After reading Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I decided I really needed to read more primary sources (in translation) of Roman history. Oh, I’ve read lots of excerpts from various Roman historians, but the only works I’ve read completely are Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Tacitus’ Annals of Rome.

Coincidentally, I recently discovered Quintus Curtius’ excellent blog and decided to pick up his translation of Sallust, a source drawn on in Holland’s book.

Review: Sallust: The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha, trans. Quintus Curtius, 2017.

What makes a Roman patrician turn against the Roman Republic? Why does a foreign prince, a friend of Rome, risk its wrath? These are the questions addressed by Sallust.

He is the first historian of Rome with works that have come down to us complete though not all of them survived.

Living from 86 to 34 BC, he was well enough thought of that his house was preserved with its destruction in the 410 AD sack of Rome being noted by Procopius.

Sallust came from a family of modest means. From the beginning, Curtius’ notes he possessed a “seething hostility” toward the patrician class. And his attitude certainly didn’t change when he was expelled from the Senate in 50 BC on a charge of “moral turpitude”. The details of his crime and punishment (once source says he was publicly flogged) aren’t clear, but, as Curtius’ introduction notes, political prosecutions and loose morals were certainly a product of the time, and Sallust probably wasn’t worse than his contemporaries.

Sallust’s populism made him a member of Caesar’s faction, and he accompanied Caesar to Numidia in 46 BC where he served as a governor, a post that was useful in gathering information for his work on Jugurtha.

In 45 BC, he was charged with corruption and extortion though not convicted. He may have shaken down the province to get money for Caesar or he may have been the fall guy for Caesar’s activities there. In 44 BC, he retired from public life.

Sallust is a moralist. For him, character is all. It helps to master the vicissitudes of chance. Perhaps looking back at his early life, Sallust says in the opening to The War of Jugurtha:

But if men had the same care for doing good works as they have enthusiasm for chasing what is of no advantage to them – in many cases what is even dangerous and harmful to them – they would often rule fortune than be ruled by it, and would advance to such greatness that through their glory they would become immortal among men.

Sallust examines both his subjects, Catiline and Jugurtha, in moral terms. He talks about their impressive abilities and why they chose actions not only treacherous to Rome but led to their own downfall.

Lucius Catiline, a patrician, “possessed a mind and body of great power, but also a deformed and wicked character”. He was “tolerant of hunger, cold, and lack of sleep to a degree that exceeded any other man”. Yet, he was “lavish in his own habits, and fiery in his lusts.” He possessed “some eloquence”.

Sallust shows us a Rome awash in money and sex and the search for glory. Catiline gathered about him an “entourage of lackeys” of every moral failing and every criminal type. And Catiline opened his purse to satisfy their appetites: money, prostitutes, dogs, and horses. And, for his noble acquaintances with their own cash, he offered a chance for glory and power.

In 65 BC, Catiline launched his first plot: the murder of consuls and some senators. But Catiline moved too soon and had too few armed accomplices, and the scheme collapsed.

In 63 BC, he tried again. Sallust gives us his speech to his recruits. It played on their resentments, that “arrogant mediocrities” should have the wealth and positions denied them. It ended with a promise for the discharge of debts, execution of elites, and offices and plunder for the men who joined Catiline, and “everything else that war and passion deliver to the victor”.

The Roman army was away, and, Catiline, having lost an election for consul, put his plan in motion. But it was compromised by a woman, Fulvia, an associate of one of Catiline’s conspirators. He eventually, at the behest of the new consul, one Marcus Tullius Cicero, turned into a double agent. Meanwhile, Catiline gathered more arms and men.

Cicero and his other consul were granted extraordinary policies to stomp the conspiracy down. Catiline’s plot was not the only source of unrest in Italy at the time.

With his plot exposed, Catiline decided to brazen it out and made an appearance in the Senate. Cicero delivered a famous speech against him, and Catiline was “prepared to lie about everything” in his response. Would a man such as him, a patrician, work against Rome? And how could they think “Marcus Tullius, who was little more than a tenant in the city of Rome, could be its guardian”?

The Senate wasn’t buying it, and Catiline ended up shouting he had been “pushed to the edge of the abyss” by his enemies. “I’ll put out my fire with demolition.”

Catiline again acted before gathering all his forces. He called for Cicero and others to be assassinated. That effort failed.

Claiming that he was retiring to Marseilles, instead he went to Arretium to distribute arms to his followers. In response, the Senate declared Catiline an outlaw and ordered an army to be raised.

At this point, Sallust says the people of Rome were at their “most pathetic”. Their “warped characters” wouldn’t lead them to “betray the conspiracy or desert Catiline’s camp”. Catiline even tried to recruit a force of Gauls, but Cicero was able to turn their leaders into double agents too.

Famous speeches were delivered in the Senate for the named conspirators, some yet not in custody. (As with Tacitus, speeches are extensively “quoted” by Sallust.) Caesar, perhaps foreshadowing the relative clemency he pursued after he consolidated power (my take, not Sallust’s), argued they should be exiled not executed. Marcus Portius Cato argued for execution. Sallust does one of his asides and comments on the great traits of both men.

Eventually, the consular force brought Catiline and his men to battle. Sallust, ever noting his subject’s good points, says Catiline “carried out the duties of a courageous soldier and a good field commander”. He fought to the last man with “much audacity” and “force of spirit”. He was found

far from his own men among some corpses of the enemy, still breathing, and preserving his facial expression that ferocity of spirit he showed in life.

Jugurtha lived from 158 to 105 BC. Numidia fell into the Roman sphere of influence during the Second Punic War. For his aid, Rome made Micipsa King of Numidia. Jugurtha was his nephew.

Sallust was charismatic, handsome, good at all the skills of a warrior. “He accomplished much, yet spoke of himself little”. But Micipsa feared his nephew was getting to be too popular, was a usurper in the making, so, hoping Jugurtha would be killed, he lent him out to the Roman conquest of Spain. There Jugurtha impressed the Romans with his “hard work and consistent diligence, and by showing scrupulous loyalty”. He was befriended by commander Publius Scipio Aemilianus.

Scipio advised him to cultivate “the friendship of the Roman people as a whole rather than the favor of private parties” procured through bribery. It was also there that his Roman acquaintances put in his mind that he should rule Numidia.

As he was dying, Micipsa asked Jugurtha to look after Micipsa’s sons, Adherbal and Hiempsal. He advised his sons, younger than Jugurtha, not to make him sorry that his adopted child was better than his natural ones.

But, of course, things didn’t stay that way. Jugurtha had Hiempsal assassinated. Adherbal fled to Rome where both he and Jugurtha tried to gain Rome’s support. Adherbal argued principle. His father had given aid to Rome in its war against Carthage. Was it going to standby and let his heir be deposed? Jugurtha relied on bribery. Eventually, Rome dispatched two legates to divide Numidia, but they failed to broker a peace, and Adherbal’s forces were defeated, and he was executed.

Rome, angry at its wishes being ignored, dispatched an army to Numidia.

This history is more of a military account. Curtius, a former United States Marine Corps officer, emphasizes in his notes a couple of military matters. First is the successful counterinsurgency techniques used by Roman general Metellus. Second is the disloyal undercutting of Metellus’ command, which was largely successful, by his subordinate Marius who would later become one of Rome’s most famous generals and military reformers. Metellus largely won the war before Marius got him recalled, but Marius took credit for the final victory. (In his postscript, Curtius acknowledges Marius’ future importance and that he was a great man. Metellus, he argues, was both great and good.)

The war finally ended when one of Jugurtha’s subordinates sold him out to the Romans.

Sallust is rather neutral in depicting the war’s morality. Rome was already corrupt, and Jugurtha was a man of fatal ambition.

Anybody who has never read a single bit of Roman history can appreciate this book’s history and moral insights. Curtius carefully provides numerous aids for study: an explanation of Roman political offices, notes on Sallust’s Latin style, chronological breakdowns for each work, a summary of each section’s moral themes, extensive annotations, maps and photos of the Italian and Numidian areas, an index, and a summary of Sallust’s life and moral philosophy.

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