Cato vs. Caesar (And Everyone Else)

“Who is better qualified to be the standard-bearer of the desperate,” the insurgent Catiline asked his massed followers, “than a man who is bold and desperate himself?”

Well, Catiline. You make a good point there.

He had used the proscriptions during the bloody dictatorship of Cornelius Sulla (83–79 BC) to enrich himself, “murdering his way to an impressive portfolio.” One of the proscribed whose property made it into Catiline’s hands was his own brother-in-law. But he had lost it all in the ensuing decades. He lived in an inherited house on the Palatine Hill, surrounded by richer men who didn’t have a family history that went back four centuries like he did.

Catiline thought he was kind of a big deal.

By the 60’s BC, he was broke and shunned by the aristocratic class of Romans he had been born into. His third campaign for consul in 63 BC had once again been thwarted, this time by a man with no pedigree at all, a novus homo, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Catiline was indeed desperate. And he had an army.

***

He also had precedent on his side; the Gracchi brothers had come close to revolution in the previous century by appealing to Rome’s lower classes. Catiline’s “Clean Slates” plan would, among other things, forgive the debts of the poor, which included disaffected veterans of the legions.

He had the reigns of Marius and Sulla, where unelected men gained power by saving Rome from calamity and were subsequently granted dictatorial powers by the Senate. He had the consulships of Crassus and Pompey in 70 BC, who, after ending the revolt of Spartacus and removing a rogue general in the province of Hispania, had been elected to the highest office in Rome while their armies camped outside the city gates, even though one of them was too young to hold the office and the other didn’t even bother to campaign.

Three things were not in Catiline’s favor. He had performed no service to Rome worthy of a consulship. Crassus and Pompey were still out there and would not allow anyone to interfere with their plans to hold power in the future. They also had a couple of experienced armies nearby. And lastly, Cicero, Rome’s cleverest fellow, with huge ambitions of his own, was working against him.

***

The plan was for Catiline to meet up with his co-conspirator Manlius, who was in Etruria at the head of an insurgent army, and march on Rome. His supporters in the city were going to “set fire to twelve different places around the city” as a distraction. While his army surrounded the city, his co-conspirators inside the walls would kill members of the upper class. Then Catiline would take over Rome.

The details of the plan were leaked, conveniently enough, to Cicero, Rome’s consul for the year, who went before the Senate to warn them of the impending attack and purge. He was granted dictatorial powers “until Catiline was dealt with.” Cicero claimed that Catiline had cemented his plan with a human sacrifice and eaten the entrails with his co-conspirators. While it may sound ludicrous, Catiline had a reputation for being the kind of guy who might just snack on someone’s guts in order to bind his followers to him by way of a ghastly crime. Catiline’s reputation (helped along by Cicero) was one that made every wild and heinous accusation against him believable.

If you’re wondering how the Roman Republic collapsed in such a relatively short time, the cowardice and pliancy of the Senate and Rome’s powerful citizens definitely moved things along. Cicero was one of Rome’s shrewdest guys, but taking over the city as dictator wasn’t even all that hard for him.

Manlius revolted in Etruria, wiping out the whispers that Cicero was making stuff up in order to become a dictator. Two armies were sent against Manlius while Cicero took to the Forum to denounce Catiline, who was still in the city giving last minute orders to his followers. These attacks, known as the Catilinarians, were the best weapon a great orator could use. And probably the only one.

“Can you not sense that your plans are discovered?” Cicero demanded of Catiline. “Shame on the age and its principles! The Senate is aware of everything; the consul sees it; and yet this man lives!”

Catiline responded, asking the Senators “if it was possible to believe that a patrician like him…should wish to destroy the Republic?”

Recent history, and the fear of being purged, answered that question for him. The Republic was actually under threat and on its way to destruction. As far as the Senate was concerned, the Republic had come pretty close to ruin in recent decades. Lots of times. So Catiline picked the one thing the Senators could believe.

Government Overthrow Safety Tip Number Two Hundred and Fifty Seven: Never ask a rhetorical question when you’re not sure of the answer.

Catiline left Rome to join up with Manlius. Cicero gave the second Catilinarian, assuring the people of Rome that the bad bad man was gone (and likely taking credit for driving him away), and that “everything was safe and under control.”

His.

***

But in order for Cicero’s plan to work, the Senate had to be persuaded that Catiline was an ongoing threat. Envoys of a Gallic tribe called the Allobroges came to Rome to provide Cicero with the smoking gun he needed. Their support had been solicited by the conspirators, and the Allobroges had signed documents “that unmistakably proved the conspiracy’s existence.”

Cicero’s plan was definitely coming together. But there was a fly in the ointment that had Cicero on the defensive and set the stage for the political rise of Julius Caesar.

Two new consuls had been chosen for the year 63 BC in the election where Catiline had come in third, claiming that corruption had deprived him of office and his downtrodden followers of legitimate political power and an opportunity, at last, for reform.

Here’s the thing: Catiline was not wrong.

One of the new consuls, Murena, was accused of bribing his way to the consulship. Bribery was nothing new in Roman politics — running for office involved being generous with food and gifts and free entertainment for the public. It also included promises of lucrative public offices for the candidate’s supporters.

Well. That sounds familiar.

The line between largesse and bribery was murky, so Roman candidates for office crisscrossed it like schoolchildren playing hopscotch at recess. Most of the time it went unchallenged. Politicians in power would pass anti-bribery laws now and then. After being nagged by Cato the Younger, Cicero passed a law setting the punishment for bribery to ten years in exile. And named the law after himself.

Catiline lost the election and took to the field of battle. One of his supporters, Servius Sulpicius Rufus, a prominent lawyer, took Murena to court and charged him with bribery. The same Murena who had been handpicked by Cicero, the outgoing consul, to replace himself as a bulwark against Catiline’s election to the highest office in Rome.

Well. This is awkward.

***

Murena’s conviction for bribery and subsequent exile would be a vindication for Catiline and his followers and would almost certainly pave the way for Catiline to be elected consul in the next year. And that was the least destructive outcome; equally possible was the citizenry rioting in the streets and another strongman taking over Rome to restore order.

There was no guarantee that it would have been Cicero, either. His close association with the accused was well known. Had Murena been convicted, the fellow in the dictator’s chair might just have been Catiline himself. Cicero needed to get Murena acquitted and eliminate the perception that it was yet another example of corruption going unpunished.

Being a clever, clever fellow, he came up with a brilliant solution. He picked Cato the Younger to be the prosecutor.

Cato wasn’t stupid. He saw the situation as clearly as Cicero did. But having built his reputation on being an enemy of corruption, he was kind of stuck. Cato agreed to prosecute Murena and give the closing argument against him, which would be followed by Cicero’s rebuttal, as lead counsel for the defense. The irony of the fellow who named a bribery law after himself defending a consul accused of bribery was not lost on anyone.

In leading the prosecution, Cato played right into Cicero’s hands.

***

Men of firm principles in the late Roman Republic were as rare as hen’s teeth. Pompey knew it when he met up with Cato for the ancient equivalent of a photo op while serving in the East. Cicero knew it when he tapped Cato to join the team prosecuting Murena. Cato’s unimpeachable character would prove to the simmering masses that justice would be done, or at least attempted. If Murena was acquitted, Cato’s involvement at trial might just stave off mass upheaval and anarchy.

All Cato had to do was lose.

***

Cato the Younger was in full-blown moralizing mode in his closing statement at Murena’s trial:

“Shall you seek to obtain supreme power, supreme authority, and the helm of the republic, by encouraging men’s sensual appetites, by soothing their minds, by tending luxuries to them? Are you asking employment as a pimp from a band of delicate youths, or the sovereignty of the world from the Roman people?”

Great question. In any other circumstances, Cato would have likely prevailed. But these were desperate times for all involved. Cicero was defending his own chosen successor while Catiline’s mobs waited to pounce on Rome if his charges were proven right. The jury knew Murena was guilty, because of course he was, but also knew that convicting him would result in the kind of civic upheaval and autocratic rule that was becoming an all-too-familiar pattern in the late Republic.

Murena had to get off scott-free, and the people needed to see Rome’s greatest moral authority standing up and trying to stop it.

Cicero had his work cut out for him. He didn’t need to defend Murena so much as he needed to take Cato down. The opening line of his rebuttal to Cato told the truth of his concern: “I am much more afraid of the weight of his name than of his accusation…I beg you not to let Cato’s dignity, nor your expectation of his tribuneship, nor the high reputation and virtue of his whole life, be any injury to Lucius Murena.”

The niceties out of the way, Cicero then used the one weapon that was most effective against uptight sticks-in-the mud like Cato the Younger:

He made fun of him.

***

Cicero went after Cato’s Stoic philosophy, listing all the “ridiculous, paradoxical, or overthought pieces of Stoic doctrine.” Public perception of Stoicism at the time saw it as a curiosity fraught with contradictions. According to Cicero’s interpretation, Stoics believed that “no one is merciful except a fool…that wise men, no matter how deformed, are the only beautiful men. And all of us who are not wise men, they call slaves, exiles, enemies, lunatics. They say that all offenses are equal, that every sin is an unpardonable crime, and that it is just as much of a crime to needlessly kill a rooster as to strangle one’s own father!”

He had listed some Stoic riddles that were used as conversation starters, as a way to more fully explore the doctrines of the philosophy. But Cicero didn’t delve; this caricature of Stoicism was as far as he went. And then he applied the caricature to the prosecutor. Cicero “launched into a mock dialogue with himself” where he played the part of both Cicero and Cato.

“You will be a wicked and infamous man if you do anything under the influence of mercy,” Cicero said, as Cato. “To pardon is a crime of the deepest dye,” he went on, concluding that “all offences are equal.”

Cicero had deftly made the trial about Cato, not Murena. He also pointed out that the trial wasn’t about the other consul elected with Murena that year either. The accused’s co-consul-elect, Silanus, had also engaged in bribery to win his office, but Cato had declined to prosecute him.

Cicero reminded the jury that Cato and Silanus were related.

Rome’s greatest orator had used his one superpower to paint Rome’s most moral man as a hypocrite and to minimize Murena’s crimes so that the jury could let him off the hook and spare Rome another bloodbath.

He said that the Republic had moved beyond the kind of upright integrity Cato (and all Catos) represented. It was Rome’s flexibility and adaptability that brought victory and prosperity. Sometimes — or really, most of the time — principles had to be bent or ignored for the sake of the greater good.

Like when a couple of venal consuls needed to be acquitted of bribery so that mobs didn’t take to the streets and give their revenge-minded leader the keys to the city.

Cato’s only response was, “What a witty consul we have.”

But at the end of his humorous rebuttal, Cicero dropped all pretense and spoke directly to his adversary, reminding him that Rome needed them both on the same side to keep worse things from happening.

“I am talking to you — you, Cato. Do you not see a storm coming?”

Cato did. Holding the storm at bay meant that Murena had to go free. So he did.

***

As the trial ended, Catiline’s army was still out there somewhere and his co-conspirators had to be dealt with. One of them, a senator named Lentulus, had been caught with incriminating documents and stores of weapons. He was stripped of his purple-edged toga and expelled from the Senate.

Cicero moved for Lentulus to be executed without trial. He had the power to order it as Rome’s dictator, but knew that his term in office would be ending soon and he could be called to account for his actions during the crisis. So he put it to a vote of the cowardly Senate, which agreed, helped along by the recently-exonerated consul-elect Murena and his co-consul-elect for the year, Cato’s brother-in-law Silanus.

A young Senator stood to address the Senate in opposition to summary execution. “Their guilt should not weigh more than your dignity,” Gaius Julius Caesar said. “Your anger must not weigh more than your character.”

Caesar, in his way, was as clever as Cicero. His reputation for intrigue, sex, and scandal was on a par with Catiline’s. He had provided lavish spectacles for the public during his year as city magistrate. He was a smart gambler, but he was not someone who would usually make an argument about dignity and character.

But in that moment, he sounded a lot like Cato the Younger.

He lectured the Senate about Roman history, saying that Rome “fought for order” and didn’t engage in heavy-handed retaliation, especially “for a crime that had not yet taken place.” (At that moment, Lentulus and his cohorts were only guilty of planning an insurrection).

Caesar argued for restraint and the proper application of the penalties the law allowed, like taking the conspirators’ property and sending them into exile. Ironically, this was the thing that had recently not happened to Murena, who had bought his election.

“For certainly,” Caesar said. “There was greater merit and wisdom in those who raised so mighty an empire from humble means, than in us, who can scarcely preserve what they so honorably acquired.”

In short, their ancestors had conquered the world precisely because of their commitment to their ideals. Was today’s pack of Romans so different? And if they were, they ran the risk of losing everything Rome had built over the centuries.

Cato was not impressed with Caesar’s argument. Cato was serious about his commitment to law and order, so he knew Caesar was no upstanding moralist, and that taking an unpopular stand at this moment was a way for him to get some attention and be the voice of reason and maturity. He also suspected that Caesar and Catiline, having many extracurricular vices in common, might just be in on the plot together, which would explain Caesar’s argument for clemency for the conspirators.

Also, it really looked like Catiline’s plot was going to fail. With him gone, all those angry supporters would be looking for a new champion to follow. Caesar always looked at his role models — Marius, Sulla, Catiline, Pompey, Crassus, Cicero — and believed he could do what they did, only better. If he was able to inherit Catiline’s lower-class mobs, he might just be able to do what Catiline couldn’t.

Cato rose to speak, attacking the Senate. “You have always valued your mansions and villas, your statues and pictures, at a higher price than the welfare of your country,” Cato told them. “If you want to keep wallowing in your gluttony, you had better stamp out this rebellion now.”

Catos, generally speaking, were not diplomatic.

The boy who had sat at Sulla’s bloody right hand knew what would follow if Catiline made it to Rome. It was the weak and indecisive Senate that had made Sulla possible, and there was another potential bloody dictator not far away. In fact, Cato suspected he was facing one right there in the chamber in the person of Julius Caesar. He demanded the Senate put a stop to these kinds of things once and for all, and thereby save the Republic.

In the middle of his speech, a note was passed to Caesar. Cato demanded it be read aloud, suggesting that it was from the conspirators, who Caesar might just be in cahoots with.

“Read it yourself,” Caesar told him, handing him the note. It was “a love note to Caesar, from Cato’s own (married) half-sister.”

Whoops.

Cato pressed on while Caesar smirked. He said that granting a reprieve to a band of insurrectionists was delaying the inevitable. They wouldn’t give up, and they had a lot of sympathy in the city and throughout Italy. The Senate’s long-established weakness lent strength to their enemies and usurpers. “Why do you hesitate, even in such circumstances, over how to treat armed incendiaries arrested within your walls?”

He took issue with Caesar’s argument about Rome’s past. “Do not suppose that our ancestors, from so small a beginning, raised the Republic to greatness merely by force of arms.” (It should be noted that Caesar had said “empire” while Cato said “republic”). “If that had been the case,” Cato went on, “we would be safe; because allies and citizens, arms and horses, we have in more abundance than they did. There were other things that made them great, which we lack: industry at home; equitable government abroad; minds impartial in council, uninfluenced by any immoral or improper feeling.”

“Instead of such virtues,” he said, “we have luxury and avarice, public distress and private superfluity; we extol wealth and yield to indolence; no distinction is made between good and bad men; and ambition usurps the honors due to virtue. Since each of you focuses on his individual interest and since at home you are slaves to pleasure, money, or favor, it happens that an attack is made on the defenseless state.”

He ended his speech in simple terms. “We are completely surrounded. Catiline and his army are ready to grip us by the throat…the conspirators have planned massacres, fires, horrible and cruel outrages against their fellow-citizens and their country. Punish them in the spirit of our ancestors.”

The Senate was silent for a moment, then roared.

***

Caesar went into a rage. The Senate bailiffs entered the room and tried to remove him. Caesar’s friends stood in front of him, between him and the bailiff’s swords. Finally Caesar conceded and stormed off. “He would not attend Senate meetings for the rest of the year.”

Julius Caesar had learned that Cato the Younger was a dangerous adversary.

Lentulus and his co-conspirators were executed. Catiline took charge of his army and attempted to cross into Gaul. He was stopped by a Roman army and despite fighting bravely at the head of his troops, “Catiline and most of his followers were killed.”

The Catiline conspiracy had come to an end. But his attempt had set the stage for the battle that would end the Republic. Cicero was paraded through the streets, with Cato the Younger leading the grateful crowd.

The conservatives had won the day, but Julius Caesar had managed to put himself on the side of the people with his argument for mercy. The historian Sallust predicted that the fall of the Republic would play out in the contest between men like Caesar, who operated with generosity and benevolence, and Cato, who clung to laws, institutions, and tradition. Caesar provided “a refuge for the unfortunate” while Cato pursued “temperance, discretion, and, above all, austerity…He was more desirous to be, than to appear, virtuous.”

As more Romans became disaffected with the status quo, as represented by Cato the Younger, they would become at first a willing audience, and then willing supporters of Julius Caesar, who always referred to Rome as an empire.

As Caesar, Crassus and Pompey continued their rise to power, Cicero and Cato, who saw most clearly the coming storm and what it meant for the Republic, stood firmly in their way. They wielded the laws and institutions of Rome against the usurpers to try and block them at every turn, and keep the Republic from falling.

The fight was on.

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.