An attempt by Catiline and the collected armies of several debt-burdened aristocrats to march on Ancient Rome, and one of the Republic's more notable last spasms.
The entire tangled mass of Ancient Roman politics is wrapped around the story of Catiline. It's apocryphal as only ancient history can be, told, as history only ever was, by the side of it that survived. Our best primary source on both the conspiracy and Catiline himself continues to be Sallust's vivid and career-making account, in which we have a Catiline "of high birth, richly endowed both in mind and body, but of extreme depravity." Our second-best primary source is Cicero, who had every earthly thing to gain.
The senate that legislated in Rome in 63 BC was toothless,
its more dynamic members having been singled out and killed during the
previous decades' power shifts. Most significant among these were the
proscriptions issued during Lucius Cornelius Sulla's brief dictatorship:
there are accounts from that time of senators finding their names
listed at the Forum, falling immediately to pushed knives.
Lucius Sergius Catilina's bloodline had not produced a Consul for three centuries. He spent much of his military and political career clawing through middle-prestige, attempting, as did many in those times, to rebuid a decaying fortune. We're told he was a good commander, and that his service alongside Cicero in the Social War was distinguished.
The Sullan proscriptions gave him the opportunity to self-elevate. Cicero tells us that he maimed and killed his obstacle of a brother-in-law, carried his head through the streets, and set it at Sulla's feet in the Temple of Apollo. The brother-in-law was proscribed, after the fact. Cicero also tells us that Catiline murdered his wife and son in order to marry the then-consul's daughter. Diffuse sources tell us he caused several additional people to disappear in the terror and confusion of Sulla's administration. We can be sure that he stood trial in 73 BC for adultery with the vestal virgin Fabia--half-sister of Cicero's wife. Testimony from the sufficiently august Quintus Lutatius Catulus saw him acquitted.
He was elected for the propraetorian governorship of Africa five years later. While he was still on site an embassy appeared in Rome with complaints about his conduct in office.
When Catiline presented himself to Rome for the consular election of 65 BC, his conduct in Africa resurfaced with more indictments of financial abuse from a different envoy. Catiline faced prosecution again, was aquitted again. It is speculated that he bribed his judges.
One thing that explains Catiline's political longevity is his endorsement of tabulae novae, or the cancellation of debts. This aligned him with the Populares, a group of political figures that included Julius Caesar and--one speculates--sought to take the consulship by appeasing Rome's urban plebs. Still, Catiline's legal troubles prevented him from entering the consular election of 65 BC.
He lost the 63 BC election to Cicero and Antonius Hybrida. He stood trial again, this time for what he had done during the Sullan proscriptions. He was acquitted again (Caesar presided over the court).
Catiline presented himself for consulship for the last time in 62 BC, at which time it became apparent that his political capital was exhausted.
Debt as Unifier
While war debt had threatened the Roman economy a number of times before, the situation in 63 BC was particularly harrowing, bearing expenditures from slave revolts in the Italian countryside, the destruction of pirates along the Mediterranean and north African coasts, and a searing war against Mithridates. The war had been particularly damaging, as Mithridates was the most formidable human the Roman Republic engaged in five centuries.
Cicero identified six groups among Catiline's supporters, in his Second Speech against Catiline:
- Men able to pay debts by selling land, but unwilling to do so
- Men unable to seek power due to indebtedness
- Sulla's veterans, who had lived beyond their means
- Men in over their heads
- Dissolute youth
Cicero corraled the support of urban plebs away from Catiline by pointing out that, despite their mutual single goal of debt dissolution, Catiline's wider interests were patently different from theirs.
The most distinguished of Catiline's supporters was the expelled Consul Publius Cornelius Lentulus. Others included notorious hothead Gaius Cornelius Cethegus, one or two of the more veterinarian senators, and men from different towns in Italy.
The conspiracy of Catiline is often described in terms of the first and
second Catilinarian conspiracies. The first conspiracy, a nebulous and unattributable plot to murder the consuls in 65 BC, is today understood to be an aggregate of rumors flung between those ambitious (if not particularly assertive) members of Senate.
The second conspiracy--which eventually found Catiline dead in battle--can be said to have begun in July of 63 BC, when C. Manlius, Sullan veteran, gathered troops in Etrunia. Whether this was done under Catiline's direcive can't be known, but a letter warning of a coming invasion and implicating Catiline was delivered to the senate that October. Consul Cicero accepted senatus consultum ultimum, along with complete latitude to deal with the threat. He would survive an assassination attempt in November.
Shockingly, Catiline stayed in Rome, a pariah. Time would pass before Cicero could cobble the legal justification to kill him. In one partially-surviving transcript, Catiline and Cicero engaged in scathing debate before the Senate; it apparently worked out so that Catiline volunteered to go into exile. Instead of going to Massalia as promised, he met with Manlius' group in Etrunia. Around this time the Alloborages in Rome--debt-ridden and supportive of Catiline--leaked their own plan to assassinate Cicero. Many of them were strangled.
Seventy percent of Catiline's army deserted.
Unfazed, he made the decision to march his remaining 3,000 men towards Rome. After encountering numerous blockages, he engaged Antonius Hybrida's army in the mountains near Pistoria, believing it to be uncommitted.
Sources agree that Catiline's group was crushed. We're told that Catiline himself was found on a bridge far in advance of his men, all of his wounds frontal.
- Catiline Orations
The Latin Library. "Chronology of Catiline's Conspiracy" and "The Conspiracy of Catiline."
United Nations of Roma Victrix. "Catiline Conspiracy."
Sites at Penn State. "Lucius Sergius Catilina" and "Conspiracy of Catiline."
Public Bookshelf. "The Catiline conspiracy as recorded by Sallust."