Text #9681

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

Catilina fulfilled Cicero’s expectations and, on his way into exile in Massilia, he worked himself up so that by the time he reached Etruria, he turned off the main road and headed for Manlius’ camp. By doing so, he rescued Cicero from serious embarrassment. It had been just over a month since the SCU and finally, with this news, Cicero was able to get the senate to declare Catilina and Manlius outlaws. That fact alone again tells us that Cicero’s claims were not believable to the senators and something else was going on in the background at which we can only guess. After eleven months of constant harping and hammering and haranguing, raising alarms, acting hysterical, Cicero had not persuaded anybody of any great peril to the Republic. A deadline was set for the rebels to lay down their arms and rewards offered for any information about subversive activities.

Cato, at this point, showed signs of rebellion against Cicero’s cause. Some ten years earlier, he had defended Catilina against a charge of adultery with a vestal virgin and obtained an acquittal. He probably remembered the torment that Catiline had suffered then and there is little doubt in my mind that he found Cicero’s megalomania to be highly offensive. Completely disregarding Cicero, Cato joined up with one of the defeated consular candidates, Servius, and indicted the new consul-elect Murena for election fraud. Cicero found that he had to lay aside his burden of protecting the world from total destruction in order to defend Murena. However, he wasn’t able to deny his client’s guilt so he turned to comedic ad hominem attacks on the plaintiff and his partner, Cato and then insinuated that Cato himself was part of some sort of conspiracy

The infection of [Catilina’s] crime has spread more widely than anyone thinks. [Directed at Cato] The Trojan Horse is within, within the city, I say.

Then, the coup de grace of his un-winnable case: if his client, the consul-elect, was to be convicted, then…

The man who may check the rising tide of sedition and turmoil, that monstrous, insatiable curse of Catilina, will burst out anew, it will spread rapidly over the territory about the city; madness will stalk on the speakers’ platform, terror in the Senate house, conspiracy in the Forum, an army in the Campus Martius, desolation in the country; in every dwelling and in every place we shall fear sword and fire.

He was definitely getting a lot of mileage out of this thing! And no juror would want to be responsible for the destruction of the state, or the whole world, especially when they have a nice, fat, bribe to spend!

Though he was clearly guilty, Murena was acquitted.

At the end of November, Cicero only had a month left to assure his place in history. Within a few days, hostile tribunes would take their seats; in 3 weeks, Caesar would take up his duties as praetor. No one had taken up the offer of clemency nor the reward for information about any conspiracies abroad. It was intolerable! At this rate, all of Rome would suspect that there never had been a conspiracy and Cicero would be the laughingstock of the empire not to mention forgotten by history.

As if in answer to his prayers, the gods sent a nice selection of evil portents: a man was struck by a thunderbolt out of a clear, blue sky at Pompeii; at Spoletum, there was an earthquake which collapsed many buildings; eerie lights were seen in the sky. Cicero, never one to look at a gifted portent too closely, summoned the Senate to another emergency session on December 3rd. He was hardly able to contain himself.

He recited how he had gotten his spies inside a coterie of aristocratic conspirators. They had given him certain information to wit: there were Gaulish Allobrogian envoys in Rome who had come to petition for relief from the extortion of Roman officials and usurers. A certain Umbrenus who was a merchant and moneylender in Gaul and “personally acquainted with many of the leading men of the [Gallic] states” had approached these envoys and invited them to a meeting at the home of Sempronia. She had been a supporter of Catilina during the recent electoral campaign. During this meeting, Umbrenus led on the Gauls and disclosed to them a plot to overthrow the government that might interest them since they were not happy with Rome. According to Cicero, he also named all the participants and, to “give the envoys greater courage, included many guiltless men of all classes” in their list of participants in the plot. This was a handy maneuver on Cicero’s part because he could thereby hold the fates of just about anybody in his hands as either a “real revolutionary” or one of the fake ones included in the list for dissimulative purposes. The Allobrogians were suspicious of this whole situation so they went to their senatorial patron, Quintus Fabius Sanga, and told him of the whole matter and he then informed Cicero.

The Allobrogians were well acquainted with Cicero. Some time before, representatives of this tribe had accused a governor of extortion and Cicero had defended the governor. He obtained an acquittal for his client by asking the jurors whether “the most honorable native of Gaul [was] to be set on the same level with even the meanest citizen of Rome”. He depicted the complaint against a Roman governor as “a savage and unconscionable assault of barbarism.” And then, earlier in this same year of the Catiline Conspiracy, he had won the acquittal of another governor, Pompey’s enemy, Piso, also accused of extortion in Gaul. Caesar had represented the Gauls as prosecutor. In just the previous week, the Allobrogians had witnessed Cicero defending a third former governor of Gaul, the consul-elect Murena and heard him described as noted for “justice and energy” in enabling the Roman usurers and traders to collect debts in Gaul. Murena was a collaborator in the very extortions for which the Allobrogians were now seeking redress.

Cicero wanted the Gauls to go along with the conspirators and get him hard evidence. Also, he claimed that it was at his suggestion that the Gauls should demand that the conspirators give them credentials to show to their countrymen. Handily, they had a new member of the conspiracy (or so it was said) who volunteered to accompany the Gauls on their journey home. Along the way he was alleged to have been intending to introduce them to Catiline now holed up in Tuscany. So, they were supposed to appear to sneak away at night and would be “arrested”, but only for “show purposes” while carrying letters and with the alleged member of the conspiracy in their group.

In any event, with his inside scoop from Umbrenus – who was probably Cicero’s agent and brokered this whole deal – the Allobrogian envoys were ambushed on the Milvian bridge as they were trying to leave Rome at 3 o’clock in the morning and the “incriminating letters” were found in their possession along with the suspected conspirator named Volturcius.

It’s really not hard to see that both Umbrenus and Volturcius must have been in the employ of Cicero. The latter had “only recently joined” the conspiracy and, upon capture, rattled off names and details with remarkable alacrity. Not only did he corroborate the Gauls who had been lured into a set-up scenario so as to be “witnesses”, but he also cheerfully supported every dire prediction that Cicero had been making for almost a year. He swore that an uprising was now scheduled for December 19th and, at a signal, many of the young men of the most noble families were sworn to murder their senatorial fathers. Interestingly, Cicero did not press for names of the prospective parricides but one can easily see what a weapon this was in his hand. Any senator who opposed him could end up having his son named as a conspirator by these several witnesses.


Then Cicero described how the authors of the alleged “incriminating letters” found in the possession of the Gauls were arrested and brought to his house for questioning. They were not aware of the arrest of the Allobrogians – nor probably anything else – and came willingly. Cicero told how he had been informed that one of the conspirators, Cethegus, had been stockpiling weapons for the revolution, he orders Caius Sulpicius, one of the praetors, to search his house. Surprise! Surprise! A hoard of swords and daggers was found.

Now, before the senate, each of the accused acknowledged his seal on his own letter. One letter by a young patrician named Cethegus was addressed to the Allobrogian people and their senate. In it, Cethegus said that “he would carry out his promises to their envoys and asked them to execute the orders he was transmitting through them.” There was no confirmation of what was claimed he meant by this: that he was asking the Gauls to send him a troop of cavalry for the uprising. Obviously, they would not have had time to get back to their homes and send any cavalry in time for the planned uprising, but nobody brought up that point. Cethegus fell silent after reading his letter aloud to all and Cicero exulted that he was obviously “overwhelmed and stricken by the force of conscience.” By now I’m sure the reader has figured out that Cicero wouldn’t know conscience if it jumped up and hit him on the head. The more likely explanation for the youth’s silence was due probably to the fact that he was, indeed, engaged in some kind of conspiracy against the authorities of the Republic, but not necessarily that which Cicero proclaimed; and secondly, the overwhelming awareness that any defense against Cicero was doomed. The other letters were also equally vague in precise details of “criminal intent.” One is reminded of the numerous events in the current US “War on Terror” where FBI agents have infiltrated and radicalized small groups of disaffected individuals, giving them plans and weapons, setting them up, effectively, and then trumpeting loudly the “discovery” of an eeevil terr’ist plot!

One of those who was arrested that morning was Lentulus, a patrician who had just won the election to praetor. He was the husband of Julia, the widow of Marcus Antonius, deceased brother to Cicero’s colleague consul. She was also sister to Lucius Caesar and cousin to Julius Caesar. Cicero would ultimately pay dearly for what he did to Lentulus.

Lentulus spoke up to question the Gauls with obvious assurance that he would be able to prove his innocence by their responses. This assurance seems to have been dashed which suggests that the Gauls were coached about what they were to say. They had their answers memorized. They told Lentulus that he “had assured them that the Sibylline books and soothsayers had promised him that he was that third member of the Cornelian clan to whom the rule and the sway of this city was fated to come; Cinna and Sulla [both Cornelians] had preceded him.” Lentulus, they said, had urged on them the suitability of the year (63) for a violent revolution since it was exactly 20 years since the burning of the Capitol and ten since “the acquittal of the virgins.”

Lentulus had also sent a letter to Catilina which Volturcius was to deliver in which he wrote: “You will know who I am from him whom I am sending to you. Be brave and consider into what situation you have brought yourself; and see what you now need and take care to secure for yourself the aid of all, even of the lowest classes.” That was it. Rather vague. Not only that, but the first line of the letter contradicted the idea of a carefully coordinated conspiracy. It sounded partly like a letter of supportive encouragement to a man who was down and out, and certainly it shows awareness of the fact that Cicero was intending to send troops to destroy Catiline and he was being warned to prepare his defense. Bottom line is, however, it was not any sort of clear evidence of a planned, coordinated attack on Rome, the planned assassinations of the optimates, or the “destruction of the world.” It sounds rather more like a conspiracy of defense against Cicero and his gang.

However, despite the fact that none of this so-called evidence would have stood up for an instant in a court of law, the atmosphere of the senate, where everyone was afraid of who Cicero would accuse next, induced many of them to just agree with him, not question too closely. When Volturcius declared that Lentulus had also entrusted him with an oral message urging Catilina to arm slaves for an attack on Rome to be coordinated with the parricides of the patrician youth, Lucius Caesar, Lentulus’ brother-in-law rose and expressed outrage. His grandfather, Flaccus, the colleague and compatriot of Gaius Gracchus, had been murdered on the orders of a consul and also his uncle, Flaccus’ young son who had been taken as a hostage, was murdered. So, even though he appeared to be expressing his outrage toward Lentulus, he actually managed to expose the fact that Cicero was following the example of those who had lynched Gaius Gracchus and his followers. He probably didn’t even make the correct connection in his own mind.

Once the now-deposed praetor and the three other prisoners had been led away, senators outdid themselves to give further evidence of a conspiracy and to heap praises on Cicero for exposing it. The consul-elect, Silanus, declared that Cethegus had named to him three senators of consular and four of praetorian rank, who had been marked for death. Nobody asked him why he didn’t reveal that sooner. The corrupt Piso confirmed this account. A corona civica was proposed to honor Cicero and Caesar’s cousin, Lucius, moved to grant a thanksgiving celebration for Cicero, the first that had ever been given to a man in a civil capacity. Cotta declared that Cicero, through his “courage, counsel, forethought… had saved the city from fire, the citizens from slaughter, and Italy from war.”

Caesar was silent. It would have been suicide for him to speak up in this frenzy of the corrupt outdoing one another in gratitude that they had not been caught in Cicero’s dragnet. But if there were any senators with firing neurons, they would have been able to understand that all that had happened here was that possibly a bumbling group of would-be rebels playing at conspiracy had been manipulated by agents provocateurs and had fallen into Cicero’s trap. In the end, after breaking up the world-destroying conspiracy, only nine men were arrested. The whole situation is so disgusting it’s actually hard to write about it. But it is also important because the very same conditions and actions prevail in our world today. It behooves us to know what happened to Rome as a consequence of this type of rule by oligarchy.

As it happened, that very day, Cicero had arranged in advance for the unveiling of a new statue of Jupiter so the crowd that had assembled for this event became the audience for Cicero’s Third Catilinarian Oration in which he reported on his great achievements of the previous night and morning to the people, and ascribed the disclosure of the conspiracy to the god himself. Certain that the relief that everyone felt now that the danger was over would prevent anyone from questioning into it too closely, the newly acclaimed “Father of his country” declared: (Brace yourself: you may need an anti-emetic for this one.)

You see this day, O Romans, the republic, and all your lives, your goods, your fortunes, your wives and children, this home of most illustrious empire, thus most fortunate and beautiful city, by the great love of the immortal gods for you, by my labours and counsels and dangers, snatched from fire and sword, and almost from the very jaws of fate, and preserved and restored to you. …

…we have extinguished flames which were almost laid under and placed around the temples and shrines, and houses and walls of the whole city; we have turned the edge of swords drawn against the republic, and have turned aside their points from your throats. …

…all this has been displayed in the senate, and made manifest, and detected by me, I will now explain it briefly, that you, O citizens, that are as yet ignorant of it, and are in suspense, may be able to see how great the danger was, how evident and by what means it was detected and arrested.

Skip here his recitation of the events which is heavily larded with how clever and dedicated he was and all that. Essentially, what it amounts to is that this is the main – if not only – first-hand account of the events we have. Later historians add a few details which suggests that there were other accounts, but they have not survived. But, in the main, the accounts tally with one another.

At this point, he adds more justification for running Catiline out of town even though the clear and obvious reason was to get him out from under indictment and the possibility of a trial and defense:

Unless I had driven this man, so active, so ready, so audacious, so crafty, so vigilant in wickedness, so industrious in criminal exploits, from his plots within the city to the open warfare of the camp, (I will express my honest opinion, O citizens,) I should not easily have removed from your necks so vast a weight of evil. He would not have determined on the Saturnalia 4 to massacre you he would not have announced the destruction of the republic, and even the day of its doom so long beforehand,—he would never have allowed his seal and his letters, the undeniable witnesses of his guilt, to be taken…But if Catiline had remained in the city to this day, although, as long as he was so, I met all his designs and withstood them; yet, to say the least, we should have had to fight with him, and should never, while he remained as an enemy in the city, have delivered the republic from such dangers, with such ease, such tranquillity, and such silence.

In other words, Cicero needed more time to conduct his sting operation and to manufacture the evidence. Next, he takes off on the portents. Cicero was no dummy. He fully understood, as did the majority of the Roman elite, that religion was the main means of controlling the masses.

… all these things, O Romans, have been so managed by men that they appear to have been done and provided for by the order and design of the immortal gods… because the direction of such weighty affairs scarcely appears capable of having been carried out by human wisdom; so, too, they have at this time so brought us present aid and assistance, that we could almost behold them without eyes. For to say nothing of those things, namely, the firebrands seen in the west in the night time, and the heat of the atmosphere,—to pass over the falling of thunderbolts and the earthquakes,—to say nothing of all the other portents which have taken place in such number during my consulship, that the immortal gods themselves have been seeming to predict what is now taking place…

It obviously never occurred to him that such portents could be read entirely the other way!

For you recollect, I suppose, when Cotta and Torquatus were consuls,[65 BC, just two years previously ] that many towers in the Capitol were struck with lightning, when both the images of the immortal gods were moved, and the statues of many ancient men were thrown down, and the brazen tablets on which the laws were written were melted. Even Romulus, who built this city, was struck, which, you recollect, stood in the Capitol, a gilt statue, little and sucking, and clinging to the teats of the wolf. And when at this time the soothsayers were assembled out of all Etruria, they said that slaughter, and conflagration, and the overthrow of the laws, and civil and domestic war, and the fall of the whole city and empire was at hand, unless the immortal gods, being appeased in every possible manner, by their own power turned aside, as I may say, the very fates themselves.

Therefore, according to their answers, games were celebrated for ten days, nor was anything omitted which might tend to the appeasing of the gods. And they enjoined also that we should make a greater statue of Jupiter, and place it in a lofty situation, and (contrary to what had been done before) turn it towards the east.

And now, of course, Cicero is dedicating the required statue and attributing his successful (almost) saving of the republic to the gods themselves. Masterful touch. He then proceeds with further flaming and defaming of Catiline, claiming he has saved everyone from the world-wide conflagration they were planning, and, by cracky! Jupiter himself resisted them!

And if I were to say that it was I who resisted them, I should take too much to myself and ought not to be borne. He—he, Jupiter, resisted them, He determined that the Capitol should be safe, he saved these temples, he saved this city, he saved all of you. It is under the guidance of the immortal gods, O Romans, that I have cherished the intention and desires which I have, and have arrived at such undeniable proofs. … you have been snatched from a most cruel and miserable destruction, and you have been snatched from it without slaughter, without bloodshed, without an army, without a battle. You have conquered in the garb of peace, with me in the garb of peace for your only general and commander.

Then he reminds them of Sulla, Cinna and Marius, and the bloody times of the previous generation:

…all this place was crowded with heaps of carcasses and flowed with the blood of citizens… these dissensions, O Romans, were such as concerned not the destruction of the republic, but only a change in the constitution…yet all those dissensions, none of which aimed at the destruction of the republic, were such that they were to be terminated not by a reconciliation and concord, but only by internecine war among the citizens.

…in this war alone, the greatest and most cruel in the memory of man … I have so managed matters, O Romans that you should all be preserved in safety; and though your enemies had thought that only such a number of the citizens would be left as had held out against an interminable massacre and only so much of the city as the flames could not devour, I have preserved both the city and the citizens unhurt and undiminished. I ask from you no reward of virtue, no badge of honour, no monument of my glory, beyond the everlasting recollection of this day. In your minds I wish all my triumphs, all my decorations of honour; the monuments of my glory, the badges of my renown, to be stored and laid up. Nothing voiceless can delight me, nothing silent,—nothing, in short, such as even those who are less worthy can obtain. In your memory, O Romans, my name shall be cherished, in your discourses it shall grow, in the monuments of your letters it shall grow old and strengthen; and I feel assured that the same day which I hope will be for everlasting; will be remembered for ever, so as to tend both to the safety of the city and the recollection of my consulship; and that it will be remembered that there existed in this city at the same time two citizens, one of whom limited the boundaries of your empire only by the regions of heaven, [Pompey] not by those of the earth, while the other preserved the abode and home of that same empire [Cicero].

It’s enough to make one lose their dinner precipitately. Apparently, being the mouthpiece and tool of the “seven tyrants” within the senate was too confining; he wanted to share the empire with Pompey. And then, as though he were Jupiter himself, he closed his oration with: “you may dwell in everlasting peace.”

He then plants a seed that we will see bearing fruit on the very next day, as you will see:

I must live among those whom I have defeated and subdued… it is your business, O Romans, to take care, if their good deeds are a benefit to others, that mine shall never be an injury to me. For that the wicked and profligate designs of audacious men shall not be able to injure you, I have taken care; it is your business to take care that they do not injure me. …O Romans, since it is now night ,worship that Jupiter, the guardian of this city and of yourselves, and depart to your homes; and defend those homes, though the danger is now removed, with guard and watch as you did last night, That you shall not have to do so long, and that you shall enjoy perpetual tranquillity, shall, O Romans, be my care.

What Cicero didn’t see was that he would very quickly be subjected to mounting disdain because of his egomaniacal declarations. The optimates had used him as long as he was useful, he almost got out of control because of his demanding ego, and it was unlikely that he would ever after be accepted into their private circles or mansions as an equal. What was worse, a certain absent warlord who had spies everywhere would never forgive Cicero for claiming to be on an equal level with Pompeius Magnus.

Interestingly, Plutarch, though he is thoroughly convinced that Cicero was the good guy who saved the Republic from the evil depredations of a terrifying conspiracy, takes some time to explain that Cicero had this really repellant habit of self-glorification.

At this time, therefore, his authority was very great in the city; but he created himself much envy, and offended very many, not by any evil action, but because he was always lauding and magnifying himself. For neither senate, nor assembly of the people, nor court of judicature could meet, in which he was not heard to talk of Catiline and Lentulus. Indeed, he also filled his books and writings with his own praises, to such an excess as to render a style, in itself most pleasant and delightful, nauseous and irksome to his hearers; this ungrateful humor, like a disease, always cleaving to him. Plutarch also includes some anecdotal evidence of Cicero’s sarcasm and biting wit that certainly did not become a man who professed to adhere to high ideals.

Another illustration of his love of praise is the way in which sometimes, to make his orations more striking, he neglected decorum and dignity. When Munatius, who had escaped conviction by his advocacy, immediately prosecuted his friend Sabinus, he said in the warmth of his resentment, “Do you suppose you were acquitted for your own merits, Munatius, and was it not that I so darkened the case, that the court could not see your guilt?” When from the Rostra he had made an eulogy on Marcus Crassus, with much applause, and within a few days after again as publicly reproached him, Crassus called to him, and said, “Did not you yourself two days ago, in this same place, commend me?” “Yes,” said Cicero, “I exercised my eloquence in declaiming upon a bad subject.” At another time, Crassus had said that no one of his family had ever lived beyond sixty years of age, and afterwards denied it, and asked, “What should put it into my head to say so?” “It was to gain the people’s favor,” answered Cicero; “you knew how glad they would be to hear it.” …

When Vatinius, who had swellings in his neck, [goiter] was pleading a cause, he called him the tumid orator; and having been told by some one that Vatinius was dead, on hearing presently after that he was alive, “May the rascal perish,” said he, “for his news not being true.”…

… he excited much ill feeling by his readiness to attack any one for the sake of a jest. … Meeting one day Voconius with his three very ugly daughters, he quoted the verse, “He reared a race without Apollo’s leave.” …By this habit he made himself odious with many people.

One certainly has to take Plutarch with a lot of salt, but often enough, one finds that his sources preserve some accurate and insightful perspectives.

Cicero had to execute his prisoners, obviously, and without bringing them to trial where uncomfortable truths might come out and it appears from the seeds about gods and portents that he planted in his Third Oration, that he had something planned. I don’t think that his speech on that day and what happened that night were unrelated nor was it a “miracle.”

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