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The 'First' Catilinarian Conspiracy: A Further Re-examination of the Evidence

Patrick Alexander Holmes[1], Department of Classics, University of Reading



Thanks to the ancient writers we can access information about the events of 2000 years ago, but can we rely upon the veracity of their accounts? How do we deal with accounts which are vague or contradictory? In this paper, I aim to look at the evidence for what is usually called the 'first' Catilinarian conspiracy. Catiline was an ambitious politician during the late Roman Republic, who became involved in a number of scandals and plots whose intention was to overthrow the state. I intend to revisit the evidence for the first occasion on which he was accused of such a plot, the details of which are contained in a number of contradictory sources; this example illustrates the problems we have when reconstructing events in ancient history. As we shall see it is generally held by scholars that this 'first' conspiracy was a fabrication, or that there was a conspiracy but that Catiline was not involved. I intend to argue that Catiline must have been involved in some kind of nefarious activity at around this time; my argument will be based on a Ciceronian letter, which has been somewhat neglected by scholars.

Keywords: Conspiracy, murder, Rome, Cicero, Catiline, Sallust



In 63 BCLucius Sergius Catalina (hereinafter anglicised to Catiline) attempted to lead an army into Rome, burn down large parts of the city and seize power. But among the sources for this conspiracy there can be found accusations and evidence of a previous plot to overthrow the state, accusations which we shall examine.

The 'first' Catilinarian conspiracy is something that has been discussed widely by scholars in the past (most notably R. Seager and R. Syme). However, it is my contention that these scholars have failed to encompass all of the evidence concerning this event; I will therefore attempt to work my way through all the evidence which I think is relevant to this topic, in a logical order. The order I have chosen is essentially chronological, with the exception of two pieces of evidence, Sallust's description of the event in his Bellum Catilinae and a letter of Cicero. I decided to start with Sallust because he gives us the most information on this supposed conspiracy and I shall attempt to compare the remaining evidence to his. I have placed the letter of Cicero out of chronological order, because it is much more useful in this position in respect to other sources I will discuss.


The Evidence

Sallust discusses this supposed conspiracy and names the conspirators as Piso, Catiline and Autronius (Sallust, 1984: 33-4). The interesting thing in this passage is the omission of Sulla's name. It may seem that Cicero's ploy in his Pro Sulla (Cicero, 1937: 338)–to smuggle Sulla out of the narrative – has succeeded here and that Sallust has been fooled. Another interesting aspect of this passage is its placement in Sallust's Bellum Catilinae, as it comes after he has begun relating Catiline's actions in 64 BC, making quite clear that this is the beginning of the plotting of any conspiracy. It would appear that this story might have been some kind of afterthought of Sallust, which leads me to the conclusion that it may be less credible than it may at first seem (Syme, 1964:100). Or, perhaps, considering that Sallust's chronology concerning the rest of the Bellum Catilinae is questionable, the placing could just be a mistake. However, I do not believe this to be the case: Sallust makes it clear that this happened before the events he has previously narrated, as opposed to it being a unintentional mistake such as the dating of the meeting at Laeca's house in 63 BC (Sallust, 1984: 37). Syme also points out that Sallust does not make a distinction between the two different plots as the second still contains the same conspirators with similar action to be taken.

In Sallust's account, Piso is merely another of the conspirators who wishes, through governorship of both the Spanish provinces, to make some money, in contrast to what is suggested of him in other sources, notably Suetonius' life of Julius Caesar, which I will discuss later. Sallust's reasons for Catiline's exclusion of professo, for the election of 66 BC, are that he was facing extortion charges at the time and that constituted a legal bar from standing. However, as pointed out by Hardy, if this were true Volcacius would not have needed to consult the senate, because were there a legal bar then no discussion would be needed (Hardy, 1917; Asconius, 1990: 139). He then points out another passage of Asconius which distinctly states that Clodius did not bring the charges upon him until 65 BC, after he submitted his professo (Asconius, 1990: 133). This also fits with Cicero's epistula ad Atticum, which is dated to 65 BC, and which states that the outcome of Catiline's trial is still undecided in the middle of the year. (Cicero, 1962: 8) Hardy points out that this letter also show us that the optimates were on Catiline's side, and Cicero, even though convinced of Catiline's guilt, even considers defending him. Hardy's argument is logical, and I agree with his opinion that Sallust is wrong c oncerning the reason for Catiline's professo to be excluded. This forces us to consider other mistakes Sallust may have made. This will form the subject of the next part of this paper, in relation to the other passages which may or may not refer to this so-called 'first' conspiracy.

In Cicero's in toga candida, which survives through Asconius's commentaries on various speeches of Cicero, we are told of a conspiracy of Catiline and Piso to massacre the optmates (Asconius, 1990:143). We must remember, this being the earliest chronological reference to any conspiracy of Catiline and Piso, that at this point Piso is already dead, which makes him open to any slander without being able to defend himself. He also claims that this plot was planned in the year before in toga candida was delivered, which would be 65 BC (Asconius, 1990: 131). If we look at the second part of Sallust's account of this plot, which involves a caedes opimatum, the execution for which was planned for 5 Febuary. The reason for the failure of the plot is also recorded as the same in both sources. It is suggested by Seager that Sallust's writings were influenced by Cicero's in toga candida and that Sallust would have taken what Cicero had said and recorded in it his history of the event (Seager, 1964: 339). He dismisses the notion that Asconius might have taken the date from Sallust, because Asconius does not repeat the date of 5 Febuary, which presumably he would have done if he had been using Sallust as a source. I am strongly inclined to agree with Seager, that Sallust is based on Cicero's speech and not vice versa, primarily because of the exclusion of the date.

Cicero's first in Catilinam tells us that on the last day of December that Catiline took his place in the assembly whilst armed, and that he had prepared a band of men to murder the consuls and the principum civitatis (Cicero, 1937: 29). On the face of it, this seems to be a completely different plot to what is reported by Sallust and Cicero's in toga, the major difference being the date. 'Lepido et Tullo consulibus' makes it clear that this was 66 BC, not 65 BC. The aim of the plot seems similar to what we are told in the in toga, caedes optimtium, but here it is also highlighted that consuls were to be included in this massacre. Just because the murder of the consuls is emphasised here, it does not make it different to what was said in the in toga, but rather an elaboration of what was described before. We might assume he is referring to the consuls elect, Cotta and Torquartus, rather than Lepidus and Tullus (consuls of 66 BC) which would fit with the Sallustian version. But Catiline would have a motive to kill one of the consuls at the time, Lucius Volcacius Tullus, as he was personally responsible for the refusal of Catiline's professo in 66 BC. It is also been argued that this passage in no way relates Catiline and Piso to Sulla and Autronius, or even to the election of 66 BC (Gruen, 1969: 21). Gruen suggests that the involvement of Autronius and Sulla in this 'first' conspiracy is unsurprising, as both were implicated in the 'second', or the 'real' conspiracy, and when it is suggested by Cicero that there was a previous plot, the public would have remembered that Catiline tried and failed to be a consular candidate in 66 BC, that year along with Sulla and Autronius and a motive was prescribed to the plot. I agree with Gruen's view on this, and cannot see why Cicero would say that Catiline would want to massacre the consuls-elect, I think it was more likely that he was suggesting Catiline wanted revenge for his exclusion of his candidature for the election, but, as we noted above, it would still not be logical for Catiline to do such a thing. Due to this, we must consider his possible motives. The only logical conclusion, working solely with the Ciceronian evidence, is that Catiline was a madman who revelled in debauchery. This fits with Sallust's description of him in the Bellum Catilinae (Sallust, 1984: 28). Seager also suggests that it would be ridiculous to connect this piece of evidence with the supposed plot of 1 January as 'those who would do murder on New Year's Day do not conduct dress-rehearsals on the last day of December (Seager, 1964: 339). This is certainly a sensible suggestion and I will discuss later in the paper what Catiline was actually doing on this date.

Following what Gruen and Seager have both said on this subject, we might dismiss this piece of evidence, as the only logical conclusion is that it this accusation was fabricated by Cicero, to blacken Catiline's name and to help persuade the senate and people of Catiline's misdeeds during 63 BC. However, if we divide this section up into two different parts, one being that Catiline appeared in the forum armed on the last day of December, and the second being that Catiline had assembled a band of men to massacre the optimates, then the second part of this reference may actually hold something worth considering, as Cicero could then be referring to a plan Catiline wishes to carry out in the future.[2] Cicero not only says that Catiline had assembled this manus to kill the consuls, but also to kill 'Principes civitatis'. This is something that would fit with his accusation in his in toga and what Sallust considers to be the renewal of the original plot to assassinate the consuls, which involved the massacre of the senators. So if we assume that Cicero meant that Catiline was to carry out this massacre in the future, then we might assume that there was in fact one plot, as Sallust has it, which included both the murder of the consuls of 65 BCand the massacre of the senators. However, Cicero, in this speech, implies that the massacre of the optimates and the consuls would happen at the same time, agreeing again with the second half of the Sallustian version of events.

Cicero, in his defence of Murena, conducted in late November 63 BC (Cicero, 1937: 147), mentions this 'first' plot again. It is important to note that this defence is taking place during the period when Cicero is publicly denouncing Catiline, and this trial takes place in between his second and third speeches against him. Cicero says here that Catiline has been brewing these plots for a triennium (Cicero, 1937: 244). With respect to the planned date of execution of this supposed first plot, Seager points out that this could refer to either of the plots which we have discussed, as 'from November 63 to Febuary 65 could not be described as a biennium' (Seager, 1964: 339). What Seager does not go on to say is that Cicero does mention the intention of this plot was to massacre the optimates, which could be put together with what Cicero said in his first Catilinarian speech, also considering that this defence was delivered very close to the first speech against Catiline, it is likely he would have been aiming for continuity.

The next piece of evidence we have comes from Cicero's defence of Publius Sulla. It is important to note the prosecutor in this trial, Torquatus the younger, the son of the consul Torquatus of 65 BC. In this defence Cicero quotes Torquatus the Younger's accusation of Sulla being involved in an earlier conspiracy, which he claims was planned during the consulship of Lepidus and Volcacius. This is interesting as it is the first chronological inclusion of Sulla and Autronius in the tradition and also that it is Torquatus, not Cicero, who is mentioning this first conspiracy (Cicero, 1937: 271). Cicero also tells us that at the time he was unaware of such a conspiracy, as he was not at the heart of affairs. Syme's response to that statement initially reflected my own, that this is an extremely strange thing to hear coming from not only a praetor of 66 BC, but from Cicero, one of the most 'alert and aware' of all the people in Rome (Syme, 1964: 90). We later hear of a letter that Cicero wrote to Pompey, which, according to Torquatus, proves that Cicero knew of Sulla's involvement in a plot of 66 BC (Cicero, 1937: 324-26). Cicero once again maintains his ignorance of any plot at this time. This conspiracy comes up once more in this defence speech, where we find out that in 65 BC, during his consulship, Torquatus the Elder actually defended Catiline against his charge of extortion even though his guilt was as 'clear as day', suggesting that Torquatus did not know of Catiline's supposed plot earlier in the year.[3]

As noted above, I found Cicero's supposed ignorance suspect, but it is supported in one of his letters to Atticus, in which he states that he is considering defending Catiline against his charge of extortion in 65 BC, and possibly even running with him on a campaign to become the consuls of 63 BC together (Cicero, 1962: 8). As a piece of evidence for the 'first' Catilinarian conspiracy, I feel this letter is undervalued. Here we have amicable feelings of Cicero towards Catiline, in the middle of 65 BC, after the failure of these supposed plots. This is a complete reversal of what we get barely a year later, in the deliverance of the in toga candida, and so we must ask ourselves why Cicero drastically changes his attitude towards Catiline. The obvious answer, taking the ancient sources at face value, would be that Catiline was involved in some kind of plot, about which Cicero and Torquatus the Elder knew nothing. However, six months later, Cicero (and presumably everyone else, by the way he addresses the public concerning this plot in his in toga) find out about about this attempted plot. There are many problems with this, one of which I dealt with above, that Cicero claimed he was not at the heart of affairs in 66 BC, even though he would have probably heard something, for the aforementioned reasons. The next is the supposition that Torquatus knew nothing of the plot against him, even though the senate voted him a bodyguard to deal with the threat of assassination earlier that year when this plot was supposedly uncovered (Dio, 1993: 70-72). Torquatus certainly would not have defended the man who tried to kill him earlier in the year.

Another explanation could be due to Catiline's possible involvement in the riots surrounding Manilius's trial at the end of 66 BC. Given that Cicero was defending Manilius, if Catiline were involved with in the riots, especially on the anti-Pompeian side, it may have irked him somewhat.[4] The problem with this is that if Catiline and Piso were some of the magni homines that interrupted the trial, then Cicero's animosity would have been ignited from the beginning of 65 BC rather than six months later. The only plausible explanation, if Catiline were not involved in some kind of plot, is that Cicero realised that Catiline would be a genuine threat in the elections of 64 BC, and Cicero has fabricated a lie to discredit his opponent and make sure he is not beaten in the race for the consulship. However, this does not explain why his opinion of Catiline has changed so drastically; it is not just that Cicero does not want to be beaten to the consulship by Catiline, it is that Cicero wants to destroy Catiline' s political career. It has been suggested that a tribune imposed his veto on the investigating of this supposed conspiracy (Crook et al., 1994: 346), especially if they were bribed by Autronius and Sulla to do so, given that they have shown themselves to be partial to bribery. This is a possibility which should be considered, if the investigation of this plot was forbidden in 65 BC, then perhaps with a change of tribunes in 64 BC, evidence was revealed implicating Catiline in a minor role in this plot and this is why Cicero only brings it up for the first time in the in toga.

Suetonius's Divus Iulius provides us with a report of a plot which bears a significant resemblance to the initial one which Sallust mentions, with a few differences: Firstly, the exclusion of Catiline; secondly, in the involvement of Publius Sulla and thirdly, the inclusion of Crassus and Caesar. Suetonius's version states that

ut pricipo anni senatum adoirentur [Sulla et Autronius]

[Sulla and Autronius planned] to attack the senate at the beginning of the year (Suetonius, 1964: 10).

This fits with the second half of the Sallustian conspiracy of 65 BC, the caedes optimatium of 5 Feburary, as it is clear the target here is the senate, not the incoming consuls of 65 BC. The inclusion of Sulla, rather than Catiline, in this retelling makes more sense to me as at this point in time, Catiline has no reason to be involved in any kind of conspiracy. He still has hopes to hold the consulship legitimately, hence his standing in both 65 BC (for the consulship of 64 BC) and in 64 BC (for the consulship of 63 BC). Sulla and Autronius, on the other hand, have every reason to want to murder Torquatus and Cotta, as they were the ones who had prosecuted Sulla and Autronius for ambitus and thus prevented their consulship. (Dio, 1993:70-72). This would have seriously damaged their dignitas, and a revenge plot would seem likely to happen. In regards to Crassus's support of Catiline, this is not a new idea, Sallust states:

Fuere item ea tempestate qui crederent M. Licinium Crassum non ignarum eius consili

Also, at the same time, there were those who believed Marcus Licinius Crassus not to be ignorant of this plot (Sallust, 1984: 32).

While this does not completely agree with what Suetonius says, it definitely suggests some support of Catiline from Crassus, even though this passage refers to the 'second' conspiracy. Crassus's involvement with Catiline at any point is difficult to believe, especially in the later plot, as Sallust tells us himself that

Cailina polliceri tabulas novas

Catline promised clean slates [With regards to debt] (Sallust, 1984:35).

It is unlikely that the biggest debtor in Rome would support someone who is campaigning for, and presumably genuinely believed in, the abolition of debt.

It has been argued that Suetonius's account is the true one (Salmon, 1935). Salmon points out that it would make sense in context of Crassus fearing the return Pompey from his command in the east, as the two had been enemies since their consulship (Suetonius, 1964: 22-24), and that therefore this conspiracy was a product of his manoeuvres to ensure Pompey would not have the upper hand when he returned. He continues that the whole Piso affair was an attempt of Crassus, at this point friendly with Caesar (probably due to a loan of sorts), (Suetonius, 1964: 22-24), to gain control of point d'appui against Pompey; this is something that is, in fact, suggested by Sallust (Sallust, 1984: 33-34). There are issues with his argument, the main one being the question of why Piso was still sent to Spain after the failure of the plot and why Crassus and Caesar would want to be involved. For the former Salmon offers a weak excuse, saying that Crassus exercised his censorial authority. Crassus was not censor until 65 BCand Piso would have had to be chosen as the governor of Spain the previous year. This also raises the question of whether or not the senate would send someone who recently attempted to overthrow the state to a province and grant him an army. Salmon makes the assumption that it was Crassus's money that was used for the bribery for the election of 66 BC, and this is how Crassus and Caesar became involved with Sulla and Autronius. This conjecture is not the best to make, as although Crassus was a leading debtor at the time 'it is a common fallacy to suppose every major financial transaction in Rome involved the cash of Marcus Crassus (Gruen, 1969: 22). Crassus and Caesar would not want to be involved with a conspiracy at this stage of their careers, as they still have ambitions of being in control legitimately. Crassus, in 66 BC, was standing for the censorship and Caesar was standing for the praetorship. While this argument could also be applied to Catiline's involvement in a conspiracy, it is Catiline who later proves his willingness to be involved in plots.

This anecdote could also be reflected on with Suetonius's others in mind, as emphasis is often placed on scandalous behaviour, rather than factual recounts of events. With these factors considered, Suetonius's version of events seems unlikely, apart from the inclusion of Sulla in the narrative.

Cassius Dio dedicates a brief section of his Roman History to this supposed conspiracy, adding a little more to our information on the event. He tells us that the plot was discovered and a bodyguard then voted to Cotta and Torquartus by the senate (Dio, 1993: 70-72). This leads us to try to understand what Catiline might be doing in the forum, armed, on the last day of December, as Cicero says he was in his in Catilinam 1.15. It is known that at this time the trial of Manilius was being carried out, and that it was being disrupted by riots (c.f. Asconius, 1990: 100-03 and Dio, 1993: 70-72). Cicero, Asconius's recording and commentary on his Pro Cornelio, makes reference to the troubles that interrupted Manilius's trial, but he does not state directly who the magni homines are. However, Acsonius himself identifies them as Catiline and Piso. This would explain why Catiline was in the forum, armed, on 29 December 66 BC. Asconius also tells us, concerning Manilius's trial, that the consuls were in attendance at this trial. If we assume that Manilius came to a retrial early the following year, considering that the rioting had forced it to be postponed, to discourage further unrest, and for the protection consuls, the senate may have voted them a bodyguard (Ward, 1970: 458). Marshall argues that carefully picked vocabulary used by Asconius would have used the word exercereas his main verb(Marshall, 1977: 320), if the consuls' attendance was to supplant the president of the court, as Ward thinks (Ward, 1970: 459). Exercereis usually associated with being president of the court, as opposed to praesidebant et iudicio. Marshall's explanation of the voting of the bodyguards makes much more sense than Dio's, and concords with the theory that the plot remained undiscovered until later in the year, due to the possible vetoof the tribune preventing an investigation.


A Reconstruction of Events

It is no coincidence that Catiline appeared armed in the forum on the last day of December, at the same time the riots were going on over the trial of Manilius. Cicero uses this to discredit him in 63 BC, when he needs to turn Rome against Catiline. However, before this, in his in toga, Cicero implicates him in a planned massacre of the senate. It is likely that, following Sulla and Autronius being prosecuted and having their consulships removed, there would be rumours flying around Rome, suggesting that Sulla and Autronius wanted revenge for this serious damage to their dignitas. It is probable that there were a few different rumours regarding what they might do for revenge, i.e. murder those responsible. It is at this point a that a tribune imposes his veto on a proposed investigation into the rumours. When there was a change of tribunes in 64 BC an investigation may have been carried out, or certain pieces of evidence revealed, concerning the rumour of the plot of early 65 BC, and this is where Cicero's attitude towards Catiline take a dramatic change. Prosecutions do not take place, as it is too long after the event. However, Cicero uses this against Catiline during the elections of 64 BC, as he does not wish to share the consulship with someone who attempted to overthrow the state and most likely disagreed in policies. Cicero could not have gotten away with random accusations about his opponents; Catiline would have simply defended himself.

Sallust's strange account of these events is likely to be due to one main factor: Cicero. Sallust misunderstands Cicero' s accusation that Catiline was involved in the Manilian riots at the end of 66 BCand assimilates it with rumours of a plot stating that Sulla and Autronius planned to murder their rivals Cotta and Torquatus. Sallust, tricked by Cicero's defence of Sulla, then omits Sulla form his report of the plot. The senate voted the consuls a bodyguard because of a combination of the rumours and the Manilian riots, as explained by Dio. A caedes optimatium would have brought Catiline, Sulla and Autronius together. They each had their own optimates they wished to take revenge on, for Sulla and Autonius it would have been Cotta and Torquatus and for Catiline it would have been Volcacius.




Many thanks are due to David Wilkins for some much needed advice, Professor Peter Kruschwitz (University of Reading) for encouragement to pursue personal research and to Brian Haines, a friend and mentor.



[1] Patrick is currently studying for a BA Classics at the University of Reading and is hoping to graduate in 2012. He then hopes to continue his studies in classics to postgraduate level.

[2] Previous scholars seem to believe that Cicero is accusing Catiline of appearing armed in the forum on this day in order to carry out his massacre; they have apparently not considered the possibility of the use of zeugma.

[3] For Catiline's guilt see Cicero (1962) Letters to Atticus 1.1 pp. 2-8; for Torquatus' ignorance of a plot involving Catiline and his defence of Catiline see Cicero (1964) Pro Sulla81 p. 339.

[4] For a discussion of with whom Catiline may have been rioting, c.f. Seager, 1964: 345 and Gruen, 1917: 23. While Seager argues that Catiline would have been rioting on the Pompeian side because of a vague connection to Pompey's father 25 years beforehand, Greun brings out some anti-Pompeian connections regarding friends and previous actions of Catiline and, as a result, has a much stronger argument.



Primary sources

Asconius (1990), ed. with trans. S. Squires, Commentaries of Five Speeches of Cicero, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press

Cicero (1937), ed. with trans. L. E. Lord, In Catilinam 1-4, Pro Murena, Pro Sulla, Pro Flacco, London: Loeb Classical Library, William Heinmann Press

Cicero (1962), ed. with trans. E. O. Winstedt, Cicero; Letters to Atticus I, London: Loeb Classical Library, William Heinmann Press

Dio (1993), ed. with trans. E. Cary, Roman History Vol. 3, London: Loeb Classical Library, William Heinmann Press

Sallust (1984) ed. with commentary J. T. Ramsey, Bellum Catilinae,American Philological Association

Suetonius (1964), ed. with trans. J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius I , London: Loeb Classical Library, William Heinmann Press

Secondary sources

Crook, J. A., A. Lintott and E. Rawson (1994), The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. 9: The last age of the Roman Republic, 146-43BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Gruen, E. S. (1969), 'Notes on the 'First Catilinarian Conspiracy', Classical Philology, 64: 20-24

Hardy, E. G. (1917), 'The Catilinarian Conspiracy in Its Context: A Re-Study of the Evidence', The Journal of Roman Studies, 7, 153-228

MacLaren, M. (1970), 'The Dating of Cicero's Letters by Consular Names', The Classical Journal, 65, 168-72

Marshall, B. (1977), 'A Vote of a Bodyguard for the Consuls of 65', Classical Philology, 72: 318-20

Salmon, E. T. (1935), 'Catiline, Crassus, and Caesar', The American Journal of Philology, 56, 302-16

Seager, R. (1964), 'The First Catilinarian Conspiracy', Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 13: 338-47

Syme, R. (1964), Sallust: Cambridge University Press

Ward, A. M. (1970), 'Politics in the Trials of Manilius and Cornelius', Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 101, 545-56


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