Lucius Sergius Catalina: Villain or Victim? The Famed Cicero as a Violent Aggressor

By Lauren E. Raubaugh
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 1/2 |

Marcus Tullius Cicero is among the more well-known of ancient Roman men. Many know the name and can identify him as having been a prominent politician. In fact, Cicero was likely one of the greatest of all Roman orators. His speeches are still examined today by scholars who admire his clear mastery of logic and rhetoric, and his reputation for winning difficult cases in court has long been notorious. What of Lucius Sergius Catilina, however?

His name, once so prominent in Rome, has not weathered the years as well as the great Cicero’s. When he is remembered, moreover, the recollections are not always positive. He was Cicero’s foil, the archenemy of Rome, a violent and lecherous conspirator. He wanted to sack the city, to forcibly take power from the honest Optimates and restore his family name. Or did he?

Though no one can propose to know the truth of the matter, there certainly exists an argument for the great Cicero being a violent aggressor against the disgraced Catalina, perhaps having actively framed his unorthodox political opponent. Steven Saylor explored this angle in his novel Catilina’s Riddle, and others agreed with his educated assessment. While it is possible that Cicero was honest in his campaign against Catalina, I will argue that the opposite possibility is just as (or even more) likely.

The fact is that Catilina was an easy target; a handsome and cunning man prone to excess and sexual scandal. He was part of a family that had not been represented in Rome’s consul for a long time, and had himself suffered past political and personal losses. Motive, then, for a hostile takeover would have been clear, and his eccentric personality made the concept believable to the Roman public. Cicero could easily have taken advantage of his prodigious skill to ruin Catilina, forever marring his name.

None of this proposed argument presumes that Catilina was happy with the state of Rome at that time or that he was necessarily an upstanding man. He was surely desirous of change, and wanted to be at the forefront of it. He was, without a doubt, the head of an army by the culmination of the conspiracy (for it still was a conspiracy, whether on his part or Cicero’s), but this fact could have been driven out of necessity rather than belligerence – he was being attacked and defamed by the Roman Senate, and had fled the city.

Rage was very real at this point, but I argue that aggression was not his initial state upon entering into politics. According to historian E.J. Phillips, recent academics contend that “[Catilina] harbored no seditious intentions until he was driven to join the revolt of Manlius in Etruria, […] which marked the culmination of a series of false allegations made against him by Cicero, who then proceeded to fabricate evidence against Lentulus and his associates in order to secure their condemnation.”1

How easily many forget this crime of Cicero’s: executing Roman men without a fair trial for being supporters of Catilina. Does this not display fear? Paranoia? At the very least, it shows his capacity to carry out acts that fall quite short of his impeccable reputation. Could he not have effectively executed Catilina as well as these unfortunate followers?

Catilina was of a patrician birth, of a family much more established than Cicero’s own bloodline, but something – whether his incurred debt, strong personality, or rumors of his many indiscretions – kept him from finding success in his campaigns to become consul. A more direct reason for this failure, at least in 65 and 66 BCE, was a charge of extortion, illegally amassing wealth for himself while propraetor in Africa from 67-66 BCE. He was likely guilty, but such a charge is a far cry from the eventual accusations of murder – and, of course, of conspiracy. Regardless, he was definitely frustrated by his successive failures, and what seemed an impossibly tight control exercised by the Optimates.

The ancient historian Sallust included in his text a supposed transcript of a speech Catilina gave to a group of his early supporters wherein he made his feelings about Rome’s Senate perfectly clear: “Ever since the state came under the jurisdiction and control of a powerful oligarchy, it is always they who receive tribute from foreign kings and princes and rake in taxes from every people and tribe. The rest of us, however energetic and virtuous we may be, whether our birth be noble or base, are but a crowd of nobodies without influence or authority…”2

We can certainly doubt the authenticity of these words, but it seems evident that Catilina would have agreed with the sentiment. Optimates had total political control, and the government was entirely in the hands of the Senate. From Marius to Cicero, a time span that ranges 40 years, there was no instance of a “novus homo” obtaining consulship; election was based on reputation and birth, except in times of crisis where an excellent military commander was needed.3

Catilina did not have the recent successes attached to his patrician name to help bolster his cause, and his recent trials and reputation for having committed crimes under Sulla and even of a previous conspiracy (I will return to the verity of this idea later) presented him an almost impossible situation. He resented Cicero and the Optimates, and saw himself more than worthy of wielding greater authority.

Rome, in this time, was a place of controversy and turmoil. According to Sallust, Sulla’s faults as a leader and dictator had instilled in the minds of Rome’s citizens a sense of selfish ambition – allowing his soldiers to “indulge in wine and women” and to “cultivate a taste for statues, pictures, and embossed plate, which they stole from private houses and public buildings, plundering temples and profaning everything sacred and secular alike.”4 Again, this assertion (especially since it places so much blame on Sulla himself) should be taken as nothing more than possible, not a sure fact.

The general idea, however, was that wealth and power became increasingly more coveted in Roman society. This was Sallust’s perception of Rome during this time, at least. To add to this strife (which carried with it an increase in prostitution, gambling, crime, and consumerism) was the tension present between the Optimates and the Populares, which Sulla’s rule had only exacerbated. Violent conflict had exploded as Sulla rose to power, his enemy Marius’ supporters massacring Sulla’s supporters “by the hundred,” according to S.A. Handford’s introduction to the histories of Sallust.5

In quick succession, once Sulla proved victorious, several thousand Romans were killed. The first list, as explained in Handford’s text, included forty senators and 1,600 Equites.6 Land was seized, and those in power often practiced horrible atrocities and murders. When Sulla resigned, the rise of Crassus and Pompey only added more ambitious and power-hungry men to the fold. Cicero largely allied with Pompey, and Handford indicates the very likely probability that Crassus – and even Caesar – were Catilina’s early supporters, looking to get any man other than Pompey into a position of authority.7 Cicero, then, most definitely had a reason to fear Catilina.

Sallust paints Catilina as nothing short of vicious within his written histories. He was said to be conniving and selfish, allying himself with all manner of Roman lowlifes to elevate himself in society and aid his plans for a takeover. “Amid the corruption of the great city Catiline could easily surround himself, as with a bodyguard, with gangs of profligates and criminals,” Sallust insists.8 “Debauchees, adulterers, and gamblers… anyone who had bankrupted himself to buy impunity for his infamous or criminal acts… in short, all who were in disgrace or afflicted by poverty or consciousness of guilt, were Catiline’s intimate associates,” he finishes.9

This not only reads as a great exaggeration, but – according to 19th century historian Edmund Spenser Beesly – has certain flaws in its logic. “If the story of Catiline is unintelligible, it is because the historians one and all have run away with the idea that Caesar was at the time the leader of the popular party,” he points out. “…Well, but if this hypothesis be true – if the masses follow Caesar, and the wealthy classes Cicero and Cato – where are we to look for the party of Catiline, the party which thought itself strong enough to revolutionize the state, and, according to Cicero, was within an ace of doing so?”10

Rather than the common explanation that it was only Sallust’s portrayed lowlifes who composed Catilina’s party, Beesly argues that Catilina held much more prominence than many Romans were willing to acknowledge in hindsight. It seems to be he, rather than Caesar, who was the leader of the Populares after Pompey.11 So how can it logically be that such a supposedly vicious person could rise to so much prominence in society and retain so many followers even at the very end of his life? How did he find ardent soldiers to defend him from Cicero’s forces at Pistoria, which was clearly going to be a losing battle? Some evidently still felt he was worth fighting for.

What were the true reasons for this outpouring of support for this controversial man? What was Catilina really like? We can never be exactly sure, of course – but those on all sides of the conflict agree that, upon first meeting, he was likeable and enigmatic. Cicero himself, the greatest enemy of Catilina, confesses to having been disarmed by Catilina’s strong character and convinced of his merit; he was shocked, therefore, when the base accusations of Catalina’s misdeeds came forth. “There was a time,” Beesly quotes Cicero as having said, “…when he nearly imposed on me, even on me. I used to think him a worthy citizen, a man who delighted in the society of the good, a firm and faithful friend. His criminal enterprises came upon me completely by surprise.”12

Obviously, the image conjured most often at the mention of his name is a dark one. “Of all the characters in history,” Beesly writes, “Catiline has been painted the blackest… We think of him not as a man but as a demon breathing murder, rapine, and conflagration.”13 The same historian even proclaims this as his ultimate reason for writing his version of Catilina’s story: “My sole desire is to do something towards the elucidation of a much misunderstood period of Roman history,” he declares.

History does not always arrive at an uncontested narrative, especially when the events in dispute occurred over two thousand years ago. Many differing versions of Catilina have surely been written in poetry and literature, especially in drama – he has made a lasting imprint in this sense, the subject of such great writers as Ben Jonson and Henrik Ibsen.14 He has also been quite vividly portrayed by Steven Saylor in Catilina’s Riddle, an historical novel that nonetheless presents an educated and fascinating perspective on what may have been Catilina’s true character.

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