The Conspiracies of 63 BCE

  1. What do you believe Cicero’s motive was in 63 BCE?
    • The desire to suppress a dangerous and widespread conspiracy which he had uncovered (the traditional view, recently re-championed by Philips);
    • A desire to flush out all dissident elements in Roman society by setting up Catiline “as a rallying-point for failures of every description” (Seager); or
    • An attempt to victimize the totally innocent Catiline in order to reap the glory that would accrue from suppressing a (fabricated) conspiracy. (Waters).
  2. In the light of your understanding of the Catilinarian affair, how adequate do you find Sallust’s account of it?

Phillips, Seager and Waters present three divergent attitudes to Cicero in the light of the ‘Catiline Conspiracy’. Philips portrays him as undermining a serious plot against the Roman state.1 Waters’s thesis of Cicero’s attempt at self-aggrandizement through Catiline’s victimization2 involves, as Phillips states, one improbability after another.3 Seager’s argument of disparate reactionary groups being confused as part of one conspiracy by Cicero ultimately reiterates the conclusions drawn by Waters; that Cicero was overly concerned with amplifying his own glory.4 This essay does not attempt to embrace any one of these views wholeheartedly but seeks to consider a more likely theory by developing some of Seager’s arguments further. It also attempts to reconcile Seager’s argument on the vital point of Cicero’s intentions, illustrated by Phillips: there are no cogent reasons for doubting the sources and supposing that Cicero was making allegations which he knew to be untrue and was deliberately falsifying evidence.5 This essay will consider to what extent this is true.

All three of these modern accounts must necessarily make judgments about Cicero’s motives in the light of the possible extent of the conspiracy. This will also be my approach. Seager argues Lentulus and Catiline were not co-conspirators. He uses the evidence of the letter carried by Volturcius as proof.6 Lentulus had written to Catiline, Who I am, you will learn from the bearer of this.7 Seager’s argument is that Catiline did not know Lentulus, hence this cryptic opening.8 Phillips argues differently, stating it was to assure Catiline of Volturcius’s trustworthiness.9 Stockton makes further interpretations of the letter. Lentulus is supposed to have written: Seek help from all, even from the humblest.10 At this point, Water also notes Lentulus’s verbal message that slaves should be used is contrary to Catiline’s reluctance to use slaves.11

Rather than continue with the ever-expanding intricacies of argument and cross argument presented, I intend to first offer a likely interpretation of the affair of Lentulus and the letters seized on the Milvan Bridge. The letters, read by Cicero in the Senate, and admitted to by Volturcius, Cethegus, Statilius and Lentulus12 appear as a damning indictment against Catiline. However, if Lentulus was not associated with Catiline, as Seager argues, the whole nature of the supposed conspiracy alters.

Lentulus was not without motives. Despite his praetorship in 63, it is possible he harboured resentment for having being expelled in 70.13 We may also assume his attempt at coup was not without a model for he is supposed to have alluded to a Sibylline oracle after his capture, from which he interpreted he was to be Rome’s third Cornellii ruler (the first two being Sulla and Cinna).14 We must also consider the picture of Rome painted by Sallust; a place of social and political unrest, all made worse by the politicisation of the underclasses by the Tribunes, now restored to full power.15 Rome was ripe for men like Lentulus.

Sallust tells us Lentulus was carrying out Catiline’s orders.16 However, we need not believe this because Sallust is following Cicero. Cicero states, every detail was supervised, wrestled with, scrutinised and toiled over by Catiline.17 But Cicero’s assumption is based on the fact that Catiline was implicated in the letters being carried by the Allobroges; letters and designs admitted to by Lentulus and his followers.18 Admittedly, Sallust has also previously mentioned Lentulus as one of the conspirators in league with Catiline at least since 64.19 But if Lentulus’s association with Catiline at this point is based upon the evidence of the letters then this evidence, too, might be discounted.

A likely scenario is as follows. Lentulus, for his own reasons, wants to incite an uprising and attempt to overthrow the government. However, his support is meagre. He therefore has Umbrenus try to enlist the aid of the Allobroges by appealing to their desire to free themselves of the Romans and their debt.20 However, he realises the seriousness of what he proposes and also realises he must give firmer assurances than the potential of a rebellion within the city. He therefore implicates Catiline in the plot:

Umbrenus also summoned Gabinius, in order to give greater weight to the proposal he intended to make, and in his presence told them of Catiline’s conspiracy and named his principal accomplices, including among them a miscellaneous collection of entirely innocent persons, with the object of inspiring them with greater confidence.21 [my emphasis]

We may assume two things are supposed to distinguish Catiline (in Sallust’s view) from these “entirely innocent persons”. Firstly, Catiline has already been outlawed by a Senate decree,22 making the statement plausible. Catiline had also been implicated in a plot Cicero in 66 to kill the consuls.23


If the story told to the Allobroges by Lentulus was fictitious, a number of things follow. The letters demanded by the Allobragoes from these conspirators, with the expressed intention of persuading their countryment, would necessarily have to name Catiline as one of the conspirators. Sallust takes up the story:

A man named Titus Volturcius, of Crotone, was sent by Lentulus with the Allobroges, so the before proceeding to their own country they might confirm their alliance with Catiline by exchanging solemn assurances.24 [my emphasis]

Sallust uses the phrase confirm their alliance, but this would be what they would have to appear to do to concvince the Allobragoes. Lentulus’s cryptic last line in his letter meant for Catiline, Seek help from all, even from the humblest25 now becomes an entreaty to Catiline to accept his help, and Waters’s criticism of the slave issue falls back upon a man not even associated with Catiline. The importance of the Allobroges story (or impression) of the events on Cicero cannot be doubted.26

The most important aspect of this hypothesis is that it makes sense of Seager’s belief that Lentulus and Catiline had not conspired together prior to this and also validates Phillips’s belief that Cicero’s sincerity should not be doubted. Given the letters in his possession, given the confessions of the prisoners and given the Allobrogues story, he had good reason to believe that Catiline was at the centre of a large conspiracy. Cicero may have sought fame and power from the affair, as Waters suggests27 but it is not at the expense of what Cicero believes to be the truth.

But we cannot assume Cicero’s motives were so plain from the outset. Prior to the Lentulus affair he had no real evidence that Catiline was involved in a conspiracy apart from having joined Manlius after leaving Rome. It was not until this moment that Catiline was declared a public enemy.28 But Cicero’s first speech against him had been made before he joined Manlius.

Catiline left Rome after Cicero made his first speech against him on the 8 November. In the speech Cicero accuses Catiline of conspiring with Manlius ahainst the state and of Catiline trying to have Cicero murdered in his own home. However, a great deal of the speech is verbal rhetoric strongly aimed at forcing Catiline out of Rome. These assertions may be more important than Catiline’s guilt or innocence at this stage. However, I will first briefly consider the matter of Catiline’s level of guilt.

Seager argues that Manlius, like Lentulus, may have also been just another disaffected pawn leading a peasant revolt. Manlius may have supported Catiline’s bid for consulship in promise for an address of his grievances.29 Sallust tells us he left Rome after Catiline’s failure at the elections under Catiline’s orders.30 But Manlius is not mentioned as an ally of Catiline in Sallust’s list of conspirators.31 Most importantly, the evidence Sallust supplies concerning Manlius’s grievances does not support Sallust’s (nor Cicero’s) claim that he and Catiline were conspiring together.32 Sallust says Manlius aroused the peasants by appealing to their resentment forged by poverty and their treatment at the hands of Sulla’s tyranny.33 If his own letter to Marcius Rex can be believed, we might believe Manlius had genuine grievances he wanted addressed;34 grievances he had been unable to address through legal Roman channels.35

Seager argues correctly that Catiline’s own letters, written after exile, is cause for pause, because if it was false it was utterly pointless36. Sallust says he wrote to men of consular rank that he was exiling himself to Marseilles.37 His letter to Catullus later states he had under[taken] the championship of the oppressed.38 Whether Catiline was planning to join Manlius from the beginning as Cicero and Sallust claim, or whether he saw it as an only option to preserve dignity and to protect himself from the force being arrayed against him39 is speculation. Certainly, Cicero gives very specific details of Catiline’s plot (burning, uprising and so on),40 but we must remember Cicero wrote the speeches after the conspiracy and could easily have combined the details of the Lentulus plot. What we must remember is that Cicero, himself, had to concede to the doubts over the conspiracy in his speech.41

However, even without this solid proof of conspiracy, Cicero had definite motives for wanting Catiline out of Rome if Catiline had indeed tried to have Cicero killed. Seager dismisses the murder attempt as unlikely because no physical attempt was achieved on Cicero’s life; nothing could be proven.42 But this is the weakness in Seager’s argument and it forces him to turn to his thesis that Cicero was motivated primarily by glory and power.

There is evidence that Catiline at least had the motive to kill Cicero. His letter to Catullus states: I saw unworthy men [Cicero?] prmotoed to honourable positions, and felt myself treated as an outcast.43 The rhetoric of the outcast certainly makes sense next to his slur against Cicero’s ethnicity.44 We also know Cicero had accused Catiline of a plot in 66 to kill the consuls.45 And Cicero seems to have been instrumental in denying Catiline the consulship a second time in 63.46

Cicero’s main accusation against Catiline in his first speech is that Catiline tried to kill him. Cicero describes in detail the precautions he took and how the alleged murderers were foiled.47 Cicero quickly associates this attempt with a previous attempt during the last election. Cicero states ostentatiously, I thwarted you in person, although I saw that my death would be a major disaster to the Republic.48 Cicero associates his own life with an attack on the Republic. He subsequently spends the rest of the speech stating he wishes Catiline to leave the city so that he may be proved a traitor, and his forces dealt with effectively.49 But there is also a threat implicit in Cicero’s speech:

For a long time now only with difficulty have I kept their hands [the knights guarding the senate] and weapons away from you, and I shall easily persuade them to accompany you as far as the city gates… 50


One might consider from this that Catiline had very little choice in leaving the city.

If Catiline had plotted to kill Cicero (but not to overthrow the state), what were Cicero’s motives? It would seem clear, given this scenario, Cicero had good reason to want a political opponent who had stooped to murder, on the other side of the walls of Rome. Why would he implicate him in a conspiracy? Possibly because his proof of the murder plot was not strong enough, but fear of a general uprising could be more easily supported, given the climate of Rome51 and the movements of Manlius. Perhaps Cicero thought himself so important that he associated a plot against himself with a plot against Rome. Once again, we must also take into account that Cicero was writing with the hindsight of the Lentulus affair.

Finally, there may be some justification in the claim that Cicero sought glory and power. He could not have achieved this by over-reacting to a supposed attack on his life. But saving Rome, itself, was a glory Cicero felt he could compare to Pompey’s achievement:

When we first met after his [Pompey’s] return from Syria, he embraced me, offered his congratulations, and declared that it was through my services that there was still a Rome left to see.52

If the arguments made in this paper are more or less accepted, then we must consider Cicero, himself, an unwitting conspirator in the Catiline business. In this case, it is Cicero who forces Catiline into a position of opposition to Rome. It is Cicero who organises the trap for Lentulus’s group who carry letters that implicate Catiline.

Given these scenarios, Sallust’s account of the affair underplay a central aspect of the affair: Cicero. Not only does he shed a rather dim light upon the actual situations faced by the various groups, but it also seriously underemphasises Cicero’s pat in the whole affair. It is most likely that Sallust not only follows Cicero’s facts, but also his value judgments on Catiline. What is more, these judgments are hidden from us by this process. All we are told of Cicero’s first speech is that Cicero delivered a brilliant oration.53 We are not given the last three speeches. In the debate over the fate of the Lentulus conspirators, only Caesar’s and Cato’s speeches are given. Cicero, in fact, had taken a neutral stance, but had advocated stern punishment.54 His first speech against Catiline also indicates that he much favoured execution.55 In Sallust all this is lost from view.

Seager’s argument seems the most plausible of the three modern scholars in question. This essay has attempted to build upon theories Seager put forward; to take them to their logical conclusion. From this we may hypothesise that Cicero’s initial reaction was to neutralise a dangerous political opponent by associating him with revolutionary causes and forcing him out of Rome. Catiline’s subsequent attachment to Manlius, and the dubious evidence presented by the Lentulus affair, gave Cicero a legitimate basis for believing a conspiracy on a large scale was threatening Rome.



1 E.J.Phillips, ‘Catiline’s Conspiracy’, Historia, XXV (1976), pp.441-448
2 K.H.Waters, ‘Cicero, Sallust and Catiline’, Historia XIX (1970), pp.195-215
3 Phillips, Op.Cit., p.448. McGushin holds this view as well. He writes: “The composition and aims of the conspiracy, the social and economic problems that called it forth, the reaction of leading men in the state to the threat it posed cannot simply be dismissed as non-events.” (P.McGushin, Bellum Catilinae: A Commentary, (Leiden, 1977), p.9
4 Robin Seager, ‘Iusta Catilinae’, Historia XXII (1973), pp.240-248
5 Phillips, Op.Cit., p.448
6 Seager, Op.Cit., p.244
7 Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline, Hanford, S.A., (trans.), (London, 1963), section 45, p.209
8 This view is also held by McGushin who sees the evidence of the letter as likely proof that neither Lentulus or Manlius were originally confederates of Catiline’s. (McGushin, Op.Cit., p.221)
9 Phillips, Op.Cit., p.446
10 Sallust, Cat.45, p.209
11Waters, Op.Cit., p.199
12 Cicero, ‘Against Lucius Sergius Catilina 3’ Selected Political Speeches, Michael Grant (trans.), (Middlesex, 1969), pp.112-116
13 Stockton, Op.Cit., p.111
14 Sallust Cat.48, p.211
15 Sallust Cat-37-39, pp.203-204
16 Sallust Cat.40, p.206
17 Cicero, Op.Cit., p.119
18 These men were likely to be willing to agree to anything Cicero was to suggest. Note the description of Lentulus’s cross examination: …the magnitude of his crime suddenly robbed him of his wits, and although he could have denied the allegation he caused general surprise by confessing that it was true. (Cicero, ‘Against Lucius Sergius Catilina 3’, pp.115-116) 19 Sallust, Cat.17, p.186
20 Sallust, Cat.40-42, pp.206-207, Cicero, Op.Cit., p.112
21 Sallust, Cat.42, p.207. Note, however, in the original Catiline’s name is not mentioned at this point: “Pratorea Gabinium arcessit, quo maior auctoritas sermoni inesset, Eo presente coniurationem aperit, nominat socios, preaterea multos cuiusque generis innoxios, quo legatis animus amplior esset. Deine eos pollicitos operam suam domum dimittit.” (Sallust, The War with Catiline, J.C.Rolfe (trans.) (London, 1921), p.70)
22 Sallust, Cat.36, p.202
23 Sallust, Cat.18, pp.187-188, Cicero, In Toga Candida, p.65 (Thomas Stangl Edition)
24 Sallust, Cat.44, p.209
25 Ibid.
26 While Cicero relies on the evidence of the letters and confessions to convict the conspirators, there is no doubt it was the Allobrogues (Gauls) who supplied Cicero with the details of the events. Therefore, their impression of the truth is what Cicero is drawing upon in his third speech against Catiline (Cicero, Op.Cit., p.114, Next the Gauls were brought into the Senate. They declared that…)
27 Waters Op.Cit., pp.209-211. This is also made abundantly clear by Cicero in many places. In his letter to Pompey (62BC) he writes: I have achieved things for which I had hoped, in view of our relationship and the national interest, to find some word of congratulation in your letter Cicero, Selected Works, p.61) In his fourth Catilinarian speech he states: I have lost the chance to enlist numerous provincials as my clients and hosts … As a substitute for these advantages, and as a recompense for unparalleled devotion to your interests and for the vigilance which you see me dedicating to the salvation of our country, I ask nothing of yourselves except that you cherish the memory of this time and of my consulship. (Cicero, Op.Cit., p.144)
28 Sallust, Cat.36, p.202
29 Seager, Op.Cit., p.241
30 Sallust, Cat.26, p.194
31 Sallust, Cat.16, p.186
32 Cicero, In Catilinam I, section 6. C.McDonald (trans.), (London, 1977), p.39. Cicero describes Manlius to Catiline as your tool and lackey in your wild scheme.
33 Sallust, Cat.28, p.196
34 Sallust, Cat.33, pp.199-200. In fact, Manlius’s letter seems to exemplify the frustrations of municipals caught up in the bureaucracy of Rome: Often too, the commons themselves, either desirous of political power or exasperated by the arrogance of magistrates, took up arms and seceded from the patricians. We, however, are not seeking dominion or riches – the invariable causes of war and quarrelling among human beings – but only freedom, which no true man ever surrenders while he lives.
35 Seager, Op.Cit., p.241
36 Ibid., p.247
37 Sallust, Cat.35, p.200
38 Sallust, Cat.35, p.201
39 Ibid.
40 Cicero, In Catilinam I, 9, p.43-45
41 Ibid., 30, p.63
42 Seager, Op.Cit., p.243
43 Sallust, Cat.36, p.201
44 Sallust, Cat.32, p.98
45 Cicero, In toga candida, p.71. Cicero, In Catilinam I, 15, pp.47-49. McGushin, Op.Cit., pp.298-99, lists eight different conflicting sources on this supposed conspiracy and draws the conclusion that it is probably not historical.
46 Plutarch, ‘Life of Cicero’, Fall of the Roman Republic, Rex Warner (trans.), (Middlesex, 1958), section 11, p.322. Also Sallust Cat.23, p.192. Cicero’s speech, In toga candida, prompted by obstruction of anti-bribery legislation, also shows Cicero was a staunch political opponent of Catiline in this election, and probably had much to do with Catiline’s political misfortunes.
47 Cicero, In Catilinam I, 10, p.42
48 Ibid., 11, p.45
49 Ibid., 43, pp.65-67
50 Ibid., 21, pp.55
51 See again, Sallust, pp.203-204
52 Cicero, ‘Second Philippic: Against Antony’, Selected Works, Michael Grant (trans.), (Middlesex, 1960), p.108
53 Sallust, Cat.31, p.198
54 Cicero, ‘Against Lucius Sergius Catiline IV’, Op.Cit., p.139
55 Cicero, In Catilinam I, 12, p.45


Asconius In Toga Candida
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McGushin, P., Bellum Catilinae: A Commentary, (Leiden, 1977)
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