If you studied Cicero in the early-to-mid-20th century, you undoubtedly read Cicero’s First Oration against Catiline. In the last quarter of the century, when I studied Cicero, professors assigned more “relevant” orations to entice us, and still later, I taught Pro Archia, Cicero’s brilliant defense of the liberal arts (which I wrote about at Mirabile Dictu).
You’ve got to love Cicero, even if you hate Cicero. Yes, he was pompous, pushy, and ambitious, but he was such a damned good writer. And in his four Orations against Catiline (which I enjoyed), his vilification of Catiline seems over-the-top. (Cicero could have done a dark Dostoevskian character sketch if he’d been a novelist.) Cicero claims that Catiline is a murderer, an assassin, a conspirator against Rome, a former governor of Africa who ripped off the people, and, as if that weren’t enough, says he raped a Vestal Virgin (who was Cicero’s wife’s sister).
But if you want to know both sides of the story, you’ve got to read Francis Gallassi’s Catiline, The Monster of Rome: An Ancient Case of Political Assassination. In this short nonfiction page-turner, Galassi writes an impassioned defense of Catiline, and accuses Cicero of character assassination. After all, Catiline and Cicero were political rivals: they both ran for consul for the year 63 B.C. Cicero won.
I was glued to this book, which reads like an entertaining if slightly unpolished historical novel. What will happen next? I kept wondering. And though Galassi is not the only historian to question Cicero’s case, he has devoted this clear, coherent book to Catiline’s defense. He depicts Catiline as an impoverished aristocrat, a soldier, and an aspiring liberal politician who wanted to reform the government and favored popular causes like agrarian reform.. And he was a threat to the conservative optimates (aristocrats) and senators, among whom Cicero was an up-and-coming New Man. After the senate blocked an election which might have passed some of Catiline’s reforms, Catiline and other prominent men, including Caesar, conspired to take over the government.
Was Catiline a hero? Well, I don’t know. Rome was a bloodbath back then. So I didn’t entirely buy Galassi’s argument, but I found it fascinating.
And it really makes me want to reread Cicero’s orations against Catiline.
And can anyone forget the first line of the First Oration, “How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?” (In Latin it is: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?)
So many people abuse my patience. In fact, I think I’m going to be saying this a lot now.