The man who would have burned Rome

Lucius Sergius Catiline was the supposed mastermind who planned to burn the Roman Senate to the ground. His plot was unravelled by the great orator Cicero, ushering in his finest hour.

62 BC – Pistoria, Northern Italy –Men scream, swords clash. A rag-tag collection of ex-soldiers, citizens and freedmen face off against Roman soldiers. A conspiracy that would have rocked Rome to its foundations stands on the brink, one battle away from being extinguished. At a pivotal moment, the commander of the Roman army throws his heavy infantry into the centre, breaking the conspirators’ lines and shattering their hopes.

But Lucius Sergius Catilina, or Cataline as he is commonly known, the leader of the revolt and would-be mastermind of one of Rome’s most infamous plots, does not turn and flee. Instead, summoning up the courage gifted to him by his ancient and noble lineage, he charges head first into his enemy. Catiline died with a defiant smirk plastered upon his face and no wounds upon his back, He may have been defeated in life, but not in death.

At least this is how history remembers Catiline’s last stand in the north of Italy. We’re told this tale by Sallust, a Roman politician and general, whose text Catiline’s War, remains as the sole narration of the conspiracy, aside from the letters of Cicero.

Untangling the events that led to Catiline’s alleged heroic martyrdom is akin to piecing together a faded and broken mosaic, based upon little more than an envious and hateful neighbour’s memory of the artwork in question. On the one hand we have Sallust’s work, a historian who is not shy about sharing his own views of Rome at this period, nor of his own failings:

“For instead of propriety, self-denial and prowess, it was daring, bribery and avarice which were thriving; and, even though my mind rejected those things, unaccustomed as it was to wicked practices, nevertheless amidst such great faults my youthful weakness was corrupted and gripped by ambition; and, although I disagreed with the wicked behaviour of others, nonetheless my desire for honours afflicted me with the same reputation and resentment as it did the rest.”

Sallust’s text seethes with resentment towards the Rome of his day, and he readily points to Cataline as the odious face of that Rome; a man he paints as of a “wicked and crooked disposition,” complete with a “bloodless complexion and ugly eyes.” A far cry from the heroic warrior who died, sword in hand in true Roman style while fighting against fellow Romans. 

But we must also rely on the writings of Cicero, whose unmasking of the Cataline affair and dismantling of the conspiracy carried him on a triumphant wave to his finest moment.

To end a Republic

Catiline was from an illustrious patrician family but had recently fallen on hard times. Rome’s economic difficulties around 64-63BC, caused by a decline in trade and tax revenue, had caused debt to become widespread.

Cataline had nearly bankrupted himself trying to secure the consulship for the year 63 BC. He lost out to Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida, a close friend of his and uncle of Mark Antony. Cicero successfully bought Hybrida off with the promise of the governorship of Macedonia. Such a position offered up an opportunity to rake in a wealth of profits. The offer was duly accepted and Hybrida joined Cicero as consul in the year 63 BC, leaving Cataline broke.

Aside from Cicero’s deft political manoeuvring, Cataline’s reputation had also taken a beating over the years which didn’t help his bid for power. Rumours followed him: he was said to have murdered his own wife and son and slept with a Vestal virgin, a big no-no in Ancient Rome, which could have led to a death sentence for the priestess. So, penniless and cast out of favour politically, Cataline’s future appeared to be heading only for, at best, obscurity and, at worst, silver-clad poverty. 

Afterwards, Catiline’s plan, as revealed by Cicero, appears to have been simple, but achieving it was not. He wanted to uproot the Roman Republic, grasp power from the few who held it and distribute it to himself and his cronies. Along the way, blood would be shed and the ancient city burned. This last detail, appears to have been crucial.

The motives for those who signed up for the conspiracy were many, but frustration and latent ambition for change was a thread that connected plebs and patricians alike. In Rome it counted amongst its members one Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, who held the consulship in 71 BC. Lentulus’ political aspirations, like many others, had been dashed by a charge of debauchery, which led to removal of his name from the senatorial rolls. While Lucius Cassius Longinus, who once held the office of Praetor, had been snubbed for consul in 64 BC. Seemingly this was cause enough for him to join the conspiracy.   

The plot, however diabolical, was not confined to a few disgruntled noblemen. Catiline’s rhetoric, and on-again, off-again claims that he was leading a citizen’s revolt, galvanised the downtrodden, landless and debt-ridden of Rome and its hinterland. He appears to have resorted to tub-thumping populism, promising debt-relief to both poor and wealthy which, understandably, made him undeniably popular. In the countryside, peasants who had seen their lands taken from them, and woe-begotten and penniless veterans from the armies of the deceased dictator Sulla, flocked to his banner, initially swelling the ranks of his army. Even a handful of Gallic warriors pondered joining the rebellion.

At one point his army is said to have consisted of ten thousand men, although Sallust himself counts it closer to two thousand.

As it unfolded, Cataline was undone by Fulvia, the disgruntled lover of one of his friend Quintus Curius, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was, according to Sallust, a tacit supporter of the conspiracy.

Firstly, a game of hearsay triggered Cicero’s attention as Fulvia tipped off his wife that a plot was being hatched to unleash a wave of violence in a bid to snatch power by Curius and his cronies, led by Cataline.

Later Crassus is said to have supplied Cicero with a series of letters implicating Cataline in a plot against the Republic. The orator took the accumulated evidence and denounced Cataline in front of the Senate. After his defence failed, Cataline fled into supposed self-exile, with a parting shot in the form of a letter, decrying the false accusations and claiming that he had only ever undertaken “the official cause of the wretched”.

But instead of embarking on his exile to Greece he hurried off to join his army which had camped a short distance from Rome.

Back in the city, his conspiracy had begun to unravel. The troop of Gallic warriors, who had been tempted into rebellion, were successfully flipped and tipped off Cicero and the Senate about all those implicated in the conspiracy. Lentulus and Longinus among them.

A heated debate in the Senate ensued around what to do with the conspirators. Should they be pardoned, imprisoned or killed as befitted any who rebelled against the Republic? Julius Caesar, who was known to be a friend of Cataline’s, favoured life imprisonment for those involved while Cato the Younger, an ardent conservative and defender of old Roman morals, called for their death. The latter argument, also backed by Cicero, carried the day.

Here, Cicero ensured that no doubt could return. He ordered, making use of his consular privileges, that the conspirators be executed without a trial. Lentulus, of the house of the Cornelii, alongside four others who had been rounded up in Rome, were duly strangled to death shortly after. Cicero’s actions earned him the illustrious title of ‘father of the nation’. The summary executions, however, which had denied Roman citizens of their right to a trial, would come back to haunt him years later. 

Back in the Italian countryside, Cataline was awaiting word that Lentulus had succeeded. But once he was made aware that the conspiracy in the capital had been ripped out at the roots, he was faced with a dilemma. He could march on the city with his depleted forces, many of whom were equipped with little more than sharpened stakes, and come face to face with the advancing Roman army. Or, he could head north and attempt to lose himself to fight another day in Roman Gaul. The latter proved more appealing.

But unfortunately for Cataline, and his two-thousand odd veterans, peasants and other common folk, it was not to be. With his route cut off he decided to fight against the Republican army at Pistora in modern day Tuscany. There was little hope for victory. He faced the consular army of his former ally. Hybrida, in a move that heaped a load of suspicion upon him, claimed to be suffering from a bout of gout on the day of the battle and ceded command to Marcus Petreius.  

At the end of that day, Cataline’s rebellion was definitively crushed.

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