Sallust gives in his historical discussions a consistent critique of the role of the Senate and the elite in Roman politics. He was a historian, as it happens with other ancient historians, who was involved in politics. He is not known though for his political career. Instead, he is known for being one of the best historians of the Roman period. One of the three historical pieces of work he wrote during his life time was Bellum Catilinae, the War with Cataline. This monograph is his first work and narrates events that happened in 63 BC, but it has a much longer scope than the war itself.
Within this monograph, the debate between Caesar and Cato is an extraordinary piece of historiographical ability. It is based on a Senate’s floor debate between these two characters, who have conflicting ideas about whether Rome should punish Cataline for his actions or not. The debate is loosely based on the interventions by both characters, but is largely determined on the re-elaboration of the author using previous historical models. This debate is of vital importance for the understanding of Sallust historiography work, as it confronts different ideas of what it took to be a Roman citizen, portraying different behaviours and attitudes within the Roman elite.
Bellum Catilinae explores contradictory views of what was virtus in the ancient Roman world. Sallust structures the text in terms of political virtues and vices that flourished in Rome. He provides a statement of which morals made the difference. What morals made Rome a well-organised state and what morals brought Rome into anarchy and self-destruction.
The debate is an analysis of the usage of Sallustrian moral language by Caesar and Cato. Sallust confronts his own rationalistic and moralistic ideals, which are in opposition with each other. Sallust work articulates a very pessimistic view of the late-Republic time, in contrast with a prelapsarian time, claiming that vices and an absence of virtus converted Rome into decadence. The writer claims that this decadence is partly a consequence of Carthage defeat and the subsequent position as only power, bringing moral corruption to Rome.
Sallust work plays with paradoxes such as man and beast, mind and body or virtue and vice. The monograph, far from reinforcing the present vice and past virtues, combine them systematically, to the point where villains such as Cataline exhibited heroic virtue. Body and mind are necessary for success, but the mind must govern, otherwise vice turns humans into beasts. Sallust writes of continentia and aequitas in contrast with lubido and superbia.
Caesar argues that reason should not allow passion, favourable or unfavourable, to affect decisions that require reasoned judgment. The seeking of Gloriam quaere is good, as long as it is based on intelligence and not on physical strength.
Cato oratory in favour of pardoning Rhodes is an example of Roman virtue, when generosity and willingness to pardon were characteristics of the early Republic. Cato though lived enough to see the time when Rome encountered Carthage, and Cato supported and encouraged the initiative to defeat Carthage. This, according to Sallust, brought vice to late-Republic, as the lack of parallel foes to balance Rome’s power converted virtue into vice, bringing sloth and luxury to Roman elite and citizenship. Fear to the enemy brings this balance, and once it disappears, moral corruption replaces virtus. Cato elaborated a moral discourse for his Catalinian debate in which a lack of parallel powers would bring stability in the region. Instead, Sallust claims that this unchallenged power brought prosperity to Rome and the flourishing of vices. Sloth and luxury replaced virtues such as mercy and labore.
Both Caesar and Cato have characteristics which are framed as virtus in early Republic, characteristics that are seen on Cato, the Censor of Rhodes takeover. Caesar qualities include misericordia and mansuetudo, while Cato quality is severitas. Aequitas and iustitia do not appear to be part of any of them.
Cato claims to be able to maintain that virtue on his speech and his deeds. In the other hand, Sallust claims that he was able to maintain these virtues just on his speech, because vice was impregnated in Roman society and therefore he believed that vice had impregnated him and everyone else. Sallust presents a Catonian language of virtue but at the same time claims that Cato fails to follow it and fails to meet those standards. Cato claims that this in-moralistic behaviour, which has impregnated the Roman elite and Roman citizenship, can be arrested. Cato despises lubido, but from the stringency of his own conduct, while Sallust includes himself, at his youth age, as part of that amoral behaviour. Cato judges from above while Sallust does it from within.
Sallust pursues two agendas, which are the rationalistic conception of human excellence and the nostalgic virtuous Roman past. Caesar subordinates the latter to the former. For him, power is attained by superior intelligence and lust goes hand in hand with superbia. However, Sallust descriptions of ancestral rectitude do not emphasise the intellect but the traditional virtues of simplicity, uprightness and industry. Cato’s appeal to mos maiorum privileges the moral over the rationalistic. Cato portrays the decadence of the Roman elite on the havoc wrought by characters such as Sulla on military discipline, but also by the dissolute rich of his day, the luxuria atque avaritia.
Caesar acknowledges that the meaning of the words can slip but pretends that ancestral virtus still exists as in its prelapsarian condition, and in cannibalising Sallust moralistic language for his rationalistic conception of virtus, ignores the moralistic mode. Cato is aware of the changes in morals and language but pretends that is possible to return to the ancestral morality despite the loss of the old terminological certitudes. Sallust though is the only figure without illusions, a man that see a moral vocabulary so riven by ambiguities and contradictions that even Cataline can use it for his purposes.
By encouraging the destruction of the conspirators of the Cataline affair, Cato lacks on mercy. While Caesar, even though supports pardoning the conspirators, will behave as such in the future. Sallust argument is that Cataline has to be treated as a foreign enemy, and that to apply mercy for the conspirators is seen as the only way to avoid vice impregnating Rome. Caesar supports mercy, but by losing the debate, he ends up being part of that late-Republic vice that replaced early Republic virtue. Roman degeneration is at the forefront of Sallust writings.
In the Jugurtha episode, written also by Sallust, he provides the description of four characters, which are Sulla, Marius, Metellus and Jugurtha. They are described on an evolution, which starts on the virtue and moves into vice. They are all on different levels within this evolution, with two of them still showing virtue in their behaviours, and two having gone through the whole process of turning into morally corrupted. It gives us a picture of the Roman decadence that affects the elite of the time. Metellus is driven by arrogance, while Marius is driven by ambition, Sulla is driven by luxury and voluptas and Jugurtha is still not corrupted. Individual moral corruption leads to a general Roman decadence, but also individual amoral behaviour flourishes on a morally corrupted Rome.
Sallust wrote in a period of instability, in the second Triumvirate, and had experienced the late-Republic. This affected the way he presented Rome. The Jugurtha and Cataline episodes are written monographs that focus on single fragments of history but aim at explaining a general philosophic view of the moral decadence that, according to Sallust, was bringing Rome to its knees.
This catastrophic view comes from the future uncertainty of a state that lived the best times of the Republic, a state that seemed to have reached its peak, and moved to a catastrophic period of free fall.
Image taken from:
Cicero and Cato vs. Caesar; Caesar vs. Pompey; Caesar Wins All, Then is Murdered
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