Sallust’s Silent Cicero

As we move into November, LSA CA Classics Ambassador and Clitheroe Royal Grammar School Sixth Former Declan Boyd takes us back two thousand and eighty two years to November 63BC. The setting is Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero is consul and the city is in crisis . . . 

In 63 BCE, the Roman senator Lucius Sergius Catilina launched a conspiracy against the Roman Republic. Having failed to attain the consulship in the election of 64, Catilina gained support from insolvent Roman citizens as he promised to cancel their debts. He sent his ally Gaius Manlius to Etruria, where he raised an army, while Catilina himself prepared to slaughter several senators and commit acts of arson. When the Senate learned of this, they sent troops to Apulia and ordered two of the praetors to raise forces against Catilina’s army. Eventually, Catilina was summoned to a Senate meeting, where he was denounced by Cicero, one of the consuls and the most renowned orator in Roman history. Such were the events of the conspiracy’s development according to the historian and politician Sallust.


Barloccini’s vision of Cicero denouncing Catiline

It was at this meeting of the Senate that Cicero delivered his First Catilinarian Oration, a speech which has survived due to its circulation by Cicero (although most likely edited after its delivery). In this speech, Cicero highlights his own importance in uncovering Catilina’s conspiracy, pointing out that it was he himself who warned the Senate that Manlius would be in arms on 27th October and that the massacre of the senators was fixed to be the day after, and that he himself knew of the conspirators’ plans before their meeting at the house of Marcus Porcius Laeca was over. His opinion of his own importance in the situation is summed up in his claim to Catilina that “You do nothing, you attempt nothing, you know nothing which I not only do not hear but which I also do not see and feel clearly”. Cicero saw himself as a hero who had saved Rome from destruction, so much so that he wished to have an epic poem written about his triumph over Catilina.


Cicero, and how he wished to be viewed – as the pater patriae

As the events surrounding the conspiracy progressed, Cicero delivered a further three Catilinarian Orations, all of which were both political and rhetorical masterpieces which undoubtedly contributed to his fame as an orator. However, despite his eloquence and the grand role he assigned to himself, it is striking that Sallust, in his account of the plot, does not include any of Cicero’s speeches (or, in the style of Roman historians, adapted versions of them). He mentions that Cicero spoke against Catilina, but Cicero is given no dialogue in the whole of Sallust’s work. This is a conspicuous omission. Why did Sallust silence Rome’s greatest speaker?


A youthful Sallust

One key reason is surely that Sallust was not Cicero. Cicero, in circulating his speeches and trying to brand himself as an epic hero, presented himself as the sole man who had brought down Catilina. Sallust’s account reveals that this was not the case. By minimising Cicero’s role, Sallust was able to reveal the important parts played by other figures in opposing Catilina, including the heroics of the praetor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer in fighting Catilina’s forces on the battlefield, a conflict which resulted in Catilina’s death. When Sallust’s account is read carefully, it becomes clear that Cicero’s claims to “see and feel clearly” all of Catilina’s actions are untrue, as he learned of the conspiracy from Quintus Curius, who was involved, through his mistress Fulvia. Likewise, it was from some Gallic ambassadors who had been offered the chance to take part in the conspiracy that Cicero learned the names of individual conspirators and their plans. Sallust’s inclusion of details such as these show that Cicero was only responsible for denouncing the conspiracy, not uncovering it: he did not wholly fulfil the role of the republican hero he painted himself to be.


While Cicero speaks no words in Sallust’s account, a large proportion is given to a debate between Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger over the fate of the conspirators. The predominance of these two figures in the oratory in the account appears to act as a substitute for Cicero, emphasising that he was not the only great public speaker in Rome. It is also an excellent opportunity for Sallust to present Caesar, of whom he was an avid supporter, in a positive light as he moves to imprison the conspirators and not to kill them, an unprecedented punishment in Roman history. This is a demonstration of Caesar’s renowned clementia or mercy, which he used to his political advantage, presenting himself as a powerful man who spared his enemies. Cato’s argument that the conspirators should be condemned to death is more traditional, but in this situation, he emerges as the less favourable of the two, at least in Sallust’s opinion, as he is without mercy. Here, Sallust, although writing after his murder, was spreading an admirable image of Caesar and a far less admirable image of Cato, one of Caesar’s political enemies who fought for the opposing side in the civil war of 49-45 BCE. And Sallust’s pro-Caesar leanings could also explain Cicero’s lack of voice, for Cicero too was an outspoken critic of Caesar and supported Pompey the Great against him.


A final notable aspect of Sallust’s account is the depiction of Catilina himself. Like Cicero in his orations, Sallust was certainly not a supporter of Catilina, and the descriptions of his character are in no way positive: he coveted the possessions of others and “his immense mind always desired things which were immoderate, incredible and too lofty”, and the description of his character would later be echoed by Tacitus in his sinister portrayal of Sejanus. Nevertheless, Catilina is shown to be not entirely a figure of evil. In his final battle against Celer’s forces, he charges into the fray and is impaled while fighting. His body is found lying far from his own troops. This death has heroic connotations, the kind of glorification which Cicero would most likely have wanted in a work about his own life. Yet another hint at this role reversal in Sallust’s monograph is contained in Catilina’s speech to his men ‘Quae quousque tandem patiemini, o fortissumi viri?’ (‘For how long shall we put up with this, O bravest men?’), which recalls the opening of Cicero’s First Catilinarian Oration: ‘Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ (‘For how long, Catilina, will you abuse our patience?’).

Sallust was clearly of the view that Cicero was no more of a hero in 63 BCE than Catilina, and his work is vital in offering a different perspective of the events of Catilina’s conspiracy, beyond the boastful and grandiose self-praise of Cicero’s account.