Syme

Ronald Syme wrote his Sallust in the 1960s. In his chapter on the political scene he blames Sallust for our distorted view of old Roman vs Augustan era decay:

He interpreted a process of economic change and political adjustment in terms of morals; and he fell an easy prey to conventional notions about old Roman virtue. The distortion was enhanced in the next epoch, eager to escape from the memory of recent freedom and turbulence, and complacent in its own type of felicity — that is, liberty but not licence, discipline but not despotism. Political fraud and Augustan romanticism conspired to embellish the venerable past — with unhappy consequences for historical study ever after.

Syme says that in Bellum Catilinae Sallust “is preoccupied all through with decline and fall, with the end of an epoch in Roman history….”sceleris atque periculi novitate.” The Bellum Catilinae starts out with a pairing of orations and digressions about the character/vice of Catiline and Rome.

Irene Hahn suggested I re-read Syme’s Sallust, marking my tangential move via Catiline from Cicero to Sallust, and allowing me to avoid the task of the day, which is to try to read more of Everitt’s Augustus. There is nothing particularly wrong with Everitt’s Augustus, but the early imperial period and Augustus, in particular, make me queasy. I suppose I find the switch-over from Republic to Monarchy too relevant to today and prefer the earlier ideal when power could be usurped periodically by one man but then had a way of returning to the people… or so I like to imagine.

Catilinarian Conspiracy – Events
The unarguable events of 63, according to Syme, chronologically are:

  • July – C. defeated in the elections, resolves on revolution
  • C.’s partisan Manlius goes to work in northern Etruria – enlists plebs, brigands, and vets.
  • Cicero receives intelligence and reports to the Senate.
  • Oct. 21 – Senatus consultum ultimum is passed.
  • Oct. 27 – Manlius starts insurrection.
  • c. Nov. 2 – Saenius announces insurrection in the Senate.
  • Senate takes some action.
  • Nov. 6 – Conspirators meet at M. Porcius Laeca’s house. Decide to assassinate Cicero.
  • Cicero is warned.
  • Nov. 8 – Cicero delivers 1st Catilinarian to the Senate.
  • C. leaves Rome.
  • Nov. 9 – Cicero delivers 2nd Catlinarian to the People.
  • c. Nov. 17 – C. and Manlius, now joined up, declared enemies.
  • Dec.2-3 – Envoys of the Allobroges and Volturciius are apprehended carrying letters to C.
  • Dec. 3 – Cicero shows Senate evidence of treachery of 4 conspirators.
  • Cicero delivers 3rd Catilinarian to the People.
  • Dec. 4 – Senate discussion.
  • Dec. 5 – Consul-designate proposes death sentence for the conspirators.

Contrary to the accepted chronology, Sallust seems to put the Senatus consultum ultimum after the foiling of the assassination attempt. Syme says some think this is a way to discredit Cicero; that is, Cicero was driven by personal fear to ask for it. Syme says Sallust was doing no such thing. He was tracing the conspiracy at Rome and then tracing events in Etruria. This leads Syme to a summary and appropriate aside:

The historian is cleared. There was no deception. How difficult it is to combine in one narration contemporaneous events in different theatres without a lavish use of dates and sign posts is not always apparent to the erudite arbiters of praise and blame who eschew the writing of narrative history.

So, Sallust was fine as an historian, but he’s responsible for

  • 1) 63 B.C. as a date for the end of the Republic,
  • 2) our thinking there were two parties (nobiles and plebs) in ancient Rome, and
  • 3) our looking nostalgically back at the — especially early — Republic as a glorious age of virtue in contrast with a modern (oops! I mean Imperial) age of vice.

Photo of Ronald Syme GNU Free Documentation License

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