Cicero: Father of His Country or Something Else? Part II

Last week, we discussed the Catiline Conspiracy by recounting the story told more or less from the viewpoint of Cicero.


Before we continue our exploration of this subject, we should perhaps compare and contrast Cicero and Catiline.   This is helpful for not only is there a great contrast between these two individuals, but also because it might highlight what caused the rift between these two men.


In 63 BC, both of these men were at the top or very near the top of Roman politics. This is perhaps the only characteristic that they shared in common.


Catiline came from a distinguished older family, which traced its origins back to the founding fathers of Rome.  The forefather of Catiline was supposedly Sergestus who fled with Aeneas from Troy. Later, his great-grandfather was a hero in the war against Hannibal. While this was heroic enough, Sergestus did this with a prosthetic hand, being thereby the first man with prosthesis to be a warrior.  Catiline had been elected to a series of offices ascending the steps towards the consulship. Yet, there was also a darker side to Catiline. He was believed to have murdered his first wife and his son. Both of these crimes were done so he could have sex with a virgin priestess. Nonetheless, he had stood for election for consul in both 64 BC and 63 BC, the latter time being beaten by Cicero.


Now, campaigning for consul was a very expensive proposition. Lavish generosity in the form of gifts (we might think them bribes) was a necessity to be elected. This costly campaigning had presumably bankrupted Catiline. (This is not too dissimilar to Gaius Julius Caesar who had borrowed quite heavily to win the consulship of 60 BC and saw the consulship as the way to pay back his enormous debt which threatened him with bankruptcy.)


Cicero, by contrast, while from a wealthy family, heralded from a small town some 70 miles outside of Rome called Arpinum. None of his ancestors had apparently been elected to office in Rome. In fact, his background was used against him in the elections with rivals labeling Cicero ‘a part-time citizen’ and a mere ‘lodger’ in Rome. Cicero’s one key advantage was that he had great oratorical ability. He had built up a reputation as a highly sought after advocate in the courts in Rome. In fact, at one point Cicero even considered defending Catiline in the courts. His work in the courts had also given him a strong network of high-level relationships upon which to call.

Cicero defeated Catiline for the consulship of 63BC in the elections which took place in 64 BC. In the summer of 63 BC, two important things happened. First, it was approximately at this time that Cicero first caught wind of Catiline’s plot against Rome. Second, Cicero decided to postpone the elections for consul for 62 BC.


The significance of the latter decision was that Catiline was yet once again standing for election for consul for 62 BC. Having come in third in the last election (after Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida, both of whom had become consul and thus were ineligible to stand for election for the consulship for 62 BC, Catiline may have thought that it was ‘his turn’ to be consul and may have considered himself the front runner for the position. Being consul was one way, perhaps the best way, to repay one’s debts. . (By the way, Gaius Antonius Hybrida was the uncle of Mary Antony.)


The way that Cicero instituted his decision to postpone the elections was done in a manner that was quite dramatic and potentially quite embarrassing to Catiline. Cicero showed up at the polls with an armed guard, while Cicero was wearing a military breastplate which was clearly visible under his toga.


This all leads me to wonder how much of the Catiline Conspiracy was born of a political rivalry between Cicero and Catiline. Did Cicero not want Catiline to win the next consulship because he wanted to deny Catiline the reins of power out of petty vengeance? Did Cicero think a man such as Catiline, because of his unsavory background, was unworthy to be the first man in Rome?


We will continue to explore the Catiline Conspiracy in our next blog with a deeper examination of our source materials, as well as a look at how Rome reacted to Cicero’s actions.


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