As soon as riches came to be held in honour, and brought glory, imperium, and power, virtue began to grow dull; poverty was seen as disgraceful, innocence as malevolence. Therefore because of wealth, our youths were seized by luxury, greed and pride; they stole and squandered; reckoning their own property of little worth, they coveted other peoples’; contemptuous of modesty and chastity, of everything divine or human, they were without thought or restraint.’ - The senator and historian Sallust, writing in the late forties BC.1
Late in 66 BC the consular elections for the following year were won by Publius Cornelius Sulla and Publius Autronius Paetus. Sulla was a nephew of the dictator and had become very wealthy during the proscriptions. Brother-in-law to Pompey, he may have enjoyed some popularity by association with the great commander, but Sulla’s success owed far more to his money in elections that were marked by widespread bribery and intimidation. This in itself was nothing unusual.
Throughout the period a long succession of laws were passed to deal with electoral malpractice, but the frequency of such legislation makes clear its ineffectiveness. A recent bill had stipulated that candidates found guilty of such crimes lost not only the office they had secured, but were expelled from the Senate, denied the right to display the symbols of any public office and barred from entering politics again. The two runners-up in the election, Lucius Aurelius Cotta and Lucius Manlius Torquatus, promptly prosecuted the victors under this bribery law. Cotta was the man who as praetor in 70 BC had brought in the law altering the composition of juries in the courts. By this time he was a year or two overdue for his consulship, which may well have made his defeat rankle even more. Both of his brothers had also already been consul, while Manlius came from a very distinguished patrician line, in contrast to the two victors in the election. Autronius relied more for his defence on using a gang of supporters to intimidate the members of the court, or, failing that, to break up proceedings. Sulla may or may not have made use of similar tactics - years later Cicero defended him on another charge and blamed all the earlier violence on Autronius. In spite of this the prosecutions were successful, and both men were stripped of their office and expelled from public life. Cotta and Torquatus became the consuls for 65 BC, either because they had gained the most votes after Sulla and Autronius or perhaps following a second election.
The matter does not seem to have ended there. Autronius and Sulla were reluctant to accept their permanent expulsion from politics. There was talk of a plot to assassinate Cotta and Torquatus when they assumed the consulship on 1 January 65 BC. Other leading senators were also to be murdered and the conspirators were then to install themselves in the supreme office. Forewarned of the planned coup, the new consuls were allowed an armed guard by the Senate and the day passed without any violence. Officially a veil of silence was cast over the whole affair, so that Cicero, a praetor in 66 BC, could claim a few years later that he had known nothing about it at the time. In the absence of fact, rumour flourished, especially as the years went by and it was useful to blacken rivals’ names by alleging their involvement in these murky events. It was later alleged that Autronius’ chief ally was Lucius Sergius Catiline, whom we shall encounter later in this chapter. He had just returned from governing Africa as a propraetor and had wanted to become a candidate for the consulship after the dismissal of Sulla and Autronius. The refusal of the presiding magistrate to permit this is supposed to have prompted him to join Autronius in planning to seize power by force. Another man whose name was mentioned was Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who had been elected to the quaestorship for 65 BC and was seen as a wild, intemperate man. When the Senate decided soon afterwards to send him to Spain as a propraetor - a most extraordinary appointment for such a young and junior magistrate - this was seen as an indication of their fear of what he might do if allowed to remain in Rome. The stories doubtless grew in the telling, especially after Piso was murdered in his province by some of his own Spanish soldiers. Some claimed these auxiliaries had been prompted by the governor’s tyrannical rule. This was plausible enough, although it should be remembered that of the many oppressive Roman governors only a handful managed to get themselves assassinated. Yet others suggested that the Spanish soldiers were loyal to Pompey, having served under him against Sertorius, and had either been instructed - or decided on their own initiative - to dispose of a potential rival. It was an indication of the nervous mood of these years that such wild tales were circulating.2
It is in this context that we need to place the version given by Suetonius, in which Crassus and Caesar were in league with Autronius and Sulla. The plan was to massacre their opponents in the Senate, give the consulship to the convicted pair and make Crassus dictator, with Caesar as his deputy, who bore the archaic title of Master of Horse (Magister Equitum). Caesar was supposed to have given the signal for the onslaught by letting his toga fall from his shoulder, but did not do so when Crassus failed to turn up, moved by ‘conscience or fear’. The sources named by Suetonius for this incident were all written later by authors hostile to Caesar. The same was true of another tale he mentions, describing how Caesar planned an armed rebellion in concert with Piso, but that this was thwarted by the latter’s murder. As with other claims that he plotted to seize control of the Republic by force from his earliest years, it is likely that these are no more than later propaganda. Caesar, recently elected aedile for 65 BC, had no reason to wish for revolution. He was certainly extremely unlikely to have joined any plot aimed at assassinating his relative Lucius Aurelius Cotta. Similarly, Crassus, who had just won the censorship with Catulus as a colleague, had little to gain from armed rebellion. There was politically motivated rioting during and after the consular elections, and there may even have been a plot of some sort, but the involvement of Caesar or Crassus is surely a later invention.3
There has been a tendency amongst historians ancient and modern to see these years as dominated by rivalry between Crassus and Pompey In 67 BC Catulus had argued that the command against the pirates gave too much power to any one man. When Pompey was also given responsibility for the war with Mithridates, he came to control far larger forces and could draw on the resources of a far wider area than Sulla at the start of the civil war. Men writing under the rule of the emperors expressed surprise when Pompey chose to lay down this great power on his eventual return to Italy at the end of 62 BC. It was assumed that anyone with the strength to make himself sole ruler at Rome would inevitably crave such dominance. With hindsight we know that this belief was wrong, for Pompey preferred to pursue his ambitions by more conventional means. Cicero’s letters from these years betray no hint that he was worried about the great general following Sulla’s example. It seems unlikely that many other senators expected a fresh civil war, but that is not to say that they considered it to be utterly impossible. Anyone active in public life in these years was old enough to remember the appalling violence of the eighties BC, of proscription lists marking famous men for death and of severed heads decorating the Rostra. All this had happened in the very heart of Rome and who was to say that it could not happen again? Pompey had been one of the bloodthirsty lieutenants of Sulla, the ‘young executioner’. He appeared to have mellowed as he matured, but he had still spent only a small part of his career in Rome, taking part in the day-to-day business of public life. Everyone knew the figure of the dashing commander, who was adding victories in Asia to those he had already won in Africa, Spain, Sicily and Italy, but how many truly knew the real man and so could be sure how he would behave? The circumstances were very different to the situation that had faced Sulla and effectively backed him into a corner. Yet if someone were to seize power in Rome by force, as the disgruntled consul Cinna had done, who was to say that this would not be the reason, or the pretext, for Pompey to return sword in hand at the head of his army Such a scenario was all the easier to imagine when elections and trials were being disrupted, and competition between leading senators seemed more desperate than in the past.4
In contrast to Pompey, people knew Crassus, who spent far more time in Rome and was very active in public life. One of the richest men in the Republic - his fortune probably second only to that of Pompey - Crassus was fond of saying that no man could call himself rich unless he was able to afford to raise his own army. In spite of his wealth, his lifestyle was remarkably frugal in an age of luxury and indulgence. Men like Lucullus and Cicero’s great rival the orator Hortensius paraded their riches in their magnificent houses, villas and gardens, while dining in lavish style on exotic foods. They were famous for the efforts they devoted to construct saltwater ponds, in which they raised sea fish, often as much as pets as for food. Crassus did not waste his money on such whims, and instead devoted great effort to augmenting his already vast fortune. He had interests in many businesses, maintaining close links with the publicani and other companies active in the provinces. Most visibly he dealt in property, maintaining hundreds of skilled slaves to develop buildings and increase their value. They included a force trained as a fire brigade, something that did not at this time otherwise exist at Rome. Large parts of the city consisted of narrow streets separating tall, densely packed and often cheaply constructed insulae thrown up by landlords keen to profit as much as possible from rents. Fires started easily and spread rapidly, especially in the heat of the Italian summer. Crassus was able to buy up great swathes of Rome at a knock-down price by waiting for a conflagration to begin and then purchasing properties in the path of the fire. Once the deal was done, he called in his fire brigade to fight the flames, usually by demolishing buildings to create a fire-brake. Some of his new purchases were saved, while his slave artisans were ready to build afresh on the sites of the demolished structures. He seems to have dealt particularly in grander houses for the better off, although like other prominent Romans he may also have owned many blocks of slum flats. The means of acquiring much of his property displayed both determination and ruthlessness. At some point, probably in 73 BC, he was known to have been spending much time with a Vestal Virgin named Licinia. She was formally accused of unchastity, a crime that in the case of the Vestals was punished by being entombed alive. The case was dismissed when Crassus announced that he was intent on buying a house from Licinia, whose name suggests she might well have been a relative. So convinced was everyone of his enthusiasm for acquiring new properties that this was accepted as far more probable than the idea that they were having an affair. Licinia was acquitted, but Crassus is supposed to have kept hovering around her until she finally sold him the house.5
Crassus was not just a property tycoon who owned great estates and silver mines as well as housing, and his fortune did not exist purely for its own sake, but to serve his political ambitions. As we have seen, it is probable that Caesar benefited from loans to fund his grand attempts to buy popular favour. Crassus loaned money readily to many men pursuing a public career. He rarely charged them interest, although he was relentless in collecting the loan as soon as the agreed date for its repayment had arrived. Instead he concentrated on accumulating political capital, doing favours for other men and so placing them in his debt. In these years a large proportion of the 600 or so senators, perhaps even the majority, either owed money to Crassus or had benefited from one of his interest-free loans in the past. Few of these men came from the greatest families, who usually had wealth enough of their own. Many, like Caesar, were ambitious men from the fringes of the inner circle of families, still more were minor senators who never held a magistracy, but were members of the Senate and could vote even if they were rarely called upon to speak. Amongst these men Crassus had great influence, from the generosity with which he permitted others to draw upon his wealth. He was equally willing to do favours in other ways if this placed other men in his debt. Crassus was exceptionally active in the courts, even in comparison with men like Cicero whose career relied primarily on his skills as an advocate. The latter claimed that Crassus had:
with no more than a mediocre rhetorical training and even less natural talent, still by effort and industry, and particularly by judicious use on behalf of his clients of favours owed to him, he was for many years one of the leading advocates. His speeches were characterised by clear Latin, carefully chosen and arranged words, free of too much adornment, his ideas were clever, but his delivery and voice undistinguished, so that he said everything in the same style.6
Plutarch also emphasised how careful Crassus was in preparing a speech before each appearance in court. Effort then, rather than natural flair, best characterised his advocacy, but it was still highly effective, and his willingness to take on cases that others had refused placed many men under obligation to him. Similarly, the readiness he showed to canvass on behalf of electoral candidates was another way of doing favours that might be returned at a future date. His enthusiasm to make new connections meant that at times he appeared fickle, acting on behalf of a man one day in court or the Forum and then siding with someone else opposed to him a little later. Crassus worked hard at politics, in contrast to Pompey who, when in Rome, rarely appeared in the Forum. Pompey’s wealth and auctoritas were greater than those of anyone else, but he was seen as reluctant to use them, disliking crowds and rarely appearing as an advocate. Crassus was always visible, speaking for or supporting other men, and taking care to greet even the humbler men by name whenever he met them. He never won the affection of the crowd, but his influence ensured that he was treated with respect. Prosecutions of prominent men were a normal and frequent part of public life, but no one attacked Crassus in this way. Plutarch mentions one tribune of the plebs who was notorious for his fierce attacks on leading men. When asked why he had never targeted Crassus, he replied because ‘that one has straw on his horns’, referring to an Italian practice of fixing straw to the horns of dangerous bulls as warning for people to keep their distance. This may have been a play on words, since the Latin word for hay has the same root as the word for moneylender.7
Crassus clearly had grand plans for his censorship in 65 BC. He announced plans to enrol as citizens many of the inhabitants of Cisalpine Gaul. Caesar had already associated himself with the agitation for this in the region, and Crassus was keen to earn gratitude and future support from so many new voters. Other senators feared the influence that this would give him and his colleague Catulus was resolute in his refusal to accept the new citizens. Crassus also attempted to annex Egypt as a province and levy taxes - quite how is unclear, because such matters were not normally dealt with by censors. The country was in turmoil, plagued by dynastic disputes amongst the decadent Ptolemies and internal rebellion. Suetonius tells us that Caesar, buoyed by the popularity won during his aedileship, also attempted to persuade some popular tribunes to vote him an extraordinary command as governor of Egypt. It is possible that he and Crassus were working in concert in this matter. Equally they may both simply have seen the same opportunity for enriching themselves by taking charge of this famously wealthy region. In any case there was far too much opposition for either plan to be successful. Crassus and Catulus were so bitterly at loggerheads that both men agreed to resign as censors after only a few months in the magistracy. They had failed to undertake their main role, carrying out a new census of citizens and their property, and it would be decades before a new census was properly carried out. A key institution was failing to cope with the changed circumstances of public life.8
CATO, CATILINE, AND THE COURTS
In 64 BC Caesar for the first time served as a magistrate presiding over a trial. This was a common duty for aediles and former aediles, who were regularly called in to act as judges in the courts when there were too many cases for the praetors to deal with. In 64 BC there was an overflow of trials for the murder court (the quaestio de sicariis), prompted in part by the activities of one of the quaestors, Marcus Porcius Cato. The latter is said to have taken his duties far more seriously than most of the young men who held this first post on the cursus. Appointed to oversee the Treasury, Cato was not content to follow the usual practice and leave the day-to-day administration to the clerks permanently employed to perform this. Instead, he went into every aspect of business in detail, supposedly shocking the professional staff with his rigour and knowledge. The clerks resisted strongly, trying to use some of the other quaestors of the year to block him. Cato replied by sacking the most senior member of staff, and prosecuting another man on charges of fraud. During his year of office he also looked into several anomalies from the time of the dictatorship. Sulla had allowed favoured supporters to take ‘loans’ from the Republic’s funds. Cato chased these up and made sure that the money was now repaid. A group he singled out for particular attention were those who had taken the reward money of 12,000 denarii (equal to 48,000 sestertii) offered for killing the proscribed. These men were publicly named, and made to return this ‘blood money’. The quaestor’s actions met with general approval, for the horror of the proscriptions was still fresh in people’s minds. Realising the mood of the times, prosecutors rapidly came forward to charge all of these men with murder. It was questionable whether this was legal, since Sulla’s proscription law had granted protection to those acting on his behalf against decreed enemies of the Republic. These trials questioned the basis and legitimacy of the dictatorship itself, in the same way that the widespread enthusiasm for the restoration of the status and powers of the tribunate had reflected a desire for things to return to the days before Sulla when there had been a ‘proper’ Republic. The Romans were struggling to come to terms with the violence and turmoil of their recent past.9
Presiding over these trials was doubtless a welcome task for Caesar. His own experiences during the years of dictatorship gave him little sympathy for those who had taken part in and profited from the proscriptions. Politically it was also no bad thing to be involved again in a popular cause. Although a judge did not control the jury in his court, he could certainly favour one side in the case and Caesar seems to have been enthusiastic in the condemnation of men whose guilt was anyway attested by official Treasury records. Amongst the condemned was Lucius Luscius, one of Sulla’s centurions who had acquired a massive fortune of 10 million sestertii during the proscriptions. Another was Catiline’s uncle, Lucius Annius Bellienus, whose victims had included Quintus Lucretius Ofella, the man who had tried to stand for the consulship in defiance of Sulla’s specific order. Catiline himself was also put on trial and was clearly guilty, though Cicero’s later invective may well have been exaggerated. This claimed that he had paraded through the streets waving the head of his own brother-in-law, who had been a close relative of Marius. Nevertheless he was acquitted. Whether this was with the collusion of Caesar as the presiding magistrate is unclear, but Catiline was far more important and had more influential friends than others condemned in these trials. His connections may well have been enough to sway the jury, especially if backed by bribes or favours. Catiline may not have needed the assistance of Caesar, but the latter may well have felt it in his interest not to show too much enthusiasm for this particular case. The fact that the two were associated politically over the next years indicates that the trial did not result in any personal enmity, but how much can be read into this is harder to say. In spite of his association with Marius, Caesar does seem to have avoided acting as an avenger of personal wrongs during this affair. Suetonius notes that he pointedly refused to prosecute Cornelius Phagites, the officer who had arrested him during his flight from Sulla’s anger (see p.59) and only released him on payment of a generous bribe. Cornelius had fulfilled his part of the bargain and Caesar, who stressed that he never neglected anyone who had aided him, may have felt that this was more important than the original arrest.10
This was not the first prosecution Catiline had survived. His connections amongst the senior members of the Senate had already allowed him to survive a trial for mal-administration and corruption during his time as propraetor of Africa. Again he was probably guilty, but the presence of men like Catulus supporting him in court allowed him, like so many other governors, to escape punishment. In this case even his prosecutor was most obliging to the defence. Like Sulla and Caesar, Catiline came from an ancient patrician family that had dwindled over the centuries until it was on the margins of public life, struggling to compete with wealthier and more recently distinguished rivals. The civil war had helped him to restore his fortunes, as he became eventually an eager partisan of Sulla. In the following years scandal dogged his career as he was accused of seducing a Vestal Virgin, amongst other amorous exploits. He subsequently married Aurelia Orestilla - as far as is known no relation to Caesar’s mother - who was wealthy but of dubious reputation. Sallust acidly commented that ‘no good person ever praised anything about her apart from her looks’. Wild rumours circulated that in his passion for her he had murdered his own teenage son because she did not care to live in the same house as this nearly adult heir. Catiline was seen as disreputable, as a womaniser whose friends, both male and female, tended to come from the wilder members of the aristocracy. Yet he also possessed great charm, and had the knack of commanding ferocious loyalty in his associates. The similarity to Caesar is striking, and it is tempting to see Catiline almost as what Caesar might have become. For all the scandals, Catiline’s career up to this point had been broadly conventional, with the exception of the civil war years where the normal rules did not apply. There was an eagerness and desperation about his will to succeed that is again reminiscent of Caesar. Having been barred from standing for election to the consulship in 66 BC, he did not stand again in the next year, probably because he was still on trial in the provincial extortion court. Yet he again became a candidate at the end of 64 BC. Both Crassus and Caesar seem to have supported his campaign.11
In contrast to Catiline, Marcus Porcius Cato seems at first sight to have been Caesar’s opposite in every respect. He was the great-grandson of Cato the Elder, a ‘new man’ elevated to the Senate for distinguished service in the Second Punic War, who had gone on to be both consul and censor. His ancestor had always contrasted himself with the effete aristocrats of the established families, disdaining their love of Greek language and culture, and living a simple life guided by the stern principles of duty. He was the first to write a prose history of Rome in Latin, pointedly refusing to name individual magistrates since he wished to celebrate the deeds of the Roman people and not commemorate the achievements of the nobility. It was an interesting illustration of the way senatorial families marketed themselves that the great-grandson could make himself famous and highly respected through emulating the manners and lifestyle of his famous ancestor. Cato combined his personification of traditional Roman values
- which may or may not actually have reflected any historical reality in an earlier generation, but were nevertheless widely admired if not emulated
- with a particularly rigorous adherence to the Stoic philosophy This doctrine emphasised the pursuit of virtue above all else, but in his case was taken to an almost obsessional extreme. Cato was never touched by scandal or accused of luxurious living. In contrast to Caesar’s fastidiousness and unconventional fashions, Cato cared little about his appearance. It was common for him to walk the streets of Rome barefoot, while he is even supposed to have conducted official business as a magistrate wearing a toga, but without the normal tunic beneath. On journeys he never rode a horse, preferring to walk, and was supposedly easily able to keep up with mounted companions. Again in contrast to Caesar, Plutarch noted that Cato had never had sex with a woman until he slept with his bride. In this case his self-control was not matched by his spouse, whom he later divorced for infidelity Nor was it to be found in his half-sister Servilia, who for so long was Caesar’s lover.12
In behaviour Caesar and Cato often seem poles apart, but in some ways they were both striving for much the same ends. Ambitious politicians needed to be noticed so that they could stand out from the crowd of other men all seeking the same offices. Here Cato had an advantage, for his family connections were better than Caesar’s. When a man won a magistracy, he had to outshine all the other men who were holding the same post. Ability counted, but it was important to attract attention to one’s deeds. In his quaestorship Cato made sure that everyone knew that he was doing things differently, bringing to the job not simply talent but his particular brand of rigid virtue. Pursuing those who had killed during the proscriptions and profited from them was a popular move, drawing attention and winning approval. In opposite ways - Caesar through his neatness and trend-setting, Cato through his apparent careless scruffiness - these two advertised themselves as distinct from their peers. The same was true of the former’s taste for luxury and lavish spending on games as well as the latter’s thrift.
Cato and Caesar were both recognised early on as men who already had won wide recognition and fame and who were likely to go far. Though so opposite in style, they were playing the same game.
OLD CRIMES AND NEW PLOTS
At the end of 64 BC the elections were once again fiercely contested. Caesar was not involved as a candidate, for he would not be eligible to stand for the praetorship until the following year, but he was certainly present to support the campaigns of others. This was an important way of earning support for the future, and it was always a welcome thing to place the incoming magistrates in your debt. The race for the consulship was especially tight. Catiline was finally able to stand for this office, and he was associated with the almost equally disreputable, but far less gifted Caius Antonius. The other notable candidate was Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous orator. Cicero was a ‘new man’, relying on his own talent for success. He had won fame through his appearances as a legal advocate, especially in celebrated cases where, for instance, he had opposed one of Sulla’s minions in 80 BC, and prosecuted a notoriously corrupt, but wealthy and well-connected governor in 70 BC. Like Caesar he had supported the Manilian Law to give Pompey the eastern command, and continually associated himself with the supporters of the popular hero. He and Pompey had briefly served together under the command of Pompeius Strabo during the Social War as, ironically, had Catiline. Cicero also presented himself as the champion of the equestrian order and had been careful to stage good entertainments during his time as aedile. Yet playing the popularis in this way did not endear him to the leading aristocrats in the Senate, the ‘good men’ (boni) as they liked to call themselves, and no ‘new man’ had reached the consulship for a generation. In the event there was enough suspicion of Catiline to make the orator seem a better choice. Cicero won comfortably, while Antonius scraped into second place.13
When Cicero and Antonius formally took up office on 1 January 63 BC, they were immediately confronted with a radical land bill proposed by the tribune Publius Servilius Rullus. This involved a huge allocation of plots of land to poor citizens, beginning with the State-owned territory in Campania - almost all that was left of the ager publicus after the re-distributions initiated by the Gracchi. Since this would be inadequate for the numbers involved, the Republic was then to buy the extra land needed. The law guaranteed a good price to sellers, declared that all sales should be voluntary and explicitly exempted the farms of Sullan veterans settled on confiscated land after the civil war. It was clear that even property in the provinces might be sold to raise the funding required. A commission of ten (decemviri) with propraetorian imperium for five years were to oversee the implementation of this programme, these being elected by the vote of a smaller assembly consisting of seventeen instead of thirty-five tribes. The project was on a massive scale, and the powers of the board of ten correspondingly great, but the problem it addressed was very real. Rural Italy had suffered badly in recent decades and there were clearly large numbers of poor citizens whose situation was desperate in the extreme. Many of the dispossessed had drifted to Rome, where they often struggled to find enough paid employment to provide for themselves and their families. There were opportunities and work in the city, but not all who went there found success. Rents were high, living conditions could be extremely squalid in the crowded insulae and debt was a terrible burden for many of the poor, who unlike the nobility could not hope to make themselves rich through public office.
The Rullan land bill would not have solved all of these problems on its own, but it would have done something to alleviate them. At first it was supported by all ten of the year’s tribunes. It is also extremely likely that Crassus and Caesar were enthusiastic backers of Rullus and probably both hoped to win election to the board of ten. Pompey’s attitude is harder to judge. On the one hand the bill would probably have provided farms for his veterans when he brought them back from campaigns that were now nearly complete. Yet if Crassus had played a key role in the programme then this would also mean that they and many other citizens were indebted to his great rival. Some of the tribunes were his keen supporters, which makes it seem unlikely that he actively opposed the bill, but he may simply not have had the time to develop too fixed an opinion as he was still so far from Rome. Cicero was set against the proposal from the very start, and throughout his life consistently disliked similar legislation. Many prominent senators were also opposed to Rullus and the new consul may have felt that this was a also a good chance to ingratiate himself with these men, whose enthusiasm for him had so far been lukewarm at best. In a series of speeches to the Senate and meetings of the People in the Forum, Cicero savaged the proposed law. The ten commissioners were demonised as ‘kings’ for their extraordinary powers, and dark motives alleged for the shadowy men who were claimed to be really behind the bill. These sinister figures - never named, but it is generally assumed that he meant Crassus and probably Caesar as well - wished to set themselves up as rivals to Pompey At least one of the tribunes had already broken the consensus and declared that he would veto the bill. Cicero’s rhetoric won the day, and the land law was abandoned.14
In the coming months Caesar prosecuted Caius Calpurnius Piso, an exconsul who had recently returned from governing Cisalpine Gaul. Amongst the charges of extortion and maladministration was the accusation that he had unjustly executed a Gaul from the Po Valle). Once again Caesar was championing the cause of the inhabitants of this region, but with no more success than his previous efforts. Piso was successfully defended by Cicero, who added the auctoritas of his current office to his formidable oratory. Yet the fact that Caesar had brought the case, and doubtless also the skill and enthusiasm with which he pressed it, earned him the lasting enmity of Piso. Later in the year Caesar appeared on behalf of a Numidian client, a young nobleman who was trying to assert his independence from King Hiempsal. The king’s son Juba was present in exchanges that became increasingly heated. At one point Caesar grabbed Juba by the beard. It may have been the deliberate gesture of an orator seeking to exploit most Romans’ latent xenophobia, but is more likely to have been a genuine burst of anger. For all Caesar’s impeccable manners and aristocratic poise - this was the guest who graciously accepted even the humblest hospitality and criticised his companions when they complained - throughout his life he was prone to occasional bursts of temper. Whatever his motive, the dispute was settled in favour of the king. Caesar did not abandon his client, but kept him hidden in his own house until he was able to smuggle him out of Rome.15
On several occasions during 63 BC Caesar was associated with one of the tribunes of the year, Titus Labienus. The two men were probably old acquaintances, being of a similar age and both having served in Cilicia and Asia under Servilius Isauricus in the seventies BC. Labienus seems to have come from Picenum, an area dominated by the estates of Pompey’s family, and it is likely that there was some connection. As tribune, he passed a bill granting extraordinary honours to Pompey. The great commander was granted the right to wear the laurel wreath and purple cloak of a triumphing general whenever he went to the games and the full regalia if he attended a chariot race. Caesar is said to have been the instigator and chief supporter of these measures. Suetonius also credits him with having inspired the prosecution brought by Labienus against Caius Rabirius, an ageing and fairly undistinguished member of the Senate. The charge was an archaic one of perduellio - something like high treason - and referred to events that had occurred not long after Caesar’s birth thirty-seven years earlier. Rabirius had been one of the men who followed the consuls to massacre the supporters of Saturninus and Glaucia. Labienus’ uncle was amongst those who died. A very late, and quite probably unreliable, source claims that Rabirius actually displayed Saturninus’ head at a dinner held soon afterwards. The prosecution may well have charged him with killing the tribune, whose person was sacrosanct by law, but since a slave was rewarded for this deed this must be extremely unlikely. In 100 BC the Senate had passed its ultimate decree (the senatus consultum ultimum), instructing Marius and his fellow consul to protect the Republic by whatever means were necessary. caesar and Labienus do not seem to have been challenging the Senate’s right to pass this decree, or of magistrates to obey it, but were concerned with how it should be implemented. The belief that Marius had accepted the surrender of the radicals, who were subsequently killed by a mob that had climbed onto the roof of the Senate House, seems to have formed part of the case. The senatus consultum ultimum gave magistrates the power to use force against citizens who were threatening the Republic, but it was less clear whether these lost all legal protection once they had given in and were no longer in a position to do harm.16
Many of the details of the trial are obscure. This is especially true of the prosecution’s case, which is known principally from the speech cicero made in Rabirius’ defence. Much the same is true of the Rullan land bill, which again is largely known through cicero’s detailed and extremely hostile rhetoric. The whole affair was distinctly odd, in the first place simply because of the enormous lapse of time. It seems doubtful that there were many witnesses left alive, particularly considering the great loss of life amongst Rome’s elite during the civil war. There was also no modern procedure for conducting a trial on a perduellio charge. Sulla had established a permanent court to deal with cases of a similar, but lesser crime of maiestas - effectively an offence against the majesty of the Roman people, rather like the idea found in some modern sports of ‘bringing the game into disrepute’. However, caesar and Labienus deliberately chose the older crime, the legislation dealing with which was believed to date back over five hundred years to the time of Rome’s kings. The archaic procedure included death by crucifixion, a penalty no longer imposed on a citizen by any other law, and did not appear to permit the normal voluntary exile for the guilty. A board of two judges (duumviri) was appointed by lot to try the case. Caesar was one, and his distant cousin Lucius Julius Caesar, who had been consul the year before, the other. While this seems highly suspicious, there is no particular reason to assume collusion with the praetor who oversaw the selection process and it may simply have been coincidental.
Rabirius was found guilty by both judges and condemned to death. He was allowed to appeal to the Roman people, in the form of the Comitia Centuriata. Not only Cicero but also the orator whom he had supplanted as the greatest in Rome, Quintus Hortensius, defended the old man against Labienus. This was most probably the occasion on which Cicero delivered the speech that he subsequently published. In it he emphasised that Saturninus richly deserved his fate, pointed out that Rabirius was not the man who killed him, although repeatedly claiming that he wished his client could boast of the deed. He attacked the cruelty inherent in the revival of this long forgotten law, and, as was fairly standard in the Roman courts, blackened Labienus’ name, hinting cryptically at his ‘well-known’ immorality. With more justification the consul complained that he had only been given an unusually short time in which to speak. His efforts do not seem to have convinced the voters who had assembled for the Comitia, in spite of the fact that some are supposed to have been moved to sympathy for the accused because of Caesar’s blatant hostility as judge. Soon it was obvious that the vote would condemn Rabirius, but then the whole unorthodox business came to a fittingly bizarre conclusion. Its structure drawn from the early Roman army, the Comitia Centuriata had always met on the Campus Martius, outside the formal boundary of the city In those days Rome had still been small and its enemies nearby. The gathering for voting purposes of all those obliged to do military service inevitably left the city vulnerable to a surprise attack. Therefore, to guard against this threat, it was the practice to station sentries on the vantage point offered by the Janiculum Hill. As long as these men were in place and keeping watch, a red flag was flown from the hilltop and the Comitia Centuriata could go about its business. If the flag was lowered, it was a sign that Rome was in danger, and that her citizens must immediately break up the Assembly and take up their arms. The custom remained in Caesar’s day, and would continue for centuries afterwards, even though its function had long become obsolete. Before the Comitia completed its voting on Rabirius’ fate, the praetor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer gave the order for the flag to be lowered. The Assembly was dissolved without giving a verdict. No one ever made any effort to reconvene the trial.17
None of the sources explain why Metellus acted in this way. Was he acting to protect Rabirius, or instead providing Labienus and Caesar with a facesaving way of ending the whole affair without having to convict and punish an elderly and unimportant senator? It is clear from the willingness with which they abandoned the case afterwards that condemning him was never their principal aim. They had questioned whether the senatus consultum ultimum overrode all other laws and citizens’ rights, but had provided no clear answer or altered the law in any way. In practical terms the most that they may have achieved was to inject a note of caution into the actions of any future magistrate operating in response to such a decree. Personally the trial was a success for both Labienus and Caesar. The Comitia that met to pass judgement on Rabirius was most probably packed with their supporters and with those who were stirred by the case and the broader issue, so should probably not be seen as typical in its composition. Many citizens lacked the time, interest or opportunity to attend - it would indeed have been physically impossible to fit all those eligible to attend into the location where the Comitia Centuriata met. Yet even so this Assembly more than any other was weighted in favour of the better off. That it was clearly willing to condemn Rabirius does indicate that many of these citizens sympathised with the prosecution’s case. Once again, Caesar was making sure that he was prominent in public life and associated with popular causes. His popularity was demonstrated later in the year when another meeting of the Comitia Centuriata elected him praetor for 62 BC, for which he was for the first time eligible.
The praetorship was an important post, which brought with it the certainty of receiving a provincial command after the year of office as long as a man wanted such a post. Competition for it was fierce, and more than half of former quaestors would never win the higher office. However, as things turned out, this success was far less dramatic than another electoral victory Caesar won during the last months of 63 BC. The post of Pontifex Maximus, head of the college of fifteen pontiffs of which he was a member, became vacant on the death of the current incumbent, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius - yet another representative of the prolific Metelli whose already considerable prominence had been further boosted by their support for Sulla. The dictator had placed the selection of the appointments to this and other senior priesthoods in the hands of the Senate. However, at some point in the year Labienus had passed a bill reverting to the former practice of appointment by popular election. A cut-down Tribal Assembly, with seventeen tribes chosen by lot rather than the full thirty-five was given this task. It is not clear when this law was passed, and whether Metellus’ death was anticipated or the legislation rushed through in its aftermath. Three market days, which effectively meant twenty-four days in total, had to elapse between the publication of a bill and its being put to the vote of an assembly. Caesar spoke in favour of the bill and soon after it became law announced his candidature.18
The Pontifex Maximus was an office of immense prestige, in many ways the most important of all Roman priesthoods. As a result it was eagerly sought by many of the Republic’s leading men. Catulus was standing for the post, as was Publius Servilius Isauricus, Caesar’s old commander from Cilicia. Both were older and far more distinguished than Caesar in terms of the offices and honours they had held. Had the appointment still been controlled by the Senate, it is virtually certain that Catulus would have been appointed. In an election the outcome was far less certain, for the voters remembered Caesar’s lavish spending as aedile, and his constant support for popular causes. He also seems to have spent lavishly during the campaign, giving gifts and doing favours to win over the key men in each tribe. His rivals were doing the same, and in one sense the reliance on the vote of only seventeen tribes instead of the full assembly made it easier to employ bribery. As the campaign went on, Catulus became deeply concerned that the upstart Caesar had turned into a serious challenger. Great though his auctoritas was, it would certainly be dented by an electoral defeat, especially one inflicted by a man so much his junior. Knowing that Caesar’s debts were huge even before the campaign had begun, Catulus wrote to him offering him a considerable sum of money on condition that he withdrew from the race for the priesthood. Caesar interpreted this as a sign of weakness and immediately took out new loans to have more to spend on wooing the tribes. It was a desperate gamble. His creditors were relying on his prospects for the future, chiefly the high office and the opportunities for profit that these would bring. In itself the office of Pontifex Maximus brought no real financial reward, but Caesar could not afford any electoral failure. If he could no longer win over the voters, then he would begin to look like a very poor risk for his creditors. These might well press him for repayment of his debts, before his fortunes failed altogether and he was utterly ruined.
When the day of the election came - there is no record of when this was, but it must have been near the end of 63 BC - Caesar knew that the result would for him decide more than simply whether or not he won the post. Aurelia was there, and kissed him in parting before he left. Caesar told her that he would either return home as Pontifex Maximus or he would not return at all. This is one of the rare mentions of Aurelia from these years, but once again indicates the vital role she played in her son’s life. It is notable that the story has Caesar speaking in this way to his mother rather than to his wife Pompeia or to any of his lovers. Although we cannot be absolutely certain, it does seem that Aurelia lived in her son’s household. Perhaps in some way she symbolised the debt that Caesar owed to his family, making every success not simply significant to him, but part of restoring its importance and status. The contest for the priesthood was a gamble, and the price of failure very serious, certainly sufficient to retard his public career and possibly to terminate it. Yet before taking the gamble Caesar had done everything that he could to promote his success. Backing down from the challenge, as Catulus had tried to persuade him to do, was against Caesar’s instincts, for he was a gambler at heart, though never a wild one. He had raised the stakes by spending even more, but he had also judged that his prospects of success were good and hence that the risk was justified. Failure was a real possibility, but Caesar seems to have estimated that the odds on his success were good. Given Catulus’ hostility to him in the past, most recently following the erection of Marius’ trophies, his offer suggested that his main rival had reached a similar conclusion.19
In the event Caesar prevailed. Plutarch describes the voting as very close, but Suetonius suggests a landslide victory, where more votes were cast for Caesar in Catulus’ and Servilius’ own tribes than they received in the entire Assembly It was a great victory for him, particularly since he had overcome such strong rivals. As Pontifex Maximus he would in future take a central role in many aspects of State religion and ritual. He could not command the other pontiffs, for a majority of the other members of the college could overrule the Pontifex Maximus, but nevertheless his prestige and auctoritas were immense. Also, unlike the office of Flamen Dialis, there were no restrictions that hindered a political and military career. Physically it marked an important change, for the post came with a house, the domus publica, on the edge of the Sacra Via. Caesar had moved from the relative obscurity of the Subura to a place close to the heart of the Republic. The domus publica lay at the eastern end of the Forum and adjoined the Temple of Vesta and the Regia, where the records and texts of the pontiffs were housed and where they assembled as a college. The name Regia or ‘palace’ suggests a connection with Rome’s monarchy, and excavations have shown that there was certainly a building on the site from a very early period and that subsequent phases and rebuildings all broadly conformed to the same, unusual design. There is a fierce debate over the precise nature of the early buildings and whether it had ever been a royal residence or palace as such, but this need not concern us. In the Late Republic the domus publica and the Regia were hallowed for their great antiquity and long association with the sacred.20
The contest for the priesthood was critical for Caesar, but in spite of its surprising result, its significance was far less than the consular elections.
Catiline was once again a candidate, as was Servilia’s husband Decimus Junius Silanus. This was Silanus’ second attempt - a few years before Cicero had dismissed him as a nonentity. As consul, Cicero was now in charge of overseeing the election. Encouraged by one of the other candidates, he had himself created and ensured the passage of a new, even harsher law against electoral bribery, which carried the penalty of ten years’ exile. It did nothing to stop the already rampant bribery, perhaps begun by Catiline, but soon copied by all of the other candidates. Cato announced that he would prosecute whoever won the election, on the basis that no one could have prevailed in such a contest honestly. He did make an exception of his brother- in-law Silanus. While this may seem hypocritical to the modern eye, the Roman aristocracy placed huge importance on family connections and fully understood. Catiline’s fortunes were at a dangerously low ebb and he was clearly desperate, presenting himself as a champion of the poor, whose plight he could well understand because of his own poverty. He openly talked of the domination of the Republic by a clique of unworthy and vulgar individuals who looked only to their own interests. When challenged in the Senate by the consul, he spoke of two Republics - the great mass of the population were a powerful body without a head to guide them, while his opponents were a head without a body, since there was no real substance to their support. He declared that he would become the head that the mass of the population so urgently longed for. It was clear that many were rallying to him, and his agents were especially active in the rural areas. He does seem to have been slowly losing the friendship of the many leading men who had in the past supported him in court. Crassus and Caesar probably continued to back him throughout the campaign. Cicero postponed the elections once, and when they were finally held in late September he arrived accompanied by a bodyguard of equites voted to him by the Senate. He also made sure that everyone could see that he was ‘secretly’ wearing a breastplate under his toga. The successful candidates were Silanus and Lucius Licinius Murena, who had served as one of Lucullus’ senior subordinates in the Mithridatic War.21
Catiline had clearly considered using force even before the election, but had presumably hoped to succeed by conventional means. His failure left him with little choice other than facing political extinction and exile, for, like Caesar, his debts were massive and many were due by 13 November, when he would face bankruptcy. Unlike Caesar his gamble was very much a longshot and he seems to have been undecided as to how to put his plan into operation. One of his followers, Caius Manlius, was busy raising an army in Etruria, but Catiline remained in Rome, attending the Senate as if nothing was happening. Manlius was a former centurion who had served with Sulla, but since the dictatorship had lost the fortune he had made in the civil war. He appears to have been a capable man, but was from outside the senatorial class and so could never be more than a subordinate. Catiline had a number of aristocratic followers, but these were chiefly characterised by their dubious reputations and conspicuous lack of ability. It was hard for many to take such incompetents seriously, and this, combined with Catiline’s continued presence in Rome, helped to foster uncertainty amongst the Senate. There were rumours of plots and rebellion, but as yet nothing had happened to suggest that there was any substance behind them. Cicero was better informed, for he had assembled a network of spies who observed the conspirators. One of the most important sources was Quintus Curius, who had boasted of the plans in an effort to impress his mistress Fulvia. She was a member of an aristocratic family and married to a senator, and Cicero was able to persuade her to convince her lover to betray his fellow conspirators. As a result the consul knew much of what was going on, and was able to safeguard himself against a murder attempt. The ability to thwart the conspirators was all very well, but it did not permit the consul to stand up in the Senate and publicly prove that a plot was underway. As yet, they had not actually done anything to warrant his acting against them. Catiline was clearly exploiting this public uncertainty, but it may also be that he had not quite made up his mind when and how to act.22
On the night of 18 October, Crassus and several other senators received anonymous letters, which warned them to flee because a massacre of leading men was going to occur on the 28th. They took the letters straight to Cicero, who had them read in the Senate. More reports of Manlius’ activities in Etruria reached the city, and on the 21st Cicero brought this information before the Senate, which passed the senatus consultum ultimum. He claimed that the rebel army would openly declare itself on 27 October. This occurred, although the threatened massacre did not. Various forces, including a number of armies who had been waiting outside Rome until their commanders were allowed to celebrate triumphs, were despatched to deal with the rebels. On 8 November the Senate met once again and Cicero harangued Catiline to his face, accusing him of past crimes and declaring that he knew all about his current plans. Although at the time he returned the invective, dismissing the consul as a ‘naturalised alien’ with all the contempt a patrician could show for a ‘new man’, this meeting finally stirred him into action. He left Rome that night, claiming that he was going into voluntary exile to spare the Republic from internal conflict. In a letter sent to Catulus, he complained of the wrongs done to him by his enemies and how he had been robbed of the proper rewards for his efforts and ability. In a properly Roman way, he commended his wife and daughter to Catulus’ protection. It was soon discovered that Catiline had not in fact fled abroad, but had instead joined Manlius and the army. Both men were declared public enemies. He left behind in Rome a number of supporters, who began to negotiate with some ambassadors from the Allobroges, a Gallic people who were in the city to complain of their desperate plight. The conspirators hoped to persuade the tribe to rebel and open a second front to distract forces loyal to the Senate. Instead the Gauls went to Cicero and betrayed them. One man was caught when the Allobroges led him into an ambush, and the four other key figures arrested shortly afterwards. Confronted with damning evidence, the initial declarations of innocence were soon replaced by admissions of guilt. It was now a question of what to do with them.23