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

Last week, we compared and contrasted the protagonist and the antagonist of the Catiline Conspiracy.   We also focused on the significance of the elections for consul of 64, 63 and 62 BC and how they fit into the story.

The story of the Catiline Conspiracy was a subject for many ancient writers, including Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus) which was written within 20 years or so of the events. Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae (The War Against Catiline) is perhaps our most important source, other than Cicero’s writings, mainly his letters to his friend Atticus (Titus Pomponius Atticus) and his attempted epic poem celebrating his achievement.   This week we will examine some of these other sources to see how other writers treated the matter and how those sources were received by the public at large, and to see what further light they may shed on the figure of Cicero.

Sallust in writing his Bellum Catilinae used the figure of Catiline as a moral story. To Sallust, Catiline was what was wrong with Rome. Yet Sallust did present a balanced view of Catiline. For example, he noted Catiline’s bravery in battle and his incredible ability to withstand deprivations such as hunger, cold and lack of sleep. But having praised these characteristics of Catiline, Sallust portrays Catiline as the emblem of a Rome gone wrong from greed and lust of power. Sallust puts this in the context of Rome having eliminated all serious opposition in the Mediterranean, because Rome had destroyed and razed Carthage some 80 years before, as well as in the same year having defeated and looted Corinth. These events inflamed this greed, because now that the Romans were all-powerful, there was nothing to constrain Roman avarice and excess.

Next let’s turn to Cicero’s writings.   In his letters to Atticus, Cicero writes that at first he had friendly relations with Catiline. He mentions that he even contemplated defending Catiline in the courts in 65 BC.   Of course, his letters also outline the full story of the Catiline Conspiracy.

During the conspiracy, Cicero delivered speeches which he transcribed. The one delivered on November 8, 63BC contained what became one of the best known and most oft-quoted of Roman quotations: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” (“How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?”) This was followed by an almost equally famous line: “O tempora, o mores” which literally means “Oh the times! Oh the morals!” but could be rendered more as “What an evil time we live in!”

Cicero also tried his hand at writing an epic poem on the subject. While we do not have the entire poem, we do have some seventy lines of it. We have these lines not only because other Roman writers quoted them, but also because Cicero quoted himself in later works.   The first line of his poem clearly reveals the over-the-top and self-aggrandizing flavor of the poem: “O fortunatam natam me consule Roman” which the famed historian translated as “Rome was such a lucky state/ Born in my great consulate”. Apparently, these lines become something of an object of scorn because they were quite often parodied. That fact alone gives us some indication of how Cicero’s actions were viewed by the Roman people.

Cicero seems not to have been aware that there was unrest with his decision to deal with Catiline and his supporters. Once, Cicero made the decision in December 63 BC to execute Catiline’s supporters, relying only upon the emergency powers he been granted, Cicero trod triumphantly before the masses and announced (to what he characterized as a cheering crowd) “Vixere!” which means “They have lived!” (which is certainly a unique way to say, “They are dead!”)

We must add to this analysis that Cicero was exiled from Rome in 58 BC, after a law was passed that held that anyone who had executed Romans without a trial had to banished. This indicates that there was some level of discontent with Cicero’s decision, which with time festered into action being taken against him.   Certainly, not all was well within Rome and certainly not all in Rome viewed Cicero’s actions favorably. It should be noted that this exile took place during the time that the First Triumvirate was in control raises additional questions which must be analyzed.

We shall return to Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy in the future, because all there is simply more to learn from this event.

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