The End of the Republic—Then and Now

February 24, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: HistoryBooksAncient RomeCato The YoungerRoman Republic

The End of the Republic—Then and Now

Cato's role in republican politics both ancient and modern should not be minimized.

Cicero himself was the target of social snobbery. He was a self-made man whose family tree lacked the noble ancestors who would make for a comfortable fit into the aristocratic ranks. He had worked his way up to the consulate by dint of sheer intelligence and rhetorical finesse. Romans had a word for his type: he was a novus homo, a new man. The phrase hinted at an upstart; newness was no recommendation for Romans oriented towards tradition. By defending and gaining acquittals for aristocrats in the dock, he had built up a network of supporters who owed him one; his prosecution of Verres, the venal ex-governor of Sicily in the face of a defense by Hortensius, the most prominent advocate in Rome, brought him notoriety and the prospect of advancement. Though Cicero might win elections and be useful in blocking Catiline, old-line aristocrats would not accept him as one of their own. Cicero resented the disdain; this resentment may help explain the vainglorious bragging that mars his speeches. Catiline, on the other hand, like Caesar, boasted a pedigree that stretched back to the legendary origins of Rome. In the Aeneid, Virgil celebrates a Sergius (Catiline’s family name), having him take part in a boat race during the Trojans’ voyage to Italy to found Rome—though later in the poem Catiline himself is consigned to eternal suffering in Hades! As Catiline, pummeled by Cicero’s rhetorical salvos, rushed out of the Senate, he was heard to mutter “inquilinus civis urbis Romae,” an immigrant citizen who has clawed his way into the city of Rome. The insult was remembered; in its concise nastiness it could not have been bettered as a riposte to Cicero’s fulsome periods.

This took place at a senate session on November 8, 63 BC, where Cicero’s aim was to isolate Catiline and drive him out of the city. He began his oration, in the published version at least, with a rhetorical question. Beard quotes the Latin: quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, nostra patientia?—how long will you keep on trying our patience? She spends pages in tracing the resonance of the phrase down to recent times without, however, explaining about what exactly Cicero is exercising patience. It is not, as you might expect, that he has not arrested Catiline. No, he has forborne to put him to death! He cites, in lawyerly fashion, a number of precedents in which patriots, without further ado, put men they deemed traitors to death. Cicero is in effect lauding lynch justice. He betrays a temper ready to cast aside legal restraint whenever reasons seem compelling. Cicero’s precedents strike today’s reader not as justificatory, but as huge rents in the Roman legal fabric.

A similar rationale underlies another phrase from the speech, quoted by Beard: “the snappy, and still much repeated, slogan ‘O tempora, O mores’”—our times, our way of life. It’s an all-purpose slogan, useful whenever somebody wants to lament the passing of the good old days.” But as Cicero uses the words, they are no vague bellyaching. Beard fails to explain that, as with quo usque, he is lamenting the passing of a virtuous age when a consul, especially one armed with senatorial decree, could have had such a miscreant executed out of hand, even, he adds pathetically, as the commonwealth faces dissolution. Yet Roman citizens were entitled to trials and, in capital cases, an appeal to a popular assembly. This was known as provocatio and was a bedrock of libertas, their concept of freedom. Cicero dispenses with it by the simple expedient of declaring that Catiline has forfeited citizenship.

Was this simply rhetorical overstatement? Cicero, after all, had no intention of killing Catiline; he wanted to shame him into leaving the city. But this neglects the influence that overheated rhetoric can have in fraying the bonds of civility that a society requires, even in times of crisis. In addition, Cicero’s indifference to elementary citizen rights would come to haunt him in the aftermath of the conspiracy; it had consequences he could not imagine during what Beard calls, perhaps ironically, his “finest hour.”

Cicero had reason to be impatient. Owing to Romans’ fear of executive overreach, the tenure of magistrates was limited to a year. Cicero’s was almost up. This was also the age of military dynasts at the head of virtually private armies. Pompey, leading a seemingly invincible armament in the East while mopping up the remnants of Mithridates’s forces, would have liked nothing better than to swoop in and take the credit for finishing off Catiline. Senatorial bigwigs, fearing the power that would accrue to him, and Cicero, aiming for a glorious victory as savior of Rome, were to head him off. Might Pompey not turn into another Sulla, whose protégé he had been? Pompey, it seems, did not take well to Cicero’s activism. It was the custom for retiring consuls to deliver a valedictory on their accomplishments on January 1. When Cicero rose to do so, a tribune loyal to Pompey interposed his veto. What might Cicero have said? Perhaps he would have repeated an earlier boast that he was the first consul togatus, that is, one wearing the toga of peacetime rather than a military cloak to have put down an armed rebellion. He was, in effect, challenging Pompey’s authority to regulate the affairs of Rome.


BEARD, AUTHOR of an exceptionally fine work on Roman humor, might have found material in the ham-handed behavior of the conspirators whom Catiline left behind in Rome. Cicero had informants who kept him apprised of their every move. He had to put up with mockery of his repeated claims of comperi, “I have found out.” Whether on instructions from Catiline or, more likely, brainstorming on their own, they tried to recruit a Gallic tribe that was nursing grievances against Rome into joining the uprising. To gain the confidence of the Gauls, they signed letters to them, promptly seized by Cicero’s agents. One spoke of an appeal to “the meanest,” namely slaves, to join up—the ultimate horror for a slave-owning society. Another revealed that one of Catiline’s confederates, the high-born Lentulus, was certain of a victorious outcome from deciphering an entry in the Sibylline books—a Roman version of Nostradamus—to signify that he would be the third ruler of Rome. Hauled up by Cicero before the senate, Catiline’s nine lieutenants were forced to acknowledge that the signatures on the letters were theirs. With guilt established beyond a doubt, the only question was: what is the penalty going to be?

The nine were remanded to the custody of prominent senators until the senate could debate and vote on punishment. An attempt to free Lentulus and Cethegus made a decision urgent. The senate met on December 5. Sallust provides an invaluable account of the meeting; he could consult stenographic records. He simplified by isolating the opposing speeches of Caesar and Cato in the manner of Thucydides, whose Roman counterpart he aimed to become. Indeed, he took as his model one of the highlights of Thucydides’s work, the debate between Cleon and Diodotus in 427 BC on the fate of the Mytileneans, Athenian “allies” who had conspired with Sparta to throw off Athenian rule. Sallust has Caesar slip into the role of Diodotus, arguing on pragmatic grounds that in sparing the rebels, the Athenians would be looking to their self-interest, as other allies would be less tempted to defect from the alliance. He also rolls out an intricate, almost sophistic argument that the death penalty has never been effective in controlling crimes. Caesar’s corresponding contention is that—as Epicurus maintained—there is no afterlife, hence no post mortem punishment for crimes; accordingly, the death sentence is no deterrence to crime. Like Diodotus, he concedes that as a matter of justice the men deserve to die. However, there looms a slippery slope from punishing the guilty to persecuting the innocent.

This is simply grist for Cato’s mill. Sallust casts him as a Roman Cleon who is strong on righteous indignation. Just as Cleon had urged his Athenians to indulge their appetites for vengeance, Cato—in the o tempora, o mores strain—lashes out at his Romans for abandoning the rigor and virtue of their forbears. Where Cleon had taunted his audience for the pleasure they got from listening to fancy intellectual arguments rather than taking immediate action, Cato lambastes the senatorial majority for wallowing in luxury and avarice, in contrast to the virtuous ancestors who acquired the empire they are frittering away. The senators appear to have lapped up Cato’s tongue lashing, for after first rallying to Caesar’s recommendation that the guilty men be imprisoned, under the impact of Cato’s denunciation of their flabbiness they overwhelmingly endorsed the death penalty. A few hours later, Cicero had the group led into an underground chamber, the Tullianum, where they were strangled.


Beard mentions Caesar’s “daring suggestion that the captured conspirators should be imprisoned” in country districts and have their properties confiscated. Why daring? In ancient times, she notes “prisons were little more than places where criminals were held before execution.” Then, instead of commenting on Cato’s harangue as the reason that the senate rejected Caesar’s proposal, she writes “relying on the ‘emergency powers’ decree . . . Cicero had the men summarily executed.” But this makes a hash of Sallust’s account which Beard has relied on for Caesar’s motion. Cicero knew full well what a thin reed the emergency decree was to lean on, and he was relying on decisive senatorial endorsement to avoid the odium in wait for him for executing citizens without submitting them to a trial. In fact, as Beard points out elsewhere, the Senate could advise and consent but neither make laws nor issue binding orders. Its power rested on the authority and reverence it could command, qualities in short supply in the late Republic. Cicero would soon discover that senatorial cover could not shield him from odium and worse.