previous next

Catilīna, Lucius Sergius

A Roman of patrician rank, and the last of the gens Sergia. Of his father and grandfather little is known: the former would seem to have been in indigent circumstances, from the language of Quintus Cicero (De Petitione Consulatus, 2), who speaks of Catiline as having been born amidst the poverty of his father (in patris egestate). The great-grandfather, M. Sergius Silus or Silo, distinguished himself greatly in the Second Punic War, and was present at the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimenus, and Cannae. Pliny speaks of his exploits in a very animated strain.

The cruelty of Catiline's disposition, his undaunted resolution, and the depravity of his morals fitted him for acting a distinguished part in the turbulent and bloody scenes of the period in which he lived. He embraced the interest of Sulla , in whose army he held the office of quaestor. Many citizens of noble birth are said by Quintus Cicero to have fallen by his hand; and, according to Plutarch, he had assassinated his own brother during the Civil War; and now, to screen himself from prosecution, persuaded Sulla to put him down among the proscribed as a person still alive. He murdered too, with his own hands, his sister's husband, a Roman knight of peaceable character. One of the worst actions, however, of which he was guilty would seem to have been the killing of M. Marius Gratidianus, a near relative of the celebrated Marius. Sulla had put the name of this individual on the list of the proscribed, whereupon Catiline entered the dwelling of the unfortunate man, exhausted upon his person all the refinements of cruelty and insult, and, having at last put an end to his existence, carried his bloody head in triumph through the streets of Rome, and brought it to Sulla as he sat on his tribunal in the Forum. When this was done, the murderer washed his hands in the lustral water at the door of Apollo's temple, which stood in the immediate vicinity (De Ira, iii. 18).

Catiline was peculiarly dangerous and formidable, as his power of dissimulation enabled him to throw a veil over his vices. Equally well qualified to deceive the good, to intimidate the weak, and to inspire with his own boldness his depraved associates, he evaded two accusations brought against him by Clodius for criminal intercourse with a Vestal, and for monstrous extortions of which he had been guilty while proconsul in Africa (a.u.c. 687). He was charged also with having murdered his first wife and his son. A numerous group having been formed of young men of high birth and daring character, who saw no other means of extricating themselves from their enormous debts than by obtaining the highest offices of the State, Catiline was placed at their head. This eminence he owed chiefly to his connection with the old soldiers of Sulla , by means of whom he kept in awe the towns near Rome, and even Rome itself. At the same time, he numbered among his adherents not only the worst and lowest of the riotous populace, but also many of the patricians and men of consular rank. Everything favoured his audacious scheme. Pompey was pursuing the victories which Lucullus had prepared for him; and the latter was but a feeble supporter of the nobles in the Senate, who wished him, but in vain, to put himself at their head. Crassus, who had delivered Italy from the gladiators, was now striving with great eagerness after power and riches, and, instead of opposing, countenanced the growing influence of Catiline, as a means of his own aggrandizement. Caesar, who was labouring to revive the party of Marius, spared Catiline, and, perhaps, even encouraged him. Only two Romans remained determined to uphold their falling country: Cato and Cicero—the latter of whom alone possessed the qualifications necessary for the task. The conspirators were now planning the elevation of Catiline and one of his accomplices to the consulship. When this was effected, they hoped to obtain possession of the public treasures and the property of the citizens, under various pretexts, and especially by means of proscription. It is not probable, however, that Catiline had promised them the liberty of burning and plundering Rome. Cicero had the courage to stand as candidate for the consulship, in spite of the impending danger, of the extent of which he was perfectly aware. Neither insults nor threats, nor even riots and attempts to assassinate him, deterred him from his purpose; and, being supported by the richest citizens, he gained his election, B.C. 65. All that the party of Catiline could accomplish was the election of Gaius Antonius, one of their accomplices, as colleague of Cicero. This failure, however, did not deprive Catiline of the hope of gaining the consulship the following year. For this purpose he redoubled the measures of terror by means of which he had laid the foundation of his power. Meanwhile he had lost some of the most important members of his conspiracy. Antony had been prevailed upon, or compelled by Cicero, to remain neutral. Caesar and Crassus had resolved to do the same. Piso had been killed in Spain. Italy, however, was destitute of troops. The veterans of Sulla only waited the signal to take up arms. This signal was now given by Catiline. The centurion Manlius appeared among them, and formed a camp in Etruria. Cicero was on the watch, and a fortunate accident disclosed to him the counsels of the conspirators. One of them, Curius, was on intimate terms with a woman of doubtful reputation, Fulvia by name, and had acquainted her with their plans. Through this woman, Cicero learned that two knights had undertaken to assassinate him at his house. On the day which they had fixed for the execution of their plan they found his doors barred and guarded. Still Cicero delayed to make public the circumstances of a conspiracy the progress and resources of which he wished first to ascertain. He contented himself with warning his fellow-citizens, in general terms, of the impending danger. But when the insurrection of Manlius was made known, he procured the passage of the celebrated decree, “that the consuls should take care that the Republic received no detriment.” By a decree of this kind, the consuls, or other magistrates named therein, were, in accordance with the custom of the State, armed with the supreme civil and military authority. It was exceedingly difficult to seize the person of one who had soldiers at his command, both in and out of Rome; still more difficult would it be to prove his guilt before those who were his accomplices with him, or, at least, were willing to make use of his plans to serve their own interests. Cicero had to choose between two evils—a revolution within the city, or a civil war; and he preferred the latter. Catiline had the boldness to take his seat in the Senate, known as he was to be the enemy of the Roman State. Cicero then rose and delivered that bold oration against him which was the means of saving Rome by driving Catiline from the city. The conspirators who remained—Lentulus, Cethegus, and other infamous senators—engaged to head the insurrection in Rome as soon as Catiline appeared at the gates. According to Cicero and Sallust, it was the intention of the conspirators to set the city on fire, and massacre the inhabitants. At any rate, these consequences might have easily followed from the circumstances of the case, without any previous resolution. Lentulus, Cethegus, and the other conspirators, in the meanwhile, were carrying on their criminal plots. They applied to the ambassadors of the Allobroges to transfer the war to the frontiers of Italy itself. These, however, revealed the plot, and their disclosures led to others still more important. The correspondence of the conspirators with their leader was intercepted. The Senate had now a notorious crime to punish. As the circumstances of the case did not allow a minute observance of form in the proceedings against the conspirators, the laws relating thereto were disregarded, as had been done in former instances of less pressing danger. Caesar spoke against immediate execution, but Cicero and Cato prevailed. Five of the conspirators were put to death. Gaius Antonius was then appointed to march against Catiline, but, on the even of battle, under pretence of being disabled by the gout, he gave the command to his lieutenant Petreius. The battle was fought at Pistoria in Etruria, and ended in the complete overthrow of the insurgents. Catiline, on finding that all was lost, resolved to die sword in hand, and his followers imitated his example (B.C. 62).

The history of Catiline's conspiracy has been written by Sallust in the extremely able monograph known as the Bellum Catilinae. See also the lives of Caesar and Cicero by Plutarch; Mommsen, History of Rome, iv. 203-209, 212-223; and the four orations of Cicero known as the Orationes Catilinariae, much read in schools. The story forms the subject of a tedious English play by Ben Jonson, entitled Catiline's Conspiracy, produced in 1611; and of a now-forgotten drama by Stephen Gosson. It is the basis of the historical novel by Herbert, The Roman Traitor.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: