‘The Republic, citizens, the lives of you all, your property, your fortunes, your wives and your children, together with this heart of our glorious empire, this most blessed and beautiful of cities, have, as you see, on this very day been snatched from fire and the sword. The great love that the immortal gods hold for you has combined with the toil and the vigilance that I have undertaken, and with the perils that I have undergone, to bring them out of the very jaws of destruction and restore them to you safe and sound.’ - Cicero, 3 December 63 BC.1

Caesar’s attitude throughout these months seemed to many to be deeply ambiguous. Along with Crassus, he had backed Catiline’s candidacy. He probably knew Catiline quite well, but then the world of Rome’s aristocracy was so small that most senators knew each other. Although Cicero’s speeches from 63 BC and afterwards painted Catiline as an irredeemable monster, he had not always thought of him in this way. As recently as 65 BC, he had considered defending him in court, ‘hoping that this will encourage them to join forces in our canvassing’ for the consulship in 63 BC.2Caesar had persisted in his open support for Catiline for much longer and, as previously noted, the similarities between them were striking. Both men were inclined to support ‘popular’ causes and keen to associate themselves with Marius. When he reached Manlius’ army, Catiline paraded an eagle that had been the standard of one of Marius’ legions. Caesar would also have seemed a likely man to join a conspiracy of debtors, for his lifestyle was similar in many ways. When Cicero addressed the crowd in the Forum, he described many of the conspirators as: ‘the men you see with their carefully combed hair, dripping with oil, some smooth as girls, others with shaggy beards, with tunics down to their ankles and wrists, and wearing frocks not togas’.3 This image could almost be an exaggerated portrait of Caesar himself, who had probably set the fashion for wearing long sleeves and whose loose girdled tunic hung low. In later years Cicero was suspicious of almost everything Caesar did, but even then is supposed to have said that: ‘On the other hand, when I look at his hair, which is arranged with so much nicety, and see him scratching his head with one finger, I cannot think that this man would ever conceive of so great a crime as the overthrow of the Roman constitution.’4 Like many of the conspirators Caesar was a dandy, a man whose sexual exploits and massive debts were equally notorious, but unlike them he was also very successful. He had gained each office in the cursus as soon as he was eligible, and had just had the spectacular success in the competition for the post of Pontifex Maximus. Caesar had no need for revolution, which is not to say that he might not have joined the rebels if he had thought it likely that they would succeed.

Crassus was in a similar position, for he had openly backed Catiline in the elections. Probably, like Caesar, Crassus would have made sure that he was on the winning side, whichever it might be, but the uncertainty of the situation made this a nervous time for anyone suspected of involvement in the plot. Even while his agents were openly raising an army, Catiline remained in Rome. After he left, it was known that other conspirators had remained behind to cause mischief in the city. With the consul announcing almost on a daily basis that he had uncovered new plans for assassinations and arson attacks, it was unsurprising that senators looked at many of their fellows with suspicion. Both Caesar and Crassus had to be very careful in their behaviour. Therefore Crassus immediately took the anonymous letter to Cicero as soon as he had received it. Even so, following the arrest of the conspirators, an informer was brought into the Senate who claimed that he had been sent by Crassus with a message to Catiline, telling him not be worried by the arrests, but to press on with his enterprise. According to Sallust:

But when Tarquinius named Crassus, a man of enormous wealth and great influence, some found the accusation incredible, while others thought it was true, but reckoned that at a time of crisis it was better to win over than to alienate such a powerful man; a good number of them were in Crassus’ debt from private deals, and they all loudly called out that the accusation was false. . . 5

A vote was taken declaring the statement false and placing the informer in custody, pending investigation. The historian Sallust says that he himself later heard Crassus say that the informer had acted on the instructions of Cicero, who had wanted to force him to make an open breach with Catiline and the rebels instead of sitting on the fence. Certainly, the whole incident seems to have worsened the already poor relations between the two men.6

Cicero was under great pressure in these weeks. Even at the time he was aware that this was his finest hour, the moment when the ‘new man’ from Arpinum would save the Republic. Throughout his life he would revel in recounting his great success, but it was not a victory that came easily. From the beginning it had been difficult to persuade all senators that the threat of rebellion was real, especially since for a long time there were few hard facts that he could report openly. Eventually, the arrest and interrogation of the key conspirators in Rome convinced the entire Senate that the threat was real and serious. It was now a question of dealing with it, but Cicero was hindered by the fact that his own year of office as consul had only a few more weeks to run. Like any Roman magistrate he was eager to ensure that the main threat was defeated in that time, both to ensure that it was done properly and because he wanted to gain the credit for this achievement. It was extremely inconvenient when Cato fulfilled his promise and prosecuted Murena, consul elect for 62 BC. Murena was clearly guilty of electoral bribery, but Cato was displaying his characteristic lack of timing. At a time of crisis it would obviously have been dangerous to have removed one of the two senior magistrates due to begin guiding the Republic in just a few weeks. Therefore, Cicero took the time off to defend Murena, emphasising the dire threat faced by the State and the valuable service that his client, as an experienced military man, could do for the threatened Republic. His speech was later published, and although it was said at the time that fatigue made his delivery less perfect than his normal standard, Murena was acquitted. Largely ignoring the charges, he mocked the motives of the prosecutors, depicting Cato as a naive idealist, trying to impose impractical philosophical principles in the real world. Cato is supposed to have responded by grimly saying ‘what a witty chap our consul is’. Cicero always preferred to speak last after the other defence counsels, in this case Hortensius and Crassus. It was an indication of the complex web of obligations and friendships in Roman politics that Crassus and Cicero found themselves working together in court on this and other occasions. Both men liked to defend, gaining the gratitude this brought from the client, his family and his close associates.7

The trial had been an added burden to the consul’s load in these desperate weeks. Soon after the accusation against Crassus, there was an attempt to persuade Cicero to implicate Caesar in the conspiracy. The men behind this were Catulus, still indignant at his defeat in the race for the senior priesthood, and Caius Calpurnius Piso, whom Caesar had unsuccessfully prosecuted earlier in the year. Cicero refused to go along with this. He may simply not have believed it, for he probably knew Caesar fairly well, most likely having seen a lot of him in the seventies BC when he was close to the Cotta brothers. Alternatively it could have been expediency, reckoning that it was dangerous to force a man like Caesar into a corner and make him join the revolutionaries. Later, in a work not published until after both Crassus and Caesar were dead, Cicero would write that both had been closely involved with Catiline, but it is not at all clear that this is what he believed at the time, or that he was right. In the dying months of 63 BC, he decided anyway that he would openly trust the loyalty to the Republic of both men, whatever his personal view. After the interrogation of the five key conspirators in the Senate each man was given into the charge of a prominent senator who was to keep him in custody until the Senate had decided their fate. Crassus and Caesar were amongst those selected to perform this task, Cicero very deliberately showing his faith in them in this way. None of this prevented Piso and Catulus from continuing to spread rumours about their personal enemy Caesar.8

The captives were a motley crew. Two, Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura and Caius Cornelius Cethegus, were amongst the sixty-four senators expelled from the Senate by the censors of 70 BC. Lentulus had been consul in 71 BC and had been steadily rebuilding his public career since his expulsion. In 63 BC he had won the praetorship for the second time, but was stripped of the post following his arrest. He was not the only man to claw his way back to prominence through standing for election again. Cicero’s consular colleague Antonius had also been expelled by the same censors. So had Curius, the man whose mistress Fulvia had persuaded to turn informant (p.128). Lentulus believed firmly in his destiny, continually citing a prophecy that proclaimed that three Cornelii would rule Rome - Sulla, Cinna and soon himself. His wife was a Julia, sister of Lucius Julius Caesar, who had been consul in 64 BC. Her son from an earlier marriage was Mark Antony, then around ten years old. Catiline throughout the rising refused to recruit slaves, preferring to rely on citizens. Lentulus not only argued against this, but did so in writing, in a letter that was subsequently captured and read out in the Senate. All of the conspirators seem to have done their best to incriminate themselves. Most at first met the interrogation with simple denial - Cethegus claiming that the large cache of weapons discovered in his house was simply his collection of antique militaria - but soon caved in when confronted with damning letters sealed with their own seals and written in their own hands. Their guilt was firmly established when they were brought before the Senate on 3 December. Two days later, on the 5th, the House met again to decide on their fate.9


The Senate assembled in the Temple of Concord rather than in the Senate House. This was not unusual, for the House met in a range of temples as well as the Curia itself. The choice of the deity Concordia may have seemed especially appropriate, or even ironic, in the circumstances, but may also have been based on its position at the western edge of the Forum near the slope of the Capitol Hill. This was an easier area to defend for the large numbers of armed men, many of them young equestrians, who attended the consul and took up positions to guard the meeting. Cicero as presiding magistrate would have begun the session with a formal prayer, before addressing the House and asking that it decide what should done to the prisoners. In the past, consuls acting under the senatus consultum ultimum had taken it upon themselves to execute those seen as enemies of the Republic without consulting the Senate. Yet in the main such killings had occurred in the heat of the fighting, when the ‘rebels’ could be seen as posing an active threat. The five conspirators were already under guard, unlike the earlier occasions when the decree had been passed. There were rumours that Cethegus had attempted to communicate with his slaves and arrange for an armed gang to free the prisoners, but even so this could not be presented as a lynching in the heat of the moment. The trial of Rabirius had recently called into question just what actions could be justified by the ultimate decree, and this may have made Cicero particularly cautious. The Senate was not a court, but if a clear consensus of its members approved a course of action then this would add moral force to what the consul did. Cicero declared himself willing to conform to whatever was the Senate’s decision, but clearly believed that the prisoners both deserved and needed to be executed.

There was no fixed order of speaking in the Senate, but there was a hierarchy in the sense that it was customary to call first upon the consuls, then the praetors and so on to the lesser magistrates. The order in which individuals from each group would speak was decided by the presiding magistrate, who called upon them by name. Junior members of the House, especially those who had never held a magistracy, were rarely asked to speak. However, every senator present could vote and, uniquely in Roman voting systems, each vote carried equal weight. When the division was called, senators walked to opposite sides of the house to signify whether they were approving or rejecting the motion. It was common during a debate for those supporting a speaker to move over and sit next to him. The backbenchers, who rarely spoke, but could still vote, were sometimes referred to as pedarii, which roughly translates as ‘walkers’. It had been very noticeable at the meeting on 8 November that when Catiline had taken his seat the senators had quickly moved away, leaving him isolated physically as well as politically.10

On 5 December Cicero began the debate by calling upon Servilia’s husband Silanus to give his opinion. It was usual to seek the opinion of the consuls elect before the former consuls or ‘consulars’, since these men might well have to put into effect measures decided by the House. Silanus declared that the prisoners should suffer ‘the ultimate punishment’, which was interpreted - and clearly intended to mean - execution. Murena was called next and concurred, as did all fourteen ex-consuls present on the day. Crassus was notable by his absence, continuing his somewhat ambiguous behaviour. In contrast Caesar was there and boldly gave his opinion when called upon as praetor elect. Up until now all the speakers had opted for the death penalty, and the murmurs - perhaps louder cries as we do not know how raucous or dignified and sedate meetings of the Senate were - of approval from the rest of the House suggested that this was the near universal view. Caesar, given the doubts expressed about him in recent days, might have been expected to give his vigorous assent as proof of his loyalty to the Republic. Yet not long before he had attacked Rabirius for the illegal killing of Roman citizens, and throughout his career had championed popular causes, criticising the arbitrary use of power by Senate or magistrates. It would have been inconsistent now to express a contrary view, but it seems unlikely that Caesar ever considered this. Standing alone had never bothered him since the days when he had defied Sulla. The aristocracy celebrated men who single-handedly had persuaded the Senate to change its mind. One of the most famous was Appius Claudius Caecus in 278 BC, who was supposed to have convinced the Senate not to negotiate with the victorious Pyrrhus, but to keep fighting. When it was a choice between merging with the crowd and playing a conspicuous role, Caesar always chose the latter. In this case it may well also have been a matter of conscience and genuine belief. Winning fame and doing what he believed to be right were not mutually exclusive.11

The text of Caesar’s speech has not survived, but Sallust gives a version that appears to reflect the key arguments, even if it does so in Sallustian style and probably at rather shorter length. As with any written speech, it is hard now to conjure up the full impact of the orator speaking these words before an audience. Caesar was praised for gestures, the elegance and forcefulness of his stance and bearing, and the tones of his slightly high-pitched voice. In Sallust’s version the great performance began with these words:

Chosen fathers of the Senate, all men who decide on difficult issues ought to free themselves from the influence of hatred, friendship, anger and pity. For when these intervene the mind cannot readily judge the truth, and no one has ever served his emotions and his best interests simultaneously. When you set your mind to a task, it prevails; if passion holds sway, it consumes you, and the mind can do nothing.12

Throughout the speech he was calm and sweetly reasonable, and he gently mocked the previous speakers who had tried to outdo each other with graphic descriptions of the slaughter, rape and pillage that would have followed Catiline’s victory. There was never a trace of the man who had grabbed Juba’s beard in his rage. The guilt of the accused was unquestioned, and no punishment could possibly be too harsh for them. Yet, returning to his opening theme, the Senate held too responsible a position to permit its members to give in to their emotions. They must decide what was best for the future of the Republic, knowing that they would set a precedent today Caesar carefully paid tribute to Cicero by declaring that no one could ever suspect that the current consul would abuse his position. What they could not guarantee was that all future office holders would always be so restrained. He reminded them of how Sulla’s proscriptions had begun with a few deaths of men who were generally thought guilty. Soon the slaughter had escalated into an appalling bloodbath, with victims being killed for ‘their town houses or villas’.13

For Caesar the death penalty was unRoman (although, of course, the recent perduellio trial with its archaic procedure had threatened its use). He gently chided Silanus, praising him for his patriotism, but suggesting that he had become carried away by the enormity of the prisoners’ crimes. Under normal circumstances Roman citizens - at least well to do citizens - were always permitted to go into exile if found guilty of a serious offence, making the death penalty effectively a theoretical punishment unknown in practice. Caesar wondered why Silanus had not also suggested that the men be flogged before they were killed, answering his own question by saying that of course such a thing was illegal. He praised the wisdom of their ancestors, the past generations of senators who had systematically removed the death penalty and other brutal punishments in regard to citizens. Anyway, death was ‘release from woes, rather than a punishment ... it brings an end to the ill fortune of life and leaves no place for worry or joy’.14 Caesar’s solution was different. It would obviously have been absurd to let the men go so that they could join Catiline. Rome had no real prison intended to keep prisoners for long periods of time, for most laws carried either fines or exile as punishment. Caesar proposed that the prisoners be given into the hands of different Italian towns, who would be bound to hold them in captivity for the rest of their lives. Any town failing in its charge was to suffer a heavy penalty The men’s property was to be confiscated by the State, effectively blocking their children from going into public life and seeking revenge. It was also to be decreed that neither the Senate nor People should ever consider permitting the conspirators to be recalled, in the way that Caesar himself had campaigned for the return of Lepidus’ supporters. This, according to him, was a far harsher penalty than death, since it would make the conspirators live with the consequences of their crimes.15

During the speech Caesar appealed to the example of past generations. This was conventional, for the Roman aristocracy had a great reverence for their ancestors, children listening from an early age to stories of their great deeds on behalf of the Republic. Yet the proposal he was making was both radical and innovative. Never before had the Romans held citizens in permanent captivity - hence the need to create a new method to do this. Although he stipulated that it should be unlawful for anyone to seek the release and restoration of the condemned, it was questionable that such a provision could be enforced. The Gracchi and other tribunes had repeatedly asserted the right of the Popular Assembly to vote on any issue. Whether anyone was ever likely to espouse the cause of the conspirators was questionable, but this could certainly not be ruled out altogether. The problem facing the Senate was a new one, for never in the history of the ultimate decree had it been a question of using its powers calmly against men already held in custody. Caesar had spoken about the precedent that the Senate would set by its decision and he now proposed a new solution to what was in many ways a new problem. It was intended to avoid the recriminations that had followed the suppression of the Gracchi and of Saturninus. The conspirators were guilty of planning appalling crimes, but even so they should not be stripped of all the rights of citizens. They were no longer in a position to harm the Republic and imprisonment would ensure that they would never be able to do so in the future.16

Throughout his speech Caesar was calm and measured, always rational as he appealed to the senators not to let their emotions overrule their duty to the Republic. Such a call to place Rome before their own feelings was bound to appeal to men raised with such a strong sense of the obligations inherent in belonging to one of the great families. The certainty that had marked the start of the meeting began to crack, and then crumble away. Quintus Tullius Cicero, the consul’s younger brother, was another of the praetor designates and spoke after Caesar, fully agreeing with his viewpoint. He may well, in the conventions of the Senate, have moved to sit with Caesar as an indication of this. Another of the praetors for 62 BC, Tiberius Claudius Nero - the grandfather of Emperor Tiberius - took a slightly different tack, suggesting that it was too early to decide on the prisoners’ fate while Catiline was still at large with an army Instead, they should be held in custody and a future date fixed for another debate, which would decide their fate.17 Many others were wavering. At some point Silanus spoke up claiming that he had been misinterpreted and had not advocated the death penalty at all, but the ‘ultimate punishment’ permitted by the law. Such vacillation seems to have been typical of a man who clearly did not want to be seen as responsible for anything controversial.

Cicero, seeing the earlier consensus slipping away, decided to act, and at this point delivered a long speech, the text of which he subsequently published as the Fourth Catilinarian Oration. Given that the original must have been at least partially composed during the debate itself, it was probably a little less polished than the version we have today. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the rhetorical training and skill of the great orator, and it is likely that even speaking off the cuff, Cicero’s use of language, rhythm and structure were of an exceptionally high order. He made sure from the beginning that everyone was reminded that he was consul, the man leading the Republic at this time of crisis and also, ultimately, the one who would carry the responsibility for whatever action they decided to take. Reviving the tone of the earlier debate, before Caesar’s restrained and reasonable intervention, he spoke of slaughter, rape and the sacking of temples:

Take thought for yourselves, therefore, gentlemen; look to the preservation of your fatherland, save yourselves, your wives, your children and your fortunes, defend the name of the Roman people and their very existence; stop protecting me and cease your concern for me. Firstly, I am bound to hope that all the gods which watch over this city will recompense me as I deserve; and secondly, if anything happens to me, I shall die calm and resigned.18

He turned to the two proposals, that of Silanus, which he continued to interpret as meaning execution, and that of Caesar. The first punishment accorded with tradition - Cicero mentioning the Gracchi and Saturninus whom he claimed had been killed for far lesser crimes - the second was unprecedented and impractical. How, Cicero asked, were the towns tasked with guarding the prisoners to be chosen? It seemed unfair for the Senate to choose them, but could communities be expected to come forward of their own free will? Yet he did not challenge the severity of Caesar’s proposal, emphasising that life imprisonment and confiscation of all property were in many ways more savage punishments than a swift death.

Cicero was also studiously polite to Caesar himself, who had demonstrated by his speech and actions his ‘devotion to the Republic’. He contrasted him, a genuine ‘popularis with the good of the people at heart’, with other rabble- rousing demagogues. At this point there was a sly dig at Crassus, when he noted that ‘one who posed as a popularis’ was absent, ‘presumably so he did not have to vote on whether or not to kill Roman citizens’. Crassus - still unnamed, but there could be no doubt over his identity - had in the last two days taken charge of one of the prisoners, voted a public thanksgiving to Cicero and approved the rewards granted to informers. Then he tried to use Caesar’s very presence to weaken his argument. If he accepted that it was proper for the Senate to pass judgement on the conspirators at all, then he must have acknowledged that they had in fact ceased to be citizens, and so lost all protection of law. If the Senate chose his proposal, Cicero knew that Caesar’s personal popularity would make it easier for them to persuade the crowd gathered in the Forum that this was just. Yet he also claimed to be convinced that the wisdom of the people would allow them to accept the necessity of executing the prisoners. This led him back to the enormity of their crimes and ‘how he trembled at the vision of mothers crying, girls and boys fleeing, and the rape of Vestal Virgins’.19 He reassured them of the precautions he had taken to protect this meeting and defend the city, making it clear that they were free to do what they thought right. As consul, he was willing to take on himself the consequences of their decision and any stigma or hatred that the executions might bring in the future. He would personally pay any price to serve the Republic.

The consul’s speech rekindled the emotions of some senators, but the meeting remained divided and uncertain. More opinions were called for, and Cato’s view was sought as one of the tribunes elect. Once again we have to rely principally on Sallust’s account for its content, but Plutarch tells us that the speech itself was written down and subsequently published by clerks working for Cicero who followed the whole debate. In his version the thirty- two year old began by stating that his fellow senators seemed to be forgetting that Catiline was still at large and the conspirators still potentially a threat to the Republic. The State’s very survival was in doubt, and they would be foolish if ‘in sparing the lives of a few villains, they brought destruction on all good men’.20 He disdained Caesar’s view that death was a merciful end to suffering, recalling instead traditional tales of the punishment meted out to evildoers in the afterlife. He was equally critical of the suggestion of sending the prisoners into captivity in different towns. Why should they be any more secure there than in Rome, and what was to prevent them being freed by Catiline’s rebels? On this occasion, as throughout his life, Cato advocated the same stern, unyielding and severe course. Mercy was out of place and dangerous until the threat to the Republic had been averted:

Be assured . . . that when you decide the fate of Publius Lentulus and the rest, you will at the same time be passing judgement on Catiline’s army and all the conspirators. The more vigorous your action, the less will be their courage; but if they detect the slightest weakness on your part, they will be here immediately, filled with reckless daring. . .

Citizens of the highest rank have conspired to fire their native city, they stir up to war the Gauls, bitterest enemies of the Roman people. The leader of the enemy with his army is upon us. Do you even now hesitate and doubtfully ask yourselves what is to be done with foemen taken within your walls?21

Just like Caesar, Cato spoke of the example of Rome’s history, in an effort to bolster his view with the support - in each case rather spurious - of tradition. It was not unusual for men arguing opposite courses of action to claim that Rome’s long-standing customs supported them. At Rome innovations almost invariably arrived wrapped in a cloak of tradition. Sallust portrays the debate as essentially a struggle between Caesar and Cato. Thus it foreshadowed the Civil War, when Cato would be Caesar’s bitterest and most implacable opponent. This was a common view, especially as the years went on. Cicero was deeply annoyed when Brutus wrote an account which minimised his own role, while stressing that of Cato. This version had great attraction, becoming one of those incidents where one man had swayed the whole Senate and shown it the path of duty. Cato was clearly conscious of playing this role at the time, just as Caesar had been, and he certainly had a considerable impact on the debate. All of the former consuls and many other senators applauded Cato’s proposal as soon as he finished speaking and sat down. Caesar was undaunted and continued to argue his own case. The two men were sitting not far from each other and Cato’s replies became increasingly bitter, though he failed to provoke his opponent. Unlike Cicero, he freely cast aspersions on Caesar’s conduct in recent months, demonising him and claiming that his unwillingness to support the death penalty showed his sympathy for, and perhaps complicity in, the conspiracy. While this was going on, a note was brought in and quietly given to Caesar, presumably by one of his slaves. Cato saw this as an opportunity, declaring that his opponent was obviously in secret communication with the enemy. Caesar, who had quietly read the note, did not respond, but demurred when Cato demanded that he read the message aloud. Cato sensed a guilty conscience and became even more forceful, encouraged by approving shouts from all sides. Finally, Caesar simply handed the note to Cato, who was staggered to see that it was in fact a very passionate love letter from Servilia. With a despairing cry of ‘Have it back, you drunk!’, he hurled the message back to Caesar, whose patrician dignity and calm, self-confident style had not wavered throughout the exchange. It was a slightly odd form of abuse, for Caesar was renowned as abstemious when it came to alcohol, whereas Cato himself was a heavy drinker.22

The incident provides an interesting sideline on the relationship between Caesar and Servilia. Clearly it is indicative of great ardour, and the need for contact and communication when they were apart. Sending a love note to a meeting of the Senate, where Caesar would be sitting close alongside both her husband and her half-brother, was an act of considerable boldness on Servilia’s part. Perhaps she, or both of them, were thrilled by the danger of such an act. Silanus’ attitude is very hard to gauge and it is unclear whether or not he knew that his wife was having an affair with Caesar. If he did find out, then he made no attempt to act against his rival. Caesar’s political friendship was worth having, particularly for a man who had only managed to gain the consulship at the second attempt and who did not have a great reputation for ability. It has even been speculated that he may have encouraged his wife in an effort to gain Caesar’s support. Deep though their love evidently was, neither of the lovers were likely to miss an opportunity for personal gain.

In the end the vote - taken on Cato’s proposal rather than that of his brother-in-law Silanus’ because it was felt to be better worded - was overwhelmingly in favour of executing the prisoners. Lucius Caesar, Lentulus’ brother-in-law, supported this resolution, as it seems did Cethegus’ actual brother, who was himself a senator. Caesar did not change his position, and was mobbed by an angry crowd as he left the Temple of Concord. As was usual during a debate, the doors had been left open and it was clear that much of what was going on was being reported to the many who had gathered outside and in the rest of the Forum. Fear of the conspiracy, and particularly the stories of plans to set fire to Rome - a dire threat to the many who lived in its crowded, densely packed and readily flammable insulae - had created a deeply hostile mood. Cicero continued to give his open support for Caesar, ensuring that he was not harmed. The final act was played out in the nearby Tullianum, the small cave-like prison where prisoners were held for short priods, pending punishment. The conspirators were taken there. Lentulus had been stripped of his praetorship, but even so was granted the distinction of being led by the consul in person. The five were taken inside and then strangled out of public view. Cicero emerged shortly afterwards and announced simply, ‘They have lived.’ (vixerunt). In spite of the Senate’s vote, he was one who could be held accountable for this action.23


It did not take long for the first attacks to be made against Cicero over this issue. The new tribunes took up office on 10 December 63 BC, and amongst them was Quintus Metellus Nepos, a man whose reckless reputation is supposed to have prompted Cato to stand for the tribunate in this year as soon as his candidature was announced. He soon began to denounce Cicero’s ‘illegal’ punishment of the conspirators. On the last day of December, the consuls formally laid down their office, and it was customary for them to make a speech recounting their achievements. Nepos and one of his colleagues, Lucius Bestia, used their tribunician veto to stop Cicero from doing this, an almost unheard of insult. He could not prevent the outgoing consul from taking the customary oath and Cicero employed this chance to state that he had saved the Republic. Nepos was Pompey’s brother-inlaw and had served for some time as one of his legates in the East, but had returned to Rome and was seen as representing the general’s interests. The war was over and Pompey’s return imminent, but there was a question of how he would return. Already there was talk of summoning back the Republic’s most famous and successful commander to crush Catiline’s rebel army24

On 1 January, Caesar took up office as praetor and immediately launched an attack on Catulus. The Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill had been burnt down in 83 BC, and five years later Catulus as consul had been allotted the task of overseeing its restoration. The project had not yet been completed and the praetor summoned Catulus before a meeting of the people in the Forum to account for this dereliction, accusing him of embezzling the funds allocated by the Senate. In a studied insult, he stopped the exconsul from mounting the Rostra and made him speak from ground level. Caesar proposed to bring in a bill that would transfer the task to someone else, most probably Pompey, for Caesar continued to seek popularity through vocal support for the great hero. However, enough supporters of Catulus arrived to pressure the praetor into backing down. As was often the case in Caesar’s career up to this point, actually succeeding in his projects was less important that publicly becoming associated with a cause.25

Caesar then actively supported Nepos, who was proposing a bill to recall Pompey and his army and give them the task of restoring order in Italy. Cato, his fellow tribune, violently opposed them, lambasting them in the Senate and swearing that, while he was still breathing, Pompey would never enter the city with soldiers under command. On the day of voting on this bill, Nepos in the normal way held an informal meeting of the Roman people. He took his seat on the podium of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. This high platform was often used as an alternative to the Rostra, for there was more room for a crowd at this eastern end of the Forum. Caesar had his chair of office placed beside the tribune to show his support. Amongst the crowd were numbers of burly men, including some gladiators, stationed to defend the tribunes if there was trouble. This soon arrived in the shape of Cato and his fellow tribune Quintus Minucius Thermus, who were there to veto proceedings and had come supported by their followers. Cato strode up to the podium and he and Minucius climbed the steps. Cato took a seat between Nepos and Caesar, momentarily disconcerting them by his boldness. A fair proportion of the crowd was now cheering him on, but others were still loyal to Nepos and the tension grew. Recovering, Nepos ordered a clerk to read the bill aloud. Cato used his veto to forbid this, and when Nepos himself took up the document and started to read, he snatched it from his hands. Knowing the text by heart, the tribune then began to recite it, until Thermus slapped his hand over his mouth to stop him. Nepos then signalled to his armed supporters and a riot ensued, beginning with sticks and stones, but culminating in some fighting with edged weapons. Cato and Thermus were both roughly handled, but the former was physically protected by Murena, the consul whom he had so recently prosecuted. In the end Nepos’ partisans and supporters were dispersed. That same afternoon the Senate convened and passed the senatus consultum ultimum. A proposal to strip Nepos of his tribunate was, however, abandoned on the recommendation of Cato himself. However, after summoning another public meeting in the Forum and accusing Cato and the Senate of a plot against Pompey, but saying that they would soon pay the price for this, Nepos fled from Rome. A tribune was not supposed to leave the city during his year of office, but he went even further and sailed from Italy altogether to join Pompey in Rhodes. In the relief at his departure, no one chose to question its legality.26

Caesar had badly misjudged the situation. All our accounts portray Nepos as the prime mover behind the violence in this episode, and as a dangerously impulsive and volatile individual, but Caesar had enthusiastically supported him, at least in the beginning. Nepos was a supporter of Pompey because his half-sister Mucia was married to the general, and because he hoped to benefit from his return. Caesar was no relation to Pompey, and had never had any direct connection with him - although he had been sleeping with Mucia during her husband’s absence on campaign - but was continuing his policy of praising and supporting Rome’s great hero as a means to increase his own popularity. This time it had gone too far and the Senate decreed that he be expelled from the praetorship, which he had only held for a matter of weeks. At first Caesar tried to brazen it out, continuing to appear in public with the trappings of office and carrying out his duties. Again he had failed to understand the general mood, and the deep anger that the recent events had caused. Hearing that some senators were ready to oppose him with force, he dismissed the six lictors who attended him. These men carried the fasces, the bundles of rods and an axe that symbolised a holder of imperium, and his power to inflict corporal and capital punishment. He then removed his toga praetexta, worn on official occasions by senators, and quietly slipped off to his house, the domus publica, making it known that he intended to retire from public life. On the next day a crowd gathered in the Forum outside his house, loudly proclaiming that they were ready to help him restore his fortunes. Caesar went out and spoke to them, calming their mood and persuading them to disperse. Orchestrated or spontaneous - or quite possibly a mixture of both - it was a dignified and responsible performance which persuaded the Senate to restore him. Although his political instincts had failed him a few times during these days, Caesar had shown his ability to realise that he had made a mistake and the skill of recovering from it.27

By now Catiline had been defeated by an army nominally under the command of Cicero’s former colleague Antonius, but in fact led by one of his subordinates. Cato’s claim that strong action would terrify the rebels had proved ill-founded, for the majority stayed loyal to Catiline and died with him. Whatever they may have thought of him in life, there was grudging acknowledgement that Catiline had died well, showing all the courage expected of a member of the aristocracy. Yet although he was gone and the rebels defeated, there was still a climate of suspicion and recrimination at Rome. Rewards were available to those providing valuable evidence to the authorities, and this may in part explain the spate of denunciations. Quintus Curius, the man whose mistress had persuaded him to betray the rebels and who had been rewarded with restoration to the Senate, now named Caesar amongst a list of men said to have been part of the conspiracy. Another informer, Lucius Vettius, repeated the charge, claiming that he possessed a letter written by Caesar to Catiline. In the Senate the restored praetor answered Curius by appealing to Cicero, who testified that Caesar had provided him with some information and throughout proved his loyalty. As a result, Curius lost his informer’s bounty Vettius, an equestrian of little importance and questionable reputation, could be dealt with more easily. Caesar as praetor commanded him to appear before the Rostra, then had him beaten up and thrown into prison. He was most probably released soon afterwards, but no more public accusations were levelled at Caesar.28


Little else is recorded of Caesar’s praetorship, and it is more than probable that, at least by his standards, he kept a low profile and simply went about his main task of acting as a judge. Near the end of the year he became embroiled in a scandal of illicit and adulterous love, but just for once he was the innocent party. Every year the festival of the Bona Dea, or Good Goddess, was celebrated in the house of one of the senior magistrates. In 62 BC Caesar’s residence was chosen, probably because he was the senior pontiff as well as a praetor. Although the celebration occurred in a magistrate’s house, neither he nor any other man was permitted to be present, for the ceremonies were performed exclusively by women, chiefly the aristocratic matrons of Rome and their female attendants. After performing sacrifices and other rituals, music and feasting continued throughout the night. The Vestal Virgins presided over the rites, and according to Plutarch the magistrate’s wife did much of the organising of the celebrations. In this case Aurelia may have played more of a role than Pompeia, and Caesar’s sister Julia was also present.

Pompeia had a lover, the thirty-year old quaestor-elect Publius Clodius Pulcher, and the couple had decided that the celebrations offered a perfect cover for an assignation. Clodius disguised himself as a girl harp-player, one of the many professional entertainers, mostly slaves, who took part in the festival. During the night he was let into the house by Habra, one of Pompeia’s personal maids, who was in on the secret. She then ran off to fetch her mistress, leaving Clodius to wait for some time. Growing impatient, he began to wander and bumped into one of Aurelia’s slaves, who promptly tried to persuade the young, and apparently shy, musician to join the rest of the company Unable to shake off her persistent attentions, Clodius at last said that he could not come as ‘she’ was waiting for ‘her’ friend Habra. Betrayed by his voice, which was obviously masculine, the slave ran off screaming that there was a man in the house, causing instant confusion. Clodius fled into the darkness. Aurelia reacted with the calm efficiency that it seems was a hallmark of her own character as well as her son’s. She immediately halted the ceremony and had the sacred implements used in the rites covered up, lest they suffer pollution by being seen by a man. Slaves were sent to lock all the doors of the house, to prevent the intruder from escaping. Caesar’s mother then led them as they searched the house by torchlight, eventually finding Clodius hiding in Habra’s room. The woman took a good look at him to make sure who he was - the world of the Roman aristocracy was small and most members of it recognisable to each other, before driving him from the house. Aurelia then sent the women back to their own homes to tell their husbands about Clodius’ sacrilege.29

In the following days, Caesar divorced Pompeia. There was no provision for divorce in Rome’s earliest law code, the Twelve Tables still memorised by aristocratic children in Caesar’s day, but it was nevertheless hallowed by long tradition. Like so many other aspects of Roman society, it was seen as a matter for individual families. By the Late Republic it seems that either the husband or wife could unilaterally divorce the other. In its simplest form a husband would simply say ‘Take your things for yourself!’ (tuas res tibi habeto). Caesar may or may not have used this traditional phrase, or he may have sent a letter to Pompeia, but in any case the marriage was quickly broken. No reason was publicly given for the divorce, but this was nothing unusual even if the preceding circumstances were. The union seems never to have been as close as his marriage to Cornelia and, although the couple had spent most of their marriage together, had failed to produce any children. There is no record of either of Caesar’s other wives taking a lover, but in this case Caesar’s charm had not been sufficient to keep Pompeia faithful. Perhaps he had spent too much time in these years with Servilia and his other mistresses, or it may be that his substantially younger wife resented living in a household that seems to have been dominated by her mother-in-law. Nor should we underestimate the attractions of Clodius, who was intelligent, handsome - his family were renowned for their looks - and charming, with a rakish reputation that made him even more intriguing. The description could as easily apply to Caesar, as could the willingness to seduce other men’s wives. Whatever the reason for Pompeia’s unfaithfulness, Caesar was unwilling to grant his wife the same licence he gave himself. Such an attitude was common for a man of his class and era.30

The ending of a marriage was important for the individuals concerned, but the scale of the shock that this episode sent through the Republic should not be underestimated. Never before had the Bona Dea festival been polluted in this way. Some senators, Cicero and Caesar amongst them, were privately sceptical about the gods, or at least many aspects of traditional religion, but publicly none doubted the importance of the rituals that pervaded so many aspects of public life. Rome’s success was said to be based on the favour of the gods, and no ceremony necessary to continue to assure this blessing could be seen to be neglected or improperly performed. The Senate established a special commission to investigate the affair and decide what action needed to be taken. The festival itself was restaged on another night and properly conducted. After seeking advice from the Vestals and the college of pontiffs, it was decided to place Clodius on trial. Caesar seems from the beginning to have wished to brush the whole affair under the carpet, but although head of the college, the Pontifex Maximus had more of a chairman’s than a controlling role. In the subsequent tribunal he declined to give evidence against Clodius, claiming ignorance of the whole affair. When publicly challenged as to why he had divorced his wife if he thought that she had not been caught in an adulterous liaison, he replied with the famous phrase that he had done so because ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.’ Clodius was an up and coming man, with powerful friends, who were doing their best to ensure that the court would exonerate him. Caesar may have felt that it was an unnecessary risk to gain the personal enmity of such a man, or perhaps he even felt that Clodius might be a useful ally in the future. With hindsight we know that this is what in fact happened, but it may not have been so obvious at the time. For all his frequent prosecutions and attacks on men like Catulus, Caesar’s whole career was based on trying to win friends rather than destroy enemies. It was for his favours and generosity that he was famous, unlike Cato who was known more for his unflinching severity - he was one of those pressing for strong punishment of Clodius.

Political concerns were never far from a senator’s mind, but we should not forget the personal element. Throughout much of history, being held up as a cuckold has been deeply embarrassing. It would also have been most unlike a Roman defence counsel not to have thrown Caesar’s own philandering reputation against him had he appeared as a witness in the case. Perhaps he genuinely felt that it would have been hypocritical of him to attack another man for something that he had so often done himself, if in less bizarre and sacrilegious circumstances. However, in spite of his own reluctance, both Aurelia and Julia appeared as witnesses, testifying to Clodius’ guilt. Cicero also appeared, stating that he had met Clodius on the day of the ceremony in Rome, hence destroying the defendant’s claim that he had been far from the City at the time when the offence was committed. In spite of his obvious guilt, Clodius was acquitted after he and his friends mounted a concerted campaign of intimidation and bribery. For the final session the jurors requested and were granted guards for their protection. When they voted thirty-one to twenty-five for acquittal, it prompted the scornful Catulus to say, ‘Why did you ask us for a guard? Were you afraid of being robbed?’ It is the last anecdote recorded about the old senator, who died not long afterwards.31


Long before the trial was over, Caesar had left Rome as propraetor to govern Further Spain (Hispania Ulterior). Smuggled out in his entourage was the Numidian client he had unsuccessfully defended against King Hiempsal, who for months had remained concealed in Caesar’s house. Also accompanying him were his quaestor Vetus, the son of the man for whom Caesar had performed the same role. Another member of his staff, holding the title of praefectus fabrum, a sort of general staff appointment, was a Lucius Cornelius Balbus, a Spaniard from a well-to-do family that had gained citizenship through Pompey’s gratitude. The new governor had doubtless left the city and the scandal behind with some relief, but at one point it had looked as if Caesar would be prevented from going. A number of his creditors had become impatient, perhaps simply because payment was due, but his temporary expulsion from the praetorship earlier in the year may have made them question his long-term prospects. Moves were made to prevent his leaving, but Caesar turned to Crassus who stood surety for 830 talents, a massive sum but only a fraction of his total debt. This is the first occasion when it is explicitly recorded in our sources that he had taken out a loan from Crassus, but it is more than probable that Caesar had often drawn on his massive wealth in the past. Even so it was a near thing, and he ended up leaving the city before the Senate had formally announced the provinces for the year. This was a mere formality, since these had already been allocated, but it was a breach of convention. Ironically, one of the first problems he had to deal with when he reached Spain was widespread debt, which may have been forcing many to swell the numbers of bandits that infested the region. Caesar decreed that a debtor should pay two-thirds of his income to his creditors until the debts had been made up, but were to be left the remaining third to support themselves and their families.32

A provincial posting was a chance for enrichment. Caesar had on a number of occasions prosecuted returning governors for corruption and extortion. It was soon claimed by his senatorial opponents that he had needlessly provoked a war in Spain, even attacking allied communities simply so that he could plunder them. The charges were fairly conventional, and plenty of Roman governors acted in this way, but there is not enough evidence to decide whether or not Caesar was guilty of such behaviour. In 61 BC large tracts of Spain were still showing the scars of the war against Sertorius. Raiding and banditry had for generations been ways of life in the Iberian Peninsula, especially amongst communities in the more mountainous regions who struggled to support themselves by farming. North Western Lusitania, where Caesar principally operated, was not a wealthy region at this time, and it is doubtful that any commander could have made himself rich through plunder by campaigning there. Nor is it likely that he lacked opportunities for mounting a military operation, for all of our sources emphasise the lawlessness of much of the area. What is clear is that Caesar eagerly took up these opportunities, responding in an extremely robust manner. Almost as soon as he arrived he raised ten new cohorts of troops, augmenting the existing garrison by 50 per cent. Marching into the mountainous area between the rivers Tagus and Duero, he summoned one of the fortified hilltop communities to surrender and be resettled on the plains. They refused, as he had expected, so Caesar took the place by storm. He then moved against the neighbouring towns, avoiding an attempted ambush when the Lusitanians tried to lure him into a trap by using their herds as bait. Caesar ignored these and instead attacked and defeated their main army Ambush was a common tactic for the hill peoples of Spain, and his forces avoided another ambush by not following the obvious route through the difficult country. Later Caesar returned, fought on ground of his own choosing, and won. Following up his success, he pursued the Lusitanians to the Atlantic coast, where they took refuge on a small island. The first attempt to take this failed, but Caesar summoned warships from Gades (Cadiz) and forced the defenders to surrender. He then sailed along the coast, and the sight of his forces - oared warships were largely unknown in the area - was enough to overawe at least one community into instant capitulation.33

There were many traces of the Caesar so familiar from his own Commentaries on the later campaigns in Gaul and the Civil War. Swift but calculated action, refusal to be daunted by natural obstacles or initial reverses and the ruthless exploitation of success. Also there was the willingness to accept surrender and treat the conquered generously in the hope of turning them into productive, tax-paying members of the province. His victory had not in itself completed this process, but did mark an important stage in it. Caesar was hailed as Imperator, the formal acclamation which entitled a governor to request a triumph on his return to Rome. Yet his term of office was not solely devoted to war, and he did much to reorganise the civil administration of the province, arbitrating in disputes between the local communities. He also appears to have suppressed the practice of human sacrifice in some of the local cults. How effective he was in the long term is harder to say, for other governors of the province had acted against this in the past. Such offerings were known - perhaps even fairly common - throughout much of Iron Age Europe and elsewhere. The last occasion the Romans had made such an offering had been only a few years before Caesar’s birth, when the threat of the Cimbri and Teutones had seemed very real. It was, however, one of the few religious practices that the Romans actively suppressed in the provinces. Caesar’s governorship of Spain is not well documented, but seems to have been marked by his usual frenetic activity. He probably profited from his time there, though certainly on nothing like the scale to do much more than dent his massive debts, won accolades from the locals and had the prospect of triumph on his return. This posting had given Caesar what he wanted, but he was always looking to the future, and left his province to return to Rome before his successor had actually arrived. This was a little unusual, but certainly not unique - Cicero would do the same when he finally went out to his province over a decade after being consul. His quaestor was probably left in charge.34

On the way out to Spain Plutarch claims that Caesar and his party passed through a small Alpine village. His friends jokingly asked whether even in such a squalid setting men still scrabbled for power and office. Caesar declared quite seriously that he would rather be the foremost man in a place like that, than the second in Rome. The story may or may be apocryphal, but as Plutarch realised it says much about Caesar’s character. He had already done well politically, and could by now almost count on having a good career. This was no less that he had always expected of himself, but being successful was not in itself enough and Caesar was aiming for the very top. He craved to achieve more than anyone else had ever done.35

There was room at the top, for as the decade drew to a close only Crassus could be seen as a serious rival to Pompey Some of the wealthiest men in the Republic, notably Lucullus, had largely withdrawn from public life into luxurious retirement. The Senate of these years contained some 600 members, but was scarcely crammed with talent. The legacy of the civil war, which had culled the ranks of the prominent and capable, was still very obvious. It is striking that only fourteen former consuls were present at the Catilinarian debate, an occasion of such importance that a strong turnout would be anticipated. Crassus deliberately avoided the meeting, while Pompey and several other consulars were away on campaign. Assuming as a very rough guide that a man might expect to live for at least twenty years after being consul, the total is still less than half the number that we might expect. Compared to earlier periods, there were far fewer distinguished senators whose auctoritas allowed them to guide the Senate’s debates. This was one reason why men like Caesar and Cato were able to assume such prominence while still in their thirties.

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