The strength of this new Republic would soon be put to the test, as it faced two attempted coups within just five years of the end of the civil war. Both involved one key individual: L. Sergius Catilina.¹ Catilina hailed from an obscure patrician family but had found success as an officer of Sulla and an agent of the proscriptions. He achieved notoriety with the gruesome murder of M. Marius Gratidianus in Rome in 82 BC.² This position allowed him to regain some of his family’s lost standing, and he was elected praetor, most likely for the year 68 BC.³
For once, we are fortunate to have two excellent accounts of this coups, thanks to the surviving monograph of Sallust, written some twenty years after the events he described, and the works of Cicero, who was the consul at the time of the second attempted coup and who was a rival of Catilina. Nevertheless, there are issues with both sources, especially that of Cicero, who made the crushing of this coup the high point of his career and sought to portray himself as a saviour of Rome. Both attempted coups are almost universally refered to as the Catilinarian Conspiracies, which again perpetuates the desire to view these events in personal terms rather than seeing the broader picture.
The Attempted Coup of 65 BC
Of the two attempted coups, the first is the most obscure, and is first mentioned by Sallust in his monograph. The obscurity of this event has led many to question its veracity. If the coup did exist, then questions must be raised as to the role Catilina played in it. The key to this coup lay in the consular elections for 65 BC, which were won by P. Cornelius Sulla, a nephew of the former dictator, and his colleague P. Autronius Paetus. The pair seem to have run as a joint ticket and apparently engaged in wholesale bribery of the electorate in order to succeed. Unfortunately for them, two of the losing candidates accused them of bribery, and a conviction was secured under anti-bribery legislation, and they were disbarred from holding the consulship. Naturally enough, this angered the two men who then apparently decided to seize by force the office they had been denied.
At the same time, Catilina was having similar difficulties in his career. His praetorship was followed by service as a governor in Roman Africa, the quality of which had led to a large number of complaints to the Senate. Upon his return to Rome, he was either charged with corruption or threatened with it; the sources are unclear.⁴ Despite this and the barrage of complaints, Catilina wanted to stand as consul for 65 BC himself, but one of the incumbent consuls, L. Volcatius Tullus (the other being a M. Aemilius Lepidus) disbarred him from standing due to his impending prosecution, a move that was within his rights. This common ground apparently brought Catilina and the two disbarred consuls together, though they may have served as praetors together as well.
The plot apparently involved the murder of the new consuls on 1 January, with Sulla and Autronius seizing the consulship themselves. Catilina’s role depends upon which source you read. Cicero, Sallust and Asconius have Catilina and a certain L. Calpurnius Piso as being the key men charged with enacting the murders. In fact, both Sallust and Asconius ascribe the plots’ failure on Catilina’s botched timing in giving the signal before the conspirators were ready, which ruined the day.⁵ Dio, however, has details of the plot being leaked and the consuls being provided with bodyguards by the Senate. Strangely, there seems to have been little retribution, possibly as it was only a rumour. Dio again has the Senate wanting to condemn the men involved, but this was opposed by a tribunician veto.⁶ The only known retribution came on L. Calpurnius Piso, who was actually appointed to a position in Spain in 64, but was suspiciously murdered during a mutiny by his Spanish bodyguard whilst en route to the province.⁷
Several sources have an altogether different take on this – on the face of it – rather poor excuse for a coup. They believe that the whole plot was masterminded by none other than M. Licinius Crassus himself, along with his protégé, a young C. Iulius Caesar.⁸ The rational being that the coup would slaughter as many senators as possible and then allow a state of emergency to be called and Crassus installed as dictator to deal with it. Sulla and Autronius would then be suffect consuls.
Throughout the 60s, Crassus is seen as the shadowy mastermind behind every notable event in Roman domestic politics, constantly plotting to gain power over his great rival, Pompeius, who was campaigning in the east against Mithridates and Tigranes (see Appendix I). Given the shadowy nature of conspiracies, historians have been arguing about Crassus’ role ever since.⁹ This author’s point of view is that the enmity between Pompeius and Crassus has been constantly overplayed. A traditional point of view has Crassus in a near-permanent state of funk over the impending return of Pompeius to Rome, with everyone expecting him to attack the city, despite the fact that he had clearly refused the opportunity in 71 BC. The two men were certainly rivals, but on two key occasions (70 and 55 BC) they proved that not only could they work together, but that when they did so they could dominate the state.
It seems more than possible that Crassus was bankrolling Sulla and Autronius’ campaign; he financed a number of aspiring politicians, including Iulius Caesar. This does not make him the mastermind of such a crass and ill-organized powergrab. To this author’s mind, Crassus was not worried that Pompeius would return to attack the city, but was working on a range of political schemes to blunt his (Pompeius’) influence back in Rome, and so therefore would not have undertaken such a brutal and simplistic coup. This does not mean that the disgraced non-consuls of 65 did not consider such a wild scheme, but at best this may have involved the murder of their enemies and taking office for the year. Sulla may have well have been inspired by the example of his uncle. Yet the rest of the senatorial elite would not have tolerated such an obvious and brutal coup, even a temporary one, nor for that matter would Crassus or Pompeius. At best, this plot was an idea borne of bitterness at being outmanoeuvred for the consulship in such a manner, and it may well have been enough for rumours to circulate, forcing the Senate to take precautions. Had any evidence existed of a plot, then it would have taken more than a tribunician veto to protect Sulla and Autronius.
Thus, it can be seen that the attempted coup of 65, such as it was, petered out, posing no significant threat to the Republic. However, it is revealing that such an act was contemplated and taken seriously by the Senate, showing the innate fear of bloodshed returning to Rome.
The Attempted Coup of 63 BC
Thus, we can see that at best Catilina was caught up in someone else’s plot and played a peripheral role. He certainly maintained his ambitions to hold the consulship himself, through legal means. However, the prosecution for his African governorship materialized in 65 BC, stopping him running for the office in 64. Fortunately for him, the prosecution was a farce, with a rigged prosecutor and possibly jury. Again, the hand of Crassus is often seen here, perhaps with some justification.
The year 64 also saw another notable event with connections to the civil war, as C. Iulius Caesar established a special court to try the men who had committed the murders during the Sullan proscriptions. This seems to have been part of Caesar’s political programme to take up the mantle of his uncle, C. Marius, and champion those who suffered at Sulla’s hands. The year before, he had, as aedile, restored all of Marius’ monuments that had been destroyed by Sulla. Nevertheless, this court limited itself to those who had committed the acts, specifically those who had brought the heads of the victims to Rome to claim a bounty, ignoring those who had ordered or supported it, most notably Pompeius and Crassus. As such, a number of lesser men, former centurions and soldiers, were indicted and convicted.¹⁰ One notable exception was Catilina himself, but he had nothing to fear, as an acquittal was soon secured, despite the notoriety of the murder of Gratidianus.
Both of these acquittals now meant that Catilina was free to run for the consulship, this time for 63 BC. Of the candidates, there were three clear front runners: Catilina, C. Antonius and M. Tullius Cicero. It was suspected that Antonius was also in the pay of Crassus and that Catilina and Antonius were a joint ticket. However, despite considerable backing, and considerable financial outlay, and perhaps because of rumours being spread about his role in the aborted coup attempt, Catilina was beaten by Cicero, the ‘new man’, who was elected consul alongside Antonius.
This failure seems to have spurred Catilina to gain power at any cost. The sources paint a confused picture of a man preparing a coup whilst also preparing to stand as consul for 62 once more.¹¹ In terms of the election for consul, this time Catilina proposed a programme of ‘radical’ legislation, centred on a debt cancellation programme, possibly with land distributions schemes. Furthermore, he actively canvassed the Sullan veterans, many of whom had lost their farms and were looking for a fresh patron.
Once again, different sources present different versions of the plot, but at its heart were two separate but interconnected processes: a coup in Rome and armed insurrections throughout Italy, supported by a force of his own men, mostly Sullan veterans organized by a C. Manlius, a former Sullan centurion.
The Attempted Coup in Rome
In terms of the coup in Rome, he seems to have formed a conspiracy amongst a group of disaffected Roman elites that included equestrians, a number of senators, the serving urban praetor, P. Cornelius Lentulus Sura, and possibly even the other consul C. Antonius.¹² At its heart lay the assassination of Cicero and possibly a number of other leading senators, supported by armed insurrections throughout the regions surrounding Rome, leading to Catilina’s accession to the consulship and some form of more permanent hold on power.
As is often the case, given the number of conspirators, details of the plot leaked, principally from the mistress of one of the conspirators, Q. Curius, who warned Cicero of the threat to his life. Furthermore, reports started to come in of an armed revolt in Faesulae. This took place in late October, 63 BC, though there seemed to be little concrete evidence of either. Nevertheless, faced with a potential coup within Rome and rumours of an armed insurrection in Italy, and with the loyalty of one of the consuls suspected, Cicero had guards posted around the city and called an emergency meeting of the Senate, and the senatus consultum ultimum was passed. Several days seem to have passed whilst intelligence was gathered on the nature of the threat both within and beyond Rome.
When the revolt at Faesulae had been confirmed, the Senate were in the fortunate position that they had two armies at their disposal, both camped outside Rome awaiting triumphs: Q. Marcius Rex back from Cilicia, and Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus back from Crete. This again shows the poor organization of the conspiracy, with two armies defending Rome. Marcius was dispatched to intercept Manlius’ army, whilst Metellus was sent to Apulia to secure that region. Praetors were sent to Capua and Picenum, again to watch over regions that had revolted against Rome in the civil war.
Of the conspiracy within Rome, the assassinations had been thwarted by the additional precautions and armed guards posted, but Catilina and his supporters attempted to brazen it out, hoping that no real proof of their guilt could be offered; Catilina even attended the emergency sessions of the Senate. His attempts to plead innocence were met by general derision and a famous speech by the consul, which still survives, which totally undermined his position. With no other option, Catilina returned home and left the city at night with a few supporters for Faesulae, leaving behind Lentulus and some other conspirators, who were to await his return at the head of Manlius’ army.
Whilst on the face of it the coup was being contained, P. Lentulus, the urban praetor, whose role in the conspiracy seems to have been unknown, attempted to enlist the Gallic Allobroges tribe into the plot and thus dramatically widen the nature of the rebellion. Several Allobrogan ambassadors were in Rome at the time, complaining about their treatment at the hands of Roman magistrates. Showing willing, these ambassadors were then initiated into the whole plot by an agent of Lentulus, one P. Umbrenus, a move that was at best bold, and at worst foolish.
Although they had no love for Roman domination, the ambassadors soon came to the conclusion that an unsuccessful revolt against Rome would have far more severe consequences, and they passed on details of the whole plot to a Q. Fabius Sanga, who had been a patron of the tribe for many years. He then passed all the details straight to Cicero. Thus the conspirators had revealed their entire plot and full details of everyone involved. Cicero had the ambassadors return to the conspirators and play along with them, learning what they could.¹³
The remaining conspirators in Rome, led by Lentulus, attempted an open insurrection in Rome itself, with one of their number, L. Calpurnius Bestia, a tribune designate, planning on denouncing Cicero in the assembly and another to set fire to the city, a signal for a wave of assassinations. During the preparations for this, the Allobrogan ambassadors agreed to join the insurrection and return to their country to stir up rebellion. They were sent with representatives of the conspirators and letters to Catilina. Naturally enough, the ambassadors tipped off Cicero, who had them all arrested at the Milvian Bridge as they left the city. With enough evidence now in his possession, Cicero ordered the rounding up of all the conspirators inside of Rome. Under questioning by the Senate and faced with the evidence, including letters with their own seals, the key men, Lentulus, Gabinius, Statilius, Cethegus and Caeparius, were all placed under house arrest at the homes of key senators.
The next day, however, saw the arrest of another alleged conspirator, L. Tarquinius, who under oath alleged that he had been sent by M. Licinius Crassus himself to warn Catilina of the arrests and the collapse of the coup. Fortunately for Crassus, his power in the Senate was such that Cicero was forced to propose a motion officially declaring Tarquinius’ testimony false. Sallust reports that Crassus himself believed the accusation to have come from Cicero.¹⁴
A final danger came from the conspirators within Rome, when they used slaves and their freedmen to organize disturbances within the city and free their comrades by force. However, once again, this scheme was soon detected by the Senate and armed guards were stationed throughout the city at key locations. This, however, forced the Senate to decide the fate of the conspirators. Sallust reports that Caesar made a key speech advocating imprisonment in Italian towns, whilst M. Porcius Cato made one calling for them to be executed as traitors. After much deliberation, the Senate sided with Cato and ordered the deaths of the conspirators without trial, under the senatus consultum ultimimum. Cicero then arranged their immediate executions by strangulation.¹⁵ Once again, members of Rome’s oligarchy had been murdered in cold blood, albeit this time with the backing of the Senate and consuls. Cicero immediately came under attack for these murders/executions and was finally tried and exiled for the deed in 58 BC.
Insurrections in Italy
Whilst the coup was being planned for Rome, the policy for the rest of Italy and further afield was to ferment insurrections throughout the various disgruntled communities in order to create a state of emergency and allow Catilina supreme power. Furthermore, he had his own army organized by a C. Manlius to move to secure Rome once power had been seized. In this he was also supported by the organization of a military force, most likely composed of Sullan veterans, with their headquarters at the city of Faesulae in Etruria.
Sallust states that Catilina could rely on the support of a number of groups, some of which were at opposite ends of the spectrum, from Sullan veterans who had fallen on hard times and needed a new patron, to the relatives of the proscribed, along with the usual fortune hunters, inspired by the wealth and social status gained by many of Sulla’s veterans.¹⁶ Sallust also states that the towns and cities of Etruria, such as Faesulae and Arretium were ripe for revolt due to the continuing effects, both material and psychological of their treatment at the hands of Sulla, in the 82–79 period, for being supporters of the coalition.¹⁷ Thus we can see the key negative legacy of the civil war: a pool of discontented groups, from both the winners and losers of the war, and the most dangerous legacy of all, that of precedent, which in Sulla’s case was a successful one too.
It is not clear what the original timings were meant to be, but Faesulae broke out in open rebellion and news of this revolt, including Catilina’s culpability, reached Rome before the coup plotters appeared ready. Following the failure of Catilina to feign ignorance in Rome, he left to join forces with Manlius. In the meantime, Q. Marcius Rex and his army had been dispatched by the Senate to Faesulae. Initially, the two sides opened negotiations, with Manlius issuing a long list of grievances and Marcius ordering him to disarm and then present them to the Senate and People. Catilina, en route from Rome, took a similar course, sending letters to key members of the Senate protesting his innocence.
However, whilst conducting this campaign, he stopped off at Arretium, on the Via Cassia and helped arm a revolt there, aided by a C. Flaminius. Upon hearing the news, all negotiations were broken off and Catilina and Manlius were declared enemies of the sate. Both consuls were ordered to make an emergency levy, with Antonius being charged with pursuing and capturing Catilina, and Cicero the defence of Rome. Given Antonius’ role, any possible inclusion in the conspiracy must not have been public knowledge, if it was ever the case.
Despite this, the insurrection did widen, with widespread discontent in both Italy and Gaul being fanned by agents of Catilina. Sallust reports insurrections in both Gallic provinces, Picenum, Bruttium and Apulia.¹⁸ However, it seems that these insurrections only occurred sporadically, with limited planning and little coordination allowing them to be stamped out by the local Roman magistrates.
Catilina, meanwhile, had reached Manlius’ army, avoiding that of Marcius Rex, and created a unified force, which Sallust puts at two legions, although only a quarter of his men had regulation arms. Interestingly, Sallust states that Catilina refused to enrol slaves in his forces, though a number had rebelled and flocked to his banner, believing them to be inferior to Roman citizens; in this, the patrician spirit took precedence over necessity. Upon the approach of the consul C. Antonius and his force, he retreated northwards, refusing to give battle, while hoping and waiting for good news from the coup in Rome itself. However, when the news of the executions reached Catilina, a number of his men took the opportunity to desert, apparently seeing which way this insurrection was heading. Realizing that the coup had failed, Catilina retreated further northwards, reaching the city of Pistoria, on the Via Cassia, apparently with the intention of crossing into Transalpine Gaul and continuing the insurrection from there. By now, it was mid-to-late December 63.
Unfortunately for him, Metellus, who had been dispatched to Picenum by the Senate, anticipated his likely line of retreat and marched his legions westwards to intercept him, and when he encountered deserters from Catilina’s army was able to confirm their intended route, thus managing to block Catilina’s route into Gaul with his legions. Catilina was now trapped between the forces of Metellus and those of the approaching Antonius, whose forces were also laying siege to Faesulae. Having seen the fate of his comrades in Rome, he determined to give battle against Antonius. Dio adds that Catilina hoped that Antonius would remember his part in the conspiracy and aid him in some way. If Antonius had been involved in the coup, then he would be expected to take this opportunity and end the insurrection here, thus exonerating himself through his actions.
Battle of Pistoria
Extraordinarily though, Antonius chose to throw suspicion on himself by falling ill before the battle and having his legate M. Petreius take command. Sallust ascribes it to gout, Dio to cowardice.¹⁹ Sallust gives the most detailed account of the battle, which took place in early January, 62 BC:
When he had thus spoken, he ordered, after a short delay, the signal for battle to be sounded, and led down his troops, in regular order, to the level ground. Having then sent away the horses of all the cavalry, in order to increase the men’s courage by making their danger equal, he himself on foot drew up his troops suitably to their numbers and the nature of the ground. As a plain stretched between the mountains on the left, with a rugged rock on the right, he placed eight cohorts in front, and stationed the rest of his force, in close order, in the rear. From among these he removed all the ablest centurions, the veterans, and the stoutest of the common soldiers that were regularly armed, into the foremost ranks. He ordered Caius Manlius to take the command on the right, and a certain officer of Faesulae on the left, while he himself, with his freedmen and the colonists, took his station by the eagle, which it was said, had been in the army of Caius Marius during the war with the Cimbri.
On the other side, Caius Antonius, who, being lame, was unable to be present in the engagement, gave the command of the army to Marcus Petreius, his lieutenant. Petreius ranged the cohorts of veterans, which he had raised to meet the present insurrection, in front, and behind them the rest of his force in lines. Then, riding round among his troops, and addressing his men by name, he encouraged them, and bade them remember that they were to fight against unarmed marauders, in defence of their country, their children, their temples, and their homes. Being a military man, and having served with great reputation, for more than thirty years, as tribune, prefect, lieutenant, or praetor, he knew most of the soldiers and their honourable actions, and, by calling these to their remembrance, roused the spirits of the men.
When he had made a complete survey, he gave the signal with the trumpet, and ordered the cohorts to advance slowly. The army of the enemy followed his example; and when they approached so near that the action could be commenced by the light-armed troops, both sides, with a loud shout, rushed together in a furious charge. They threw aside their missiles, and fought only with their swords. The veterans, calling to mind their deeds of old, engaged fiercely in the closest combat. The enemy made an obstinate resistance; and both sides contended with the utmost fury. Catilina, during this time, was exerting himself with his light troops in the front, sustaining such as were pressed, substituting fresh men for the wounded, attending to every exigency, charging in person, wounding many an enemy and performing at once the duties of a valiant soldier and a skilful general.
When Petreius, contrary to his expectation, found Catilina attacking him with such impetuosity, he led his praetorian cohort against the centre of the enemy, amongst whom, being thus thrown into confusion, and offering but partial resistance, he made great slaughter, and ordered, at the same time, an assault on both flanks. Manlius and the Faesulan, sword in hand, were among the first that fell; and Catilina, when he saw his army routed, and himself left with but few supporters, remembering his birth and former dignity, rushed into the thickest of the enemy, where he was slain, fighting to the last.²⁰
Dio adds the detail that Catilina’s whole army of 3,000 men died in the battle, with no survivors. Given the difference in numbers and armaments, at best the battle seems to have been a defiant last stand by Catilina and his men and a chance to go out in a blaze of glory rather than a shabby execution in secret. Antonius sent Catilina’s head back to Rome and was acclaimed imperator, even though he had (deliberately) avoided commanding the battle. In the end, he neither joined his friend nor had the courage to finish him off himself. Following this battle, he travelled to Macedon to take up his proconsular command, and after being defeated by the Dardani and Bastarni returned to Rome and was promptly exiled for corruption.
Sallust ends his account with the battle, but Dio informs us that there were still a number of allies of Catilina who continued in insurrection after this defeat. However, they remained scattered and isolated pockets of rebellion, and were soon stamped out by the praetors, though few other details are given. Orosius, however, does provide some brief details to these campaigns: Q. Tullius Cicero, the consul’s brother, crushed an insurrection in Bruttium, in southern Italy, whilst M. Calpurnius Bibulus crushed one amongst the Paeligni in central Italy.²¹
What are we to make of this challenge to the new Republic? In the end, both the attempted coup in Rome and the insurrection in Italy were pale shadows of the events of the First Civil War, and were marked by poor planning and little widespread support. Both seem to have been limited to the most desperate or unscrupulous members of far larger groupings. Although Catilina used language that highlighted key groups who were still affected by the civil war, such as the families of the proscripti or the Sullan veterans, at best these always seemed to be secondary to his own naked ambition, and this seems to have been widely recognized.
Even without the mistakes and poor timing that dogged these plots, one must question how successful he really would have been. The First Civil War had been marked out by its key instigators being office holders – consuls and tribunes – both of whom could utilitize the loyalty and support of key elements of the Roman system, such as the armies and assemblies respectively. Catilina was a private citizen, and the highest ranked conspirator was only the urban praetor. Even if the consul C. Antonius had been party to the conspiracy, he soon lost his nerve and remained loyal to the Senate. Even if they had succeeded and assassinated Cicero and a number of the other senators, including Crassus, the rest of the oligarchy would not have allowed such a brutal usurpation of power.
In point of fact, a tribune, Q. Caecilius Metellus Nepos, supported by a colleague L. Calpurnius Bestia, proposed in January 62 BC that Pompeius be recalled from the east to take command against Catilina and be granted the right to stand for the consulship in absentia, but the Senate (and Crassus) were able to resist such a move. Although they were vetoed by their colleagues, such a tumult was created that the senatus consultum ultimum was passed and Nepos fled Rome to Pompeius.²² Despite this, the incident passed without further repercussions. Pompeius returned to Rome peacefully by the end of the year, ultimately showing the renewed strength of the new Republic.
Thus, it can be seen that, although there were still unresolved consequences of the civil War, and groups of men within the oligarchy and communities within Italy who were willing to take up arms once more, the new Republican system held together well, seemingly without the help of key men such as Crassus and Pompeius.²³ However, it must be stated that the threat both from Italy and within Rome was not on a scale seen in either 91 or 88/87 BC. Certainly, the threat from within Rome came from only minor members of the oligarchy. The key test of the new Republic would be to see how it responded to threats from the major leading members of the oligarchy, men such as Crassus, Pompeius and ultimately Caesar.