The Catilinarian Conspiracy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The conspiracy led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) to seize control of the Roman Republic in 63BC sparked a period of terror and political intrigue. While ultimately unsuccessful, his conspiracy became emblematic of the republic’s slow decline into strife and civil war, and its eventual transformation into an autocratic empire.

Rome in 63 BC was a troubled city. Cicero, a constitutionalist who wished to preserve the institutions of the republic, had been elected consul. Upon taking office he was forced to combat radical new reforms proposed by the tribune Servilius Rullus, that aimed create a ten man committee tasked with redistributing public land to the poor. Cicero vehemently attacked the bill, arguing that the ten-man committee would be far too powerful, and he eventually convinced the Senate to vote it down. But it was a patent sign of the changing political climate, as ambitious senators sought to employ populist policies to seize power – Cicero was forever after seen as an enemy of the reform faction.

Catiline was a patrician (aristocrat) from the noble Sergius family, which boasted ancestry from the Trojans. Nevertheless, by the period of the Late Roman Republic, his family’s fortunes had declined, and in spite of his impressive lineage, he was notorious for his misconduct. From a rumoured liaison with a Vestal Virgin to accusations of incest and murder, Catiline was endlessly entangled in scandal.

As Catiline’s political ambitions increased, his extensive campaigning put him deep into debt. Nonetheless, with the support of political giants such as Crassus and Caesar, he became praetor in 68 BC – a respectable position for any senator with hopes of becoming consul. In spite of this, his bid for the consulship of 66 BC failed, as he was convicted on charges of corruption stemming from his time serving as the governor of Africa. Although he was ultimately acquitted, possibly as the behest of his powerful allies, Cataline was bitter and eager to stand again.

By this time, Catiline had garnered a significant following in Rome due to his populism. His motivations for this stance remain ambiguous. Arguably, his heavy debts had driven him to make common cause with the people of Rome. He also gained popularity among indebted aristocrats who had borrowed far more than they could afford to fund their political campaigns.

Catiline had much reason to feel confident prior to the consular elections for 63 BC. Nevertheless, despite enjoying the support of influential figures, he naturally faced criticism for his populist leanings from patrician circles. Relying principally on their farms as their source of income, these men were vigilant in protecting their interests, and were wary of any land reform bills that Catiline might propose at their expense. Therefore, they placed their support in Cicero, catapulting him to an overwhelming victory in the elections. With Antonius Hybrida as Cicero’s consular colleague, Catiline was again out of power and left to lick his wounds.

The defeat was a watershed moment in Catiline’s political career, taking his ambitions to new and far more radical heights. As a patrician himself, Catiline’s animosity for Cicero was intensified by Cicero’s status as a homo novus (meaning ‘new man’). This was a demeaning term used by the Roman elite to describe the first man in a family to achieve distinguished office.

Catiline quickly became a threat to Cicero’s authority as consul. His following grew as he aligned himself with the disgruntled veterans of Sulla, a deceased former general and dictator of Rome, whose old soldiers were demanding a reward for their military service. As an opponent to many of Catiline’s aspirations – both public and private – Cicero became an obvious target. The tensions reached boiling point as Catiline vied for the consulship of 62 BC. As he presided over the elections, Cicero wore a breastplate under his toga, fearing for his life. Suffering defeat once again, Catiline turned from politics to conspiracy.

In October, Cicero received reports of an uprising of Sullan veterans in Etruria, a region in northern Italy, under the command of the retired general Manlius. Much to his dismay, Cicero was informed that Catiline had secured the help of these veterans, and was preparing for full-blown rebellion. The senate declared a state of emergency, passing the senatus consultum ultimum (‘final decree of the senate’) that provided the consuls with sweeping powers. This permitted them to take any measures necessary – even in disregard of the law – to safeguard the Roman Republic. Rome itself plunged into a state of panic. Cicero went so far as to impose strict curfews on Roman citizens as well by posting watchmen around the city.

As the terror within Rome reached its peak, Cicero was handed several anonymous letters, supposedly addressed to Crassus. They contained details about Catiline’s plot, hinting at impending bloodshed on the streets of Rome. Sensing the danger, Cicero decided to alert the senate about the letters immediately, calling for further safety precautions, and deterring the plotters. While the senate readily believed Cicero, given the letters’ mystery, there is an argument that Cicero forged them himself to incentivise immediate action against Catiline and his co-conspirators who were still lingering in Rome. It soon became apparent that Catiline had underestimated his opponent, and the more brilliant Cicero’s leadership proved, the more he became a target. Cicero, with luck on his side again, was able to evade an attempt on his life.

Following this episode, Cicero urgently summoned the senate to a meeting at the Temple of Jupiter: it was now his turn to take aim and make his attack on the conspirators. His own narrow escape had made him more courageous than ever. Deploying his words pointedly, Cicero demolished his enemies including Catiline who had boldly decided to attend the meeting of the senate that morning. This was the turning point in Cicero’s battle against Catiline; until now there was a minority of senators who were dubious of Cicero’s accusations, but after his speech, Catiline was publicly denounced. As Cicero revelled in the ovation he received from the senate, Catiline, seething with rage, fled from the temple in embarrassment.

Claiming he was leaving Rome to go into exile in Massilia (modern-day Marseille), Catiline changed course to Etruria where he intended to arm the waiting rebels. Catiline was able to expand the army to an unprecedented 12,000, but its effectiveness was limited by poor discipline and lack of experience. Furthermore, with Catiline gone, Cicero delivered a moving speech to the people in the Roman forum, helping to turn public opinion decisively against Catiline. It was only a matter of time before Catiline was declared an official enemy of Rome by the senate.

Nevertheless, Cicero had not yet escaped danger. Catiline had left Rome, but his co-conspirators remained in the heart of the city. Indeed, many had even more sinister intentions, such as the urban Praetor Lentulus Sura, who, according to Cicero, wished to murder the senate, set fire to Rome and seize power for himself, in emulation of his deceased relative Sulla. He even urged Catiline to recruit slaves into his army, an act considered especially seditious as Spartacus’ revolt of the early 70s BC still loomed in living memory.

With Catiline now outside the city walls, the remaining conspirators sought to enhance their position. An opportunity soon presented itself; two envoys of the Allobroges, a Gallic tribe, travelled to Rome intending to protest their harsh treatment by the Romans. They were sought out by Sura who sent his freedman Umbrenus to enlist their support in return for promising them an end to their grievances. Though keen at first, they soon informed their voice in the senate, Fabius Sanga, a man with extensive business interests in Gaul. Sanga, in turn, passed the intelligence onto Cicero. With the perfect trap at his fingertips, Cicero now had the conspirators where he wanted them. He convinced the envoys to feign further interest in the scheme but to report all they learned about the plot back to him. The envoys subsequently met with the leaders of the conspiracy including Sura. Needing incriminating evidence, the envoys cunningly asked for sealed letters from each of the conspirators on the pretext that they intended to hand them to their fellow Gauls. The conspirators agreed and added that the envoys were to meet with Catiline on their way back to Gaul. Cicero arranged an ambush for the delegation at the Milvian Bridge, sending his trusted praetors Flaccus and Pomptinus to capture the sealed letters. As anticipated, they captured the evidence and took prisoners, including Volturcius, Sura’s messenger.

The following day, Cicero convened a meeting for the senate to question Volturcius as well as the two Gallic ambassadors. Volturcius incriminated Sura, revealing that he had been sent to escort the Gauls to Catiline as part of Sura’s plan for the Gauls to join the rebel army. The Gauls provided equally damning evidence, further implicating the conspirators who had been forcibly brought to the meeting to be questioned. To the shock of the senate, the conspirators were made to verify their personal seals and subsequently read aloud their letters. The idea of Roman senators conspiring with a foreign power was scandalous, especially since the Gauls had sacked Rome in 390 BC.

The Senate now had to sentence the conspirators. At first, all agreed on immediate death by execution, until it was Caesar’s chance to speak. Going against the status quo, Caesar suggested life imprisonment, arguing that it was not wise to execute a Roman citizen without a trial whatever the circumstances. This was not the outcome that Cicero had hoped for; such clemency might inspire and give unwanted hope to the other rebels. Ultimately, Cato the Younger, a highly respected figure within the Roman senate, was able to argue intently for execution. This was enough to sway the house, thus sealing the conspirators’ fates. After their execution, Cicero famously announced to the people “they have lived”, respecting a longstanding Roman tradition that death could not be mentioned in the Roman forum. As Cicero had predicted, news of the conspirators’ execution destroyed the morale of Catiline’s forces in Northern Italy, who were defeated decisively at the battle of Pistoria in 62 BC.

Cicero emerged from the chaos triumphant as the Republic’s hero, winning the esteemed title pater patriae (‘father of the fatherland’). Some speculate, however, whether Cicero exaggerated the evil of Catiline’s plot to boost his own standing. Catiline’s legacy too remains debated. Some accept Cicero’s stance towards Catiline, viewing him as a threat to the Republic; others defend him by pointing to the inclination of our pro-Cicero sources. In any case, Cicero’s leadership during the crisis was praised throughout the Roman world, despite the fact that Catiline’s conspiracy, ultimately, would be another stepping stone in the immense political upheaval that characterised the end of the Roman Republic.

Yavetz, Z. (1963). The Failure of Catiline’s Conspiracy. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 12(4), 485–499.

Duane A. March. (1989). Cicero and the “Gang of Five.” The Classical World, 82(4), 225–234.

Holland, T. (2003). Rubicon : the triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic.

Levick, B. (2015). Catiline. Ancients in Action.