus ad regem cursus detorquet Iarban
incenditque animum dictis atque aggerat iras.

“Immediately Rumor goes through the great cities of Libya, Rumor, an evil than which no other is swifter: she thrives with speed and gains strength by going, small with fear at first, soon she lifts herself into the air and walks on the ground and hides her head among the clouds. The Earth, provoked by anger against the gods, so they say, gave birth to her last as the sister of Coeus and Enceladus, quick on her feet and with nimble wings, a horrible monster, huge, who has as many feathers on her body, as there are  watchful eyes beneath (amazing to say), as many tongues, as many mouths are speaking, as many pricked up ears. She flies at night in the middle of the sky and the earth shrieking though the dark, her eyes do not close with sweet sleep; by day she sits as a guard either on the top of the highest roofs or on high towers, and alarms the great cities, holding on as much to false and evil things as to being a messenger of the truth. Now rejoicing she keeps filling the nations with various rumors, and she keeps singing true and untrue things equally: that Aeneas born from Trojan blood has come, beautiful Dido deigns to join herself to that man; now they are keeping the long winter warm together in luxury, forgetful of their kingdoms and captive to their shameful desire. The foul goddess spreads this on the mouths of men everywhere. At once she turns her course to King Iarbas and sets fire to his spirit with her words and increases his anger.”

In the fourth book of the Aeneid, following the metaphorical marriage between the Carthaginian queen and the Trojan hero, Vergil includes an extended depiction of Rumor personified as the goddess Fama. Rumor, described more specifically as a “foul goddess,” dea foeda, gleefully spreads the news of Dido and Aeneas’s private relationship through the city streets, inciting anger and unrest among their own people (4.195). As a result of Rumor’s wild and erratic behavior, Aeneas eventually comes to see Dido as a distraction and is reminded by the gods of his fate in Italy. Departing in secret from Carthage, Aeneas leaves behind Dido, who is so distraught from heartbreak that she abandons her role as queen and commits suicide while the Trojan fleet sails away from the Carthaginian shores.

Vergil opens this symbolic passage straightaway with a sense of urgency, using the Latin word extemplo, “immediately,” setting a frantic tone for the passage to follow (173). This is further emphasized in the next line with the comparative adjective velocius, “swifter.” Nothing one can match Rumor’s speed (174). Here, Vergil is already beginning to paint the image of Rumor as an uncontrollable creature who cannot be tamed. This portrayal of the goddess might also foreshadow the unfortunate future of Queen Dido, as both are compared to a female follower of Bacchus later in the epic. After Dido learns of Aeneas’s plan to leave Carthage in secret, she “runs wildly,” bacchatur through the city before confronting Aeneas (4.301). When Dido finally succumbs to her miserable state, Rumor is said to have similarly “run wildly,” bacchatur through the city, spreading the mournful news, acting as a dramatic echo of the dead queen’s actions (4.666).

Vergil also stresses the power of Fama as a deity, specifically noting her apparent omnipresence in the “skies,” auras and on the “ground” solo and among the “clouds” nubila (176-177). The polysyndeton in this line is what draws the reader’s attention to Rumor’s ability to seemingly be in a multitude of places at once because of her impressive speed and agility. Vergil uses various poetic devices throughout his entire epic, but this passage in particular is full of repetitions, most notably alliteration and anaphora, in addition to this example of polysyndeton. Not only does the phrase ira inritata almost exactly repeat in translation, meaning either “provoked by anger” or “angered by anger,” but it is also alliterated, producing a repetitive rhythm and tonal effect when spoken aloud (178). The repetition of tot, “so many,” or totidem, “as many,” in the list of Rumor’s descriptive traits, tot vigiles oculi…tot linguae, totidem ora…tot subrigit auris, is an example of anaphora in epic verse (182-183). These literary techniques and poetic devices, which are all repetitive in nature, stress the rhythmic pattern and verse of the epic while drawing attention to these specific phrases, many of which highlight the disturbing characteristics and actions of Rumor.

Vergil creates a suspenseful atmosphere to emphasize the direness of Aeneas’s situation in Carthage, where he is sidetracked from his fated journey to Italy. Rumor’s act of “shrieking,” stridens creates a palpable, almost audible sense of horror for the reader, distinguishing Rumor from mere gossip, which a contemporary audience might understand it as (185). This terrifying tone is also seen in Vergil’s direct description of Rumor as a “horrible monster,” monstrum horrendum, with the goddess personified as a female winged creature (181). In contrast, however, the other female figure present in this scene, Dido, is described as pulchra, “beautiful,” although to a Roman audience, her actions would perhaps seem like a distraction keeping Aeneas from his Trojan duty (4.192). Vergil therefore creates a connection between Rumor and Dido for the reader based on their egregious actions, despite the contrast in their outward appearances.

Vergil seems to be using personified Rumor to propel the storyline of his epic foreword, literally with the goddess’s speed. This section comes directly after what Dido understands to be her marriage to Aeneas, and already the goddess is polluting the streets of Carthage with this fact mixed with her own exaggerated “lies,” infecta (190). Although this relationship has somewhat just begun, Vergil is already alluding to its imminent collapse. While she may revel in falsehoods, Rumor eventually represents reality for both Dido and Aeneas when her deceitful behavior plagues both lovers by the end of book four. While attempting to leave Carthage in secret, Aeneas manipulates and deceives Dido, sending the heartbroken queen into a frenzy. Incited by Aeneas’s impious act, Dido similarly deceives Anna before taking her own life. This passage, therefore, ultimately builds the tension of the epic and creates a reference of what is to come with Rumor’s terrifying description and dishonest conduct.

In her 2021 translation of the Aeneid, Shadi Bartsch seeks to construct a “parallel experience” to Vergil’s epic poem in English (Bartsch 57). She believes that Latin “gives each translator a choice,” and she chooses to stay truthful to the original language, tempo, tone, metaphors, and verse of Vergil (52). The poetic device she seems most concerned with is alliteration, which she replicates frequently in her translation and uses to emphasize certain aspects of the analogy in English as Vergil does in Latin. Early in the passage she uses alliteration to contrast Rumor’s initial fear with her growing power, beginning as “small and scared” but building “speed” and “strength” as she flies (Vergil 175-176). This also resembles the typical course of daily gossip, which begins as an individual rumor but increases and strengthens as it spreads.

Another example of alliteration is Bartsch’s description of the goddess as “fast of foot and fleet of wing” while simultaneously being a “huge, horrific monster” (180-181). While “fast of foot” is very direct in word choice and meaning, “fleet of wing” is more ornate and complex. Already having used the word “fast,” Bartsch finds an alternate translation for speed while still fitting it into the alliteration of the phrase. Although Vergil does not alliterate the phrase monstrum horrendum, ingens, the Latin does have a rhythmic beat, especially in the first two words, which Bartsch retains by inverting the word order and alliterating the phrase, translating it as “a huge, horrific monster” (181).

Bartsch is also dedicated to preserving a similar tone of panic and alarm as Vergil, which she accomplishes through her animalistic word choice in this passage. Rather than the common meaning “lifts” or “raises” for attollit, Bartsch translates the phrase sese attollit in auras as “she rears to the skies” (176). The English verb “rears” typically only refers to animals, specifically horses, but in this case fits the actions of a wild bird. Another possible translation inferred from attollit could be “soars,” which offers a more bird-like quality to the passage (176). Bartsch returns to more characteristic descriptions of a winged creature with the verbs “screeching” for stridens and “perches” as a more specialized translation for the common Latin verb sedet (185-187). Although Vergil does not classify his comparison of Rumor to a specific bird species, his description of the goddess almost seems like that of a vulture or a similar bird of prey, exploiting and feeding on the secrets of Dido and Aeneas. By attempting to replicate the original meaning and meter of the poem directly into English, Bartsch successfully fosters a terrifying atmosphere almost identical to that of Vergil’s, which only intensifies the fear for the reader of the events to come later in the epic.

In contrast, Sarah Ruden’s methodology for her 2021 Aeneid translation seems to be taking each of Vergil’s lines or phrases and reimagining them in poetic English. She states that the most effective aspect of Vergil’s writing is its “Roman epic style,” but because English works very differently to Latin, she makes some alterations in her translation (Ruden 7). While Vergil frequently repeats the same Latin words as a common thread throughout the epic, Ruden believes this would come across as boring and monotonous in English, so instead she chooses to “vary the vocabulary,” using different translations for the same Latin word (8). Although the Aeneid is written in dactylic hexameter, Ruden uses iambic pentameter in her translation as it is more flexible with the English language (9). She seeks to embrace the sense of the Latin and the “flavor” of the Aeneid, rather than default to a word-for-word translation (10). By doing this, she is able to leave behind the expected, and often awkward, English translations for a more interpretive and aesthetic style reminiscent of Vergil’s extraordinary poetic abilities.

She too utilizes an abundance of alliteration in her translation with phrases such as “tiny and timid” and “sweet sleep,” as well as word repetition with phrases such as “quick-footed, quick-winged,” which resemble the alliteration of the original Latin: pedibus celerem et pernicibus alis (4.176–179, 185). But for the most part, Ruden seeks to completely reinterpret the Latin, like in the phrase “Her claws hold both true news and evil lies” for tam ficti pravique tenax quam nuntia veri (188), while the original Latin might literally translate to “holding on as much to false and crooked things as to being a messenger of the truth.” Ruden uses her liberty as a translator to alter the Latin to fit the grandiose style of her translation. In this phrase, Ruden’s most notable modification is translating the adjective tenax with the noun “claws,” adding to the passage’s bird-like imagery, rather than simply as “tenacious” (188). This rearrangement of the original passage displays Ruden’s frequent decision to completely depart from Vergil’s word choice and verse.

Ruden prefers a loftier, more exaggerated translation, often opting for rare or unusual word choices rather than the expected English translations. “A blaring mouth” for ora sonant not only alters the number from plural “mouths” to singular, but the verb becomes an adjective describing the one “mouth” (183). “Blaring” is also a slightly jarring translation for sonant, which is typically understood to mean either “speaking” or simply “making a sound.” Similarly, for the Latin word populos, with its clear English cognate “people,” she chooses the more mythical and outdated word “realms” (189). While Shadi Bartsch uses her liberty as a translator to remain as faithful as possible to the original Latin, emulating Vergil’s tone by attempting to directly copy his words into English without losing his meter or meaning, Sarah Ruden disregards the details of Vergil’s Latin to reproduce the magnificent style and heroic design of the Aeneid in reimagined English. With her over-the-top, dramatic translations, Ruden creates an atmosphere of fantasy and magnificence suitable for an epic poem full of legends, battles, and fated destinies.

Re-written Verse Translation – Aeneid 4.173-197

[Based on “Rumour Has It” by Adele from the perspective of Italy, personified]

“Now Rumor has it” that you’ve forgotten your path,

You’re giving into Dido and her beautiful wrath.

“Haven’t you heard the rumors” that are filling the streets?

They know you as Aeneas, a hero despite the Greeks.

“Now Rumor has it” that “you’ve got your head in the clouds,”

That you’ve forgotten your kingdom, that’s what’s heard in the crowds.

That Dido wants to marry you, says Rumor flying swiftly,

But please don’t forget, Aeneas, that “you and I have history.”

“Now Rumor” sings these tales (so amazing to say),

But “she is a stranger,” boy, don’t give your fate away.

“All these words” the quick goddess does “whisper in my ear,”

Although her image makes it hard to have faith in what I hear.

“Now Rumor has it” that “she made a fool out of you,”

Exposing all your winter plans madly as she flew.

Speeding ‘round at night, all I see is gleaming eyes,

But when it comes to gossip, well, “she’s got it all” in the skies.

“Now Rumor has it” Dido melts your heart, “cold to the core”

Now Rumor reaches Iarbas and she brings the heat some more.

Although she has the beauty, and I guess that’s why you “strayed,”

“Is that really what you want,” Aeneas, what of the Trojan name?

Works Cited

Bartsch, Shadi, translator. The Aeneid. By Vergil, Random House, 2021.

Ruden, Sarah, translator. The Aeneid. By Vergil, Yale University Press, 2021.

Citing Ancient Authors

When citing classical texts scholars employ a specialized, precise method that does not use page numbers. In outline, the proper format for citing classical texts is as follows:

Author, Title Book#.Section#.Line#

Different texts have different structures that might alter this schema slightly. Using this method ensures the reader can find the exact passage no matter what translation or edition he or she is using.



Homer, Iliad 18.141–143.

That’s Book 18 of the Iliad, lines 141 to 143. A “book” for classical works represents what once fit on a single scroll of papyrus. When referring to books of classical texts, the word is capitalized (“see Iliad, Book 18” or “in the eighteenth Book of the Iliad).

Sophocles, Antigone 904–922.

Antigone is a play, with one continuous sequence of line numbers, so there is no “Book” number.

Horace, Odes 4.1.1-4.

Book 4 of Horace’s Odes, poem 1, lines 1 to 4. The individual Odes have numbers, rather than titles.

Catullus 85.2

Poem 85 of Catullus, line 2. Catullus’ poetry exists in a single collection, with poems numbered sequentially. There are no “Book” numbers, and no title, since it’s just Catullus’ surviving poems, one after another. Note that when there is no title, no comma is needed after the author’s name.


Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.11.6.

Book 9, section 11, paragraph 6 of Pausanias’ Description of Greece. Since Pausanias has only one work surviving, the title is actually optional. There would be no ambiguity if it were omitted.

Apollodorus 2.5.4

Book 2, section 5, paragraph 4 of Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology. Apollodorus only wrote one work, so mentioning its title is optional. When there is no title, no comma is needed after the author’s name.

Herodotus 4.1.

The first section of Herodotus’ Histories, Book 4. This section actually has three sentences, each individually numbered. But there is no reason to give a specific sentence number if you are referring the reader to the whole section.

Plato, Symposium 215a3–218b7.

Plato has his own special reference numbers called “Stephanus pages” after an early editor of his complete works. Each numbered section has subsections labeled a, b, c, d, e. Within each subsection, each sentence has a number. This reference specifies a range from Stephanus page 215, subsection a, sentence 3, to Stephanus page 218, subsection b, sentence 7. Modern translations put these reference numbers in the margins, so you can always locate the specific passage.

Abbreviations: Most classical authors and texts have standard abbreviations that you may want to employ; these can be at the Oxford Classical Dictionary Abbreviations list.

Multiple references to the same work in the course of a paragraph can be abbreviated even further. Once it’s been established that you are discussing Iliad Book 18, for subsequent references you can simply put line numbers in parentheses, rather than repeating the whole “Homer, Iliad 18” part. Efficient! The goal is clarity, so if you refer to something else, then come back to Iliad 18, put the full form in again just to be sure.

Those are the basics. Any questions? Leave a comment and I will respond as soon as I can.

Chris Francese, October 7, 2020

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.


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_ 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