Cicero, Catiline, and Conspiracy: Vying for Control, Lucius Catiline Conspired to Become Rome's Monarch, While Cicero Worked to Expose and Thwart His Plans and Keep Rome's Republic Alive

By Bonta, Steve | The New American, December 13, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Cicero, Catiline, and Conspiracy: Vying for Control, Lucius Catiline Conspired to Become Rome's Monarch, While Cicero Worked to Expose and Thwart His Plans and Keep Rome's Republic Alive


Bonta, Steve, The New American


This is the sixth installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

Sometime in the year 75 B.C., a boat sailed from Italy bound for the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean. The boat's most important passenger was a 25-year-old Roman advocate, who was sailing with his entourage. The advocate, Caius Julius Caesar, was already well known in the Roman capital for his flowing and persuasive oratory and for having logged a string of successful prosecutions of corrupt governors. The young Caesar was sailing to Rhodes to improve his rhetorical skills under the tutelage of the legendary Appolonius Molo, a noted philosopher and rhetorician.

Julius Caesar was not Appolonius' only pupil of note. Another young Roman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, also spent significant time with the master rhetorician at about the same time. Appolonius, it is said, spoke no Latin, but he was so impressed with both Cicero's command of Greek and with the young man's rhetorical ability that he allegedly told him: "You have my praise and admiration, Cicero, and Greece my pity and commiseration, since those arts and that eloquence which are the only glories that remain to her, will now be transferred by you to Rome." True to the prediction of the old Greek scholar, Cicero became Rome's greatest orator, as well as her greatest statesman and man of letters --and an able foil for the rising ambitions of Julius Caesar and his confederates.

In the wake of the dictatorship of Sulla, other ambitious men besides Julius Caesar were jostling for power in Rome. Licinius Crassus, the vanquisher of Spartacus and reputed to be Rome's wealthiest citizen, was one of them. Gnaeus Pompeius, also known as Pompey, was another. Pompey had been an able military leader for the Sullan forces and cemented

his reputation with the destruction of the Cilician pirates in 67 B.C. But in the years between 70 and 60 B.C., the greatest threat to the republic came not from charismatic generals but from a subtler source--a clever, amoral intriguer who formed a conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

Master of Deceit

Lucius Catiline was a dissolute patrician and senator gifted with good looks, intelligence, boundless energy, and tremendous personal magnetism. Catiline could, the historian Sallust (and Catiline's contemporary) tells us, "endure hunger, cold, and want of sleep to an incredible extent. His mind was daring, crafty, and versatile, capable of any pretense and dissimulation. A man of flaming passions, he was as covetous of other men's possessions as he was prodigal of his own.... His monstrous ambition hankered continually after things extravagant, impossible, beyond his reach."

Disaffected with republican government and determined to replace it with a monarchy, Catiline formed a secret society to prepare for a revolution. In morally decrepit Rome, he had no trouble attracting a following. Sallust informs us: "Amid the corruption of the great city Catiline could easily surround himself, as with a bodyguard, with gangs of profligates and criminals. Debauchees, adulterers, and gamblers, who had squandered their inheritances in gaming-dens, pot-houses, and brothels; anyone who had bankrupted himself to buy impunity for his infamous or criminal acts; men convicted anywhere of murder or sacrilege, or living in fear of conviction; cut-throats and perjurers, too, who made a trade of bearing false witness or shedding the blood of fellow citizens; in short, all who were in disgrace or afflicted by poverty or consciousness of guilt, were Catiline's intimate associates."

Catiline specialized in corrupting youth, procuring mistresses for them, encouraging the practice of unnatural vice, and even training them in the art of forging documents. He enlisted many veterans of the Sullan dictatorship in his movement, men who had expended their spoils since the death of their leader and wished to renew the despotism which had once rewarded them.

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