The portrait of Marcus Tullius Cicero that comes down through the ages is one of a man who reached the pinnacle of success in Ancient Rome and later was caught between two almost elemental forces: Pompey and Caesar. He was a man of letters and philosophy; he was a lawyer and a statesman; but he is the man who put Rome above all other considerations. Of course, most of this flattering portrait is drawn by Cicero himself. So, let us look more closely at this man, what he did, and what he said.
Cicero clearly reached the pinnacle of success in 63 BC. He was consul, which was quite an achievement for a ‘new man’, that is a man who was not from an old, established, aristocratic family which had produced consuls previously.
Opposing Cicero was Lucius Sergius Catilina, known more familiarly as Catiline. Catiline is portrayed as a disgruntled aristocrat, who was bankrupt (because he had campaigned twice unsuccessfully for the consulship). His plotted against Rome, which plot included burning the city down, as well as assassinating all elected officials (including Cicero!) By these acts, Catiline hoped to have all debts written off and also to emerge as the leader of Rome. To carry this out, Catiline had assembled an army outside of Rome which was just waiting for his signal, when Cicero ferreted out the plot.
All of this is taking place behind the backdrop of the looming consular elections for the consulship of 62 BC, over which Cicero must preside as a final act of his consulship and wherein Catiline is yet a candidate again. It should be noted that Cicero defeated Catiline for the consulship of 63 BC.
In late summer of 63 BC, the Cicero has postponed the consular elections for the 62BC consulship. While in October 63 BC, the Senate has granted Cicero emergency powers: he is authorized “to make sure that the state should come to no harm”.
In what has to be almost one of the most dramatic moments in Roman history, Cicero confronts Catiline in the Senate on November 8, 63 BC. The Senate that day met in the Temple of Jupiter in the Roman Forum. One’s imagination can picture the scene. Several hundred Roman Senators in their togas bordered with a purple edge denoting their power and status, sit as the Senate, while Cicero, ever eloquent, denounces Catiline, outlining the plot in detail, reminding the august body of Catiline’s notorious past, and mixing in a little humility by admitting that he, Cicero, wished that he had discovered the plot sooner. Then Catiline rises and speaks in his own defense, but finds that his rebuttal is not strong enough to overcome Cicero’s oratory.
That night, Catiline leaves Rome. About a month later, Cicero again summons the Senate. This time the agenda is to determine the punishment of those supporters of Catiline in Rome, who have been captured. Surprisingly, Gaius Julius Caesar makes an impassioned plea that these conspirators should be imprisoned. This is a most unusual suggestion, because until this time the punishments in Rome, as in most of the rest of the ancient world had been fines, exile, or death. People were not held in custodial prisons, except for the time they awaited their execution. The record has two different versions of what Caesar was urging the Senate to do: 1. Life imprisonment; and 2. Custodial incarceration until such time as a proper trial could be held, once the crisis was over.
Cicero, however, decides that the emergency powers he had been granted in October of 63BC are authority enough for him to put these conspirators to death without even a trial.
Within a few weeks thereafter, Rome’s legions defeat Catiline’s army and the crisis is averted. Cicero is declared the father of the fatherland. It is surely his finest hour.
That is the story we know as the Catiline Plot; however, most of what we know comes from the pen of Cicero. In our next blog, we will examine this story and see if we can find other threads that might shine further light on this matter and on the true personality of Cicero.