The Cataline Affair

The Cataline Affair

Catiline was a ruinously debt-ridden patrician with a dangerously unstable character yet possessed considerable magnetic charm, to which aristocratic women and youths were as susceptible as proletarians. Catiline had been Sulla‘s agent and his record was questionable, to say the least. He held the governorship of Africa and his administration of that provence was disgraceful enough to have warranted prosecution.

Catiline’s name had also been associated with an alleged plot to murder the consuls of 65 BC and replace them by a shady pair who had been unseated for excessive bribery. In all fairness, Catiline’s role in this incident is obscure, but given his reputation and character, there may have been probable cause to suspect his involvement. Pompey the Great may have also had something to do with this plot, because one of the unseated consuls was his brother-in-law. Rumours that Crassus and Caesar were involved can be discarded since Crassus did not want to start a massacre, which would have been fatal to significant owners of property, which indeed Crassus was. Yet both Caesar and Crassus had lent their backing to further the career of Catiline, seeing him not yet as a revolutionary, but as another indebted henchman.

In 64 BC, Catiline was acquitted by a court of all atrocities he probably committed during the reign of Sulla. Caesar, according to his record, should have deplored Catiline, but Caesar presided over the court. Crassus and Caesar also seemed to have supported Catiline for the consulship of the following year. Perhaps Catiline was viewed as a tool for political purposes. Whatever their motive, Catiline, who had been rejected as a candidate two years earlier owing to his impending prosecution, was defeated at the polls. The newly elected consuls were Gaius Antonius Hybrida, a deplorable nobleman whom Caesar had attacked thirteen years earlier, and the rapidly rising Cicero. Although ‘new men’ like him, without any consuls among their ancestors, notoriously found it difficult to gain consulships, the conservatives decided he was preferable to Catiline, whose attitude to their traditions, despite his blue blood and Sullan record, began to cause alarm.

Following Catiline’s defeat, Crassus and Caesar ceased to support him since he now revealed an embittered revolutionary programme far removed from Crassus’ plutocratic aims. Catiline’s programme was indeed tempting to desperate men, since tensions were high amid the wash of corruption in politics. The Gracchi had been rightly disturbed by the disastrous situation of the Italian land. Farmers had been decimated by war and industrialisation. Peasant industries had peaked and recession, if not a depression, emerged in Etruria. In the South capitalistic slave-run pastures and plantations had begun to encroach on public land. The state of corruption had litteraly devasted many Italians who were also deeply embittered by their failure to obtain the full privileges of Roman citizenship, including the right to vote. The Social War of 90-89 BC was still very fresh in the minds of the inhabatants of Italy.

It was Caesar’s kinsman, Lucius Julius Caesar, who had initiated legislation offering Roman citizenship to all Latin (half-privileged) and other communities who had not revolted during the Social War. Later, additional legislation was passed in an effort to fill in the gaps. A man could now remain a loyal townsman of his own municipality and yet also be a member of the great sovereign state of Rome. However, Rome had not been merged into Italy, but rather Italians were absorbed into the citizenship of Rome. In reality, the situation was still unsatisfactory since this great political status existed more in theory than in practice. For the most part, much of the eighties, particularly under Sulla, had been a period of almost constant civil strife as one war after another plunged the Italian peninsula into a succession of massacres, expropriations, proscriptions and imposed confiscations of lands for the settlements of ex-soldiers. These unjust events caused resentment almost everywhere, especially in Etruria and in central Italy.

In this atmosphere, Rome itself began to experience and influx of destitute and homeless men who were disgruntled and potentially violent. They were joined by a certain elment of ex-soldiers who had failed at farming due in part to their damaged property or depleted soil, but mostly due to their inability to compete against large farming enterprises who made use of slave labour and cheap imports of provincial grain. This was the backdrop against which Catiline sought to exploit the discontent for personal gain due to his own desperate state of bankruptcy.

Catiline’s plan to overthrow the government by violence was indeed timely for the period. Certainly, Crassus, the richest property owner in Rome, would not have supported Catiline for he would have lost his fortune in the blink of an eye. When Crassus became aware of this scheme, he and Caesar abandoned Catiline, if they had not done so already following his defeat in the elections. Caesar and Crassus passed on whatever information they obtained about the plot to the consul Cicero. Cicero had his own sources, the mistress of one of the conspirators. Nonetheless, Cicero attempted to exploit the situation by fabricating rumours that Crassus was involved in the conspiracy. Caesar’s enemy Catulus tried to argue that Catiline was deeply indebted to Caesar which was evidence of Caesar’s support of the conspiracy.

The political situation had become critical and the Senate passed an emergency decree directed against Catiline, who immediately fled to Etruria in preparation for a march upon Rome itself. However, five of Catiline’s principal supporters were arrested and consigned to the private custody of leading senators, including Caesar and Crassus. Incriminating letters had been seized from a visiting delegation of Gauls which demonstrated their guilt beyond any question of doubt. The prisoners were men of high rank including several senators.

The Senate met on December 5th, 63 BC, at which Caesar took a prominent role in the discussions about their future. Crassus decided to stay away, but Caesar as praetor-elect,could afford such a luxury. Silanus was the consul-elect and to him the constitutional duty of opening the debate fell. Silanus proposed that the imprisoned men, and four others who had not yet been captured, should be executed. In attendence were fourteen ex-consuls, none of whom disagreed. When it came to Caesar’s turn to speak, he found himself in a difficult position.

Had Caesar supported the death penalty, then he would have backed the very sort of dubious legal procedure by emergency senatorial decree, which he opposed in the case of Rabirius earlier that year. Caesar saw this action, regardless of the crime, as a serious legal issue given the corruption that dominated the Senate. Under a state of emergency, the Senate could decree just about anything and that loophole in democracy should not be tolerated. Some have argued that had Caesar supported the sentence, then he would be letting down his former associate Catiline, whom many still supported as a preferable alternative to the politically corrupt old guard. Some have even argued that Caesar was related to one of the accused by marriage, a kinsman of Pompey’s supporter, Gabinius. On the other hand, Caesar could not defend the rebels. To do so would have been politically unwise.

Caesar, therefore, found himself in a very critical dilemma. Fortunately, Caesar’s speech has been preserved for posterity by the Roman historian Sallust. The speech iteself reveals not only Caesar’s masterpiece in political skills, but also his courage of conviction against corruption. Caesar thereby dissociated himself from the defendants and their acts of treason, but he equally deplored the death penalty, a position completely consistent with his acts of clemency during the Civil War that followed. Therefore, Caesar chose the position of justice calling for the imprisonment for life in Italian country-towns, the confiscation of their property and that any future proposal for their release should be regarded as high treason. He also argued that there was serious doubt whether a state of emergency existed, since the men were, after all, were currently in confinement. He also recalled that Epicurus had been right in saying that perpetual imprisonment was far worse punishment than mere death, since beyond the grave there is no life and therefore no suffering at all.

Caesar went on to argue that execution would attract too much notice and would look like an act prompted by emotional vindictiveness. Caesar’s words also contained a serious implied threat. People, he argued, were apt to forget the crime and remember the punishment. The responsibility of senators who had taken the lives of fellow-citizens would never be forgotten, he warned. These were perfectly reasonable cautions given the popular support Catiline had gathered among the disenfranchised.

Caesar addressed himself directly to the consul-elect, Silanus, who had first proposed that the prisoners should be executed. Silanus’ wife, Servilia, had been Caesar’s mistress for years, and had just sent her lover an affectionate letter, which reached him while he was actually delivering his speech. Silanus changed his position pretending that his earlier words had been misunderstood. Silanus tried to claim that he never meant to speak in favour of execution at all. Instead, he boldly stated that he had come round to Caesar’s point of view. In fact, many other senators began to agree with Caesar.

Cicero presided as chairman over the emergency hearing. Cicero, who was certainly not fond of Caesar nor his political views, made a cautious speech of his own in hopes of pursuading the senators to stand up and take collective responsibility for the execution of the defendants. Cicero was then joined by the youthful thirty-two-year-old Cato. Cato was the young tribune-elect who was as obstinate as his great-grandfather, Cato the Censor. Cato, who himself became a legend for his stoic inflexibility, also loathed Caesar and his politics of the people. In Cato’s view, Italians were not Romans and as such, Cato and Caesar were bitter political enemies.

Cato, as to be expected, lashed out against what he vied to be Caesar’s leaneant punishment claiming that Caesar himself was a co-conspirator in Catiline’s plot. Cato then violently attacked his own brother-in-law, Silanus, for changing his mind on the issue of execution. Cato argued that the conspirators would remain dangerous as long as they lived and therefore represented a danger to the state, which warranted the death sentence.

Cato, despite his young age, had become a leader among the hardline old guard within the Senate. His insistence won the day and and the defendants were immediately executed. The atmosphere was indeed charged to such an extent that when Caesar left the senate he, too, nearly met his death. The threat came at the hands of Cicero’s bodyguard of knights, young men who were of the property class who felt most threatened by Catiline’s revolution.

The significance of the Catiline affair with respect to Caesar is that it demonstrates once again that Caesar stood against corruption and priviledge that had come to sominate the Senate of Rome. Certainly, among the poor, who stood to lose nothing from revolution, Caesar had significantly enhanced his reputation and popularity by seeking a moderate the verdict.

The Monetary History of the World
© Martin A. Armstrong