Text #9682

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

That very night, of December 3rd, 63 BC, Cicero, after ordering more troops for the garrison on the Capitol and the guard in the Forum, went to temporary accommodations in the city to sleep. The reason for this was that his wife, Terentia, was holding the annual festival of the Bona Dea at their home and this festival was reserved for women only (obviously, the women of noble rank). Late at night, Terentia and the vestal virgins who assisted at the secret ceremonies, went to Cicero at his temporary quarters to awaken him with astonishing news. It seems that, after the sacrifice the women had performed, a flame had suddenly shot up from the dead ashes terrifying the women. However, the vestal virgins, of which Terentia’s sister was one, declared that Terentia, “a woman of no mild spirit nor without natural courage”, should go immediately and tell Cicero to “carry out his resolutions in behalf of the country since the goddess was giving him a great light on this path to safety and glory.”

Here’s Plutarch’s version:

It being evening, and the common people in crowds expecting without, Cicero went forth to them, and told them what was done, [The Third Oration where he showers himself with praises] and then, attended by them, went to the house of a friend and near neighbor; for his own was taken up by the women, who were celebrating with secret rites the feast of the goddess whom the Romans call the Good, and the Greeks, the Women’s goddess. For a sacrifice is annually performed to her in the consul’s house, either by his wife or mother, in the presence of the vestal virgins. And having got into his friend’s house privately, a few only being present, he began to deliberate how he should treat these men.

The severest, and the only punishment fit for such heinous crimes, he was somewhat shy and fearful of inflicting, as well from the clemency of his nature, as also lest he should be thought to exercise his authority too insolently, and to treat too harshly men of the noblest birth and most powerful friendships in the city; and yet, if he should use them more mildly, he had a dreadful prospect of danger from them. For there was no likelihood, if they suffered less than death, they would be reconciled, but rather, adding new rage to their former wickedness, they would rush into every kind of audacity, while he himself, whose character for courage already did not stand very high with the multitude, would be thought guilty of the greatest cowardice and want of manliness.

Whilst Cicero was doubting what course to take, a portent happened to the women in their sacrificing. For on the altar, where the fire seemed wholly extinguished, a great and bright flame issued forth from the ashes of the burnt wood; at which others were affrighted, but the holy virgins called to Terentia, Cicero’s wife, and bade her haste to her husband, and command him to execute what he had resolved for the good of his country, for the goddess had sent a great light to the increase of his safety and glory. Terentia, therefore, as she was otherwise in her own nature neither tender-hearted nor timorous, but a woman eager for distinction (who, as Cicero himself says, would rather thrust herself into his public affairs, than communicate her domestic matters to him), told him these things, and excited him against the conspirators. So also did Quintus his brother, and Publius Nigidius, one of his philosophical friends, whom he often made use of in his greatest and most weighty affairs of state.

This tale of the “sign from the goddess” was well known as a topos of Greek history: Plutarch recounts a similar tale in a different context. If this actually happened, Cicero was very familiar with Greek history must have been inspired by earlier legends to concoct this tale of a miracle and brought his wife and sister-in-law into the plot. Based on what we have learned thus far about Cicero, it is entirely in keeping with his style of just making stuff up when it suited him, and especially when it showed him in a glorious light.

Dio Cassius gives a slightly different version of the story as follows:

Now many slaves and freemen as well, some through fear and others out of pity for Lentulus and the rest, made preparations to deliver them all forcibly and rescue them from death. Cicero learned of this beforehand and occupied the Capitol and the Forum by night with a garrison. At dawn he received some divine inspiration to hope for the best; for in the course of sacrifices conducted in his house by the Vestals in behalf of the populace, the fire, contrary to custom, shot up to a very great height. Accordingly, he ordered the praetors to administer the oath of enlistment to the populace, in case there should be any need of soldiers; meanwhile he himself convened the senate…

I think that, between the two versions, we can accept that this Bona Dea Miracle was probably created and utilized by Cicero – with the connivance of his wife, Terentia, and sister-in-law, the Vestal Fabia - for the manipulation of the population, though of course, such things would have carried no weight with the cynical senate. Further, we note that after the “sign from heaven”, Cicero ordered the praetors to administer the oath of enlistment. Whether this was done to increase the anxiety of the population by making them think that an enemy was approaching, or whether it was done because Cicero was afraid of public reaction to what he had determined to do, is hard to tell; perhaps a bit of both.

The meeting to decide the fate of the prisoners was to be held in the Temple of Concord which, in Cicero’s mind probably represented his great achievement: bringing together the equestrian class (to which he belonged) with the patrician class (to which he aspired to belong) in “concord” against a common enemy, i.e. the masses of ordinary people who were suffering under the rule of the oligarchy. He was to hark back to this alleged achievement of his over and over again in his letters and speeches for the rest of his life. Indeed, the wealthy elite can stop their infighting when threatened by the loss of their power and possessions by the great proletariat on which they fasten like parasites, but it is certainly not any sort of great “achievement of concord” as Cicero represented it to be nor is it any sort of model for any subsequent democratic governments to hold up as virtuous. It was purely and simply demagogic BS.

There was also a pragmatic reason for holding this meeting in the Temple of Concord: it was more easily defended and it appears that Cicero, even though he was determined to pursue his glorification by shedding blood, was still a bit nervous about the reaction of the people. He had his personal bodyguard, a host of equestrians under the command of his friend, Atticus which is another point that suggests that Cicero knew very well what he was doing. In former times, consuls acting with the authority of the SCU had, indeed, executed those who were seen as enemies of the state, but it had nearly always been done in the context of open fighting, rioting, and when such rebels were clearly seen to be posing a serious threat in physical terms. What had never been done before was cold-blooded extra-judicial execution of Roman citizens who were already under guard and in a situation where a trial could very easily have been conducted. In no way could what Cicero proposed to do be excused as a “lynching in the heat of the moment.”

Further, Caesar’s recent dramatic demonstration via the trial of Rabirius probably made Cicero even more aware of the fact that what he wanted so desperately to do – commit murder for his own glory – could backfire on him. The senate was not a court, but if he could get a consensus of the members to support his action, then he would feel that he had moral force behind him.

Cicero opened his meeting by reminding the senators and all the equestrians listening at the door and passing information to the crowd outside, of the intention of the conspirators to “burn the city, to murder all of [the senators], to welcome Catilina” as dictator and the more recent information, to seduce the Gauls into becoming involved in rebellion. He reminded them that they must act decisively and without delay. And, to cover his backside he announced that he was going to “refer the whole matter to you… as if it were still an open question, both for your judgment on the deed and your decision about the punishment. To indemnify himself against any possible misrepresentation by anyone, he had shorthand clerks in the room recording every word of the deliberations.

The debate opened when Cicero asked Silanus, the consul elect, to give his opinion. Silanus was, recall, the husband of Caesar’s mistress, Servilia, who was also sister to Cato. It was customary to get the opinion of the men who would be taking office shortly since they would be the ones who might have to carry out measures decided at end of the consular year meetings. Silanus rose and declared that the rebels should suffer the “ultimate penalty.” This was interpreted to mean “execution” and certainly, all the other senators took it that way.

Next, the other consul elect was polled and after him, the 14 ex-consuls, followed by the eight praetors-elect, all of whom – except Caesar - agreed with Silanus. When it came time for Caesar to give his opinion, it was probably assumed, based on his silence the past few days and the fact that he was present, while Crassus, the other former supporter of Catiline, was not, that he would give energetic approval as proof of his loyalty to the Republic since that was the way Cicero had framed the conflict which made it very difficult for anyone to express any doubts at all about the claims of dire threats to the commonwealth.

Never was Caesar’s conscience more clearly exposed than at this moment when it would have been better if he had remained silent or at least assented with a murmur. In recent days, Caesar’s loyalty had been attacked, he had been accused of being a party to the conspiracy, Cicero had vouched for him and he had navigated that minefield. Caesar has been described by gentlemen historians as being a headline grabber, but that has generally been due to the hostile influence of the historical sources that have come down to us, mainly Cicero himself. Yes, he put on the Rabirius trial drama to make the point about the questionable legality of the SCU and executions of citizens without the right to appeal, and was wildly popular because he criticized the arbitrary use of power, but that was in an entirely different context. Here he was surrounded by hostility toward the prisoners and, more than that, there were hundreds of armed equestrians at the beck and call of Cicero and a highly hystericized crowd outside.

It seems that there was a line in Caesar that could not be crossed even by himself. As a very young man he had stood alone against the dictator, Sulla, and had been forced to flee for his life. He had been powerless then, but now, he was not entirely without power and influence. The text of his speech has survived in a version given to us by Sallust which is worth reading in its entirety. Since Cicero was known to have secretaries on hand to record everything spoken in the Senate, it is likely that Sallust had access to these records.

Whoever, gentlemen, is deliberating upon a difficult question ought to clear his mind of hatred and affection and of anger and compassion. It is not easy to discern the truth when one’s view is obstructed by such emotions, and all experience proves that those who yield to passion never make politic decisions. If you concentrate your mind on a problem, it can exert its full powers; once let passion come in, it will take control of you and reduce your mind to impotence. There are plenty of examples that I could cite of kings and people who have allowed anger or pity to lead them into error. But I would rather mention some cases in which our own ancestors, by controlling their emotions, have acted wisely and properly.

Even though Caesar has often been described as an Epicurean, his opening paragraph is much more Stoic than anything the self-proclaimed Stoic, Cato, ever said. It is especially Posidonian Stoicism in the views about emotion which we can know because the great physician, Galen, preserved some of Posidonius’ writings on this topic. Here, Caesar clearly exhibits influences of Stoicism: Stoic ethics taught freedom from ‘passion’ by following ‘reason.’ The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they sought to transform them by a resolute ‘askēsis’ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. Logic, reflection, and concentration were the methods of such self-discipline. Caesar’s point was that the Roman Senate was too august a body to allow itself to be driven by emotion and he was saying, carefully, that he was fully aware that Cicero was manipulating people by manipulating their emotions. In fact, he was telling the Senate outright: you are being manipulated!

In the war which Rome fought against King Perseus of Macedon, the powerful and wealthy state of Rhodes, which our support had made what it was, proved disloyal and turned against us. At the end of the war, when the matter came up for discussion, the Romans feared that if they annexed the island it might be said that they had gone to war to enrich themselves rather than to punish King Perseus for his wrongful conduct; so they let the Rhodians go unpunished. Similarly, in the whole series of wars with Carthage, in spite of many outrages committed by the Carthaginians in time of peace or during a truce, they never retaliated in kind, even when they had the chance. Such conduct they regarded as unworthy of Romans, even if it might be justifiable as a reprisal.

I would suggest that Caesar’s examples of the actions of the Roman ancestors were carefully selected to appeal to his listeners though certainly, he must have known that many things the Romans did during the Punic Wars were highly questionable. Also notice that his selected examples highlight some things that he may have been seeing in the Catiline case: greed and vengeance and allowed him to use these terms deliberately. But again, he was stressing very Stoic ethics which stress the idea “Follow where reason leads.”

You also, gentlemen, must take care that the guilt of Publius Lentulus and the others does not outweigh your sense of what is fitting, and that you do not indulge your resentment at the expense of your reputation. If a punishment can be found that is really adequate to their crimes, I am willing to support a departure from precedent; but if the enormity of their wickedness is such that no one could devise a fitting penalty, then I think we should content ourselves with those provided by the laws.

He mentions resentment against Publius Cornelius Lentulus as a particular driver. Lentulus had been quaestor to Sulla in 81 BC and was accused of squandering the public money (i.e. appropriating it to his own increase in wealth). Lentulus was praetor in 75, governor of Sicily in 74, and consul in 71. He was expelled from the senate for immorality along with quite a few others in 70 at the time of the five-year census when Roman citizens were assigned rank and position according to criteria of wealth, morality, etc. He had begun to work his way back into the good graces of the oligarchy and his recent election as a quaestor, on which campaign he spent a lot of money as all Roman politicians were obliged to do, makes it unlikely that he would have been involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government. But it is also likely that, as Sulla’s quaestor, he had, indeed, taken advantage of the Sullan dictatorship and was guilty of confiscating the property of others, and there was a great deal of resentment against him. Cicero, of course, would have cause to regret this day’s work after Caesar’s assassination because Lentulus was Mark Anthony’s step-father and Anthony was not committed to clementia (forgiveness) as Caesar was; Cicero lost his head.

Most of the previous speakers have delivered elaborate and impressive speeches in which they deplored the miserable condition of our country. They have dwelt upon the horrors of war and the fate that awaits the vanquished: how girls and boys are ravished, children torn from their parent’ arms, wives subjected to the lusts of conquerors, temples and homes pillaged; how amid fire and slaughter, with weapons, corpses, and blood on every side, a cry of universal mourning goes up. But what, in God’s name, was the purpose of all this eloquence? Was it to make you detest the conspiracy?

Here, Caesar pokes fun at Cicero and his terrorizing tactic, though very carefully and not singling him out. He says “most of the previous speakers have delivered elaborate and impressive speeches… dwelt upon the horrors of war… girls and boys ravished… lusts of conqueror… pillaged… fire and slaughter… corpses… blood on every side… cry of universal mourning…” and then he reveals a bit of exasperation: “What, in God’s name, was the purpose of all this…?!” And then he provides the answer: “…to make you detest the conspiracy.”

As if a man whom the grisly reality has failed to move could be roused by an eloquent speech!

Here Caesar makes reference to his own experiences during the Sullan terror. I think that every one of his listeners must have understood this remark, that he knew all too well the grisly reality of those times not only from the experiences of his family members and friends, but his own flight to avoid assassination.

That can never be: no mortal man minimizes his own wrongs; many, indeed, resent them more than they ought. But not everyone, gentlemen, is equally free to show his resentment. If humble men, who pass their lives in obscurity, are provoked by anger to do wrong, few know of it, because few know anything about such unimportant people. But men in positions of great power live, as it were, on an eminence, and their actions are known to all the world. The higher our station, the less is our freedom of action. We must avoid partiality and hatred, and above all anger; for what in others would be called merely an outburst of temper, in those who bear rule is called arrogance and cruelty.

Again, Caesar’s advocacy of the Stoic view of emotions emerges: that one must live according to reason and the more authority you have, the wider your sphere of influence, the more responsible you are to strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of ‘passion’ was “anguish” or “suffering”; peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense—being objective or having “clear judgment” and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows. A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.” This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy.”

He also reveals the Stoic attitude toward learning about human nature. Caesar notes: ‘no mortal man minimizes his own wrongs; many… resent them more than they ought… “ That is certainly a description of Cicero.

For my own part, gentlemen, I think that any torture would be less than these men’s crimes deserve. But most people remember only what happens last: when criminals are brought to justice, they forget their guilt and talk only of their punishment, if it is of unusual severity.

Notice that he separates the crimes from the men. In no way does he say that these men deserve torture because he clearly doesn’t believe that they have committed the crimes of which they are accused though he cannot come right out and say so. He then gives fair warning, revealing his deep insight into social psychology: “most people remember only what happens last: when criminals are brought to justice, they forget their guilt and talk only of their punishment.”

I am sure that Decimus Silanus spoke on this serious matter with the best interests of his country at heart, and not from a desire to please anyone or to gratify feelings of personal enmity; for I know him as both a gallant patriot and a man of wise discretion. Yet his proposal strikes me – I will not say, as harsh, for in dealing with such men nothing could properly be described as harsh – but as out of keeping with the traditions of our Republic.

Surely Silanus, it must have been either fear or a sense of outrage that impelled you, a consul elect, to suggest a form of punishment that is without precedent. Fear can be left out of the question, especially as, thanks to the precautions taken by our distinguished consul, we have such strong guards under arms.

Taking the consul-elect to task, Caesar is almost sarcastic here about the impressive precautions that Cicero had taken obviously for the purpose of creating a fearful state in everyone. Caesar turns this around and points out that nobody should be afraid at all because Cicero has done such a good job!

As regards the penalty you proposed, it would be relevant to observe that to men in grief and wretchedness death comes as a release from suffering, not as a punishment to be endured, because it puts an end to all the ills that flesh is heir to, and beyond it there is no place for either tears or rejoicing.

This remark is taken as evidence of Caesar’s epicurean philosophy tendencies but I disagree. The Stoics believed very similarly, that Individual souls are perishable by nature, and can be “transmuted and diffused, assuming a fiery nature by being received into the Seminal Reason (logos spermatikos) of the Universe.” (Marcus Aurelius).

I’ve read a number of analyses of Caesar’s alleged beliefs which claim that Stoicism was alien to Caesar, and Cato is held up as the prime example of Stoicism. It may be true that Cato followed a particular variation of Roman Stoicism, but a careful study of what little we can learn about the Stoics and the foundations of their ideas lead me to suggest otherwise: that Caesar was more Stoic than Epicurean and Cato was not a genuine Stoic, in the terms of the early Stoics, at all. One can easily tell this by reading an imaginary dialogue that Cicero puts in the mouth of Cato which describes a static universe which was not at all the world as described by the Stoics, based on the doctrine of constant change as explicated by Heraclitus.

In fact, it could be said that Caesar’s ideas followed the line that everything in the universe is in constant change, including the lives of men, and the processes of society and government. Further, Caesar was clearly not a follower of the Epicurean preference for a life of withdrawal and contemplation, rejecting political and military activities. The Stoics, on the other hand, taught social responsibility, that all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should help one another. In the Discourses, Epictetus comments on man’s relationship with the world: “Each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth; but he is also a member of the great city of gods and men, whereof the city political is only a copy.”

Caesar next moves onto legal argumentation, again taking a somewhat sarcastic tone:

But what I want to ask is, Why in heaven’s name did you not also propose that the prisoners should be flogged before being executed? Was it because the Porcian law forbids it? But there are other laws which provide that convicted citizens shall not be put to death, but shall be permitted to go into exile. Was it, then, because flogging is a severer punishment than death? But what penalty can be regarded as harsh or excessive for men found guilty of such a crime? If however it was because you thought flogging a lighter punishment, how can it be logical to respect the law in a comparatively small matter when you have disregarded it in a more important point?

Here, Caesar nails them all to the wall, especially considering the legal drama he had put on some months earlier when he was invoking an ancient law that sentenced a man to flogging and death by crucifixion.

But his next point is the most crucial: setting a precedent that will come back to bite.

It may be asked: Who will take exception to any sentence that is passed upon traitors? The lapse of time and the caprice of fortune, which controls the destinies of all men, will one day produce a change of feeling. These particular men will have richly deserved whatever happens to them. But you, gentlemen, must consider the precedent that you establish for others. All bad precedents originate from measures good in themselves. When power passes into the hands of ignorant or unworthy men, the precedent you establish by inflicting an extraordinary penalty on guilty men who deserve it will be used against innocent men who do not deserve it.

There was more to this argument than just the idea that the precedent might be used in the distant future; Caesar was giving a clear and direct warning: you are in power today, but what about tomorrow? What you do today can be used against YOU. Caesar gives an example:

The Spartans, for example, set up in Athens, when they had conquered it, an oligarchy of thirty members. These men began by executing without trial notorious malefactors whom everyone loathed, and the people rejoiced and said it was well done. After a time they began to act more and more irresponsibly, killing good and bad alike as the whim took them, and intimidating all the rest. Thus Athens was oppressed and enslaved, and paid a heavy price for its foolish rejoicing.

Everyone knew what happened to the so-called Thirty Tyrants: they didn’t last long.

In our own times, when the victorious Sulla ordered the execution of [L. Junius Brutus] Damasippus and other adventurers whom national calamities had raised to high positions, who did not approve his action? The men were criminals and trouble-makers, whose revolutionary intrigues had harassed the state, and it was agreed that they deserved to die. But those executions were the first step that led to a ghastly calamity. For before long, if anyone coveted a man’s mansion or villa – or in the end merely his household plate or wearing-apparel – he found means to have him put on the list of proscribed persons. So those who rejoiced at the death of Damasippus were soon haled off to execution themselves, and the killing did not stop till Sulla had glutted all his followers with riches.

Here, Caesar indirectly invokes Pompey who was a follower of Sulla. He may also be reminding them that another Lentulus who was a partisan of Pompey’s, introduced a bill to validate grants of citizenship by Pompey in Hispania. He and his colleague also ensured that no Roman citizen in the provinces could be tried in absentia on a capital charge. He also proposed a bill for recovering payment from those who had bought the confiscated property of those who suffered under the Sullan proscriptions; Lucius Cornelius Sulla later remitted this bill. Further, this other Lentulus became one of the censors in 70 BC who purged the senate, removing some sixty-four senators, among them a number of individuals connected to the trial of Oppianicus, as well as some important individuals such as Gaius Antonius Hybrida and Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura.

We can also note here that, in 76 BC, Hybrida had been prosecuted by Caesar for his activities in Greece under Sulla: plundering the countryside and sacking several temples and holy places. It was the rumors of his plundering and atrocities committed on the local population, which included maiming and torture, that earned him the nickname Hybrida (“half-beast”) . He escaped punishment because he successfully appealed to the people’s tribunes.

So it is interesting that Antonius Hybrida was Cicero’s colleague consul, while Lentulus Sura was a prisoner whose extrajudicial assassination Cicero was seeking as a Catilinarian conspiracist.

Caesar next reveals the whole situation while, at the same time, making it impossible for Cicero to take exception to his characterization:

I am not afraid that any such action will be taken by Cicero, or in this present age. But in a great nation like ours there are many men, with many different characters. It may be that on some future occasion, when another consul has, like him, an armed force at his disposal, some false report will be accepted as true; and when, with this precedent before him, a consul draws the sword in obedience to a senatorial decree, who will there be to restrain him or to stay his hand?

Caesar has just told us, I think, what he really thought of the whole Catiline Conspiracy: a false report accepted as true because Cicero had the power to force belief on others. He then, quickly, shifts back to history again taking advantage of a general dislike of Greeks prevalent among many Romans at the time.

Our ancestors, gentlemen, never lacked wisdom or courage, and they were never too proud to take over a sound institution from another country. They borrowed most of their armour and weapons from the Samnites, and most of their magisterial insignia from the Etruscans. In short, if they thought anything that an ally or an enemy had was likely to suit them, they enthusiastically adopted it at Rome; for they would rather copy a good thing than be consumed with envy because they had not got it. In this period of imitation they followed the Greek custom of flogging citizens and executing convicted criminals.

However, with the growth of the state, and the development of party strife resulting from the increase of population, innocent people were victimized and other similar abuses grew up. To check them, the Porcian law was enacted, and other laws which allowed condemned persons the alternative of going into exile. This seems to me, gentlemen, a particularly strong argument against our making any innovation. For I cannot but think that there was greater virtue and wisdom in our predecessors, who with such small resources created such a vast empire, than there is in us, who find it as much as we can do to keep what they so nobly won.

Here, Caesar is appealing to the old way of doing things, not making innovations. This was probably directed at Cato whose grandfather, Cato the elder, authorized the Porcian Law which stated that a citizen of Rome could escape a death penalty by voluntary exile. This law was created by a Publius Porcius Laeca and here we note that the meeting of the conspirators was alleged to have taken place in the house of a M. Porcius Laeca.

Caesar now turns to “what to do?” Obviously, you can’t just let them go into exile because they would raise an army and come back. That was evident enough according to the accusations made by Cicero.

Am I suggesting, you will ask, that the prisoners be released to go and swell Catiline’s army? By no means. My advice is that their goods be confiscated, and that they be imprisoned in such towns as are best provided to undertake their custody. Further, that their case shall not thereafter be debated in the Senate or brought before a public assembly; if anyone contravenes this prohibition, the senate should, I suggest, register its opinion that his action will be treasonable and contrary to the public interest.

As you can see, throughout this speech, Caesar was calm and reasonable but the very fact that he was daring to say these things under the circumstances, suggests that it was an act not just of conscience and good statesmanship, but also a warning to the oligarchy and Cicero in particular. His arguments were clear and rational but geared to the audience and the situation. He acknowledged the fact that the situation was new and unusual for never before in the history of the use of the senatus consultum ultimum had it ever been used to carry out cold-blooded execution. For Caesar, the death penalty was completely un-Roman and it was certainly far worse if carried out without a trial. But more than anything, he returned again and again to the fact that this act would set a precedent that, if carried out, the oligarchy would reap the whirlwind.

By his persuasive arguments, Caesar cooled the emotionally over-heated atmosphere. When Caesar was finished speaking, Cicero’s brother, Quintus, spoke next and fully agreed with this point of view. Silanus, the consul-elect, rose and declared that he had meant “exile” when he said “ultimate punishment.” Many others rose to agree with him. Caesar’s calm rationality was well on its way to saving the day and the constitutional rights of Roman citizens.

Seeing that his year of work creating a self-glorifying situation was about to melt away, Cicero rose to speak. I’m not going to include all of Cicero’s very lengthy oration here, I’ll include it in an appendix; (the man sure loved to hear himself talk); I’m just going to give you the gist of it. But I do encourage you to read it if you have the stomach for paranoid-histrionic-schizoid rants.

The text of his speech has been preserved as the Fourth Catilinarian Oration. Goldsworthy tells us:

… it would be a mistake to underestimate the rhetorical training and skill of the great orator, and it is likely that even speaking off the cuff, Cicero’s use of language, rhythm and structure were of an exceptionally high order.”

Plutarch says that his voice was : “loud and good, but so harsh and unmanaged that in vehemence and heat of speaking he always raised it to so high a tone, that there seemed to be reason to fear about his health.” He then studied in Athens and was: “diligently exercising himself in declamations, and attending the most celebrated rhetoricians of the time.” When he began his political career as an advocate: “he made no slow or gentle advance to the first place, but shone out in full lustre at once, and far surpassed all the advocates of the bar. At first, it is said, he, as well as Demosthenes, was defective in his delivery, and on that account paid much attention to the instructions, sometimes of Roscious the comedian, and sometimes of Æsop the tragedian.”

Caesar had certainly put the “fear of God” into the senators by reminding them of the many changes in power and how susceptible they all were to being the next group to get the short end of the stick. As I noted above, his examples were well-chosen for just that purpose: there were probably very few in the senate who did not have personal recollections of the horrors of the Sullan regime and how quickly things changed in those days that were just 20 years in the past. And so it was to this point that Cicero addressed himself first. He tried to convince them that, if they agreed with what he wanted to do – commit murder – that it would be him, and only him, who would bear the responsibility.

I see that you are anxious not only for your own danger and that of the republic, but even… for mine. … If indeed, this condition of the consulship has been allotted to me, that I should bear all bitterness, all pains and tortures, I will bear them not only bravely but even cheerfully, provided that by my toils dignity and safety are procured for you and for the Roman people.

He reminds everyone how much he has suffered, how he’s been threatened with death, how much he has borne for their sakes, and all because he is just trying to snatch them all from the horrors of evil terrorists. He also managed to aggrandize himself as the “man of the hour” more or less chosen by god to lead this crusade:

I have borne much, I have conceded much, I have remedied many things with some pain to myself amid the alarm of you all… that I should snatch you, Gentlemen, and the Roman people from miserable slaughter, your wives and children and the vestal virgins from most bitter distress, the temples and shrines of the gods and this most lovely country of all of us, from impious flames, all Italy from war and devastation… why should not I rejoice that my consulship has taken place almost by the express appointment of fate for the preservation of the republic? … preserve yourselves, your wives, your children, and your fortunes; defend the name and safety of the Roman people; cease to spare me, and to think of me.

He goes on a bit more about what a noble, brave and self-sacrificing individual he is and how it is his absolute joy to perish on everyone’s behalf if need be. What one needs to keep in mind is the fact that Cicero is essentially arguing for permission to commit extra-judicial murder. With that in mind, lets look a bit further. Having dispensed with any concern for his own safety, being the noble creature that he was and having a veritable army outside the door, Cicero now returns to the issue: that the senate needs to decide the fate of the prisoners:

Wherefore, Gentlemen, attend to the safety of the republic; look round upon all the storms which are impending, unless you guard against them. It is not Tiberius Gracchus, who wished to be made a second time a tribune of the people; it is not Caius Gracchus, who endeavoured to excite the partisans of the agrarian law; it is not Lucius Saturninus, who slew Memmius, who is now in some danger, who is now brought before the tribunal of your severity.

Here we recall that the reforms of the Gracchi threatened the holdings of rich landowners in Italy and both were murdered by members of the Roman Senate and supporters of the conservative Optimate faction. Tiberius’ own cousin, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the newly-elected Pontifex Maximus, claiming that Tiberius wished to make himself king, demanded that the consul take action. When he refused, Nasica girded his toga over his head, shouting “Now that the consul has betrayed the state, let every man who wishes to uphold the laws follow me!” and led the senators towards Tiberius. In the resulting confrontation, Tiberius was beaten to death with clubs and staves made from benches which lay strewn about. His fellow tribune, Publius Satyreius, dealt the first blow to his head. More than 300 supporters, including Tiberius, were slain by stones and staves, but none by sword, and their bodies thrown into the Tiber.

Cicero is citing cases from fairly recent history that led, ultimately, to the Sullan Terror. Cicero is citing them as cases that are along the same line as the present one, all popular causes, though the Catiline Conspiracy is oh, so much worse! Nevertheless, the point is not lost that what Cicero wants to do is something like “Sulla Lite – only one calorie.” He needs a horrifying threat that he can whip with his little finger and one hand tied behind his back. “See how great I am?” To do this, he keeps building up the conspirators as though they were Attila and his Huns defeated by Dudley Doright. And certainly, his image of both the conspiracy and himself are cartoonish.

An interesting point about the three cases cited, beside the fact that it is a rhetorical “three-set”, is that all of them involved violence committed directly and personally by members of the senate. He forgets to mention, also, that Saturninus was under the protection of Marius. This is a very disturbing picture of the Roman governing body. But empowering that body to do just that sort of thing by setting a precedent seems to be what Cicero was after. He next says about the Catiline conspiracists:

They are now in your hands who withstood all Rome, with the object of bringing conflagration on the whole city, massacre on all of you, and of receiving Catiline; their letters are in your possession, their seals, their handwriting, and the confession of each individual of them; the Allobroges are tampered with, the slaves are excited, Catiline is sent for; the design is actually begun to be put in execution, that all should be put to death, so that no one should be left even to mourn the name of the republic, and to lament over the downfall of so mighty a dominion.

All these things the witnesses have informed you of; the prisoners have confessed, you by many judgments have already decided; first, because you have thanked me in unprecedented language, and have passed a vote that the conspiracy of abandoned men has been laid open by my virtue and diligence; secondly, because you have compelled Publius Lentulus to abdicate the praetorship; again, because you have voted that he and the others about whom you have decided should be given into custody; and above all because you have decreed a supplication in my name, an honour which has never been paid to any one before acting in a civil capacity; last of all because yesterday you gave most ample rewards to the ambassadors of the Allobroges and to Titus Vulturcius; all which acts are such that they, who have been given into custody by name, without any doubt seem already condemned by you.

Notice how he points out all the things that “you” i.e. the senators, have done. He works this angle throughout the speech. “You rewarded people for information against the conspiracy, so you have acknowledged that it exists. You honored me for my deeds, for protecting you, were you mistaken? “

But I have determined to refer the business to you as a fresh matter, Gentlemen, both as to the fact, what you think of it and as to the punishment, what you vote. I will state what it behoves the consul to state. I have seen for a long time great madness existing in the republic, and new designs being formed, and evil passions being stirred up; but I never thought that so great, so destructive a conspiracy as this was being meditated by citizens. Now to whatever point your minds and opinions incline, you must decide before night. You see how great a crime has been made known to you; if you think that but few are implicated in it you are greatly mistaken; this evil has spread wider than you think; it has spread not only throughout Italy, but it has even crossed the Alps, and creeping stealthily on, it has already occupied many of the provinces; it can by no means be crushed by tolerating it, and by temporising with it; however you determine on chastising it, you must act with promptitude.

Above, in addition to reiterating his cartoonish presentation of the horrific threat, he also sets a time limit “you must decide before night.” The urgency is part of every classic scam: “Act now while supplies last!” He also reminds them of the dreaded Gaulish menace while playing on their desire to not look weak and indecisive.

In the previous three paragraphs of the speech, Cicero sets out his main case which was that the senate must decide and do it quick. Apparently, he wasn’t getting the positive reactions he was expecting because he then took a different direction. He had to destroy Caesar’s solution. He attempts to do this by first assuming that Silanus advocates execution even though he has disavowed this. His reference to “those who have endeavored to destroy all this things” intends the Gracchi brothers and Saturninus whom he claimed had been justly killed for lesser crimes.

I see that as yet there are two opinions. One that of Decius Silanus, who thinks that those who have endeavoured to destroy all these things should be punished with death the other, that of Caius Caesar, who objects to the punishment of death, but adopts the most extreme severity of all other punishment. Each acts in a manner suitable to his own dignity and to the magnitude of the business with the greatest severity. The one thinks that it is not right that those, who have attempted to deprive all or us and the whole Roman people of life, to destroy the empire, to extinguish the name of the Roman people, should enjoy life and the breath of heaven common to us all, for one moment; and he remembers that this sort of punishment has often been employed against worthless citizens in this republic.

First notice his distinction between “all of us” and “the whole Roman people”. Obviously, the “all of us” meant the patrician and equestrian classes. His next remark is bizarre: that death sentences are certainly okay when applied to “worthless citizens.” He seems to be referring to the “rabble” or “the mob” in the terms of may “gentlemen historians” who, holding the same elitist views, consider the working people to be worthless as human beings, only worthy of being worked to death.

His claim that the conspiracy was to “deprive the whole Roman people of life, to destroy the empire, blah blah… is nothing but puerile hyperbole. Even if the Catilinians were conspiring, they were only conspiring to overthrow the wealthy elite. They wanted to rule the empire, not destroy it, or murder everyone.

Now, he goes after Caesar directly, claiming that this solution is unprecedented and impractical:

The other feels that death was not appointed by the immortal gods for the sake of punishment, but that it is either a necessity of nature, or a rest from toils and miseries; therefore wise men have never met it unwillingly, brave men have often encountered it even voluntarily. But imprisonment and that too perpetual, was certainly invented for the extraordinary punishment of nefarious wickedness; therefore he proposes that they should be distributed among the municipal towns. This proposition seems to have in it injustice if you command; it difficulty if you request it.

Out come the cartoon characterizations from his rhetorical bag of tricks in an attempt to make Caesar’s proposal as ridiculous as possible to the minds of the listeners. Keep in mind that Cicero is arguing to execute the prisoners without trial and that Caesar’s suggestion was certainly made with the thought in mind that the truth might be exposed if they were given life long enough to tell it. Cicero is being pretty smart-assical about taking the lives of other human beings:

… He imposes besides a severe punishment on the burgesses of the municipal town if any of the prisoners escape; he surrounds them with the most terrible guard, and with everything worthy of the wickedness of abandoned men. And he proposes to establish a decree that no one shall be able to alleviate the punishment of those whom he is condemning by a vote of either the senate or the people. He takes away even hope, which alone can comfort men in their miseries; besides this, he votes that their goods should be confiscated; he leaves life alone to these infamous men, and if he had taken that away, he would have relieved them by one pang of many tortures of mind and body, and of all the punishment of their crimes. Therefore, that there might be some dread in life to the wicked, men of old have believed that there were some punishments of that sort appointed for the wicked in the shades below; because in truth they perceived that if this were taken away death itself would not be terrible.

Notice that he didn’t challenge the severity of Caesar’s proposal; in fact, he characterized it as much worse than death. He is also diligently polite toward Caesar.

Cicero then, suddenly, has a flash of inspiration! He will use Caesar’s very presence at the meeting as a weapon to attack his argument!

Now, Gentlemen, I see what is my interest; if you follow the opinion of Caius Caesar, (since he has adopted this path in the republic which is accounted the popular one,) perhaps since he is the author and promoter of this opinion, the popular violence will be less to be dreaded by me; if you adopt the other opinion, I know not whether I am not likely to have more trouble; but still let the advantage of the republic outweigh the consideration of my danger.

Cicero points out that, if the senate chooses execution for the prisoners, Caesar’s popularity with the citizens and residents of the city would make it easier for them to persuade the crowd gathered outside of the justice of the decision. Cicero must have been about to burst with glee at his own cleverness in thinking of this. Because, certainly, he had a very large armed guard present because he was very much afraid of the reactions of the people and whether or not Caesar might choose to rile them up or calm them down.

For we have from Caius Caesar, as his own dignity and as the illustrious character of his ancestors demanded, a vote as a hostage of his lasting good-will to the republic; it has been clearly seen how great is the difference between the lenity of demagogues, and a disposition really attached to the interests of the people.

Now he makes an obvious dig at Crassus, who did not attend this meeting.

I see that of those men who wish to be considered attached to the people one man is absent, that they may not seem forsooth to give a vote about the lives of Roman citizens. He only three days ago gave Roman citizens into custody, and decreed me a supplication, and voted most magnificent rewards to the witnesses only yesterday. It is not now doubtful to anyone what he, who voted for the imprisonment of the criminals, congratulation to him who had detected them, and rewards to those who had proved the crime, thinks of the whole matter, and of the cause.

Next, he suggests that if Caesar, by his presence and participation in the debate, acknowledges that it is proper for the senate to pass judgment on the prisoners, then he must also acknowledge the fact that they had lost the rights of citizenship and thus, were no longer protected under the law:

But Caius Caesar considers that the Sempronian law was passed about Roman citizens, but that he who is an enemy of the republic can by no means be a citizen; and moreover that the very proposer of the Sempronian law suffered punishment by the command of the people.

He also denies that Lentulus, a briber and a spendthrift, after he has formed such cruel and bitter plans about the destruction of the Roman people and the ruin of this city, can be called a friend of the people. Therefore this most gentle and merciful man does not hesitate to commit Publius Lentulus to eternal darkness and imprisonment, and establishes a law to all posterity that no one shall be able to boast of alleviating his punishment or hereafter to appear a friend of the people to the destruction of the Roman people. He adds also the confiscation of their goods, so that want also and beggary may be added to all the torments of mind and body.

One can imagine the sarcasm dripping like acid from Cicero’s mouth when he said: “Therefore this most gentle and merciful man does not hesitate to commit Publius Lentulus to eternal darkness and imprisonment…” which he then follows by pointing out that he’s not quibbling over the fact that the prisoners ought to suffer, but he contrasts his “superior mercy”:

… Although, Gentlemen, what cruelty can there be in chastising the enormity of such excessive wickedness? For I decide from my own feeling. For so may I be allowed; to enjoy the republic in safety in your company, as I am not moved to be somewhat vehement in this cause by any severity of disposition, (for who is more merciful than I am?) but rather by a singular humanity and mercifulness.

Cicero asks: “what cruelty can there be in chastising the enormity of such excessive wickedness?” I think that this remark reveals a great deal about Cicero’s inner landscape: it just screams “psychopath.” There is no crime that can justify retaliatory cruelty. Consider:

  1. No amount of cruelty can undo what has been done.
  2. Cruelty is not an effective deterrent. People still commit the same old crimes, regardless of the punishment.

If cruelty cannot undo what is done, and cannot deter what may be done, then it can serve no purpose but sadism. It is made all the worse if a person believes that 1 or 2 is wrong, then they are a stupid sadist, or at least a willfully ignorant one. If they understand points 1 and 2, then cruelty is a willing choice and I think that we may have found Cicero’s personal motive here: he wanted to personally experience doing something terrible, wicked, forbidden, only he was too much of a coward to do it without a cloak of protection. He was like modern day wealthy perverts who buy kidnapped human beings – adults or children – to participate in, or witness, murder. The prices that what are called “snuff films” fetch tell us that this is a hobby for the rich only. I think that a careful and complete analysis of the life and writings of Cicero by a psychologist or psychiatrist who is expert in psychopathology, will confirm that he was, indeed, a very, very sick individual.

As for his “for who is more merciful than I am?”, I think I’m going to be sick.

Having disposed of Caesar’s arguments, or so he though, he turns back to his original line of declamation: apocalypse NOW!

For I seem to myself to see this city, the light of the world and the citadel of all nations, falling on a sudden by one conflagration. I see in my mind’s eye miserable and unburied heaps of cities in my buried country; the sight of Cethegus and his madness raging amid your slaughter is ever present to my sight.

But when I have set before myself Lentulus reigning, as he himself confesses that he had hoped was his destiny, and this Gabinius arrayed in the purple and Catiline arrived with his army, then I shudder at the lamentation of matrons, and the flight of virgins and of boys and the insults of the vestal virgins; and because these things appear to me exceedingly miserable and pitiable, therefore I show myself severe and rigorous to those who have wished to bring about this state of things.

I ask, forsooth, if any father of a family, supposing his children had been slain by a slave, his wife murdered, his house burnt, were not to inflict on his slaves the severest possible punishment would he appear clement and merciful or most inhuman and cruel? To me he would seem unnatural and hard-hearted who did not soothe his own pain and anguish by the pain and torture of the criminal. And so we, in the case of these men who desired to murder us, and our wives, and our children,-who endeavoured to destroy the houses of every individual among us, and also the republic, the home of all,-who designed to place the nation of the Allobroges on the relics of this city, and on the ashes of the empire destroyed by fire;-if we are very rigorous, we shall be considered merciful; if we choose to be lax, we must endure the character of the greatest cruelty, to the damage of our country and our fellow-citizens. …

But this man …[Lentulus] invited the Gauls to overthrow the foundations of the republic; he stirred up the slaves, he summoned Catiline, he distributed us to Cethegus to be massacred, and the rest of the citizens to Gabinius to be assassinated, the city he allotted to Cassius to burn, and the plundering and devastating of all Italy he assigned to Catiline. You fear, I think, lest in the case of such unheard of and abominable wickedness you should seem to decide anything with too great severity; when we ought much more to fear lest by being remiss in punishing we should appear cruel to our country, rather than appear by the severity of our irritation too rigorous to its most bitter enemies.

I think you get the idea by now. He just repeats himself over and over again. He goes off on his “unification of the patricians and equestrians” think ad nauseum:

For this is the only cause that has ever been known since the first foundation of the city, in which all men were of one and the same opinion-except those, who, as they saw they must be ruined, preferred to perish in company with all the world rather than by themselves. … Why should I here speak of the Roman knights? who yield to you the supremacy in rank and wisdom, in order to vie with you in love for the republic,-whom this day and this cause now reunite with you in alliance and unanimity with your body reconciled after a disagreement of many years. And if we can preserve for ever in the republic this union now established in my consulship, I pledge myself to you that no civil and domestic calamity can hereafter reach any part of the republic.

And then he says something totally bizarre: that all the crowd gathered outside that he was afraid of a few paragraphs back, and was going to hide from behind Caesar’s toga, now are all gathered together in unity:

The entire multitude of honest men, even the poorest is present; for who is there to whom these temples, the sight of the city, the possession of liberty,-in short; this light and this soil of his, common to us all, is not both dear and pleasant and delightful? … And, as this is the case, Gentlemen, the protection of the Roman people is not wanting to you; do you take care that you do not seem to be wanting to the Roman people.

All the men of property, the shopkeepers and artisans; all the people who had been agitating for full citizenship and had suffered the dissolution of their collegia to prevent them from making any progress, were all rallying behind Cicero the Great! And even though there had been three slave rebellions, and the crushing of Spartacus and his legions was a recent event, Cicero even has the gall to claim that the slaves are all behind him (“provided his condition of slavery is tolerable”). In short, with the union that he, and he alone, had forged (with this fake terror conspiracy), “hereafter no civil and domestic strife will come to any part of the state.” Yeah, right.

He then returns to the “Hurry while supplies last!” routine interwoven with still more self-glorification:

You have a consul preserved out of many dangers and plots, and from death itself not for his own life, but for your safety. All ranks agree for the preservation of the republic with heart and will, with zeal, with virtue, with their voice. Your common country, besieged by the hands and weapons of an impious conspiracy, stretches forth her hands to you as a suppliant; to you she recommends herself to you she recommends the lives of all the citizens, and the citadel, and the Capitol, and the altars of the household gods, and the eternal inextinguishable fire of Vesta, and all the temples of all the gods, and the altars and the walls and the houses of the city. Moreover, your own lives, those of your wives and children, the fortunes of all men, your homes, your hearth; are this day interested in your decision. …

You have a leader mindful of you, forgetful of himself-an opportunity which is not always given to men; you have all ranks, all individuals, the whole Roman people, (a thing which in civil transactions we see this day for the first time,) full of one and the same feeling. Think with what great labour this our dominion was founded, by what virtue this our liberty was established, by what kind favour of the gods our fortunes were aggrandized and ennobled, and how nearly one night destroyed them all. That this may never hereafter be able not only to be done, but not even to be thought of you must this day take care. And I have spoken thus, not in order to stir you up who almost outrun me myself but that my voice, which ought to be the chief voice in the republic, may appear to have fulfilled the duty which belongs to me as consul.

Ooops! That wasn’t enough self-glorification. There is more!

Now, before I return to the decision, I will say a few words concerning myself. As numerous as is the band of conspirators-and you see that it is very great,-so numerous a multitude of enemies do I see that I have brought upon myself. But I consider them base and powerless and despicable and abject. But if at any time that band shall be excited by the wickedness and madness of any one, and shall show itself more powerful than your dignity and that of the republic, yet. Gentlemen, I shall never repent of my actions and of my advice. Death, indeed, which they perhaps threaten me with, is prepared for all men; such glory during life as you have honoured me with by your decrees no one has ever attained to. For you have passed votes of congratulation to others for having governed the republic successfully, but to me alone for having saved it.

Now he ranks himself with all the heroes of Rome:

Let Scipio be thought illustrious, he by whose wisdom and valour Hannibal was compelled to return into Africa, and to depart from Italy. Let the second Africanus be extolled with conspicuous praise, who destroyed two cities most hostile to this empire, Carthage and Numantia. Let Lucius Paullus be thought a great man, he whose triumphal car was graced by Perses, previously a most powerful and noble monarch. Let Marius be held in eternal honour, who twice delivered Italy from siege, and from the fear of slavery. Let Pompey be preferred to them all-Pompey, whose exploits and whose virtues are bounded by the same districts and limits as the course of the sun. There will be, forsooth, among the praises of these men, some room for my glory, unless haply it be a greater deed to open to us provinces whither we may fly, than to take care that those who are at a distance may, when conquerors; have a home to return to.

This last claim was going to come back to bite him big-time in a few years. The very fact that he had to work so hard to make a case for a vast, empire destroying terrorist conspiracy, and then – knowing that it was mostly trumped up – actually went off on this truly fantastical delusion of his own grandeur is, in my opinion, clear evidence of Cicero’s unbalanced mind. Throughout his speech that we have been examining, and even throughout his life, this tendency to see himself in some kind of supernatural, religiously underwritten, omnipotent role, alternating with persecutory delusions suggests several mental illnesses. Statistics tell us that about 60% of people with bipolar disorder have such delusions and 50% of schizophrenics have them. We’ll come back to more evidence of Cicero’s mental illness in final chapter.

For the moment, just hang on, there’s a bit more. We are getting to the end, but you really have to see this to believe that anybody like this ever rose to such a position of power (which says a lot about ancient Rome) much less that he was taken as a model of great rhetoric, philosophy, advocate of freedom and constitutional rights and all that (which says a lot about our modern civilization and political systems):

Although in one point the circumstances of foreign triumph are better than those of domestic victory; because foreign enemies, either if they be crushed become one’s servants, or if they be received into the state, think themselves bound to us by obligations; but those of the number of citizens who become depraved by madness and once begin to be enemies to their country,-those men, when you have defeated their attempts to injure the republic, you can neither restrain by force nor conciliate by kindness. So that I see that an eternal war with all wicked citizens has been undertaken by me; which, however, I am confident can easily be driven back from me and mine by your aid, and by that of all good men, and by the memory of such great dangers, which will remain, not only among this people which has been saved, but in the discourse and minds of all nations forever. Nor, in truth, can any power be found which will be able to undermine and destroy your union with the Roman knights, and such unanimity as exists among all good men….

Gentlemen, instead of my military command-instead of the army … and the other badges of honour which have been rejected by me for the sake of protecting the city and your safety … in place of all these things, and in reward for my singular zeal in your behalf, and for this diligence in saving the republic which you behold, I ask nothing of you but the recollection of this time and of my whole consulship. And as long as that is fixed in your minds, I still think I am fenced round by the strongest wall. But if the violence of wicked men shall deceive and overpower my expectations, I recommend to you my little son, to whom, in truth, it will be protection enough, not only for his safety, but even for his dignity if you recollect that he is the son of him who has saved all these things at his own single risk.

What is that?! A bird? A god? No! It’s Super-Cicero to the rescue!

Wherefore, Gentlemen, determine with care, as you have begun, and boldly, concerning your own safety, and that of the Roman people, and concerning your wives and children; concerning your altars and your hearths your shrines and temples; concerning the houses and homes of the whole city; concerning your dominion, your liberty and the safety of Italy and the whole republic. For you have a consul who will not hesitate to obey your decrees, and who will be able as long as he lives, to defend what you decide on and of his own power to execute it.

I am so glad that is over. I’m also glad that I wasn’t in the audience when that nonsense was delivered and I can imagine how trying it was for Caesar. I think it would be an interesting example to be dramatized by a good actor as a case study of mind-manipulation and propaganda. Oh, wait, we have that sort of thing now on the evening news and the modern-day citadels of power!

This particular oration has been read and studied for over seven hundred years and the consensus has always been that Catilinian conspirators were executed by Cicero by the authority of the senatus consultum ultimum – the declaration of martial law – investing him with extraordinary powers. Thus, Cicero’s speech has been interpreted as a defense of the propriety and constitutionality of this act. But the fact is, as you will see, Cicero makes no defense whatsoever of the SCU – he never refers to it at all in this oration and it appears that the omission is intentional. There have been two proposals (that I know of) to explain this studied avoidance of the claim: 1) either the SCU did not confer authority on the magistrate to take extra-constitutional action in specific cases or, 2) Cicero deliberately intended to put his actions of extra-judicial murder on some other basis than the power of the SCU.

In point of fact, the SCU was a form of decree that introduced a sort of modified martial law that presupposed the need for fast, secret, action taken to disarm an immediate threat. To have a meeting of magistrates where the plans of the SCU were discussed would have deprived it of any effectiveness. In his first oration, Cicero does tell us that the passage of the SCU itself was an authorization to carry out executions. But for some reason, in this oration, he has backed off significantly from that position. What seems to be so is that Cicero was viewing the senate itself as a court with him as president. The court has heard the testimony, the confessions, reviewed the evidence and thus, according to Cicero, it may then properly impose sentence without possibility of appeal due to the fact that the accused have forfeited their rights as citizens.

Cicero avoids entirely the fact that, under the interpretation of the constitution that he and his clique accept, he can, indeed, inflict the death penalty by virtue of the SCU which has already been passed and the only reason there can be is because for so extreme an act, he wishes to have the specific approval and legal backing of the senate.

But we notice that he opens with the declaration that he, and he alone, will take all responsibility. What he has slipped in there is the fact that he will only do what the senate votes for him to do. That is, he is not being honest and making a straightforward argument for the judicial competence of the senate. Rather, he assumed in his speech that this was the case, that the senate could sit as a criminal court against which there was no appeal.

Many of his listeners would think that they were acting lawfully because, of course, there were many cases of conspiracies and murders where the senate had appointed commissions of inquiry or had brought extraordinary cases to the judgment of the people or special courts. This would tend to make his audience think that the senate could, indeed, adjudicate criminal cases.

An examination of the facts, however, shows otherwise. Up to that moment in time, there was no case on record in which the senate actually exercised judicial powers; it did not have that right. It did not even have the right to delegate judicial competence in criminal cases. The commissions appointed by it did hear cases and appoint penalties, but this was always done by the recognized right of a duly authorized magistrate who presided over the court, not through the delegation of judicial power to the commission by the senate.

Therefore, Cicero’s argument does not bear examination from a constitutional point of view and he intentionally obscured the issue so that the senate could act as a supreme court with him as the authorized executioner.

Which brings us to the question: why did Cicero so desperately want to execute the prisoners? The obvious answer is because the entire terrorist situation was a complete fabrication and would not stand the scrutiny of a real, duly authorized, judicially competent, court and he needed to get rid of inconvenient witnesses.

Was his creation of a terrorist attack simply because he wanted to be glorified as the savior of Rome, a sort of ancient George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”? We hardly think that Dubya instigated the 9-11 attacks on his own for the purpose of launching a war so he could prance around wearing a flight suit and a codpiece.

Was Cicero acting on behalf of his “handlers”, the seven core members of the optimate clique? Did his speech reflect what they actually wanted: the power to decide life and death without the interference of judges or juries? Such power put into the hands of the oligarchy alone is rather like the authority of the US president today who can declare an individual an enemy combatant and send a drone to murder them and their entire neighborhood.

Was he also rubbing his hands in sadistic glee at the thought of actually committing cold-blooded murder that he knew was illegal, but with a cloak of protection (he thought), just to get his jollies?

Even if this last suggestion is a bit over-the-top as a possible solution, the evidence of his mental illness is so clear that I’m going to leave it as one of the possibilities. I think it is a combination of all of the above. Like I said, Cicero was a very, very sick individual.

Catulus jumped up and began to sputter in his indignation at those who were acknowledging the justice and rightness of Caesar’s argument. Catulus was one of the leading “optimates”. But it was the thirty-two year old Cato who came to the rescue of the optimate cause.

Let’s look at Cato’s speech which was, apparently, recorded by Cicero’s stenographers and preserved by Sallust, and the strange drama that played out at the end of this debate. Thankfully, just as he was stingy in every other way, Cato was sparing in speech (relatively speaking).

MY feelings, gentlemen, are extremely different when I contemplate our circumstances and dangers, and when I revolve in my mind the sentiments of some who have spoken before me. Those speakers, as it seems to me, have considered only how to punish the traitors who have raised war against their country, their parents, their altars, and their homes; but the state of affairs warns us rather to secure ourselves against them, than to take counsel as to what sentence we should pass upon them. Other crimes you may punish after they have been committed; but as to this, unless you prevent its commission, you will, when it has once taken effect, in vain appeal to justice. When the city is taken, no power is left to the vanquished.

Cato is not so much interested in voting on the fate of the prisoners as he is in imposing a totalitarian regime on the state far beyond anything that Sulla achieved, all under the guiding hand of the optimates, of course.

But, in the name of the immortal gods, I call upon you, who have always valued your mansions and villas, your statues and pictures, at a higher price than the welfare of your country, if you wish to preserve those possessions, of whatever kind they are, to which you are attached; if you wish to secure quiet for the enjoyment of your pleasures, arouse yourselves and act in defense of your country. We are not now debating on the revenues, or on injuries done to our allies, but our liberty and our life is at stake.

The optimates are the “good men” who need to help with the imposition of totalitarianism so as to be able to keep their mansions, villas, slaves, pleasures, and so on. In the next paragraph, when he speaks of the “luxury and avarice of our citizens”, he means everybody BUT the optimates. (And Cato, of course, who was the world’s biggest hypocrite.)

Often, gentlemen, have I spoken at great length in this assembly; often have I complained of the luxury and avarice of our citizens, and, by that very means, have incurred the displeasure of many. I, who never excused to myself, or to my own conscience, the commission of any fault, could not easily pardon the misconduct, or indulge the licentiousness, of others. But tho you little regarded my remonstrances, yet the republic remained secure; its own strength was proof against your remissness. The question, however, at present under discussion, is not whether we live in a good or bad state of morals: nor how great, nor how splendid, the empire of the Roman people is; but whether these things around us, of whatever value they are, are to continue our own, or to fall, with ourselves, into the hands of the enemy.

The “enemy” is, of course, other citizens of Rome other than the optimates.

In such a case, does any one talk to me of gentleness and compassion? For some time past, it is true, we have lost the real names of things; for to lavish the property of others is called generosity, and audacity in wickedness is called heroism; and hence the State is reduced to the brink of ruin. But let those who thus misname things be liberal, since such is the practise, out of the property of our allies; let them be merciful to the robbers of the treasury; but let them not lavish our blood, and, while they spare a few criminals, bring destruction on all the guiltless.

Notice how he rails against what he calls “lavishing the property of others” as being falsely labeled as “generous”. This “property of others” that concerns him is the vast, obscene wealth in land and goods stolen by the optimates from other nations, from their own yeoman citizenry by greedy cunning and immoral tactics, not to mention the millions on millions of human beings enslaved by them to support their lavish lifestyle. The “audacity in wickedness” is certainly a reference to the many rebels and reformers who sought to gain or regain rights for the other 99% of the humans occupying the empire who were kept under the heel of the optimates.

The next passage is rather famous because, in it, Cato suggested slyly that Cæsar was in some manner allied with the conspirators. He reveals almost at the beginning that what is agitating him is Caesar’s remark about death that has been interpreted as Epicurean. Cato claimed to be a Stoic, but as I’ve already argued, he was certainly not a Stoic in Greek terms while Caesar was more Stoic in his behaviors than the highly emotional and volatile Cato.

Caius Cæsar, a short time ago, spoke in fair and elegant language, before this assembly, on the subject of life and death; considering as false, I suppose, what is told of the dead—that the bad, going a different way from the good, inhabit places gloomy, desolate, dreary and full of horror. He accordingly proposed that the property of the conspirators should be confiscated, and themselves kept in custody in the municipal towns; fearing, it seems, that, if they remained at Rome, they might be rescued either by their accomplices in the conspiracy, or by a hired mob; as if, forsooth, the mischievous and profligate were to be found only in the city, and not through the whole of Italy, or as if desperate attempts would not be more likely to succeed where there is less power to resist them. His proposal, therefore, if he fears any danger from them, is absurd; but if, amid such universal terror, he alone is free from alarm, it the more concerns me to fear for you and myself.

Cato is playing a wily game here. It is clear from his opening that he didn’t really believe in Cicero’s conspiracy theory; he wasn’t concerned to punish the alleged conspirators nor was he much concerned at all with the conspiracy itself. He was just using the occasion to hammer on his theme of a particular type of “liberty”. Cato wasn’t really interested in liberty for the masses, but only a full and complete liberty for the optimates. He was very concerned about the possible rise of any dictator who might infringe on the liberties of that august group of individuals. He advocated placing all kinds of restrictions on official posts so that no one could use a position to consolidate power in any way. That is certainly a noble idea, right? The problem is, as noted, Cato’s context: that the only ones who really deserved freedom and rights were the optimates themselves and he failed to see that this body, itself, was equivalent to a despot over all other people. For Cato, “citizens” were only people of wealth and “old families.” As the great grandson of a yeoman farmer, he was like any convert: he had become more catholic than the pope.

Be assured, then, that when you decide on the fate of Lentulus and the other prisoners, you at the same time determine that of the army of Catiline, and of all the conspirators. The more spirit you display in your decision, the more will their confidence be diminished; but if they shall perceive you in the smallest degree irresolute, they will advance upon you with fury.

Cato wants to make sure that all reformers are massacred along with the execution of the prisoners because they and their kind are the big threat to Rome. His next paragraph is pretty much throw-away, typical of the rants about too much luxury, too much wealth, too much immorality, that served to give him his reputation.

Do not suppose that our ancestors, from so small a commencement, raised the republic to greatness merely by force of arms. If such had been the case, we should enjoy it in a most excellent condition; for of allies and citizens, as well as arms and horses, we have a much greater abundance that they had. But there were other things which made them great, but which among us have no existence—such as industry at home, equitable government abroad, and minds impartial in council, uninfluenced by any immoral or improper feeling. Instead of such virtues, we have luxury and avarice, public distress and private superfluity: we extol wealth, and yield to indolence; no distinction is made between good men and bad; and ambition usurps the honors due to virtue. Nor is this wonderful; since you study each his individual interest, and since at home you are slaves to pleasure, and here to money or favor; and hence it happens that an attack is made on the defenseless State.

In the next paragraph, Cato finally gives acknowledgement to Cicero’s conspiracy theory though his rhetoric is a rather different style from Cicero’s. He avoids hyperbole, but acknowledges a very real danger and it is to be supposed that, being known (having worked to make himself known) for his more generally Spartan habits and ostentatious virtue, these words carried weight with the rational, undecided members of the senate.

But on these subjects I shall say no more. Certain citizens, of the highest rank, have conspired to ruin their country; they are engaging the Gauls, the bitterest foes of the Roman name, to join in a war against us; the leader of the enemy is ready to make a descent upon us; and do you hesitate, even in such circumstances, how to treat armed incendiaries arrested within your walls? I advise you to have mercy upon them; they are young men who have been led astray by ambition; send them away, even with arms in their hands. But such mercy, and such clemency, if they turn those arms against you, will end in misery to yourselves. The case is, assuredly, dangerous, but you do not fear it; yes, you fear it greatly, but you hesitate how to act, through weakness and want of spirit, waiting one for another, and trusting to the immortal gods, who have so often preserved your country in the greatest dangers. But the protection of the gods is not obtained by vows and effeminate supplications; it is by vigilance, activity, and prudent measures, that general welfare is secured. When you are once resigned to sloth and indolence, it is in vain that you implore the gods; for they are then indignant and threaten vengeance.

Cato next lets us know what he means by not being slothful and indolent, really; it is being a physical and psychological tyrant who cares more for the rules than the spirit of the law.

In the days of our forefathers, Titus Manlius Torquatus, during a war with the Gauls, ordered his own son to be put to death, because he had fought with an enemy contrary to orders. That noble youth suffered for excess of bravery; and do you hesitate what sentence to pass on the most inhuman of traitors? Perhaps their former life is at variance with their present crime. Spare, then, the dignity of Lentulus, if he has ever spared his own honor or character, or had any regard for gods or for men. Pardon the youth of Cathegus, unless this be the second time that he has made war upon his country. As to Gabinius, Statilius, Cœparius, why should I make any remark upon them? Had they ever possessed the smallest share of discretion, they would never have engaged in such a plot against their country.

It is interesting that Cato suggests sparing the dignity of Lentulus, but not Lentulus’ body and pardoning Cathegus.

His next words contradict the previous claims of Cicero in his second oration, that once Catiline was ejected from the city, all were safe. In fact, the third oration of Cicero contradicts his second one since there were additional alleged plotters that were captured by means of his spy system. Cato now says that there are “dangers on all sides” and certainly he means all citizens and inhabitants of Rome that are unhappy living under the cruel domination of a ruling elite.

In conclusion, gentlemen, if there were time to amend an error, I might easily suffer you, since you disregard words, to be corrected by experience of consequences. But we are beset by dangers on all sides; Catiline, with his army, is ready to devour us; while there are other enemies within the walls, and in the heart of the city; nor can any measures be taken, or any plans arranged, without their knowledge. The more necessary is it, therefore, to act with promptitude. What I advise, then, is this: That, since the State, by a treasonable combination of abandoned citizens, has been brought into the greatest peril; and since the conspirators have been convicted on the evidence of Titus Volturcius, and the deputies of the Allobroges, and on their own confession, of having concerted massacres, conflagrations, and other horrible and cruel outrages, against their fellow citizens and their country, punishment be inflicted, according to the usage of our ancestors, on the prisoners who have confessed their guilt, as on men convicted of capital crimes.

Cato, like Caesar, brought in historical examples and tradition to support his views. This is standard procedure when arguing opposite points of view: to claim that history or long-established customs are behind yours. Despite the long and tedious oration by Cicero, Sallust saw the battle as being between Caesar and Cato and this was, apparently, the common view as Brutus’ later account of this debate minimized the role of Cicero (which made Cicero highly irate as is revealed in his letters). Cato was clearly conscious, after he spoke, that he had swayed many senators to his side (which was accidentally Cicero’s side as well), but Caesar wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Sallust doesn’t record the actual exchange between the two, but apparently, it was rather heated on Cato’s part (not very Stoic) while Caesar argued calmly and rationally (very Stoic). Cato was freely insulting Caesar in an ad hominem manner and Caesar was turning aside the insults. In the midst of this, a note was brought to Caesar and Cato jumped on this with full paranoid stupidity. Declaring that it was obviously a message from conspirators against the government, he demanded that Caesar read it aloud. Caesar refused and Cato led the raising of shouts and accusations against Caesar so the latter finally handed the former the missive in question. Cato read it quickly and was horrified and humiliated to realize that it was nothing but a passionate love note to Caesar… from Cato’s own sister, Servilia. In a very un-Stoic-like manner, Cato shouted in anger “Have it back, you drunk!” and threw the letter in Caesar’s face. Caesar, in a very Stoic like way, had not been even slightly ruffled by this over-heated display of the emotions of hate, vengeance and envy. What made the situation even more remarkable was the fact that Caesar was well known for his avoidance of alcohol while Cato, the alleged Stoic, was a heavy drinker, even an alcoholic!

It is probable that Cato convinced himself that Caesar had deliberately set up this episode for the express purpose of humiliating him. He was a man who took himself very, very seriously and expected everyone else to do so as well. In any event, his hatred of Caesar intensified to the point that, for the rest of his life, he was barely able to control his mad-dog behavior whenever Caesar’s name was mentioned, much less when Caesar was present.

Nevertheless, “portents” of the beginning of Cicero’s comedown began almost immediately at this session. One of his informers, who was a man expelled from the senate during the consulship of Crassus and Pompey, made the accusation that Crassus had entrusted him with a message of encouragement for Catilina. To Cicero’s great astonishment, the same senators who had been swept up in ecstasy, praising him and thanking him just the day before, shouted him down. Apparently, there were some lines that could not be crossed and Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was one of them.

Catulus and Piso, the corrupt and the evil, wanted Cicero to denounce Caesar. But he declined. (Again, one wonders about that meeting after the receipt of the letters and why Caesar and Crassus both were so strangely quiet throughout what must have been very trying proceedings when they must have wanted to protest and argue.)


When Cato had resumed his seat, all the senators of consular dignity, and a great part of the rest, applauded his opinion, and extolled his firmness of mind to the skies. With mutual reproaches, they accused one another of timidity; while Cato was regarded as the greatest and noblest of men, and a decree of the senate was made as he had advised.

Caesar realized the futility of fighting for the lives of the accused and pled instead for their innocent families. He proposed a double vote: one for execution, and another on the confiscation of the property of the executed. The senators hooted like raucous schoolboys. Cicero’s equestrian guards stationed at the doors pulled their swords and brandished them. The tribunes, who might have intervened, were silent. Caesar, realizing that the chamber had chosen madness instead of reason, made to leave. He had to pass through Cicero’s guard which was prepared to cut him down; Cicero signaled to them to let him pass. Outside, he was mobbed by the angry crowd assembled in advance by Cicero. His attendants threw a cloak over him and hurried him away.

The vote taken on Cato’s proposal was overwhelmingly in favor of execution. Lucius Caesar, the brother-in-law of Lentulus, supported the resolution as did Cethegus’ brother, who was a senator.

Sallust describes what happened next:

When the Senate had adopted Cato’s recommendation, the consul thought it best not to wait for nightfall, in case some fresh attempt might be made in the interval, and he therefore directed the governors of the prison to make the necessary preparations for the executions. Posting guards at various points, he personally conducted Lentulus to the prison, while the praetors brought the other prisoners. In the prison is a chamber called the Tullianum, which one reaches after a short ascent to the left. It is about twelve feet below ground, enclosed all round by walls and roofed by a vault of stone. Its filthy condition, darkness, and foul smell give it a loathsome and terrifying air. After Lentulus had been lowered into this chamer, the executioners carried out their orders and strangled him with a noose. So did this patrician, descended from the illustrious family of the Cornelii, a man who had held consular authority at Rome, meet an end… Cethegus, Statilius, Gabinius, and Caeparius suffered the same…

Cicero emerged shortly after the executions and announced: “They have lived.” In spite of the senate’s vote that he maneuvered to get, he, alone, was held responsible. By strangling a handful of foolish aristocrats he had suppressed agitation for reform – or so he and his handlers thought. Cicero’s promise of “everlasting peace” was the delusion of a madman.

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