The Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha: Review

Foreign wars sabotaged by a great country’s own elites. Lusting for gold and blinded by greed, they put their short term profits ahead of the welfare of their republic. Institutions of power and prestige corrode and crumble under the weight of rampant factionalism and rent-seeking. Public trust erodes, and things get so bad that in their jostling for power, elites begin to take up arms against the state. More worrisome, citizens, angered and disgusted by what they see, are willing to follow.

These are but a few of the themes covered by the Roman historian Sallust in his Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha. The former, as the name suggests, covers the conspiracy of the renegade senator Catiline to kill the consuls and throw Rome into turmoil in his bid for power in 63-2 B.C.. The latter covers the war against the Numidian King Jugurtha in North Africa in the closing years of the second century B.C. Sallust is regarded by most as the first great Roman historian whose works survive, and in the year 2017, he has been given a new, modern translation by Quintus Curtius.

Aside from giving Sallust a fully modern translation (most of the earlier translations of the Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha you’ll find are in confusing 19th century verbiage), Quintus Curtius’ translation is unique in that like Sallust, he is also a man with military experience. When translating the War of Jugurtha in particular, this makes a big difference in the ability for a writer to bring history to life in ways that other translators couldn’t do before him.

And what makes Sallust himself unique? Why are his histories worth reading?

Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha detail in artful prose (which borders on poetry) the decline of the republican institutions in Rome under the strain of empire. Catiline’s conspiracy and the appalling initial conduct of the war of Jugurtha weren’t isolated events, but merely symptoms of the failure of the old republican constitution under these new imperial pressures and the unwillingness or inability of Rome’s elites to reform the system. Sallust himself took part in this same chain of events decades later as one of Caesar’s partisans. In both the Conspiracy of Catiline and the War of Jugurtha, his contempt for the nobility of Rome is biting, almost dripping blood like the teeth of a wolf chomping on a deer carcass. Sallust clearly blamed these elites for the instability of the republic in the latter second and first centuries B.C. and the Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha are magnified in their importance because of what happened in his own time. They are all merely different effects preceded by the same causes, as Sallust puts forth very clearly at the start of the Conspiracy of Catiline:

But when the republic grew through labor and the application of justice, and great kings had been subdued in war; when barbarous peoples and mighty nations were brought to heel; and when Carthage, jealous of the Roman Empire, was destroyed root and branch and every land and sea lay open; then, at last, Fortune began to vent her disfavor and all began to become turbulent. Those who had easily borne labors, dangers, insecurity and bitterness now found that leisure and riches – so desirable in some situations – were instead a burden and source of woe. Thus first the love of money grew, and then the love of power as well; these things were essentially the building blocks of all evils. Greed overturned honesty, good faith, and other positive virtues; in their place it nurtured arrogance, cruelty, neglect of religious duty, and the idea that everything could be bought for a price.

Wordly ambition compelled many to become deceitful: to have one sentiment in the heart yet a different one ready on the tongue, to make friends and enemies not on an objective basis, but on an estimation of monetary convenience; and to display a good face rather than a good character. These tendencies grew little by little, occasionally to be punished. Afterwards, when the infection spread like a contagion, the state was transformed, and a government that was among the most just and strong became inhuman and unbearable.

Things got so bad during the war against Jugurtha that one of the Tribunes, Caius (Gaius) Memmius thought it necessary to deliver a rousing speech in Rome against the nobility, and its failure to prosecute the war in the best interest of the republic.

But certainly to restore the rights of the plebs will be equivalent to a striving for sovereignty. Whatever cannot be avenged without the blood of citizens has been rightly done. In previous years you silently disapproved of the robbing of the treasury, of the fact that kings and free people paid tribute to a few aristocrats, and that those same people had the greatest fame and most extensive wealth. Yet it is not enough for them to have done these crimes with impunity; ultimately the laws, your dignity, and all things human and divine have been given to your enemies. Those who have done these things are neither ashamed nor sorry. They strut around in front of your faces, bragging, showing off their priesthoods, consulships, and their triumphs as if these things were legitimate achievements and not plunder.

They want to dominate you, and you want to be free. They want to cause harm, and you want to prevent it. They treat our allies as enemies, and our enemies as allies. Can there be peace and friendship between purposes so different? For this reason I warn and advise you not to let such a terrible crime go unpunished. It was not the embezzlement of public funds or the forcible taking of money from our allies: although these are serious matters, they mean little, since they have become so routine.

The authority of the senate has been turned over to a devious enemy: and this surrendered authority is your authority. At home and on the field of battle, our republic was on sale to the highest bidder. Unless this is acknowledged – unless the guilty face justice – what will be left for us except to live as obedient servants to those who committed these acts? For to do whatever one likes without consequences: this is the definition of a king. I am not asking you, Quirites, to favor your fellow citizens who have acted wrongly over those who have acted rightly; I ask that you do not ruin the good ones by forgiving the bad. In a republic it is much better to forget a favor than an offense.

I was astonished by Sallust and his description of this speech of Memmius against the ruling faction in Rome and its betrayal of the republic because it sounded so similar to what Roger (last name withheld for now), one of the major characters in my upcoming The Red War and the reluctant leader of the Martian military forces, said to his troops during the climax of part one, The Awakened Lion. It was a time when these still amateur, reluctant warriors were as baby deers staring down the jaws of a pride of lions, their hairs standing on end as they faced the overwhelming power of the Earth’s war machine. To encourage and steel the resolve of his wavering men, he shouts:

“How can we live in chains?!” He went on, his voice getting louder with each word. “Will we abandon what five generations of Martians built this planet to be?! They took a red dustball of death and turned it into a bastion of civilization in the darkness of space!”

He bent down, picking up a handful of the rusty dust.

“Look at this! Look at this dust!” He implored loudly, but almost weakly. His voice sounded vulnerable, like he was trying to hold back tears. “Remember what your ancestors and your friends built on this dust!” He nearly pleaded, letting a steady stream of the red grains wisp in the night glow in an almost ghoulish green jet.

Asteria didn’t know why, but tears started rolling down her porcelain cheeks. She looked to her left and right to see that others were crying or holding back tears too. The Midlanders from the Noachis and Sabean areas were practically distraught. They wept, hanging their heads low in shame as he approached them, staring directly into their eyes as he moved among them gracefully.

“Is all of that to be abandoned, to be submerged under the Earthling sea?! Are the achievements of this planet and its peoples to be brought to heel under the yoke of the Earthlings, amalgamated into non-existence?! No! The only way to stop that now is to fight! Sure, run away and you’ll live, that’s true. But you’ll live like you deserve – mindless zombies with no pride or purpose, who rise and clap their hands when the great leader speaks! You’ll be numbers on a ledger, cogs in a machine! Is that the life you want?! Is that the future you wish to doom to your descendants?! Will you run, or will you stand here together as one, with me, and tell them that they can kill us, they can shed our blood and destroy our homes…but they will NEVER PUT US IN CHAINS!?”

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Reading Sallust reminds us that these things – the struggle for control, the glee of some men in acting against the public interest, the pathos of a power establishment whose members see themselves as smugly superior – a separate species almost, who increasingly view their fellow countrymen as mere widgets for their own personal enrichment – these things are timeless. Whether in ancient Rome or, eventually, when we move out into space, to Mars and beyond, these things will always be with us, and it is up to those who Sallust (and presumably Cicero also), would see as virtuous men, to design systems to keep these destructive trends in check.

And as for our own country in our own time, one cannot read Sallust and his Conspiracy of Catiline/War of Jugurtha without feeling that virtue has failed us of late. The people, devoid of a historical education to inculcate a healthy and hearty ethos, have lost touch with anything but consumption. They’ve become gender-bending freaks or addicted to opioids and dying in droves, all at the encouragement of a power elite that largely has no loyalty to its country. Instead of seeking peace abroad and prosperity for their countrymen at home, we see self-appointed “experts” and “intellectuals” (who are usually wrong about everything) such as Bret Stephens writing trash like this that show you how they really feel about the plebs and the republic (37:45):

One cannot ignore the words of Marius after listening to that segment.

What makes them happy, what they believe is worthwhile, let them continue to do. Let them indulge in sex and drink. Let them live out their elder years in the same way they spent their youth: in lavish dinners, ruled by their stomachs and the most indecent parts of the body. Let them leave sweat, dirt, and other such things to us, for whom such things are more pleasing than banquets. But in truth it will not be this way. For when these most repulsive men disgrace themselves with their scandals, they then snatch away the just rewards earned by good people. What is most unfair is that their extravagance and laziness – the most despicable of habits – never seem to hurt those who indulge then, yet turn out to be the ruin of our blameless republic.

Sallust is more timely today than he has been in many decades, if not centuries. Quintus Curtius brings him up to date at just the right moment. Reading Sallust not only allows you to better understand our own time, but the Conspiracy of Catiline and War of Jugurtha, like so many classics, wish to not merely repeat facts, but bequeath to you a sense of identity and fortitude, to exhort you to do great things. As Sallust himself puts it at the start:

All men who seek to be better than the animals ought to exert themselves with the greatest efforts, lest they pass their lives in silence as if they were beasts of burden, which Nature has conditioned to be prostrate and subservient to their stomachs. All our powers are situated in our minds and bodies; we make use of the mind more for control, and the body for service. One of these we hold in common with the gods, and the other with the wild beasts. For me it seems more proper to seek glory through one’s natural character than through the efforts of naked force and, since this life that we delight in is so short, to fashion a legacy for ourselves that is as lasting as possible. For glory derived from riches and appearances is transitory and brittle, but masculine virtue is pure and eternal.

This is the ethos of this blog and always has been. If you like the Masculine Epic, Sallust is there to help show you the way to a truly glorious life, whose virtue (and therefore, lasting legacy) will be durable and enduring for all time.

Click here to start reading (and to help Quintus out, too).