Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church

A Great Conspiracy

Sergius Catiline belonged to an ancient family which had fallen into poverty. In the evil days of Sulla, when the nobles recovered the power which they had lost, and plundered and murdered their adversaries, he had shown himself as cruel and as wicked as any of his fellows. Like many others he had satisfied grudges of his own under pretence of serving his party, and had actually killed his brother-in-law with his own hand. These evil deeds and his private character, which was of the very worst, did not hinder him from rising to high offices in the State. He was made first ædile, then prætor, then governor of Africa, a province covering the region which now bears the names of Tripoli and Tunis. At the end of his year of government he returned to Rome, intending to become a candidate for the consulship. In this he met with a great disappointment. He was indicted for misgovernment in his province, and as the law did not permit any one who had such a charge hanging over him to stand for any public office, he was compelled to retire. But he soon found, or fancied that he had found, an opportunity of revenging himself. The two new consuls were found guilty of bribery, and were compelled to resign. One of them, enraged at his disgrace, made common cause with Catiline. A plot, in which not a few powerful citizens were afterwards suspected with more or less reason of having joined, was formed. It was arranged that the consuls should be assassinated on the first day of the new year; the day, that is, on which they were to enter on their office. But a rumour of some impending danger got about; on the appointed day the new consuls appeared with a sufficient escort, and the conspirators agreed to postpone the execution of their scheme till an early day in February. This time the secret was better kept, but the impatience of Catiline hindered the plot from being carried out. It had been arranged that he should take his place in front of the senate-house, and give to the hired band of assassins the signal to begin. This signal he gave before the whole number was assembled. The few that were present had not the courage to act, and the opportunity was lost.

The trial for misgovernment ended in an acquittal, purchased, it was said, by large bribes given to the jurymen and even to the prosecutor, a certain Clodius, of whom we shall hear again, and shall find to have been not one whit better than Catiline himself. A second trial, this time for misdeeds committed in the days of Sulla, ended in the same way. Catiline now resolved on following another course of action. He would take up the character of a friend of the people. He had the advantage of being a noble, for men thought that he was honest when they saw him thus turn against his own order, and, as it seemed, against his own interests. And indeed there was much that he could say, and say with perfect truth, against the nobles. They were corrupt and profligate beyond all bearing. They sat on juries and gave false verdicts for money. They went out to govern provinces, showed themselves horribly cruel and greedy, and then came home to be acquitted by men who had done or hoped to do the very same things themselves. People listened to Catiline when he spoke against such doings, without remembering that he was just as bad himself. He had too just the reputation for strength and courage that was likely to make him popular. He had never been a soldier, but he was known to be very brave, and he had a remarkable power of enduring cold and hunger and hardships of every kind. On the strength of the favour which he thus gained, he stood again for the consulship. In anticipation of being elected, he gathered a number of men about him, unsuccessful and discontented like himself, and unfolded his plans. All debts were to be wiped out, and wealthy citizens were to be put to death and their property to be divided. It was hoped that the consuls at home, and two at least of the armies in the provinces, would support the movement. The first failure was that Catiline was not elected consul, Cicero being chosen unanimously with Antonius, who had a small majority over Catiline, for his colleague. Enraged at his want of success, the latter now proceeded to greater lengths than ever. He actually raised troops in various parts of Italy, but especially in Etruria, which one Manlius, an old officer in Sulla's army, commanded. He then again became a candidate for the consulship, resolving first to get rid of Cicero, who, he found, met and thwarted him at every turn. Happily for Rome these designs were discovered through the weakness of one of his associates. This man told the secret to a lady, with whom he was in love, and the lady, dismayed at the boldness and wickedness of the plan, communicated all she knew to Cicero.

Not knowing that he was thus betrayed, Catiline set about ridding himself of his great antagonist. Nor did the task seem difficult. The hours both of business and of pleasure in Rome were what we should think inconveniently early. Thus a Roman noble or statesman would receive in the first hours of the morning the calls of ceremony or friendship which it is our custom to pay in the afternoon. It would sometimes happen that early visitors would find the great man not yet risen. In these cases he would often receive them in bed. This was probably the habit of Cicero, a courteous, kindly man, always anxious to be popular, and therefore easy of access. On this habit the conspirators counted. Two of their number, one of them a knight, the other a senator, presented themselves at his door shortly after sunrise on the seventh of November. They reckoned on finding him, not in the great hall of his mansion, surrounded by friends and dependants, but in his bed-chamber. But the consul had received warning of their coming, and they were refused admittance. The next day he called a meeting of the Senate in the temple of Jupiter the Stayer, which was supposed to be the safest place where they could assemble.

To this meeting Catiline, a member in right of having filled high offices of state, himself ventured to come. A tall, stalwart man, manifestly of great power of body and mind, but with a face pale and wasted by excess, and his eyes haggard and bloodshot, he sat alone in the midst of a crowded house. No man had greeted him when he entered, and when he took his place on the benches allotted to senators who had filled the office of consul, all shrank from him. Then Cicero rose in his place. He turned directly and addressed his adversary. "How long, Catiline," he cried, "will you abuse our patience?" How had he dared to come to that meeting? Was it not enough for him to know how all the city was on its guard against him; how his fellow-senators shrank from him as men shrink from a pestilence? If he was still alive, he owed it to the forbearance of those against whom he plotted; and this forbearance would last so long, and so long only, as to allow every one to be convinced of his guilt. For the present he was suffered to live, but to live guarded and watched and incapable of mischief. Then the speaker related every detail of the conspiracy. He knew not only everything that the accomplices had intended to do, but the very days that had been fixed for doing it. Overwhelmed by this knowledge of his plans, Catiline scarcely attempted a defence. He said in a humble voice, "Do not think, Fathers, that I, a noble of Rome, I who have done myself, whose ancestors have done, much good to this city, wish to see it in ruins, while this consul, a mere lodger in the place, would save it." He would have said more, but the whole assembly burst into cries of "Traitor! Traitor!" and drowned his voice. "My enemies," he cried, "are driving me to destruction. But look! if you set my house on fire, I will put it out with a general ruin." And he rushed out of the Senate. Nothing, he saw, could be done in Rome; every point was guarded against him. Late that same night he left the city, committing the management of affairs to Cethegus and Lentulus, and promising to return before long with an army at his back. Halting awhile on his road, he wrote letters to some of the chief senators, in which he declared that for the sake of the public peace he should give up the struggle with his enemies and quietly retire to Marseilles. What he really did was to make his way to the camp of Manlius, where he assumed the usual state of a regular military command. The Senate, on hearing of these doings, declared him to be an outlaw. The consuls were to raise an army; Antonius was to march against the enemy, and Cicero to protect the city.

Meanwhile the conspirators left behind in Rome had been busy. One of the tribes of Gaul had sent deputies to the Capitol to obtain redress for injuries of which they complained. The men had effected little or nothing. The Senate neglected them. The help of officials could only be purchased by heavy bribes. They were now heavily in debt both on their own account and on account of their state, and Lentulus conceived the idea of taking advantage of their needs. One of his freedmen, who had been a trader in Gaul, could speak the language, and knew several of the deputies, opened negotiations with them by his patron's desire. They told him the tale of their wrongs. They could see, they said, no way out of their difficulties. "Behave like men," he answered, "and I will show you a way." He then revealed to them the existence of the conspiracy, explained its objects, and enlarged upon the hopes of success. While he and his friends were busy at Rome, they were to return to Gaul and rouse their fellow-tribesmen to revolt.

There was something tempting in the offer, and the deputies doubted long whether they should not accept it. In the end prudence prevailed. To join the conspiracy and to rebel would be to run a terrible risk for very doubtful advantages. On the other hand they might make sure of a speedy reward by telling all they knew to the authorities. This was the course on which they resolved, and they went without loss of time to a Roman noble who was the hereditary "patron" of their tribe. The patron in his turn communicated the intelligence to Cicero. Cicero's instructions were that the deputies should pretend to agree to the proposals which had been made to them, and should ask for a written agreement which they might show to their countrymen at home. An agreement was drawn up, signed by Lentulus and two of his fellow-conspirators, and handed over to the Gauls, who now made preparations to return to their country. Cicero himself tells us in the speech which he delivered next day in the Forum the story of what followed.

"I summoned to my presence two of the prætors on whose courage I knew I could rely, put the whole matter before them, and unfolded my own plans. As it grew dusk they made their way unobserved to the Mulvian Bridge, and posted themselves with their attendants (they had some trusty followers of their own, and I had sent a number of picked swordsmen from my own body-guard) in two divisions in houses on either side of the bridge. About two o'clock in the morning the Gauls and their train, which was very numerous, began to cross the bridge. Our men charged them; swords were drawn on both sides; but before any blood was shed the prætors appeared on the scene, and all was quiet. The Gauls handed over to them the letters which they had upon them with their seals unbroken. These and the deputies themselves were brought to my house. The day was now beginning to dawn. Immediately I sent for the four men whom I knew to be the principal conspirators. They came suspecting nothing, Lentulus, who had been up late the night before writing the letters, being the last to present himself. Some distinguished persons who had assembled at my house wished me to open the letters before laying them before the Senate. If their contents were not what I suspected I should be blamed for having given a great deal of trouble to no purpose. I refused in so important a matter to act on my own responsibility. No one, I was sure, would accuse me of being too careful when the safety of Rome was at stake. I called a meeting of the Senate, and took care that the attendance should be very large. Meanwhile, at the suggestion of the Gauls, I sent a prætor to the house of Cethegus to seize all the weapons that he could find. He brought away a great number of daggers and swords.

"The Senate being now assembled, I brought Vulturcius, one of the conspirators, into the House, promised him a public pardon, and bade him tell all he knew without fear. As soon as the man could speak, for he was terribly frightened, he said, 'I was taking a letter and a message from Lentulus to Catiline. Catiline was instructed to bring his forces up to the walls of the city. They meanwhile would set it on fire in various quarters, as had been arranged, and begin a general massacre. He was to intercept the fugitives, and thus effect a junction with his friends within the walls.' I next brought the Gauls into the House. Their story was as follows. 'Lentulus and two of his companions gave us letters to our nation. We were instructed to send our cavalry into Italy with all speed. They would find a force of infantry. Lentulus told us how he had learnt from Sibylline books that he was that "third Cornelius" who was the fated ruler of Rome. The two that had gone before him were Cicero and Sulla. The year too was the one which was destined to see the ruin of the city, for it was the tenth after the acquittal of the Vestal Virgins, the twentieth after the burning of the Capitol. After this Cethegus and the others had a dispute about the time for setting the city on fire. Lentulus and others wished to have it done on the feast of Saturn (December 17th). Cethegus thought that this was putting it off too long. 'I then had the letter brought in. First I showed Cethegus his seal. He acknowledged it. I cut the string. I read the letter. It was written in his own handwriting and was to this effect; he assured the Senate and people of the Gauls that he would do what he had promised to their deputies, and begged them on the other hand to perform what their deputies had undertaken. Cethegus, who had accounted for the weapons found in his house by declaring that he had always been a connoisseur in such things, was overwhelmed by hearing his letter read, and said nothing.

"Manlius next acknowledged his seal and handwriting. A letter from him much to the same effect was read. He confessed his guilt. I then showed Lentulus his letter, and asked him, 'Do you acknowledge the seal?' 'I do,' he answered. 'Yes,' said I, 'it is a well-known device, the likeness of a great patriot, your grandfather. The mere sight of it ought to have kept you from such a crime as this.' His letter was then read. I then asked him whether he had any explanation to give. 'I have nothing to say,' was his first answer. After a while he rose and put some questions to the Gauls. They answered him without any hesitation, and asked him in reply whether he had not spoken to them about the Sibylline books. What followed was the strangest proof of the power of conscience. He might have denied everything, but he did what no one expected, he confessed; all his abilities, all his power of speech deserted him. Vulturcius then begged that the letter which he was carrying from Lentulus to Catiline should be brought in and opened. Lentulus was greatly agitated; still he acknowledged the seal and the handwriting to be his. The letter, which was unsigned, was in these words: You will know who I am by the messenger whom I send to you. Bear yourself as a man. Think of the position in which you now are, and consider what you must now do. Collect all the help you can, even though it be of the meanest kind.  In a word, the case was made out against them all not only by the seals, the letters, the handwritings, but by the faces of the men, their downcast look, their silence. Their confusion, their stealthy looks at each other were enough, if there had been no other proof, to convict them."

Lentulus was compelled to resign his office of prætor. He and the other conspirators were handed over to certain of the chief citizens, who were bound to keep them in safe custody and to produce them when they were called for.

The lower orders of the capital, to whom Catiline and his companions had made liberal promises, and who regarded his plans, or what were supposed to be his plans, with considerable favour, were greatly moved by Cicero's account of what had been discovered. No one could expect to profit by conflagration and massacre; and they were disposed to take sides with the party of order. Still there were elements of danger, as there always are in great cities. It was known that a determined effort would be made by the clients of Lentulus, whose family was one of the noblest and wealthiest in Rome, to rescue him from custody. At the same time several of the most powerful nobles were strongly suspected of favouring the revolutionists. Crassus, in particular, the wealthiest man in Rome, was openly charged with complicity. A certain Tarquinius was brought before the Senate, having been, it was said, arrested when actually on his way to Catiline. Charged to tell all he knew, he gave the same account as had been given by other witnesses of the preparations for fire and massacre, and added that he was the bearer of a special message from Crassus to Catiline, to the effect that he was not to be alarmed by the arrest of Lentulus and the others; only he must march upon the city without delay, and so rescue the prisoners and restore the courage of those who were still at large. The charge seemed incredible to most of those who heard it. Crassus had too much at stake to risk himself in such perilous ventures. Those who believed it were afraid to press it against so powerful a citizen; and there were many who were under too great obligations to the accused to allow it, whatever its truth or falsehood, to be insisted upon. The Senate resolved that the charge was false, and that its author should be kept in custody till he disclosed at whose suggestion he had come forward. Crassus himself believed that the consul had himself contrived the whole business, with the object of making it impossible for him to take the part of the accused. "He complained to me," says Sallust the historian, "of the great insult which had thus been put upon him by Cicero."

Under these circumstances Cicero determined to act with vigour. On the fifth of December he called a meeting of the Senate, and put it to the House what should be done with the prisoners in custody. The consul elect gave his opinion that they should be put to death. Cæsar, when his turn came to speak, rose and addressed the Senate. He did not seek to defend the accused. They deserved any punishment. Because that was so, let them be dealt with according to law. And the law was that no Roman citizen could suffer death except by a general decree of the people. If any other course should be taken, men would afterwards remember not their crimes but the severity with which they had been treated. Cato followed, giving his voice for the punishment of death; and Cicero took the same side. The Senate, without dividing, voted that the prisoners were traitors, and must pay the usual penalty.

The consul still feared that a rescue might be attempted. He directed the officials to make all necessary preparations, and himself conducted Lentulus to prison, the other criminals being put into the charge of the prætors. The prison itself was strongly guarded. In this building, which was situated under the eastern side of the Capitoline Hill, was a pit twelve feet deep, said to have been constructed by King Tullius. It had stone walls and a vaulted stone roof; it was quite dark, and the stench and filth of the place were hideous. Lentulus was hurried into this noisome den, where the executioners strangled him. His accomplices suffered the same fate. The consul was escorted to his house by an enthusiastic crowd. When he was asked how it had fared with the condemned, he answered with the significant words "THEY HAVE LIVED."

The chief conspirator died in a less ignoble fashion. He had contrived to collect about twelve thousand men; but only a fourth part of these were regularly armed; the rest carried hunting spears, pikes, sharpened stakes, any weapon that came to hand. At first he avoided an engagement, hoping to hear news of something accomplished for his cause by the friends whom he had left behind him in Rome. When the news of what had happened on the fifth of December reached him, he saw that his position was desperate. Many who had joined the ranks took the first opportunity of deserting; with those that remained faithful he made a hurried march to the north-west, hoping to make his way across the Apennines into Hither Gaul. But he found a force ready to bar his way, while Antonius, with the army from Rome, was pressing him from the south. Nothing remained for him but to give battle. Early in the year 62 B.C. the armies met. The rebel leader showed himself that day at his best. No soldier could have been braver, no general more skilful. But the forces arrayed against him were overpowering. When he saw that all was lost, he rushed into the thickest of the fight, and fell pierced with wounds. He was found afterwards far in advance of his men, still breathing and with the same haughty expression on his face which had distinguished him in life. And such was the contagious force of his example that not a single free man of all his followers was taken alive either in the battle or in the pursuit that followed it. Such was the end of a GREAT CONSPIRACY.