Catiline — The Musical

Is Rome’s Notorious Conspirator a Demagogic Villain or a Populist Hero?

What could be more theatrical? “Cicero Denounces Catiline,” by Cesare Maccari, from the Italian Senate. (source)

[This essay won the Italy Prize in the 2019 Paideia Institute High School Essay Contest. The author will be attending the Living Latin in Rome High School program this summer.]

Salvete, Theater Directors,

I hear you are looking for an influential Roman whose life would make a great musical. Well, look no further! The story I am about to tell you is packed with politics, betrayal, and murder, and it raises very relevant questions about populism, tyranny, and democracy.

Let me set the scene.

The year is 63 B.C. Looking back, we all know what will happen 20 years later, with Gaius Julius Caesar’s rise to power and his subsequent bloody decline. The moral of that story is clear: dictators have no place in a democracy. But what many do not know is that on one particular day, November 8, 63 B.C, two men would come head to head and set the scene for a certain Ides of March two decades later. One of these men is known to history as a hero, while the other is seen as a villain. Together, they would change the way the world views democracy.

Our story focuses on the villain. He is a man who is remembered as a demagogue, charged with abuses including murder, extortion, fornication, and hatching a conspiracy to destroy Rome. But in his time, he was also known as a social reformer and a champion of the poor. This complex man, a senator, a corrupt governor, and failed consular candidate, is none other than Lucius Sergius Catilina, better known as Catiline.

Catiline’s story begins in 108 B.C. He was born to one of Rome’s oldest aristocratic families, the gens Sergia, but by Catiline’s time, their social status, prosperity, and power are on the decline. A teenage Catiline fights in the Social Wars of 89 where he carries out Sulla’s bloody proscriptions. He kills his own brother-in-law, and he is even rumored to have murdered his wife and son.

His misdeeds do not end there. He is tried for fornication with a Vestal Virgin — a huge faux pas to say the least, and a grave violation of Roman law and a capital crime to say the most. Nevertheless, he is acquitted. He becomes governor of Africa and is tried for extortion. Again, he is acquitted.

Despite his ever-growing rap-sheet, Catiline is still well-liked and viewed as a prominent rising politician. (It is remarkable how forgiving the populace can be of their leaders!) Though the musical will definitely begin with the early stages of Catiline’s life, the real action occurs during his political ascent.

Catiline’s nemesis is Marcus Tullius Cicero, whom history views much more kindly. After Catiline loses the fight for the consulship in 65 B.C. and to Cicero in 64 B.C., he decides he needs a new image. He rebrands himself as a man of the people, with a populist mission: eliminate the debt of every Roman. There are a growing number of discontented veterans left poverty-stricken after the Social War, and they become Catiline’s political base and loyal followers. I’m picturing a rousing musical number as the rag-tag vets are inspired by Catiline’s populist rhetoric and rally behind him.

Catiline plans to take his army and overthrow the government: kill the senators and burn the city to the ground. A tabula rasa, if you will. The only hitch in the plan? Catiline’s mistress, Fulvia, who happens to be friends with Cicero’s wife, Terentia, exposes the plot. After being informed of the conspiracy, Cicero delivers his famous ​Catilinarian Orations​ in front of the Roman senate, with Catiline in the front row! A musical rendition of this speech would be the show’s greatest hit. It contains all of the typical ingredients for a catchy, show-stopper: invectives, indirect question, anaphora, and the ablative of means!

This speech is the climax of the show. Afterward, the senators, feeling emboldened by Cicero’s call to action, arrest the conspirators and decide to execute them. Only one man, a young Julius Caesar, objects to their snap judgment, as he notes that they should be given a fair trial — Rome was a democracy, after all. Despite Caesar’s protests, the men are killed, and Catiline, in an attempt to flee to safety, is finally slain on the battlefield. Rome, it seemed, was restored (at least temporarily).

While Catiline and Cicero’s rivalry is the central drama of the production, there is another story to tell. Unlike the rest of the Senate, which was comprised of wealthy old white men who mainly looked out for their own interests, Catiline cared about the large majority of Romans who didn’t have much of a say in their government. Despite all his flaws, he had a view of democracy that is much closer to how we see it today than most Romans did.

This story will resonate with today’s audience. We live in an era of rising populism, and where democracies of all sorts are under growing pressure. Catiline’s story can serve as a fascinating lens through which we can see ourselves, and still leave the theater humming a tune!


Annika Reff is one of the winners of the 2019 Paideia Institute High School Essay contest. She will be attending the Living Latin in Rome High School program this summer.