“They being subservient would be revolutionaries so as to be equals, they being equals would be revolutionaries so as to be mighty” ~ Aristotle
A slightly unhinged social outcast paces the room, desperately trying to reconcile himself with his extensive debts, both financial and social. The progressive downfall of his aristocratic family removed one source of renown and income, whilst moral degeneracy, unwise connections, filicide led a great deal of improbability about external loans.
What Lucius Sergius Catilina did have was indignation. His loss of status in the social wolf pack of the Roman republic drew out a rebellious sentiment within him, and his base desire for power and importance drove his activity. By attracting a crowd of robbers, muggers, parrides, fraudsters, thugs and by indoctrinating his principles into teenage boys, Catilina slowly built up the imperium he so violently craved.
This was a time of economic and political instability in the republic, and out of this was to grow first the Caesarian dictatorship arising from the first triumvirate and then eventually the empire out of the second triumvirate.
There isn’t a great amount of detail from the ancient sources, perhaps because no coherent economic theory existed then, but it is clear that Rome’s economy was not very healthy, bringing about a decline in the standard of living et cetera.
Perhaps spurred on by this economic downturn, many contemporary politicians and social figures were disenchanted with the way the republic was run, with the aristocratic faction holding too much sway over decisions and poor provisions in place for the various social classes within the republic and affiliated states.
Catiline preyed upon this sentiment, drawing in titans of Roman society and politics into the folds of his ‘conspiracy’. Amongst these were Julius Caesar, the archetypical populist.
Sallust’s version of Catiline’s first speech to his gathered group, whilst made up, does indeed have Catilinian flavourings to it. He incites his audience to fury by pointing out the numerous homes of the wealthy compared to the debts of those present, the privileged positions held by the powerful compared to the social obscurity of those present, the harshness and hatred with which those present were regarded by the prominent. As a populist, he manipulated common contemporary fears and mixed them with his own base ambition and lust for power.
Catiline’s feminine, aristocratic name belies the violence deployed in his putsch, thrown when Cicero was consul and targeting him, at least according to Ciceronian sources. Rising in the senate, amidst great uncertainty as to the extent of Catilina’s popularity, Cicero famously made an impassioned and highly effective speech debasing this quasi-revolutionary, beginning with the daring attack, “How long, Catilina, will you abuse our patience?”, playing on the tense and drawn-out progression of the second Catilinian conspiracy.
This speech had a dramatic effect on Roman politics and historiography thereafter. Cicero was declared the saviour of the republic, and Catilina and his companions were forced out. All the accounts take their information from Cicero, most notably Sallust, himself a bit of a wrongdoer trying to worm his way back into social favour and eternal remembrance with his historical works.
This was also an important training period for Caesar, allowing him to refine his political acumen and giving him an invaluable experience to be retained in mind for his later political career, not least the estimation of Cicero’s capabilities.
One of the primary purposes of studying Latin is to study the precedents of modern-day life and to apply them, just as with history. The deeper context and understanding provided by linguistic study affords a more complete picture of the implications of the texts, such as Sallust’s bellum Catilinae (The War of Catiline).
The Catilinian conspiracy is important not only for its implications in classical politics, but in terms of a precedent for its successors. Many parallels can be drawn between the Catilinians and certain modern parties – see if you can draw them.
This article was composed in semi-Sallustian prose which works much better in Latin than in English.