Cato vs. The Catiline Conspiracy

Rome’s greatest orator pointed his finger at Cato the Younger and said, “Do you not see a storm coming?”

Marcus Tullius Cicero was consul for the year 63 BC, and thanks to the aforementioned storm, was a virtual dictator. But he had a number of problems, and he was going to use Cato the Younger to try and solve them.

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t just one storm.

***

The slave revolt of Spartacus had been put down, with crucified rebels lining each side of the Appian Way from Rome to Capua like grisly streetlights. The rogue general Sertorius had been deposed from his fiefdom in Spain. In short order, all of Rome’s mortal threats were gone.

Way to go, Rome.

But the architects of these victories, Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus, expected something in return. They marched their armies to the gates of the city and left them there while they stood election for consul. Pompey was technically too young to hold the office. Crassus didn’t bother to campaign.

Somehow, they won anyway.

If you’ve been keeping up with our story thus far, here’s a scenario that keeps repeating: victorious general brings his troops home, parks them on the other side of the city walls, and takes charge of the Republic, riding right over all the institutions that had made Rome both the light and the conqueror of vast territories.

The Roman Senate, the most revered of those institutions remained, heroically, silent as the republican traditions it claimed to revere are trampled beneath bloodstained boots.

Way to go, Roman Senate.

In their defense, most senators of this period were either rich cowards afraid of losing their estates and their heads, or could be bribed into silence.

Two young men were watching this new dynamic very closely: Cato the Younger and Julius Caesar.

***

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

https://play.acast.com/s/historys-trainwrecks/025-stubborn-nags-of-ancient-rome-part-iv

Cato ran for his first office in 67 BC — military tribune. This would put him in command of a legion of about four thousand troops and pave his way to a Senate seat when his year was up.

He campaigned for his first office at a time when the average Roman-on-the-street was feeling pretty nervous about the state of the Republic. Rome’s success had come, in part, from its ability to learn and adapt, to see what worked and make it their own. Military formations and tactics, education, politics, engineering, territorial conquest and management — the Romans were great learners. The problem was that the lessons currently being taught were the ones that would ultimately end the Republic.

A senator could be bought. A strong general could take over the city. You could throw your rich neighbor under the proscription bus and take his stuff after his head got posted on a pike in the Forum. In the race to success between corruption and virtue, the former was faster. And, once in place, virtue could be declared instead of earned.

Cato stood against the tide. When he ran for office, he did so without a nomenclator — a slave whose job it was to remember the names of everyone the candidate encountered. Cato did it on his own, admitting when he couldn’t remember someone. It may have been a small thing, but it provided a juxtaposition to campaigning at swordpoint, as Crassus and Pompey had done.

Cato won his election, and set off for Macedonia to take command of his new legion.

***

The year of his tribuneship — 67 BC — was all about the threat of Mithridates, who was dogged in his attacks on Roman territories. He bounced back after every defeat, fighting at the head of his armies even though he was nearing seventy.

The Romans, always on the lookout for a boogeyman to scare the kiddies at bedtime, moved on from one-eyed Hannibal of Punic War fame to Mithridates, scourge of the East. Rome knew its success came in part from its relentlessness, so few things scared them as much as a determined enemy who kept coming at them.

The seemingly-unstoppable Mithridates was downright terrifying.

Morale started to fail in the ranks of the legions on the front lines. They were underpaid and weary of the guerilla attacks Mithridates kept sending against them. They suffered a significant defeat at Zela, where 7000 Romans were killed, including 174 officers, the most ever lost in a single battle. Mithridates, a huge fan of Alexander the Great, claimed his mantle of invincibility and unstoppable conquest.

Discipline in the Roman legions, the bedrock of their military success, began to fail.

***

Fortunately for Cato the Younger, he had the example of his esteemed ancestor, crabby old Cato the Elder, to follow when he assumed command. Like his great-grandpa, he shared the hardships of his soldiers. On his first day in charge, he walked into camp on foot instead of riding in on horseback. He abandoned the harsh punishments favored by Roman commanders, choosing instead to reason with and educate his men.

He slept on the ground with them, ate the same rations, wore the same clothes, did all the menial work of camp living like digging fortifications and carrying heavy stuff from one place to another, and marched alongside his soldiers instead of cantering easily by on a horse.

Unlike other generals like Crassus and Pompey, Cato avoided pomp (I wonder where that name came from) and ceremony. He earned the love and loyalty of his men by being “more like a soldier than a commander.”

His year in command ended with his men having seen no major combat, and when Cato left his soldiers for the last time, they “threw down their cloaks for him to walk on,” and “wept and kissed his hands.”

But instead of parlaying this success into a Senate seat, Cato took a walk.

***

He went mostly on foot through Rome’s possessions in Asia Minor, ostensibly to investigate each province firsthand. His beloved half-brother had died suddenly that year, so part of his walking tour was an exercise in mourning.

He was looking for “a picture of Rome’s reception at its empire’s end.” He traveled as an obscure private citizen, not recent tribune or descendant of a famous family. He would send a slave ahead to each town to secure lodging and a meal, but because he pretended to be a nobody, they were met with the answer that there was, essentially, no room at the inn.

Cato would then have a quiet chat with the innkeeper, explain who he was, and be shown to his room. He warned the townsfolk that most Romans would take what they wanted without asking. “Not all men who come to you,” he said. “will be Catos.”

Toward the end of his walking tour, Cato was granted an audience with Pompey the Great, who was in the East to put a final end to the rampages of Mithridates. At his young age, the consul had been granted a military force and unrestrained power rarely seen in Roman history.

Knowing he was a lucky and talented upstart who was parlaying military victory and great PR into a career that upended all Roman norms, Pompey needed to be seen with a scion of an ancient family and well-known conservative stick in the mud. Their meeting in Ephesus was a forerunner of the modern photo-op, where a conniving politician poses with someone respectable, in hopes of some of that respectability rubbing off on them.

They each played their part, Pompey praising Cato as if his guest was the true hero. Cato, no fan of praise, probably withstood that performance with gritted teeth. He must have known he was being buttered up. Pompey needed Cato — recent Roman history taught him that generals could seize total power, as Sulla had done, but also that “one day’s hero was the next day’s tyrant.” As Sulla had been.

Cultivating recognized figures of establishment Rome would give any dictator cover, so that they could pay lip service to the Republic while building an empire. In this phase of Roman history, what things looked like was far more important than what things actually were. The tactic of pretending to be a proponent of Republican ideals while simultaneously destroying them would be used again by Julius Caesar and his nephew, Rome’s first emperor, the divine Augustus, who wished only to be called “First Citizen.”

Cato wasn’t falling for it.

***

Cato returned to Rome and took up the post of quaestor, the one held by his great-grandfather. Quaestors were in charge of Rome’s money: tax collection, state debts, and dispensing public funds. Like most quiet moneymen, they had enormous power. They could overlook a tax bill, misplace an inheritance, or impose a tax on a foreign conquest. They could audit the way a famous general was spending the Republic’s money, they way Cato the Elder had with Scipio Africanus.

Cato had the power of the purse, as they say, and he used it in the tradition of his family line: he became an enemy of corruption.

And like his famous forebear, he ignored his friends’ warnings to tread lightly — corruption and bribery were now a way of life in Rome, they said, and he should just go along.

They sure didn’t know who they were dealing with.

Cato fired all the clerks in the Treasury who were incompetent or guilty of corruption. As he had done with his legion, he became an educator, instructing his staff in the law, so that mistakes made from ignorance would end. He discovered that the Treasury owed money to Roman citizens at the same time it was owed by others, so not only did he collect what was owed to Rome, he paid what Rome owed. He himself stood as a bulwark against using the Treasury for nefarious purposes. When it came to the misuse of public funds, the response was simple. “It is impossible — Cato will not consent.”

But the biggest thing Cato did as quaestor was what he had asked his tutor for on his way to his front-row seat to the bloodbath of Sulla’s reign; he set his country free from the former dictator.

Sulla’s proscriptions were an unscrupulous free for all. You could accuse your rich neighbor of opposing the dictator, and after his head was stuck on a pike, you got a big reward. Sulla had paid for all this out of public funds, so the new quaestor demanded the money back.

And he got it.

Cato the Younger went back through the books, ferreting out all those who had made themselves rich from the slaughter. He billed them for repayment, lectured them about their crimes, and sent them to the courts for trial, where many were convicted and sentenced to death.

Plutarch wrote that the Romans, “thought that with their deaths the tyranny of that former time was extinguished, and that Sulla himself was punished before men’s eyes.”

Cato the Younger had once demanded a sword, that he might slay the dictator of Rome. With his account books, his pen, and his unshakable sense of right and wrong, he had finally done it.

***

Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that their good deeds will inspire others to do the same. Cato thought that his moral handling of the Roman Treasury would extend to his successors, and that a new era of responsibility in the public trust would ensue, in which the corruption blackening the heart of the Republic would be reversed.

As he himself said on his walking tour through the provinces, “Not all men who come to you will be Catos.” His successors at the Treasury went back to business as usual, forgiving the debts of the well-connected, and letting the elites go back to using the Treasury as their private slush fund.

The new pattern of Rome had taken root — virtue was admired but not emulated. Money and power were all that mattered. The rich got richer and the poor stayed poor, in the same formula that paved the way for a populist to come along and throw the Republic into disarray.

***

I won’t use the tired cliché about those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it — the Roman Senate was about to get another harsh lesson in that. The flip side of the old saying is that those who do learn from history usually benefit from it.

Like Lucius Sergius Catilina, known as Catiline.

He came from an aristocratic family that had gone destitute. Catiline helped things along by gambling, drinking, and cavorting with Rome’s lower classes. The elite of the city accused him of “everything from killing his son to defiling a Vestal Virgin,” but this was definitely a time where the disdain of Rome’s upper classes, themselves fully deserving of scorn, only endeared Catiline to the poor.

Like the Gracchi brothers before him, he saw the political advantages of this and proposed radical land redistribution and “a universal cancellation of all debts.” He called it Tabulae Novae — Clean Slates.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll have noticed that the cancellation of debts would also been of great use to Catiline himself, who had spent his life in hock up to his eyeballs.

The Clean Slates plan was big trouble for Rome’s elite, who were owed a great deal of money. But the winners in the deal included ex-soldiers whose state-funded retirement — usually a small plot of land — wasn’t enough to keep them from borrowing money, speculators who had been wiped out by the unrest in the East caused by our old friend Mithridates, and the poor of Rome and its provinces, perennially unemployed due to a “slave-glutted economy.” At the same time, Rome was having trouble producing enough grain to feed itself. Imported grain was more expensive, and so more Romans went into debt just to feed themselves.

It was a perfect storm, and Catiline tried to ride it to power.

***

He ran for office in 66 BC but was accused of extortion and prevented from running. It was said that he intended to “kill off the consuls elected in his place, along with a good part of the Senate,” and rule by force. This plot never materialized, but the elite believed it.

Like far too many villains of history, “there was not a rumor so sordid that it would fail to stick to Catiline.”

He tried again in 64 BC, the year Cato was running the Treasury. Accusing Catiline of all manner of malfeasance had stopped working, so Rome’s powerful found another relative nobody to put up against Catiline as a “man of the people.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero was an ambitious and talented fellow from an obscure family who craved power and fame. He built himself into Rome’s greatest orator, with a reputation for brilliance and an ability to get things done. He drove himself like a madman in pursuit of his ambitions, suffering the equivalent of a nervous breakdown from overwork.

Once again, the cowardice of the elite prevailed. Their support for Cicero as a lower-class alternative to Catiline worked, and he was elected consul, once more shutting Catiline out. “He is soaked in the blood of those he has impiously slaughtered,” Cicero said of his opponent.

Catiline, more debt-ridden than ever and accused of more heinous crimes, was running out of options. And now he, descendant of a noble family, had been beaten by a nobody. All legitimate avenues to power had been closed off.

The only option he had left was to take it by force.

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Historian

Historian

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