Catiline Conspiracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Senator Catiline’s conspiracy to overthrow the government in 63 b.c.e. was averted by the consul Cicero, who thereby preserved the Roman Republic.

Summary of Event

A key feature of Roman politics during the Republican period was the annual competition among candidates to fill prestigious government positions and to enjoy their concomitant public honors. Political campaigns became increasingly competitive during the first century b.c.e. as citizens began expending great sums of money in their attempt to be elected. Despite new legislation aimed at curtailing the expense, bribery, and violence associated with elections, the Republic was having little success in preventing scandals that threatened the integrity of the election process and the stability of the government itself. Catiline Cicero

The story of Catiline is instructive in this sense. Catiline was a member of a noble family that had once held high office but was no longer prominent. As a young man, he supported the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 b.c.e.) in his war against the Roman senate and earned a reputation for brutality. Although a series of sexual scandals darkened Catiline’s reputation, he appeared to be enjoying a successful political career after he entered the senate and was elected in 69 b.c.e. as praetor, one of the eight men who oversaw Rome’s law courts. After serving the following two years as governor of the province of Africa, he returned to Rome to run for the office of consul, Rome’s highest political office. However, charges of extortion prevented his candidacy for two years.

In 64 b.c.e. he finally stood for election as one of the two consuls, and several important senators, including Marcus Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.), openly supported Catiline. Several strong candidates vied for the consulship, including the prominent senator Cicero. Although Cicero came from humble means, he had developed a reputation as an eloquent orator and he enjoyed the backing of many influential members of the senate. The results of the election were close, but Cicero took the senior consul post and Catiline was narrowly defeated for the junior position. In September of 63 b.c.e., Catiline failed again to be elected consul, but on this occasion his defeat was decisive. Despairing of his future political chances, he made preparations to overthrow the government.

The chronology of the conspiracy itself is problematic. Ancient sources tend to believe that Catiline was contemplating an insurrection even while he was a candidate for the consulship. Modern scholars, however, tend to believe that he only turned to revolutionary means after his defeat in September of 63 b.c.e. Whatever the timing, Catiline recruited leaders of the conspiracy by assembling a group of indebted and discredited fellow senators and businessmen. He proposed to murder high government officials and seize control of the government. He tried to gather support among the masses with promises to cancel all private debts and proscribe wealthy citizens. He directed his lieutenants to recruit supporters from the lower classes of Rome, and he sent others into the countryside to raise an army among disgruntled veterans of the wars Sulla had waged in the eastern Mediterranean.

The consul Cicero was greatly concerned by rumors of the conspiracy that were circulating in the second half of 63 b.c.e. Although a few years earlier, he had contemplated a political alliance with Catiline, he now was convinced that the senator was planning for a widespread uprising. Fortunately for the consul, one of Catiline’s conspirators, Quintus Curius, informed Cicero of the plot and agreed to keep the consul apprised of its progress. Cicero began to take precautions in Rome, but lacking substantial evidence, he initially could not convince the senate that Catiline was a threat to the city. However, news began filtering into Rome that Catiline’s associates were recruiting soldiers and preparing insurrections throughout the provinces. Consequently, on October 21, the senate passed legislation granting Cicero emergency powers to combat the threat. Catiline was charged with preparing violent measures against the government, but he was not detained because of a lack of evidence.

Plans for the conspiracy continued despite Cicero’s vigilance. On the morning of November 7, two conspirators attempted to assassinate Cicero at his house, but Quintus Curius had warned the consul in advance and he was protected from harm. On the following day, the consul convened a meeting of the senate in order to denounce Catiline. To Cicero’s surprise, Catiline attended the meeting and even took a seat among the senators; all the senators, however, moved away and left Catiline to listen to the consul’s speech by himself. Cicero openly accused Catiline of treason and encouraged him to leave Rome. That evening, Catiline fled Rome to join an army of rebels in Etruria. He intended to march on Rome once conspirators in the city openly rebelled.

In Rome, Cicero redoubled his efforts to gather evidence on the conspiracy and uncover the identities of Catiline’s confederates. By the middle of November, news reached Rome that Catiline had taken up arms in Etruria, and the senate declared him a public enemy. In early December, the conspiracy fell apart when envoys of a Gallic tribe informed Cicero of the identities of several conspirators. Cicero made arrangements for the envoys to gather evidence, and by December 3, he was able to arrest five conspirators. At a hastily convened meeting of the senate that morning, the arrested conspirators confessed to their actions and provided additional information about the plot. On December 5, Cicero summoned the senate to determine the punishment for the conspirators. The senator Decimus Silanus proposed that the conspirators be summarily executed, but Julius Caesar argued for clemency to be shown to them. Eventually, the senate decided on execution, and later that evening, the conspirators were taken to the prison and strangled. A grateful senate later declared Cicero pater patriae, “father of his country.”

In the meanwhile, Catiline remained with his army outside of Rome, waiting for an uprising to occur in the city. When news arrived that Cicero had suppressed the conspiracy, he tried to withdraw his army into Gaul (modern-day France). However, a large army under Gaius Antonius trapped Catiline in northern Italy and compelled him to attempt a desperate battle. In early January near the city of Pistoria (modern Pistoia, Italy), the army of Antonius easily defeated the ill-trained and ill-equipped army of the conspirators. Catiline himself was killed in battle.

Significance

Catiline’s attempt to overthrow the government was symptomatic of the growing internal challenges that the Roman senate faced at the twilight of the Republican era. Men such as Catiline, Pompey, and Crassus were willing to promote their own personal interests at the expense of the senate. However, it was only with Julius Caesar that the senate’s traditional authority collapsed and the stable republican government Rome had enjoyed for centuries was brought to an end.

It is possible that the insurrection championed by Catiline was not as serious a threat to the government as ancient sources indicate. Much of its fame is due to several orations of Cicero in which the consul boasted of his actions in 63 b.c.e. The historian Sallust (86-35 b.c.e.) wrote a monograph about the conspiracy, Bellum Catilinae (c. 42 b.c.e.; The Conspiracy of Catiline, 1608), presenting Catiline as a talented but evil man who nearly overthrew the Republic. Modern scholars are divided in their opinions about the conspiracy. Some judge that Catiline’s threat to Rome was serious, while others believe that he was a populist primarily interested in relieving the debt of the masses. What is not controversial is that Cicero viewed Catiline as a threat to Rome and that he acted vigorously to protect the republican government.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. New York: Random House, 2001. Everitt’s biography of Cicero includes a chapter devoted exclusively to Catiline’s activities in 63 b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, Erich. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Gruen’s work is indispensable for understanding the motivations of the conspirators. His conclusions about the events are erudite and informed, fitting them in the turbulent political period of the late Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardy, Ernest. The Catilinarian Conspiracy in Its Context. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1924. Despite its age, this work is important for a full understanding of the Catilinarian conspiracy. Hardy provides special attention to the controversies of the relationship that Crassus and Caesar shared with Catiline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchinson, Lester. The Conspiracy of Catiline. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967. This work systematically discusses the major events and personages of the Catilinarian conspiracy. Hutchinson provides important background information about Catiline and his motivations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Syme, Ronald. Sallust. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Although Syme is primarily concerned with Sallust’s literary account of Catiline’s conspiracy, he expends considerable time distinguishing between actual events and the literary accounts of them that arose in later years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiseman, T. P. “The Peasants’ Revolt and the Bankrupts’ Plot.” In The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 b.c. , edited by J. A. Crook, Andrew Lintott, and Elizabeth Rawson. Vol. 9 in The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Wiseman’s article, set within a larger chapter on the challenges the Roman Senate faced in the late Republic, establishes a clear chronology of Catiline’s conspiracy and Cicero’s response.
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