To what extent was Sallust’s interpretation of the events of the Catiline Conspiracy informed by Cicero?

It is undeniable to say that Cicero left an impression upon Sallust and his view of the Catilinarian Conspiracy. Notwithstanding, It is very true to say that Sallust sourced the majority, if not the entirety of his ideas from Cicero. In fact, there are but a few circumstances in which Sallust pioneers his own theory regarding Catiline’s character, and even in these occurrences, they barely contradict a Cicerone interpretation.

Overwhelmingly, Cicero’s influence can be seen to have borne great impact on Sallust’s work. At the most basic level, Sallust is rhetorically reliant on Cicero to the extent they have at times almost un-differentiable language. Cicero, for example, is extraordinarily damning of Catiline: “In the whole of Italy, there is not a single poisoner, gladiator, robber, assassin, parricide, will-forger, cheat, glutton, adulterer, prostitute, corrupter of youth, or youth who has been corrupted, any nasty individual of any kind whatever, who would not be obliged to admit he has been Catiline’s intimate.” In a similarly pernicious manner, Sallust declares that: “Catiline kept himself surrounded by hordes of those…. [Of] every depravity and deed.” Moreover, there remains what can be considered as a tacit concession of the extent of Cicero’s influence by Sallust. Even if at times he doesn’t espouse the same ideals as Cicero, he explicitly endorses that Cicerone perspective and so the judgement can be made that he drew on Cicero’s ideas irrespective of how overtly he uses them. This is particularly manifest in his delight at Cicero’s prevention of “the most heinous crime in the annals of Rome.”

Although it would be true to say that Sallust’s work is not an entirely Cicerone creation, even where Sallust ostensibly personalizes his interpretation of the events, Cicero’s influence is still visible. Even though his work is primarily a tirade against Catiline, Sallust is willing to offer him a sense of Roman virtue that subverts all of Cicero’s most brutal criminations. Catiline, he says died with a “Defiance of spirit,” in which Sallust remembers “his birth and former dignity.” The fact it is rhetorically powerful is possibly Cicerone, but what is far more important is the way in which he uses Catiline’s death as a restoration of Roman virtue both for Rome itself and Catiline the man. In these instances, Cicero’s view is also visible, though not overt. Nonetheless, Sallust’s work can be seen to be almost entirely informed by Cicero’s own perspectives, regardless of whether or not Sallust simply accepts Cicero’s views on the basis of Cicero’s intellectual reputation or any other reason.

Professional historiography and Walter Allen Junior’s Thesis

The rise of professional and “empirical” historians throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries seemingly spurred the growth of revisionist[1] and ostensibly “subjective” accounts of history, including the Catiline Conspiracy. Working with the ideas of Leopold von Ranke[2], Walter Allen Jr focused his account of the Catiline Conspiracy on establishing historical truth, rather than pursing political didacticism as had been performed by historians such as Sallust. Unlike Sallust, Allen was a strictly professional historian, and this can be seen to affect both the nature of his thesis, and the way in which it is presented.

His thesis purports that the economic circumstances of Rome necessitated the actions of Catiline – an idea that was almost certainly prompted by the cataclysm of the Great Depression. He was first and foremost an economic historian, as his historical accounts applied economic techniques to justify his historical opinion. Instead of trying to create a moral lesson with his history as Sallust had done, Allen tries to apply economic concepts in order to more fully convey Catiline’s motivations. This technique was very much in accordance with the work of other empiricist historians of his day. Moreover, he used the analysis of people like Professor Ullman to further the validity of his own ideas. As such, his methodology was reflective not only of the wider empiricist movements of his day, but also his profession as an economic historian.

The fact that Allen was an economic historian, and the extent to which this influenced his analysis of Catiline is evident in his dismissal of the political essay of Beesly, wherein he instead decides to reference the essay of Professor Mohler as an “interesting… and eloquent” economic commentary. Similarly he used Ullman’s deterministic analysis and approach to state that the economic problems of Rome were “peculiar to the year 63 BC.,” meaning that Catiline would always have acted the way he did, given the particular nature of Rome’s economic circumstance. In some ways, this is problematic because Romans did not have an advanced conception of economic principles meaning that Catiline’s decision, if it were in line with Allen’s suggestions, is unlikely to have been in strict logical accordance with those suggestions. However, it is evident that as an economic historian, Allen was in part compelled to offer that rationalization.

Moreover, the growth of academic professionalism, as highlighted by the emergence of historical journals like the American Historical Review and the Classical Journal (which contains Allen’s thesis) can be seen to contribute to Allen’s thesis. In large part, these journals contained theses and ideas for historians to judge and scrutinize. Like Allen’s thesis, they seemed to be targeted at professionals as opposed to the public masses, a theme that Marx would rally against in his “history from below” movement. Although this doesn’t necessarily change the logical or historical consistency of his thesis, Allen’s role as a a professor and lecturer of Classics at Princeton University is manifest in his construction of his thesis, as opposed to, say, modern day historians who present history for a wider audience in a far less “academic” way.

As such, Allen’s methodology can be seen as a product of that contextual academic and historical professionalism. Not only does he quote Latin without translation (For example “tanta saevitia faeneratorum atque praetoris fuit), he also makes obscure allusions and references that only other historians versed in the specifics of Ancient Roman history would understand. This is reflective of the professionalism not only of his 20th century context – in this case Allen’s role as a lecturer and professor –  but also of his methodology.

To this end, an examination of his professional background in context of the empiricist movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century demonstrates the extent to which that background influences his presentation of his thesis.


[1] Revisionism: A progression of historical discourse, in which historical consensus increasingly challenges the views of historians held at the time of a particular controversy or event. For example, German War Guilt was considered absolute in the immediate aftermath of World War One, but such attitudes were, at least in part, revised in light of new perceptions about German troops and culture.

[2] Leopold von Ranke: A 19th Century German historian who pioneered “empirical” history, believing that historical truth could be obtained with sufficient scrutiny of sources and records so as to educate the reader. Among the first to truly professionalise historians as a career.

Was Parenti a Neo-Marxist Historian?

Throughout the 20th Century, historians increasingly adopted a Neo-Marxist[1] approach to their historical work. An inspection of Michael Parenti’s 2003 view of the Catiline Conspiracy in, “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome,” reflects his own adoption of a Neo-Marxist school of thought. Indeed, Parenti’s goal for the work was extremely neo-Marxist; specifically, to provide a “story of popular resistance against entrenched power and wealth.”

Parenti’s socially liberal political ideology is fundamentally class based, which, when manifest in his works, is reflective of a Neo-Marxist school of thought. Initially, his own personal commitment to challenging the state of American Democracy (which he sees as being increasingly classist) is reflective of this ideology. Eventually, this translated into his historical account of the Catiline Conspiracy, in that he not only challenges the preconceptions that Rome was a pure democracy (even a flawed one) by describing the city as run by “the oligarchs of Rome” he completely inverts Roman preconceptions that the empire’s greatness stood upon the strength and grace of its political system. As a result, the class analysis that he pursues is reflective of his Neo-Marxist historiographical method.

Noticeably, he has written frequently on the “bourgeois democracy” that he believes permeates American Democracy. His liberal philosophy has been evident throughout his life; in his 2007 work “Democracy for the Few,” his 1974 decision to run for the Vermont seat of the Liberty Union Party, as well as his endorsement of Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the 2012 election. Through these actions, Parenti ultimately demonstrated the extent to which his socially liberal ideology pervades the aspects of his life, and subsequently the ways in which it is manifest in his histories. This is evidenced by his 1999 work, “History is a Mystery” in which he argues the age-old adage that “history is written by the victors.” In this sense, Parenti was ideologically compelled to pursue a damning appraisal of the aristocracy involved in the Catiline Conspiracy, as evidenced in his accusatory discussion[2] of Cicero’s self-aggrandizement[3], despite the fact such outspoken boasting was regular practise in the Roman Senate.

Unlike preceding styles of historians (specifically the empiricists that followed famous German historian Leopold Von Ranke’s belief that one could establish absolute truth in historical facts and explanations), Neo-Marxists believed that judgments could be made on their subjects while still maintaining relative objectivity in their work. In accordance with this, and in opposition to such Von Rankean techniques Parenti made an active moralistic judgement, particularly against Cicero and the Senate.[4] This highlights that Parenti was ultimately a Neo-Marxist because he not only wrote based on a politically Neo-Marxist level, but also employed techniques that reflect that style of historiography.

Primarily,  Parenti embraces “Presentism”[5] in order to avoid “adopting the illusions it [that past society] had of itself.” He believes this correlates to making informed historical decisions, because those historians which judge societies based on orthodox[6] historical records ultimately begin, “uncritically sharing in the characterizations propagated by elitist commentators.” Similarly, by claiming that “gentlemen historians” shared the same “upper class prepossession” of Cicero and the Senate, Parenti attempts to demonstrate that not only have the actions of Cicero been unwittingly romanticised, but also that Catiline and his supporters have been vilified by a kind of dynastic and universal dislike of lower class masses.  Also his discussion of Rome’s “democratic element,” the plebeian “Popular struggle” and even the “proletariat” demonstrate not only the Neo-Marxist influences on his style of writing, but also the extent to which his distaste for class struggle governed that writing.

As such, Michael Parenti’s vehement belief that democracy is becoming increasingly oligarchical, as well as his own methodology in writing about the events of the Catiline Conspiracy, are manifest in his work. Together, they demonstrate that he is a Neo-Marxist historian, matching the trends of historiography of the 20th Century. 


[1] As historians increasingly catered for younger demographics, and the increase in public education meant history was no longer a purely academic or elite endeavour, the scope of historical discussion increasingly incorporated class and economic, or “Neo-Marxist” analysis.
Neo-Marxism as a historical term refers to the type of analysis of the historian, not their own political agendas.
[2] He goes as far as to use historians like Freidrich Engels to demonstrate that Cicero is “the most contemptible scoundrel in history.” p 86
[3] “Cicero explained why the insurrection had been stymied by his unmatchable vigilance,” . p99
[4] “…hyperbolic screeds emanating from the over-heated consul.” page 99
[5] Presentism: Evaluating a past society based on contemporary values and ideas.
[6] Orthodox history: The contemporary historical record of an event

Did Sallust write to improve his own name?

In writing his history of the Catiline Conspiracy, Sallust focused predominantly on characterising Catiline as immoral. Indeed, he presents Catiline as an incarnation of some fundamentally perverse evil, “contrary to divine and human law.” It is through this characterisation that Sallust was able to empower Romans to re-evaluate the human capacity for immorality. This achievement was able to provoke a popularity surge for Sallust as an ancient historian, and for Cicero as a man who uncovered this immorality. However, in light of the fact that during his political career, Sallust’s own immoral actions had been questioned openly by the Senate, this history was a somewhat ironic and provocative work. It is for this reason that I believe Sallust’s history should be considered a product of his desire to crystallise his name in historical memory, and to ensure that it did so as one associated with a ‘moral’ connotation.

Although it remains on the historical record, the fact that Sallust’s personal history of immorality seems to bear no impact on his popularity demonstrates the success of Bellum Catilinae in reconfiguring public opinion towards him. Politically, it was necessary for Sallust to achieve this because his success along the Cursus Honorum, the main Roman political career path, had been tainted by Senatorial accusations of his immorality. Primarily, the fact that Sallust has defied his “rehabilitation” by embroiling himself in a corruption scandal, demonstrates that his history would come to define his political career. It was of fundamental importance that he defined his life by a different token. Indeed the success of his books in antiquity with ancient historians is reflective of the way in which his histories were able to achieve a realignment of popular opinion on him.

At the centre of his ‘immorality’ were two events which plagued his political career. Although he was popular to the extent that he was elected a tribune (a special politician with a veto power who was elected by the plebs) he was expelled from the Senate in 50BC because of immoral behaviour. This term must remain vague because the historical record itself is vague – whether he was immoral according to Roman tradition, religious ethics or by abusing the powers vested in him remains ultimately irrelevant. Increasingly, Sallust associated with Julius Caesar who effectively repaired and restored Sallust’s image to the point that by 46 he had become a praetor, and subsequently pro-praetor (ex-praetor/governor) of Africa Nova. However, he was discovered to have extorted great wealth from the provincial treasury and to have used much of it’s finances to his own gain, and ostensibly it was only by Julius Caesar’s intervention (potentially the result of a bribe) that Sallust had been spared a second condemnation.

In response to these two events, Sallust used his wealth to purchase the Horti Sallustiani – the Sallustian Gardens – and to enact patronage as a means of clearing his name. Sallust was never able to recover his previous political successes and ultimately he relied on Julius Caesar to exert any political influence. The fact that Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BC was almost immediately followed by Sallust’s retirement from public life indicates the substantial concern he had that his image would cost him his life. This combined with his attempts at patronage demonstrates the extent to which he was consumed by the need for rehabilitating that very image. In this vein, the extensive focus on the moral failings of Catiline – and using them as explanation for much of Rome’s own criminal activity – can be seen as an extension of those attempts to repair the perception of Sallust. As the pre-eminent historical record of the Catiline Conspiracy, Sallust’s history became the defining feature of his life and as a result the moral failings of his political career are less significant as a factor in judging his character. In essence, the fact that his piece is so historically crucial fulfils Sallust’s objective in enshrining his name in the historical record, and doing so without the attachment of an ‘immoral’ connotation to his name.

Evaluating the success of Catiline: Creating the Cicero Legend.

Although historians remain not entirely convinced of the existence of a Catilinarian Conspiracy, a great number of historical works engage with the consequences of the revolution had it been successful. In this vein, questions of Catiline’s desire for change are instead focused on the capacity for Catiline to effect that change – namely the cancellation of debts, and a restoration of economic stability. Carried by the oratory flair of Cicero, the challenges against Catiline evidently denied him the opportunity to fulfil his policy objectives, if indeed they were legitimate. Arguably however, these events, if the conspiracy did exist, served more to enshrine Cicero within historical immortality than they did to upend the revolution, as in all likelihood Catiline’s conspiracy would have failed in the face of military opposition and power that far surpassed the political subterfuge which undid the alleged conspiracy.

Primarily, the concerns of historians are with the economic circumstances of Catiline’s time. A consensus has in large part been achieved which suggests that Rome was economically fragile in this time, however, the Senatorial hold on power increasingly restricted adequate responses to the crisis. If indeed Catiline felt that these circumstances necessitated actions, ostensibly his own response would never have been satisfactory. The reality remained that the economic problems of Rome were rooted primarily in the system of government, and in a conception of economics that had not advanced enough to consider the nature of trading agreements. Catiline’s own methods appear as seemingly inadequate to deal with these issues. Even later on when Caesar had dictatorial powers, he could not (and would not) attend to these inherent structural flaws.

Conversely, even if history had played out differently, and Catiline had successfully acquired power in Rome, he could never have sustained his hold long enough to effect change. Firstly, there was no standing army in Rome, and there would be no armed forces of any size in Rome until Praetorian Guards during the reign of Augustus, nearly two decades later. The size of the revolutionary force could therefore have never matched the military power of Pompey, or of the increasingly potent Caesar (who would come to invade Rome to establish his dictatorship) whose own power-brokering was coming into shape. Had this occurred, Rome would likely have descended into further decline because the power struggle between Caesar and Pompey would have generated proscriptions and patronage which would have destabilised the Senatorial class and detracted money from the proper usage which would have assuaged the economic downturn. Indeed, the fate of Catiline in these circumstances is verifiable because Caelius Rufus, a man enraged by the political intrigue which had subverted his chances to become Urban Praetor, would in 48 BC be sparked into revolutionary activity, touting similar economic policies to those of Catiline, and meeting an equally gruesome fate as his earlier counterpart, at the hands of Caesar’s cavalry. Indeed it is by these measures, and the parallel of Rufus, that we can establish that Catiline did not have an adequate solution to the economic circumstances of Rome because they were beyond his, or anybody’s individual capacity to fix, nor would his own policies have been instituted to have effected any change because there simply wouldn’t have been time or opportunity to do so.

Although I do sympathise with the circumstances of Catiline, there is little to say about the success of his conspiracy. In no way did it effect the changes that he ultimately sought and which were ultimately necessary for Rome. These were only fixed by an incredibly slow paced economic transition overseen by successive rulers. Instead, it was Cicero’s damning appraisal of Catiline which became the sole most important consequence of the alleged conspiracy. For it was through his orations that Cicero went above and beyond his position as a distinguished politician, to a defining figure in Roman politics. Indeed, this stems from the fact that he capitalised on the circumstances of what was ostensibly an inevitable failure on Catiline’s part. Moreover, neither Catiline’s success nor failure would have brought about the necessary economic reforms, nor did Cicero’s indictment serve to remedy these structural issues. In this vein, Catiline’s conspiracy appears to have been doomed to fail, which potentially raises questions as to the legitimacy of claims that the revolution did exist, if in fact Catiline would have realised that he could not have effected the changes he saw necessary. Therefore, I believe there to be a degree of empirical truth in suggesting that the accepted historical play-through of Catiline’s revolution, and the events of its collapse, did more to enshrine Cicero’s immortality, than it did to enforce regulation and reform in Rome.

The Legality of the Catilinarian Executions

Rome once functioned according to what was an ostensibly constraining rule of law in Roman public life. It is with respect to the nature of such a concept that many statesmen were seen to justify their actions as law-abiding, whether it be to the letter of law, or to philosophical conceptions of Roman statutes. Regardless of the actual legality of such actions, statesmen were seen as able to appeal to a code of law on varying levels as a means of validating their actions, such as the execution of the Catilinarian Conspirators, within a legal framework. It was by such methods as these, that Cicero was able to promote the execution of the conspirators as a legal duty of the Senate, despite the fact both the manner and reason for executing the alleged was indeed controversial. In this vein, historiography which charts the progression of historical discourse in reference to the legality of these executions is largely contradictory, and questions many of the foundations of Roman law, and the way in which they were upheld by the Senate in the decision to execute the Catilinarian Conspirators.

Although in hindsight historians and indeed Roman senators themselves are able to make an active judgement on the legality of such actions as the execution, much of the assessment of its ostensible legality is ultimately predicated upon an evaluation made in context of the events in which such actions occurred. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Cicero understood the Senatus Consultum Ultimum to mean that times of crisis enabled, for the Senate, the legal power to make such judgments, despite not being an actual court of law. In this case, historians are able to both condemn the actions of Cicero, and at the same time exonerate him, to an extent.

Where much of the debate lies is whether or not Cicero and the Senate acted within the confines of their own power, or whether their actions were “extra-legal.” Although indeed many senators were not averse to the concept of execution in and of itself, there were concerns by members such as Julius Caesar as to the ways in which it violated the Lex Sempronia (thus violating some tenets of Roman Law), as well as the precedent it was setting. While fundamentally he did not target the legitimacy of the Senate’s judicial and executive powers in times of crisis, Caesar raises concerns about the principled nature of the precedent which could be open to future exploitation. In this vein, while conceptions of the Roman rule of law are seen to be a balance between the strict confines of recorded and ‘understood’ statutes, the concern with practical applicability of a precedent instead of the moral ramifications of its undertaking demonstrates necessarily opposed arguments for the legal viability of the executions. Where it is strictly illegal, both in Modern and Roman law, the justificatory nature of Cicero’s orations based on principle, and the acceptance of such rhetoric as viable by Roman statesmen highlights the ‘fluidity’ of Roman rule of law with respect to the Catilinarian executions.

While to the letter of the law Cicero did ultimately violate the statutes of the day in his pursuit of the executions, his own perceptions of Roman law demonstrate the fragile, but culturally valid (within the context of Roman law), distinction between legality and perceived legality. Fundamentally, the Sempronian Law never itself stipulated to whom the law should have been accorded. However Cicero’s argument that the law was passed by Roman citizens, and therefore an “enemy of the republic can by no means be a citizen” is consistent with Roman conceptions of law. Virtue and citizenship were shown to prevail as determinative factors in the application of the law. While ultimately illegal, the fact that Cicero operated on a principle of legality, which he justified to the Senate, demonstrates not only the way in which statesmen often acted upon philosophical conceptions of law, but also used the ‘good of the republic’ as a means of legal justification.

So while the Lex Sempronia was fundamentally violated by Cicero, and eventually the Senate, the debate surrounding the legality of the executions is a product of conflicting conceptions of rule of law and morality. Indeed, Roman statesmen made great use of the partisanship of Roman people and of the Senate, as well as biased notions as a means of validating their actions within a legal framework. Moreover, statesmen such as Julius Caesar were seen to accept these subjective conceptions of Roman rule of law, instead placing their concerns with long-term practical ramifications of the executions, as opposed to the actual moral or legal concerns of the action itself. In this case, Cicero was able to appeal to both the crisis state of Rome, and notions of citizenship to justify a perversion of a vaguely constructed law which, by a general modern consensus, was violated by the actions of Cicero. Therefore, while fundamentally an illegal action by modern conceptions of law, the sanctioned execution of the conspirators is the result of statesmen who appear to have acted on principles they believed could be justified philosophically, and principles which could still retain truth within the confines of the Roman rule of Law.

Defining the image of Catiline

Of the images which have come to define Catiline, the increasingly sympathetic standpoint which seeks to portray him as an agrarian reformer, speaks to me as more representative of Catiline than most others. That being said, the basic nature of Catiline’s own rise to prominence within the Senate, previously characterised as exploiting the plight of the poor within economic decline, reflects the fundamental problems historians face in establishing empirical truth about the existence and nature of Catiline’s conspiracy. Sallust’s lampooning of Catiline, however subjective and ostensibly inaccurate, does demonstrate what many could argue as facets which compromise a “heroic” depiction of Catiline, as they highlight the ways in which he was ultimately politically driven.

To that end, the image of Catiline is principally reliant upon the economic circumstances which prompted his policies. Undeniably, Rome was faced with financial difficulty, as is reflected in import-export trends. Indeed, Catiline himself was in particular strife because the expenses of his failed campaigns for consulship had become too great. Whether the cancellation of debts was designed as a charitable policy, or whether it served the economic or political interests of Catiline himself, historians, in particular Parenti and Allen, acknowledge the enormous political sway that it was granting Catiline. Indeed the prevention of his charge at a consulship because he was involved in a legal dispute (although he was acquitted) in large part deflated his political aura. However, the fact that he pursued his reforms for the landed upper class, and in the cancellation of debts, despite how unpopular he was as part of the senatorial class, serves to highlight the genuineness of his cause. Although scholars like H E Gould suggest that he was a revolutionary who was only ever politically motivated, Catiline was demonstrably shunned by the class within which Rome’s power resided. Although indeed the voting power remained with the male citizenry, the fact that hundreds of senators could enact patronage and propaganda as a means of suppressing Catiline’s own play at the consulship remains a powerful reminder forces Catiline was contending with, in pursuit of his own policies.In large part, this generates the modern, perhaps even idyllic depiction of Catiline.

In charting the growth of this portrayal, in juxtaposition to Sallust’s uninhibited attack on Catiline, historians generate images of Catiline which determine the extent to which they establish Catiline’s role in the conspiracy. Increasingly, although Cicero could have fabricated the whole event, as is evidenced by remarkable inconsistencies in his rhetorical outbursts, as illuminated by Parenti, historians no longer deny the occurrence of a conspiracy. In large part, I believe this stems from the fact that an historical image of the people involved within the purported conspiracy suggests an interplay of forces within Rome, such as those of the revolutionaries and the Senate, which reflects the existence of a conspiracy. In this vein, the concerns of historians are increasingly focussed on the nature of the conspiracy. To this end, Catiline’s position at odds with that of the Senate underscores the arguable charitable mindset prompting his pursuit of these policies. The conditions of Roman politics were such that Catiline was more than likely to have understood the risk to his own life of remaining in such opposition to the Senate, although admittedly it was only with the death of Julius Caesar some years later that senators were especially considerate of their views. Regardless of the fundamental moral costs to the Roman political system, which in many ways provokes the harshness of orthodox historiography on Catiline’s character, I believe Catiline is shown to not embody the “rogue revolutionary” caricature established by Gould.I feel that the growing image of Catiline as a beneficent agrarian reformer seeking to curb the plight of the peasants is reflective of some empirical truth. Indeed ultimately, Catiline’s conspiracy, however desperate or ill-equipped as it has been characterised, was a means of empowering the peasantry in economic circumstances in which the Senate had incredible central authority by virtue of the fact that their financial patronage was even more necessary for the plebeian classes, and therefore a more potent tool of establishing Senatorial power.