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Lucius Sergius Catilina

Updated on February 19, 2011

Catiline (109-62 B.C.) was a Roman politician, who was notorious because of the abortive conspiracy he organized in 63 B.C. Catiline (Lucius Sergius Catilina) was born to a patrician family that had been long obscure. In his early years he seems to have been in the circle of Marius and, in fact, he married a relative of that great general. But when civil Sulla appeared a likely victor, Catiline abandoned his former friends and became a supporter of Sulla. In the proscriptions and murders that followed Sulla's victory in 82, Catiline played a conspicuous role. Among his victims was his own brother-in-law.

Catiline's new prominence speeded his career. The quaestorship came in 70, the praetorship in 68, and the governorship of the province of Africa in 67. The consulship, however, continued to elude him. A late application prevented Catiline's candidacy in 66; in 64 and 63 he was defeated at the polls. If he possessed any conspiratorial leanings, they were certainly not yet apparent to his contemporaries.

Cicero denouncing Cataline
Cicero denouncing Cataline

The Catilinarian Conspiracy

Defeat in 63, however, drove Catiline to more desperate measures. He set about acquiring a wider and more volatile following. His demagogic speeches promised abolition of debts and hinted at a redistribution of property. It was not only the destitute who listened, but even indebted members of the nobility. The effects of Sulla's dictatorship lay behind the Catilinarian conspiracy. Sulla had dispossessed many Romans, who were now in a desperate situation and were prepared to follow Catiline. Others who had benefited from Sulla's victory 20 years before had squandered their holdings and mortgaged their property to the hilt. Many ex-soldiers and desperadoes, placed on farms by Sulla, had failed as farmers. They were now looking for adventure and release. Catiline's support grew. A plot was hatched to seize control of the state in 63. Despite later suspicions, it appears certain that neither Caesar nor Crassus supported any attempt to abolish debts or to overthrow the government.

In 63, Cicero was consul and was therefore responsible for executive authority. Fortunately, his agents were well placed and kept him informed of all Catiline's plans. In October, Cicero revealed details of the conspiracy, which included the presence of armed men in Etruria under Gnaeus Manlius. The Senate, sufficiently alarmed, passed its "ultimate decree" empowering the consul to save the state by whatever means necessary. Catiline joined Manlius openly in Etruria in November. Other conspirators remained in Rome, prepared to create havoc through murder and arson. In December, however, Cicero received conclusive proof of the conspiracy and arrested the ringleaders in the city. The Senate was swayed by Cato's powerful speech, and the conspirators were promptly executed. Mobilization followed against Catiline, Manlius, and their levies in Etruria. In January 62, government forces crushed the remaining insurgents, and Catiline was killed in the fighting.

Evaluation

Catiline is traditionally pictured as a monstrous villain interested only in murder, devastation, and social revolution. But this picture comes from the heavily biased speeches of Cicero. Sallust's monograph on Catiline is equally hostile, but it too depends largely on Cicero's speeches. Whatever Catiline's own motives, his movement exposed real social ills. He was certainly ruthless and unscrupulous. But he was also a man of great physical strength, imposing personality, powerful eloquence, immensely appealing charm, and the courage of his convictions. His face breathed fire and determination, Sallust reports, even after death.

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