30 May

Catiline – the man who wanted to “destroy the world by fire and slaughter”.

Well that’s according to Cicero, anyway, but as Cicero was trying to push for a death sentence, he may have been a bit biased.  What Catiline really wanted was to become consul – essentially Prime Minister of the Roman Empire, except that the role was shared between two people and only lasted a year at a time.

Catiline (Lucius Servius to his pals) had gone about trying to become consul the usual ways.  He had gathered a collection of influential friends, he had bribed a lot of people, and when that had failed he had made a lot of rash promises to the worst sections of society – people who, like Catiline, had a lot to gain from a general cancellation of debts, for example.

When none of this worked, isn’t it understandable that Catiline got a little miffed?  Understandable, yes, but that doesn’t actually justify raising an army against Rome.  Here I have to confess that I have a bit of a soft spot for Catiline.  He was colourful and bold, and I always have a weakness for a good baddie.  But the fact is that Catiline isn’t a fictional character, he was a real historical figure, and I’m sure that if I had been around in Rome at the time I would have been calling for his arrest as loudly as anyone else.  (Which is to say, calling quite quietly, so his armed thugs wouldn’t kill me.)

Catiline had been trained in violence and ruthlessness under Sulla.  During the period of the proscriptions (70s BC), when Catiline was a young man, he was on Sulla’s side so he got away with murder, literally, as well as pillaging the property of those he killed.  Catiline didn’t just know how to acquire money, though; he knew how to spend it, too. He ended up in huge amounts of debt, which made it all the more important that he become consul.  The job wasn’t paid, but the year after being consul the ex-consul would be sent out as governor of a province.  That gave you the right to tax and generally exploit the local people (although you could be prosecuted if you went too far).  This would have cancelled out all of Catiline’s debt problems, and he gambled on this when he paid out bribes all over the place, but due to bad luck, lack of money (on the second attempt) and probably reservations about his character, he failed in both attempts to become consul.

It’s what he did next that he’s remembered for.  Gathering supporters both from the senatorial class (the top class, who made up the governing body) and the lower orders, he formed a band of conspirators within Rome and set up a military camp in Etruria, another part of Italy, under the command of a general called Manlius.  Then he set about trying to kill Cicero, the man who had beaten him to the consulship in 63BC.  Unfortunately for Catiline, Cicero had informants telling him all of Catiline’s plans.  There wasn’t all that much that Cicero could do, however.  Catiline needed to be proved guilty of a crime, and he protested his innocence.  He still came along to the Senate (parliament) and took part in public business, making things very awkward for Cicero.

By use of a powerful speech (Against Catiline I) in which he revealed just how much he knew of Catiline’s plans, Cicero managed to persuade Catiline to leave Rome.  Of course, he went straight to the camp in Etruria, where he gained more and more supporters from discontented Italians.  To add to the problem he posed to Rome, Catiline had left supporters in Rome who were supposed to kill Cicero, since he was the main obstacle to power.  (A number of the Senate were on Catiline’s side, after all.)  This plot also backfired because of Cicero’s informants, and so it eventually came to a pitched battle, Catiline’s troops against the Roman army.  Catiline died in 62BC, leading from the front.  Whatever else he was, he was a brave man.

Cicero felt justly proud of himself for dealing with this danger to Rome when no one else was really taking the threat from Catiline seriously.  The trouble was, though, that the circumstances which threw up the Catilinarian conspiracy still existed.  There were plenty of young men like him, born to power but unable to reach it because of debt caused by living the lifestyle that was expected of them.  There were plenty of locals outside Rome who were unhappy with the crumbs thrown by Rome and who would join forces against the status quo.  And there were other men like Catiline – ambitious, bold and ruthless – who realised that with an army behind you, power was only a few battles away.  These men – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Octavian – would tear the Roman world apart in civil wars, and would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Republic itself.


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