Cicero’s Finest Hour: The Catiline Conspiracy

The Catiline Conspiracy is one of the most famous events in the later years of the Roman Republic. The plot was an alleged attempt to overthrow the Roman Republic, exposed in 63 BC, by one of the consuls of Rome, the famous Cicero, probably Rome’s greatest orator.

Lucius Sergius Catilinus or Catiline for short was a member of one of the oldest Patrician families of Rome, the Gens Sergia a family that had produced a number of Consuls. According Virgil’s Aeneid, one of their ancestors, Sergestus was one of the Trojan refugees that accompanied Aeneas. By the time he was born however, the family had fallen on hard times, with the last Consul having been in 380 BC. Catiline had served in the Social War, alongside the famous general Pompey, and Cicero, his future archenemy. Catiline later became a lieutenant of Sulla, and played a role in the famous proscriptions. It was alleged that he had murdered his former brother-in-law, and Cicero’s cousin, Marcus Marius Gratidianus and had deposited his head at Sulla’s feet at the Temple of Apollo. After the proscriptions were ended he later served as propraetorian governor of Africa. Upon returning to Rome, he eventually stood as candidate for the Consular elections of 63 BC, after being acquitted for abuses of his power. While he was on trial, he was prohibited from standing for Consular elections. It was alleged in 65 that he planned to murder the replacement Consuls, kill as many Senators as possible, and take one of the Consulates for himself. If this really was a plot, then it never came to pass, and it has been suggested that Cicero exaggerated the nature of the plot for his campaign, if there even was such a thing.

In any case, Catiline lost the Consular election to Cicero, and spent most of the rest of the year making alliances. Several indebted Senators chose to join him, and it was later alleged that Catiline had planned the entire conspiracy to pay of his debts. After Cicero arranged for a law to be passed making the punishment for electoral bribery exile for ten years, Catiline saw it as directed at him (in fact, Cicero had passed the bill on behalf of a friend, Servius Sulpicius Rufus, who intended to use it on an entirely different person), and planned to have Cicero and his allies assassinated on the at the next year’ election.

Cicero learnt about the plot from the mistress, Fulvia, of one of the conspiracy, members, Quintus Curio, who was subsequently persuaded to tell the others. Cicero convinced the Senate to postpone the elections, and interrogated Catiline, who told the Senate ‘I see two bodies, one thin and wasted, but with a head, the other headless but big and strong. What is so dreadful if I myself become head of the body which needs one?’ It has been speculated that the first body Catiline was referring to was the Senate, the second the people of Rome. Despite this ominous metaphor, few in the Senate took Cicero seriously, probably since he was seen as a New Man, not even born in Rome, and there were not enough direct facts to hand. Cicero had thus revealed to Catiline he was under suspicion, and had gained no advantage. Cicero took the precautions of hiring a bodyguard, and when the postponed elections took place, assembled a group of armed supporters, and even wore a breastplate under his toga.

The election thus took place with no problems, and Catiline was defeated again. This was probably what made him decide on a coup d’etat. He enlisted Praetor Lentulus in Rome and Caius Malius, a former Centurion of Sulla, who assembled a battalion at Etruria. According to later historians Dio Cassius and Plutarch, Catiline insisted on swearing an oath of loyalty over the corpse of a sacrificed boy, which was then eaten. Most historians consider it to be black propaganda. Eventually, Cicero was informed by Crassus, and two other Senators that Crassus’ doorkeeper had taken delivery of several notes for important Romans. Crassus had read one addressed to him which turned out to be an anonymous note claiming Catiline was planning a massacre, and advising him to leave Rome as soon as possible. Cicero then called a Senate meeting. After handing the other letters to their recipients, they were told to read them out, and they all contained information about the conspiracy. The Senate was furthermore informed of the assembling of soldiers in Etruria, with claims that Manlius would march soon after. The Final Act was then passed, which essentially granted the Consul, Cicero, emergency powers. Catiline attempted to rouse his supporters in a secret meeting soon after, but unfortunately for him, Curio was present, and Cicero learnt of what transpired Fulvia. Cicero then confronted Catiline in the Senate, detailing the plot, and charging him with treason, in an event he considered his finest hour, describing it modestly as ‘a pinnacle of immortal glory’.

Cicero’s oratory was certainly effective enough that Catiline fled Rome that night, leaving Lentulus as the leader of the plot in Rome itself. He planned to arrange the murder of the entire Senate during the festival of Saturnalia, though once again Fulvia informed Cicero of the plot. The plotters then attempted to enlist the aid of a conquered Gallic tribe called the Allobroges that had sent a delegation to Rome, in the hope of igniting a revolt in Gaul. The Allobroges were uncertain how to respond, and asked their patron for advice. Unfortunately for the plotters, their patron informed Cicero, who told the Allobroges to negotiate with the plotters and acquire proof by asking them to write a letter to the tribe’s Senate. They also sent a messenger to recommend that Catiline should free slaves to use against the Republic. The Allobroges and the messenger were then arrested as they left the city, and Cicero now had all the proof he needed. A meeting of the Senate was then convened, and the rest of the conspirators were arrested. The prisoner’s fate was debated, some arguing that as Roman citizens they should be tried, others arguing that in a state of emergency, this right did not apply. Julius Caesar argued that executing them would set a dangerous precedent, and advocated their imprisonment. The famous Cato the Younger however argued that they should be sentenced to death, and eventually his argument was heeded. The five arrested plotters were strangled immediately after. Cicero was escorted from the Forum to his house acclaimed as a hero with the route illuminated, by torches. The Senate then named him Father of His Country’. As Tom Holland writes, ‘Surely not in his wildest dreams could the provincial from Arpinum ever have imagined such a day.’

As for Catiline, his army was defeated in early 62 BC, in a short but bloody battle. It was claimed that Catiline had died fighting hand to hand by his standard. The Catiline Conspiracy effectively ended after that.

The execution of the alleged plotters was a controversial act that tarnished Cicero’s reputation. It would ultimately come back to haunt him, when in 58 BC, his opponent, Publius Clodius Pulcher as Tribune ordered the exile of any public official who had ordered the death of Roman citizen without due process. It was widely believed that this was an act of revenge after Cicero had testified against him for violating the proceedings of the Good Goddess festival. Cicero would ultimately not return to Rome until, 57 BC.

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