A Really Cool Blog

… about science & space, people & politics, various musings & other cool things too.

Tag: Cicero

A Thematic Analysis of Cicero’s “First Catilinarian”

I wanted to explore the political rhetoric employed in the ancient Roman Republic. The Ancient Romans were known for their intense politicking, political intrigue, and speechmaking. The ability to give a strong, convincing, rhetorically-powerful oration was a very significant skill in the Republic, and propelled many a man, including the born-to-obscurity Marcus Tullius Cicero, to positions of supreme authority. As a student of Roman history and an admirer of the genius of Cicero, I was curious to explore what themes and elements were present in such oration.

As such, for my document to analyze I chose Cicero’s “First Oration Against Lucius Sergius Catilina,” a speech given during Cicero’s Consulship in 63 BCE. The purpose of the speech was to condemn Lucius Sergius Catilina, a Roman aristocrat who, it had been discovered, was plotting a conspiracy to kill members of the Senate and overthrow the Republic. In the speech, Cicero lays out his charges against Catiline and implores him to go into exile. He further describes to his fellow Senators the dangers that Catiline and his conspiracy pose, and tries to portray Catiline as an immoral, disloyal enemy to the Roman state.

I chose this document for a number of reasons. First, I am particularly interested in the “Catilinarian conspiracy” as both an event of political intrigue and a harbinger of the collapse that was soon to befall the Republic. Considering that Cicero was the leader of Rome at the time, I was interested in analyzing his words and thoughts on the particular event. Second, this speech is often cited as one of Cicero’s most impressive rhetorical performances and writings, and he himself would point to his handling of the conspiracy as the highpoint of his career. Knowing this and wanting to analyze Cicero, I figured that using this speech as my document was the most preferable choice. Finally, this particular speech is perhaps the epitome of Roman political rhetoric. All in one speech, Cicero condemns an opponent, boasts about his own talents, implores the Senate to action, decries the Senate for inaction, narrates a conspiracy, and describes its downfall.

Recognizing this, I felt as though this would be the best document to choose if I wanted to achieve validity in my analysis of Roman political rhetoric. As previously mentioned, Cicero presents a number of themes in his speech and use them for multiple political purposes. Being familiar with other political writings of the Republican era, I know that this was the norm for Roman political oration. To achieve success, a Roman orator could not simply present and harp on a single theme or subject. Rather, they had to present a multitude of themes, draw from historical precedents to prove a point, and address fellow Senators directly and indirectly. Such approach can vividly be seen in Cicero’s writing. Furthermore, the particular themes he employs and which I searched for in my analysis were the norm for Roman rhetoric. As Rome was a society highly concerned with morals and Roman ‘values,’ Cicero’s heavy use of the theme of morality was broadly representative of Roman oration and politics. Finally, this particular speech has been regarded by Cicero’s contemporaries and historians alike as one of the best speeches of the Republican period. As such, I would have to believe it would therefore be a very valid document to analyze to study the broader topic of Roman political rhetoric.


The “unit of coding “which I used for this analysis was, at its smallest level, individual words. Individual words could indicate or convey a theme, especially in a rhetorical piece such as this where individual words are strategically used for rhetorical effect. However, it was often necessary to look at the individual words in the broader context of the sentence in which they were located. As such, my coding was sometimes limited to a single word, but at times encompassed entire sentences. There were also instances in which I found multiple themes present in a single sentence. For my “unit of context,” I assumed that Cicero was fully aware of the situation going on and was fully cognizant of the rhetoric and themes he employed in his speech. As Cicero was the highest elected official in Rome, the prosecutor of Catiline, and the most highly-trained and respected rhetorician of his time, I do not doubt that the themes for which I searched were deliberately placed into his speech for rhetorical and political effect.

I searched for four major themes during my coding of the document: “protection of the state,” “danger to the state,” “pro-Roman values,” and “anti-Roman values.” For “protection of the state,” I searched for statements which were indicative of protecting the state, defending it from harm, or otherwise diverting some form of danger to the Roman people. I further analyzed a sub-theme by searching for whether those statements referred to its subject as being the one conducting that protection, or as being the one who the protection was conducted against. An example of a statement indicating “protection of the state conducted by” is Cicero saying “No single thing you [Catiline] do, nothing you attempt or even contemplate, escapes my [Cicero’s] notice.”[1] An example of a statement indicating “protection conducted against” is “… the financial ruin into which you [Catiline] will be plunged upon the thirteenth of this month.”[2] For “danger to the state,” I searched for statements which were indicative of some sort of danger or threat to the Roman state or people. I further analyzed to whom or what these statements referred. An example of such a statement is “you [Catiline] were illegally carrying arms. You had got together a group determined to strike down the leading men of the state…”[3] For an analysis of “pro-Roman values,” I searched for statements which reflected values of honor, morality, integrity, dignity, and loyalty… values established in Ancient Rome as being virtuous. An example of such a statement is “… here among ourselves, in this most solemn and dignified of all the world’s assemblies.”[4] For “anti-Roman values,” I searched for statements indicating the antithesis of these values. An example of this is “Are there to be no limits to this audacious, uncontrollable swaggering?”[5]

I selected these themes deductively; I knew that Roman orators would frequently talk about morality and values, and I knew that the context of this particular speech was to condemn Catiline. To measure these themes, I counted each individual statement (be it a word or a sentence) which indicated the theme as a single data-point. Doing so allowed me to, upon the completion of my coding, quantitatively compare my data, which then enabled me to conduct a qualitative analysis of the implications of such comparisons.

To conduct the test-retest process, I would code a portion of the document for half an hour, spend two hours doing some other activity, and then return to the portion I had previously coded. I would make necessary changes, corrections, or additions, and then move on to the next portion of the document. I would also return to the portion of the document I had worked after a day had passed, so as to retest the document after a longer period of time had elapsed. I did this process numerous times over a span of 4 days. I found that I generally produced the same coding results, with the most major variations in my coding being how much of a sentence I thought incorporated a theme. As I found myself consistently determining that a sentence had a particular theme in it during my various re-tests, I felt that my coding scheme did not require any significant tweaking. However, I did find during my test-retest process that I could go into further depth with my themes than a simple binary analysis. This is how I came about the idea of determining to whom/what various statements referred, rather than simply searching for the presence of the statement. As I conducted further re-tests, I began incorporating this deeper thematic analysis into my approach, and again found that I was consistent in the process while including them.

2 days after I had completed my coding and the test-retest process, I returned to my document to conduct the post-test coding consistency check. I randomly chose and opened a page of the book in which my document was located and re-coded that page. As was the case during my test-retest process, I found that I was largely consistent in my coding. The most major variation was that I included a few couple extra sentences in my post-test coding than I had during the actual coding itself, which indicated to me that I was perhaps not as rigorous in my coding initially as I could have been. Yet I determined that this was not a significant issue, and as such did not feel a need to repeat my coding. As a final check, I conducted one further post-test coding consistency check the day following the last. I was satisfied with the results of this final check, and concluded that my coding was consistent and therefore complete.


For the purposes of reporting my findings, I will dedicate a paragraph to analyzing each separate theme and sub-theme. However, to provide the context for these observations, what follows are some broad findings: Cicero utilized significantly rhetoric involving “anti-Roman values” than he did “pro-Roman values.”[6] There were 60 instances of “anti-Roman values” being used, compared to only 28 instances of pro-Roman values. Considering that there are a total of 88 instances of values being discussed, however, it is clear that the discussion of morality and honor was an important part of Roman political rhetoric. When it came to the theme of danger to and protection to the state, Cicero provides a roughly equivalent amount of statements. There are 64 instances of a statement indicating “protection of the state,” compared to 60 instances of a statement indicating “danger to the state.”[7]

For the theme of “pro-Roman values,” Cicero refers exclusively to himself, the Senate, and the Roman people. At no point do these themes refer to Catiline or his co-conspirators. This theme generally manifested itself in single, descriptive words; Cicero would, for example, call his fellow Senators “honorable” or “just,” or describe the actions of past Romans as “brave.”[8] It occasionally manifested itself in sentences which indicated some sort of virtue. For example, at one point Cicero says that his actions are a result of him being “moved by pity.”[9]

There is much significance to the presence of this theme in the context of Cicero’s speech. By presenting himself and his fellow Senators as virtuous and as upholding Roman values, he is drawing a stark contrast between their actions and the actions of Catiline, whom he is condemning. This contrast, in turn, helps develop the Senate’s ill-will toward Catiline. Additionally, recognizing that morality and the upholding of values was a very important part of an individual’s honor and repute in Ancient Rome, Cicero desires to make himself and the Senate be portrayed as “true” Romans while denying Catiline the same. Doing so builds Cicero’s prestige, and in turn helps buoy his political power and ability to enforce punishment against Catiline. Simultaneously it pushes Catiline into disrepute and making him more susceptible to the wrath, and punishment, of the honor-conscious Roman people.

There are 60 instances of Cicero using “anti-Roman” themes in his speech, a significantly larger number than the amount of “pro-Roman” themes. 56 of these statements refer to Catiline or his co-conspirators, while 4 refer to Cicero himself or his fellow Senators.[10] As was the case for “pro-Roman values,” this theme most frequently presented itself in single, descriptive words. Again, there were instances in which it was presented as entire sentence which lamented or described the anti-Roman character of Catiline’s or his co-conspirators actions and character. For example, at one point Cicero says, referring to Catiline, that “you know your own crimes well enough to understand that the universal hatred which men feel for you is justified,” demonstrating the significance of honor and values to the Roman people.[11]

As previously mentioned, the significance of this theme in my chosen topic is that it demonstrates how values were an important part of the Roman mindset. While upholding Roman values won an individual prestige and support, disregarding or going against those values earned an individual disrepute and punishment. Cicero employs statements indicative of anti-Roman values significantly more frequently than those indicative of pro-Roman values because the purpose of this speech was to condemn Catiline, not to boast about his own honor. Cicero needed to portray Catiline in a bad light if he wanted the Senate to punish him, and he does that in the best way he can given the context of his society – by condemning Catiline’s character. Meanwhile, there are a select few instances where he calls his own character into question. These instances were Cicero lamenting the fact that he and the Senate had not acted sooner against Catiline; at one point, he says “I tell you frankly, it is we, the consuls, who are not doing our duty.”[12] Yet rather than trying to disrepute himself, Cicero does this in an attempt to make the Senate move more quickly to action; after all, the consuls not “doing their duty,” and therefore not upholding the Roman value of duty, had allowed the conspiracy to progress to the point it had. This suggests that Roman orators were willing to call their own character into question in their rhetoric if they felt it would serve some political purpose beneficial to their interests.

There were 64 instances of Cicero using statements that indicate some “protection of the state.” Of these, 41 were statements indicating a protection “conducted by” some individual.[13] These statements were often sentences indicating some distinct action taken against Catiline and his conspiracy, or some form of acknowledging and recognizing the conspiracy’s existence. For example, Cicero saying is “well aware” of Catiline’s actions and intentions indicated that he would be able to prepare for and defend against it.[14] There are 23 instances of statements with this theme referring to protection being “conducted against” an individual. In these instances, Cicero is telling Catiline that his hope for the conspiracy’s success should be abandoned.

The implication of this theme is that Roman orators, when describing a danger to and protection of the state, needed to both address their own actions and address the actions taken against the danger. By demonstrating what he was doing to protect the state, Cicero was both earning himself more renown for his competence and reassuring the Senators of the security of their state. This explains why the bulk of the statements conveying this theme were “protection conducted by” statements. However, with Catiline in the Senate during this speech, Cicero was also given the opportunity to convince Catiline that all hope was lost. As such, the various statements indicating “protection inflicted against” were largely referred directly against Catiline.

There are 60 instances of a statement indicating some “danger to the state.” Of these, 40 refer directly to the actions of Catiline, 11 refer to the actions of his co-conspirators, 2 refer to historical actions for the use of analogy, and 7 refer to no individual or action in particular but are used for rhetorical flourish.[15] As is the case with the statements referring to “protection of the state,” these statements were largely presented as sentences describing an individual’s dangerous actions. In the case of the use of this theme for rhetorical effect, Cicero makes statements such as “… Italy is to be ravaged by war, when cities are assaulted and houses gutted by fire.”[16] The use of such rhetoric indicates that Roman orators needed to create a sense of danger or fear in their audience, so as to make their point and calls for action all the more pertinent and important.

By addressing both Catiline and his co-conspirators, Cicero is condemning all participants in the conspiracy, not just the leader of it. Doing so will allow him to direct ire and, in turn, punishment against all involved, not just against Catiline. There is also significance in the 2 statements used as historical analogy. In them, Cicero addresses past dangers to the state, and then follows by demonstrating how those dangers were dealt with. For example, he talks about the killing of “Tiberius Gracchus, although his threat to the national security was only on a limited scale.”[17] The Ancient Romans had great reverence for the traditions and honorable individuals of the past, as they did with their own ancestors. By using historical analogy, then, Cicero is exploiting this reverence for the past for his own political purposes in the present. He is demonstrating to his fellow Senators how the virtuous and honorable Romans of the past, who had kept the state from danger, had acted, and therefore implicitly calls on the Senators of the present to act in the same manner.

[1] Cicero, “Against Lucius Sergius Catilina,” I,ii,8

[2] Cicero, I,v,13

[3] Cicero, I,v,14

[4] Cicero, I,iv,8

[5] I,i,1

[6] See graph 1A in appendix

[7] See graph 2A in appendix

[8] Cicero, I,I,3

[9] I,vi,15.

[10] See graph 1B in appendix

[11] Cicero, vi, 17

[12] Cicero, I,i,3

[13] See graph 2C in appendix

[14] Cicero, I, ix, 22

[15] See Graph 2B appendix

[16] Cicero, I,xi,28

[17] Cicero, I,I,3


Image 1Image 1 – Cesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Catiline. Not only do I think this is a beautiful fresco, I believe it amply demonstrates the nature of Cicero’s speech. Catiline, sitting isolated and dejected, is the clear target of Cicero and the Senate’s suspicion and wrath, and this paper’s thematic analysis reveals as much.

Graph 1AGraph 1A – The number of Cicero’s statements representing “pro-Roman values” compared to the number representing “anti-Roman values.” All 28 “pro-Roman values” statements refer to the actions or characteristics of Cicero, the Senate, or the Roman people, while none refer to the actions or characteristics of Catiline or his co-conspirators. For a comparison of how many “anti-Roman values” statements refer to Cicero, the Senate, and the Roman people against the number that refer to Catiline and his co-conspirators, see graph 1B.

Graph 1BGraph 1B – A comparison of the number of Cicero’s statements that represent “anti-Roman values” and refer to the actions or characteristics of himself, the Senate, or the Roman people against the number that refer to the actions or characteristics of Catiline or his co-conspirators.

Graph 2AGraph 2A – A comparison of the number of Cicero’s statements that refer to some “danger to the (Roman) state” against the number of statements that refer to some act or method of “protecting the (Roman) state.” For a comparison of to whom/what the statements about acts “endangering” the state refer, see graph 2B. For a comparison of the number of statements about “protecting the state” that refer to protection “inflicted against” a subject or protection “conducted by” a subject, see graph 2C.

Graph 2BGraph 2B – A comparison of to whom/what Cicero’s “danger to the state” statements refer. The statements refer either to Catiline’s actions directly, to the actions of his co-conspirators, or to the actions of historical individuals for the use of analogy. They can also refer to no individual in particular, but rather refer to broader or more abstract dangers so as to be used as a rhetorical device.

Graph 2CGraph 2C – A comparison of the number of Cicero’s statements that refer to some act or method of protecting the state conducted by the subject of the statement against the number of statements that refer to an act or method of protection inflicted against the subject of the statement.

Greed, Power, and Prestige – Explaining the Fall of the Roman Republic


“When toil is replaced by an attack of indolence, and self-control and fairness by one of lust and haughtiness, there is a change in fortune as well as in morals and behavior.”[1] This claim, made by the Roman historian Sallust, can be easily substantiated when the characters and actions of the leading men in Rome during the Republic’s collapse are analyzed. For hundreds of years, the Roman Republic was sustained through the practice of traditional customs of honor and conduct. Restraint, honesty, and fairness ensured that the commonwealth was governed by Rome’s “best men,” and accordingly the Republic grew to supreme eminence in the Mediterranean. With an influx of wealth and the absence of outside threats, however, these traditional values began to degrade and become irrelevant. By the 1st century B.C.E., the most prominent men in Rome were corrupted by greed, jealously, and ambition. Individuals such as Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar brought the state to chaos, disorder, and eventually tyranny in their quest for ultimate prestige and power. Historians writing on the fall of Rome focused much energy on the character of these men, exploring their qualities to explain why and how the Roman Republic collapsed. Through a description of their moral failures and political dishonesty, these historians wove the narrative of the Republic’s violent and chaotic demise. It is from the retelling of the lives of the prominent Romans at the time that the underlying causes of the Republic’s demise – greed, power, and prestige – are most readily revealed.

A view held widely by historians and contemporaries of the fall of the Republic was that the absence of traditional morals and customs had corrupted politics, and as a result the political system was unstable and, therefore, unsustainable. Sallust argued that the collapse and fall of the Roman Republic was caused through this degradation of traditional values. This process was exacerbated by an absence of external threats and an influx of wealth from conquered territories. He wrote,

“Before the destruction of Carthage the Roman people and senate managed the commonwealth placidly and restrainedly between them. There was no struggle amongst citizens either for glory or for domination: dread of an enemy maintained the community in its good practices. But, when that source of alarm left their minds, recklessness and haughtiness – things, to be sure, which favorable circumstances attract – made their entrance”[2]

Sallust claimed that political stability was maintained because of the “dread of a common enemy,” for no individual could recklessly pursue glory or domination while the Republic was threatened by an outside force. For much of the Early and Middle Republic, Rome’s power and safety was often under peril. Yet following the conquest of Italy and the Second Punic War, Rome’s eminence in the Mediterranean grew steadily. Through the subjugation of Greece in the early 2nd century B.C.E and the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.E, the Romans eliminated the two main existential threats to their state. The Roman leadership could now pursue glory without restraint, for Rome’s safety was no longer in question. This pursuit of glory and the power that came with it, however, eventually became reckless. Prominent individuals sought to outdo each other through any means possible, often resorting to corruption and violence to achieve their aims. Traditional norms of competition and political harmony accordingly vanished and the state was plunged into disorder, chaos, and civil war. Cicero too shared this view, having wrote, “Everybody demands as much political power as he has force behind him. Reason, moderation, law, tradition, duty count for nothing.”[3]

This disregard of tradition was recognized by authors writing on the end of the Republic as a primary cause of the fall, especially Plutarch. He drew comparisons between prominent individuals of the Late Republic to illustrate this collapse of custom. Contrasting Metellus, who Plutarch regarded as upstanding for upholding the ancestral customs, with Marius, who had disregarded tradition in his pursuit for power, Plutarch wrote, “Here was a man who seems to have been in other respects remarkable among the Romans for his good sense and particularly remarkable for upholding the dignity of the consular office free from fear and favor in accordance with the ancestral laws and customs which he regarded as immutable decrees.”[4] Metellus’s character is thus celebrated as “particularly remarkable,” for he maintained the traditional customs of order and moral integrity. Plutarch believed that because of this Metellus “upheld the dignity of the consular office.” In contrast, then, Marius’s disregard for custom is presented as dishonorable and unworthy of such an esteemed office. Indeed, Plutarch wrote that “the man whom [Marius] feared particularly was Metellus… who because of his genuine good qualities was naturally opposed to those who used dishonorable methods in their approach to the masses.”[5] The honor of Marius’s actions was thus called into question, a strong critique against a man who disregarded tradition in the pursuit of personal gain. Again, Plutarch reinforced his support for the ancestral traditions by associating Metellus’s good qualities with an opposition to Marius’s dishonorable methods.

Plutarch further directed attention to the unfettered pursuit and love for glory among the leading men of Rome during the fall of the Republic. The dangerous nature of envy and insatiable ambition is a common theme in his biographical sketches of these men. Plutarch, always a moralizer, used his history of their quests for glory as a caution against immoderate ambition, writing, “This proves how wise Euripides was… when he recommended us to beware of ambition, which he calls the most destructive of all powers and the most damaging to those who worship her.”[6] He argued that the pursuit of glory gave “no rest or peace until it ended in an inglorious death and a national disaster,”[7] calling into dispute the ultimate value of ambition. Plutarch further saw the desire for unrestrained power as a quality detested by the people, writing “what made Caesar most openly and mortally hated was his passion to be made king.”[8] When put into context with Caesar’s eventual assassination, this claim serves a clear warning to those who seek power about the deadly downfalls of such a pursuit. Power was also described as having negative influence on the individual’s character. Plutarch wrote, “Great powers bring about a change in the previous characters of their holders – a change in the direction of over-excitability, pomposity, and inhumanity.”[9] In short, the reader of Plutarch’s biographies was reminded that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and as much could be seen in the bloody rules of Marius and Sulla.

In his telling of their lives, Plutarch often attributed the motivations and actions of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar to a desire for ever greater prestige and power. The character of these individuals, as described by Plutarch, was shaped by their ambition and love of distinction. He wrote that “Pompey no doubt was actuated simply by his boundless love of power,”[10] and that Marius was gripped by a passion that “proceeded from his own envious nature and lust for power.”[11] Meanwhile, Crassus longed “for trophies and triumphs.”[12] Of Caesar, Plutarch wrote that “his- main efforts were directed towards becoming the first power in the state and the greatest soldier”[13] and that he was “born to do great things and to seek constantly for distinction.”[14] Describing Sulla, he wrote, “[now that he] had become a person of some importance among his fellow-citizens and was enjoying the sensation of being honored, he went so far in his passion for distinction as to have a signet-ring made with a representation of his achievement.”[15] Considering Plutarch’s negative commentary about the quest for glory and power, it is significant that he described Rome’s most prominent individuals as men of such insatiable ambition. After all, it was these men who were primarily responsible for bringing about the collapse of the Republic. By attributing their actions, and the corresponding chaos which ensued, to their quest for glory, Plutarch was again giving a warning against unfettered ambition. Here were men of great quality and capability who, instead of serving the state, tore it apart in their reckless pursuit of singular power. Accordingly, by connecting the collapse of the Republic to the ambition of these prominent men, Plutarch finds a satisfactory explanation as to why Roman politics became so toxic and, eventually, unsustainable.

Of course, this pursuit of glory, when moderated, was not itself a bad thing. Indeed, the competitive drive for glory and prestige was what had earlier powered the Roman aristocratic system, producing from the ruling class individuals who were willing to devote their full energy to the welfare of the commonwealth. Yet this competition was long restrained by tradition and moral norms which ensured a stable transition between leaders and a peaceful sharing of authority. The marked difference between Roman politics before and during the Late Republic was that peaceful and productive competition among the ruling class was no longer so willingly tolerated.

As he had done with their pursuit of glory, Plutarch devotes much attention to describing the envious nature of the prominent Romans in the Late Republic. Detailing the rivalry between Crassus and Pompey, born out of envy, he wrote, “It was in the course of these campaigns, they say, that there first began that jealous rivalry for distinction which [Crassus] felt towards Pompey.”[16] Similarly writing on the envious relationship between Marius and Sulla, Plutarch provided insight into Marius’s jealous nature, saying “[Sulla] greatly irritated Marius, who had the keenest sense of his own honor, no notion of sharing glory with anyone else, and was quick to take offence.”[17] Plutarch further revealed how jealousy led to discord and disorder the by detailing how “Marius nearly went out of his mind with rage and jealous anger at the idea of Sulla stealing the glory of his achievements, and he was planning to have the statues [of Sulla on the Capitol] forcibly removed”[18] Indeed, in his envy of Sulla’s accomplishments, Marius also took steps to undermine the continued growth of his prestige. Plutarch wrote that “Marius was casting a jealous eye on him and, so far from being glad to give him further opportunities to distinguish himself, was standing in the way of his advancement.”[19]

Thus, the ancestral traditions which had sustained the system had begun to collapse, and envy and jealousy began to manifest themselves in violence and conflict. Plutarch considered the collapse of the Republic to be the destructive result of this envy, writing that, “Greed and personal rivalry… had brought the empire to such a pass… here the whole manhood and might of single state was involved in self-destruction – a clear enough lesson of how blind and how mad a thing human nature is when under the sway of passion.”[20] Detailing the relationship between Sulla and Marius, soured by a mutual jealousy, he further demonstrated how the Republic was brought down through unrestrained rivalry and competition. He wrote, “The hatred between these two… led them on… through the shedding of blood in civil war and irreconcilable antagonisms, to tyranny and the utter confusion of the whole state.”[21]

Antagonistic jealousy between prominent Romans was contrary to traditional precedent, and was symptomatic of the growing decay in Roman politics. No longer competing by bettering the position of the commonwealth at the expense of an external enemy, the ruling class now competed for absolute power. In order to achieve this, they turned against one another, ending the “placid and restrained” style of governance and aristocratic unity which Sallust had described. As a result, the integrity of the state was imperiled. The Romans whose lives Plutarch wrote about were presented as flawed individuals, and he associated their flaws with the chaos in Roman politics. By directing attention to their envious characters, Plutarch was again presenting his audience with a moral warning against unrestrained jealousy, which he saw as a destructive tendency. In demonstrating the negative ramifications of these individuals’ attempts to outshine each other, Plutarch was recommending to his audience moderation in their actions and desires. Furthermore, as he had done with his analysis on the quest for glory, Plutarch was seeking an explanation for why the Republic collapsed after centuries of stability. He saw the violence which paralyzed and ultimately ended the Republic as having been motivated by the hostile envy the leading men of Rome had for each other. Writing frequently on their jealous and violent actions against each other, he thus not only described the history of their lives but provided a narrative of the Republic’s collapse.

As Plutarch had done with Marius and Metellus, he contrasted the envious nature of the leading men of Rome with an individual whom he felt was free of the quality. Describing Cicero, he wrote “It must be said that although he was so unreservedly fond of his own glory, he was quit free from envy of other people. He was, as can be seen from his writings, most liberal in his praises of his predecessors and contemporaries.”[22] Cicero, as described by Plutarch, was an individual not immune from the corruption of his time, for he too shared a desire for glory, but he was not driven by jealousy. He was not motivated by jealous hatred of more prominent colleagues or a desire for unrivaled supremacy. Unlike his more powerful contemporaries in the Triumvirates, Cicero played no major role in leading the violence and chaos that plagued the Republic. Unlike Caesar, Sulla, and Pompey, he had not come into and held power as a tyrant. The stark contrast Plutarch provides of Cicero’s actions and those of his contemporaries is associated with the difference in their characters, further reinforcing Plutarch’s moralizing on the dangers of unbridled envy.

Underlying the qualities of unrestrained ambition, envy, and a desire for power was greed. Indeed, it was greed which prompted and accelerated the collapse of moral integrity and tradition, hastening the fall of the Roman Republic. Polybius, in his discourse on the cyclical nature of political systems, wrote that greed was the catalyst to the development of an oligarchy, which in turn would devolve into tyranny. Speaking of the leading men in a hypothetical political system, he wrote that “They dedicated themselves to rapaciousness and unscrupulous money-making… and in the process, they changed aristocracy into oligarchy.”[23] Though Polybius was writing well before the fall of the Republic and was simply theorizing on the changing nature of a political system, his analysis can, and indeed was, applied to the circumstances in Rome by later historians.

Sallust had much to write about the impact of greed on the Roman political system and its corrupting influence on moral integrity. He argued that “avarice undermined trust, probity, and all other good qualities; instead, it taught men haughtiness, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to regard everything for sale.”[24]Greed, then, undermined the traditional morality of the Roman people, which prior to the influx of riches was not plagued by “haughtiness” or “cruelty”. As the good qualities which had kept the stability of the commonwealth intact accordingly disappeared, Romans began to violently turn against each other in their pursuit of more wealth. Sallust described this when he wrote, “In the wake of riches… men were attacked by luxury and riches along with haughtiness; they seized, they squandered; they placed little weight on their own property and desired that of others.”[25] This, in turn, disrupted the political system, for avarice envied not only property but also power and glory. Sallust continued, “After riches began to be a source of honor and to be attended by glory, command and power, prowess began to dull, poverty to be considered a disgrace and blamelessness to be regarded as malice.”[26] Riches, he said, were to be attended by glory, command and power; power in Rome was to be held by the wealthiest and, therefore, the greediest. As a result, prowess and capability was no longer honored with highest office. Rather than the “best man” holding power in Rome, it was the wealthiest. Meanwhile, poverty and virtue, which had earlier been the idealized qualities of a Roman, were seen as a disgrace; the traditions which had held together the Republic were thus disregarded, and those who held onto them were pushed from prominence by those who were willing to buy their way into power.

As he had done with their other qualities, Plutarch highlighted the avaricious nature of the prominent Romans during the fall of the Republic. In doing so, he again was providing his audience with a critique of greed and explaining how these individuals brought about the collapse of the commonwealth. Writing on Marius, Plutarch concluded that he “would not have brought his career… to so ugly a conclusion… [if not for] his insatiable greed.”[27] In Marius’s fate Plutarch demonstrated how avarice would lead to an ultimately unfavorable demise for the greedy individual. Plutarch further reinforced the avaricious nature of Marius’s character in writing that, upon his death, he lamented “his own fate in having to die before he had attained each and every object of his desires.”[28] Crassus, too, was seen by Plutarch as representing the worst of a greedy character. He wrote that Crassus was “the most avaricious person in the world”[29]. Yet even more significantly, Plutarch argued that the extent of Crassus’s greed could “best be proved by considering the vastness of his fortune and the ways in which he acquired it,”[30] for he “amassed most of this property by means of fire and war; public calamities were his principle source of revenue.”[31] Similarly, the public calamities of civil war, violence, and disorder were the principle sources of power for Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar. Greed for property and greed for power consumed the leading men of Rome, prompting them to bring the Republic into chaos so that they could achieve the objects of their desires. It was irrelevant that they achieved these desires through the destruction of their state, so long as their greed was satisfied.

Thus, ambition, envy, and greed were the defining qualities of prominent Romans during the 1st century B.C.E. Historians such as Plutarch and Sallust focused much attention on the moral characters of the leading men in Rome during the fall of the Republic, highlighting these failings to explain the collapse of the commonwealth. Yet it was not just the inherent qualities of these men that undid the Republic; it was their actions, born out of these qualities, which brought about the violence and disorder. Bribery, backroom alliances, political violence, and proscriptions became common features of Roman politics, and prominent Romans used them all to gain for themselves supreme power. Historians and contemporaries of this time were aware of the corrupt nature of politics in the Late Republic, and wrote heavily on the deeds which brought perpetuated and worsened this corruption.

As the influence of tradition and moral custom was gradually abandoned by Rome’s ruling class, a corresponding degradation of politic conduct occurred. Candidates to office had become accustomed to using dishonest methods to achieve their aims. Pandering to the masses through extravagant banquets, games, and shows, the most prominent and wealthiest Romans were able to secure popular support and therefore defeat their less-wealthy opponents. Offices, positions, and powers were openly being bought and sold, with bribery and electoral violence rife in the system. Polybius, in his work on constitutions, theorized that this would occur. He had said, “Finding that their resources and merits were not enough to enable them to get what they want, they squandered their fortunes on bribing and corrupting the general populace in all sorts of ways.”[32] By winning votes through populism and bribery, men of dishonest character were able to secure electoral victory. Support was retained in office through lavish spending on the public. A precedent had been set which completely undermined the stability of the Republic.

Plutarch directed attention to these dishonest deeds, recalling the moments when the leading men of Rome had won power and support through money and largesse. By doing so, he was revealing to the reader how these individual’s moral failings manifested themselves into political action, a demonstration both of the follies of such qualities and the Republic’s decline. Marius, he wrote, “did everything to win popular support, ingratiating himself with the common people and giving in to them. In so doing he was… lowering the standard of his high office.”[33] Such a criticism was significant, in that Plutarch argued that Marius’s actions were lowering the standard of the Consulship. As such, these actions were portrayed as dishonorable, unworthy of high recognition in Rome, and yet Marius won his power through them. Associating his actions with dishonor, yet showing that Marius nonetheless was successful with them, Plutarch had made clear that the Republic’s decay had begun. Plutarch also wrote of Marius that “in civilian life his supremacy was restricted so he resorted to attempts to win the goodwill of the mob, not minding so much whether he was the best man so long as he could be the greatest.”[34] Such a statement is revealing of the nature of politics and competition between prominent Romans near the end of the Republic. Marius was a spectacular general yet an ineffective statesman; hence, he was not “the best man” in Rome, and would have likely lost an election in the earlier Republic. Yet through pandering to the mob, he found that he could win their goodwill, secure election, and thereby become “the greatest” man in Rome. Politics in the Late Republic had therefore become a competition not judging value or capability but rather populist appeal, threatening the quality and integrity of the state’s leadership.

Sulla had also come into office through dishonest means. Plutarch wrote, “He was elected praetor in the following year, having won the support of the people partly by flattery and partly also by bribery.”[35] Clearly, bribery and populism had become a common way to secure office, a symptom of the undermined integrity of the state. Yet Sulla, who would rise to supreme power in Rome, found it necessary to employ such methods of politicking when engaging in his struggle for control. Plutarch wrote that “in order to corrupt and win over to himself the soldiers of other generals, he gave his own troops a good time and spent money lavishly on them. He was thus at the same time encouraging the others to treachery and his own men to debauchery.”[36] Through his generosity in finances and discipline, he was able to undermine his opponent’s military efforts while building support for his own cause. Yet, as repeated often by the ancient historians, luxury was a corrupting influence. The soldiers were led to “debauchery” and “treachery,” as were, as can be seen throughout the biographies of the other leading men in Rome, most involved in the political struggles of the time. Cicero, observing the happenings of his time, recognized the change that had occurred in political conduct. In a letter where he warned about Pompey, he said ““He is confessedly working for absolute power. What else signifies this… pouring out of money… They would never have come so far if they were not paving their way to other and disastrous objectives.”[37] Pompey too, then, was an individual who participated in the norms of his day, those of bribery, pandering, and plotting.

Plutarch and Cicero presented Caesar as perhaps the most willing and most successful populist, winning the goodwill of the masses through massive and elaborate shows and bribery. Describing his methods of winning support, Plutarch wrote that, “He spent money recklessly, and many people thought that he was purchasing a moment’s brief fame at an enormous price, whereas in reality he was buying the greatest place in the world at inconsiderable expense”[38] Caesar is said to have been buying “the greatest place in the world,” showing that supreme power and glory in Rome was now something that could be purchased instead of rightfully achieved. The enormous wealth held by prominent Romans of the time and the willingness of politicians to spend lavishly on a greedy public in order to win support can be seen in Caesar’s actions; he was said to have spent lavishly and recklessly with enormous costs. Indeed, it is said of Caesar that with his “lavish expenditure on theatrical performances, processions and public banquets he threw into the shade all attempts at winning distinction in this way that had been made by previous holders of the office.”[39] Caesar, the most prominent man in Rome for a time, was thus also one of the most corrupting on the system. Cicero, writing on Caesar, realized that his populism had elevated him to his position of supremacy and presented a grave danger to the Republic. He wrote, “He wasted all the power of his intellect in pandering to popular humors. Thus, having no regard to the senate and to good men he opened for himself that path to the extension of his power which the… manly spirit of a free people could not endure.”[40] Caesar’s rise to power and eventual tyranny, which Cicero said the spirit of the Roman people could not endure, can thus be explained through the support he garnered through his massive expenditures and populism. His dictatorship was the culmination of these practices, which had become precedent after decades of a degrading political system.

Plutarch also wrote that “candidates for office came to get his backing and after bribing the people with the money which he gave them, won their elections and went on to do everything likely to increase his power.”[41] This system of mutual support was common in Roman politics and culture. When mixed with the corruption of the times, it meant that the system became controlled by powerful and wealthy individuals who sought to improve their position. As can be seen in the case of the Triumvirates, they could manipulate elections, legislation, and votes by their use of money and influence. Plutarch thus called Caesar’s use of money to secure his position to attention as a means to explain how Caesar’s tyranny was established. Caesar’s eminence in Rome was also an important consideration when analyzing the bribery and populism that had become rife in Roman politics. Because of his prominence, he was capable of having much influence on the nature and function of the political system. By participating in the corrupt practices of his time, he was thus not only benefiting from them but also strongly reinforcing the precedent of their use. If a man like Caesar was able to win supreme power through dishonest means, others would surely have followed his example. The stability and integrity of the Republic had been doomed by the practices these prominent men had followed.

A marked change had occurred in Roman politics leading up to the fall of the Republic, in that office had come to be won through bribery and populism instead of being achieved through prowess and honor. This allowed individuals whose talents or desires were detrimental and destructive to the commonwealth to find their way into power. Indeed, unlimited power, and eventually tyranny, became achievable through winning the support of the mob. Polybius had predicted that this would happen in his work on constitutions when he said, “Once people had grown accustomed to eating off others’ tables and expected their daily needs to be met, then, they found someone to champion their cause… they instituted government by force.”[42] As the masses became accustomed to greed and desire, qualities which were already becoming established norms in Roman political culture, they came to support whoever would provide them with the most luxury. As can be seen by the careers of Marius and Caesar, ultimate power was indeed obtainable in such a way. The Republic was transformed away from being a system where the aristocracy competed honestly through honor in order to hold authority for a limited time.

Yet bribery and populism were not the only symptoms of a system that was disintegrating. Throughout the late 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.E., bloodshed and violence were not uncommon methods used to achieve power. The leading men and their supporters would not hesitate to kill or banish in order to silence opposition or to secure their position. Polybius had theorized that violence would dissolve the state into chaos, and would be the last step to bringing about a revolution in the system. He had written, “They banded together and set about murdering, banishing, and redistributing land, until they were reduced to a bestial state and once more gained a monarchic master.”[43] As can be seen in the case of Sulla’s proscriptions and the civil wars between Pompey and Caesar, these violent tendencies in Roman politics did indeed bring rise to tyrants.

Plutarch and Sallust recognized how violence came to play an important role in Roman politics, and they analyzed the violent actions of the leading men in Rome during the Republic’s collapse in order to describe how they dishonestly came to achieve and secure their supremacy. Because violence had become a norm, men in positions of power began to find it necessary to employ it against their opponents, lest they themselves be eliminated and removed from power by violent means. Plutarch wrote as much when he said, “The man who wanted to be on top had to get rid of the one who at present held that position: the man who was for the moment on top had, if he wished to stay there, to get rid of the man he feared before it was too late”[44] Sallust too recognized this trend, and, writing on it, pointed out how such violence would bring about the downfall of the commonwealth,

“The nobility… annihilated many mortal beings by the sword or by exile and made themselves more fearful than powerful for the future – a circumstance which has often been the downfall of great communities, in that one side wants to conquer the other by whatever means and to extract from the conquered too bitter a vengeance.”[45]

Violence, then, did not secure power for those who practiced it, but rather created an environment of fear in Rome. With a precedent set that eminence could be won through murder and bloodshed, anyone who aspired to greatness would feel the need to employ violence both to achieve power and to hold onto it. There was no way the Republic, which had maintained its stability through justice and restraint, could survive such a change in the way politics was conducted. Political circumstances leading up to the fall of the Republic were markedly different than those during the Republic’s height, when, as Sallust wrote, politicians “exercised command by conferring kindness, not causing dread, and when wronged, they preferred forgiveness to pursuit.”[46] By drawing this contrast, Sallust demonstrated how the Republic had maintained its stability in the past through the good qualities and actions of its leadership; in turn, he highlighted the corrupt and depraved practices of the Roman leadership during the collapse of the Republic.

Plutarch, writing on the animosity between Caesar and Pompey, had said that, “Caesar had long ago decided that Pompey must be removed from his position of power; and Pompey, for that matter, had come to just the same decision about Caesar.”[47] Considering the violent norms of the time, the civil war and violent chaos that was incited by these two men in their struggle against each other is no surprise. As Plutarch had made note of, both men realized that they must get rid of the other if their designs on supreme power were ever to be realized. The Republic’s downfall was born out of their political competition, a competition that was waged with bloodshed. Writing on Sulla, Sallust said that he, “having taken the commonwealth by arms, had had a wicked outcome…. Everyone started to seize and loot; one man desired a house, another land; the victors showed neither restraint nor moderation but did foul and cruel deeds against their fellow citizens.”[48] Sulla’s proscriptions were a highpoint of violence in the system, and during his rule murder, looting, and condoned theft were commonplace. He too, then, was influenced by and further perpetuated the norms of violence that had become ingrained in the system. Pompey was also shown by Plutarch to be an individual willing to make use of violence to achieve a political goal. Responding to Caesar, who had asked whether Pompey would come to the support of laws calling for the redistribution of land if they were threatened, Pompey said he would. Significantly, it is written that Pompey said “against those who threaten to use swords I shall bring both a sword and a shield”[49]. Pompey, then, was also prepared to fight violence with violence, thus worsening the chaos that had already endangered the Republic and perpetuating the violence which was gradually bringing about its fall.

Ancient historians writing on the fall of the Roman Republic found explanations for why the commonwealth had collapsed in the qualities and actions of Rome’s leading men. From these ancient historians, as well as contemporaries of the time, the moral failings of the Rome’s ruling class are highlighted. The Republic’s fall can be attributed to their actions, which were manifest from the qualities of their characters. It was argued that greed, developed because of the influx of wealth from Rome’s conquests, had incited an insatiable desire for glory, power, and prestige. The ancient traditions which had sustained the Republic through goodwill and placidity accordingly decayed. The most prominent and powerful men in Rome, filled with this greed but also driven by envy, wanted to outcompete and outshine each other in order to achieve unrivaled supremacy. To do this, they employed the corrupt political methods of their time – violence, bloodshed, and bribery – thereby weakening the institutions of the Republic and eventually bringing the whole state into chaos and civil war. In such an environment, the Republic as it had existed ceased to function; the path to dictatorship and tyranny had been opened. The fall of the Republic, as revealed by Plutarch, Sallust, and Cicero, had been brought about because of the corrupt character of Rome’s leading men.

Works Cited

[1] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 2.5.

[2] Sallust, The Jugurthine War, 41.1.

[3] Cicero, Letters to Brutus, 1.10.2-3.

[4] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 42.

[5] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 28.

[6] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[7] Plutarch, Crassus, 14.

[8] Plutarch, Caesar, 60.

[9] Plutarch, Sulla, 30.

[10] Plutarch, Crassus, 14.

[11] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 45.

[12] Plutarch, Crassus, 14.

[13] Plutarch, Caesar, 3.

[14] Plutarch, Caesar, 58.

[15] Plutarch, Sulla, 3.

[16] Plutarch, Crassus, 6

[17] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 10.

[18] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 32.

[19] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[20] Plutarch, Pompey, 70.

[21] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[22] Plutarch, Cicero, 24.

[23] Polybius, Histories, 6.8.

[24] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 10.4.

[25] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 12.2.

[26] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 12.1.

[27] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 2.

[28] Plutarch, Gaius Marius, 45.

[29] Plutarch, Crassus, 6.

[30] Plutarch, Crassus, 2.

[31] Ibid

[32] Polybius, Histories, 6.9.

[33] Ibid

[34] Plutarch, Marius, 28.

[35] Plutarch, Sulla, 4.

[36] Plutarch, Sulla, 12.

[37] Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 2.17.1.

[38] Plutarch, Caesar, 5.

[39] Plutarch, Caesar, 5.

[40] Cicero, Philippics 5.49.

[41] Plutarch, Caesar, 21.

[42] Polybius, Histories, 6.9.

[43] Polybius, Histories, 6.9.

[44] Plutarch, Caesar, 28.

[45] Sallust, The Jugurthine War, 42.7.

[46] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 9.5.

[47] Plutarch, Caesar, 28.

[48] Sallust, Cataline’s War, 11.4.

[49] Plutarch, Pompey, 47.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén