Catilina : villain or scapegoat?
by: Teresia Oregonia Medica
Cicero and Sallust portray Catilina as an archetypal villain--a rampant seducer of women and boys, a corrupter of innocents, an affront to the Gods and all Roman virtues--a larger than life figure who was tireless in his plotting to bring down the Roman Republic. There is reason to believe Catilina was an individual of great charisma and intelligence and respectable military ability, but much of what was written about Catilina's vile behaviors was probably the self-serving hyperbole of his political opponents. Even his critics say that Catilina was a man of enormous physical and mental energy who could endure extremes of cold, hunger, and lack of sleep. He was fiercely ambitious but poor, which was quite problematic in a time when gaining office or political power required significant wealth.

Lucius Sergius Catilina (108-62 BC) was from a patrician family that had little in the way of money or influence. His family had not produced a consul in over three hundred years. He served in the military under Gn. Pompeius Strabo and P. Servilius Vatia roughly during the period of the Social War (ca. 89 BC) and was said to have demonstrated considerable military talent. Catilina seemed determined to restore the prestige of his family, and despite his poverty set out to follow the cursus honorum. He was elected praetor in 68 BC despite having been accused (73 BC) of defiling a Vestal Virgin. He was tried for that charge, but was acquitted. In 67-66 he was governor of Africa. In 65 he was disqualified as a candidate for consul due to being under indictment for extortion and misgovernment during his term of office in Africa. Cicero considered defending Catilina on that charge. We have this from Cicero's own words in a letter to Atticus (ad Atticum 1.2). "Hoc tempore Catilinam defendere cogitamus. Spero, si absolutus erit, coniunctiorem illum fore ratione petitionis." During a time when he was on the outs with the Optimates, Cicero had considered making an alliance with Catilina to shut out the other candidates for the consulship of 63 BC, which would have resulted, if successful, in Cicero and Catilina serving as co-consuls. Cicero did not defend Catilina, but he was acquitted and did run for the consulship. By that time, the Optimates had thrown their support to Cicero, so Cicero and Gaius Antonius were elected and Catilina was shut out.

This was probably the point in time when Catilina began to look at alternative routes to power. The oligarchy protected its interests by preventing his election. In 64 BC, he was accused of murder, tried, and once again, acquitted. Catilina ran again for the consulship of 62 but was defeated by Silanus and Murena. The only path left open to him was insurrection! He had repeatedly tried to play the game by the rules and had repeatedly beaten the spurious charges levelled against him by his political enemies, but it was clear that the ruling clique was not going to let him join.

A complicated plot was hatched, supposedly to spring into action on December 17, 63, the eve of Saturnalia. Fires were to be set in the city, the consuls killed, and in the general panic and confusion, Catilina's supporters would seize control of the city. Of course, none of this actually happened and it is impossible for us to know if it actually would have. Cicero roused the Senate, with a series of speeches, to declare Catilina a public enemy. He was forced to flee Rome, and left for Etruria to join an army of his supporters.

Who were Catilina's supporters? Catilina amassed a large number of supporters from various groups who felt disenfranchised by the political status quo. His supporters were a diverse and democratic lot, including patricians, equites, and plebeians. He had wide support within the city from businessmen, the urban poor, debtors, embittered military veterans, young idealists, and even a number of women. At that time debt was a widespread and severe problem for large numbers of people. Years of political and social turmoil, and especially the slave revolt of 73-71, had disrupted agriculture in the Italian countryside. Food prices had soared and moneylenders took advantage of the scarcity to make debtors of the hungry. Catilina had advocated cancellation of certain types of debts as a campaign promise. Some of Catilina's followers were looking for financial gain or debt cancellation, but there was also a great deal of idealistic fervor. There was a strong desire to open up the government of Rome to more groups of people. Certainly, the group of Catilina's supporters represented a larger sample of the Roman populace than did the Optimates. These words are attributed to Catilina, addressing his supporters in Rome--"I have made up my mind to set out on this great and glorious enterprise, knowing well that your ideas of right and wrong coincide with mine...Public affairs are under the control of a few powerful men...Isn't it better to die bravely than to live in misery and dishonor?"

Catilina may have been trying to escape to a semi-dignified exile in Massilia when his path was blocked by two Republican armies. No blood was shed by the Catilinarians until they were walled in and forced to fight (essentially massacred) near Pistoria. In his address to his troops before the battle, Catilina said "..You all know our cause is just. We fight for our country, our freedom, our lives. They fight for the power of a few men.." The battle was brief but fierce. Even Catilina's detractors admit his performance on the battlefield was brilliant. He functioned simultaneously as general and soldier, and his ill-equipped troops fought heroically. No free-born man was taken from the field alive. There were no deserters, no wounds in the back. Catilina himself fought deeply into the enemy lines before falling from many wounds.

In any conflict it is the winners who get the privilege of writing the history. Catilina attempted to present an alternative to the ruling oligarchy of the time. He was impeded at every turn by his political opponents who wanted to maintain the status quo. At that time there was a great deal of tension between the different social classes that comprised Rome. Cicero capitalized on the public's fear of violence and chaos to rally support for himself and his associates. Nothing unites like a common enemy. The Catilinarian crisis temporarily put an end to the strife between the Optimates and the equites, but as we know, it was just a few years until the Republic was torn apart by civil war. The Catiline conspiracy was part of the death throes of a republic that had failed to evolve and adapt to the changing realities of a growing empire, growth of the number and influence of the urban plebeians, and a shrinking percentage of landed gentry among the population. That a man of Catilina's abilities and talents was forced to such desperate measures speaks to the stranglehold the dying and ossified Republic had on Rome's greatness. The chief reason Catilina is reviled is that he failed. A few short years later, Julius Caesar would essentially accomplish what Catilina failed to complete.
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