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The reception of Catiline, the classical conspirator

Written by Mathilde Skoie |

 

Prof. Mathilde Skoie

Prof. Mathilde Skoie (UiO, Norway) has spent this spring as a visiting fellow at UCL, dividing her days between the ICS library, the Warburg and the British Library while tracking down the reception of the Roman villain Catiline. Catiline is (in)famous among students studying Latin of all ages, but how much do we know about his reception? On May 30th 2018 Mathilde gave a paper at the ICS on her research so far and here she shares some of the thoughts from that paper.

After several years of heavy administrative duties at the University of Oslo, I´ve been able to enjoy half a year of bonus sabbatical trying to re-establish myself as a proper researcher again. This has been a weird and wonderful experience. Wonderful not least due to the great resources available in London and the lovely people at the ICS with whom I´ve been lunching on a regular basis.  As the reception of Catiline is huge, what I´ve wanted to do this term was to establish a context or framework for later, more targeted work on specific instances of the reception of Catiline, and on the basis of this articulate what might be the relevant questions both in case of the reception of Catiline and – more widely and fundamentally – the process of reception itself.

Catiline´s so-called conspiracy against the state in year 63 BCE, during the consulate of Cicero, is one of the best documented episodes in the late Roman republic. At times we even have a day-by-day narrative which gives the impression that we really know this episode, but our evidence is rather one sided. We have Cicero´s four speeches against Catiline given at the time and Sallust´s short monograph known as Bellum Catilinae (The war with Catiline) or De Catilinae coniuratione (About Catiline´s conspiracy), written approximately twenty years afterwards. Cicero as a participant and winner (at least temporarily) of this conflict attacks Catiline with all his rhetorical powers. Much of his attack is ad hominem and Catiline is described as a classical villain as Cicero insinuates that he is involved in all sorts of morally unacceptable and criminal activities. Sallust picks up on this in his narrative in his own way. He presents Catiline as the ultimate example of everything which is wrong with the Roman republic within a grand narrative of the decline of Rome.

Both of these texts almost immediately became classics in the form of widely read school texts, and the name Catiline was often used as a paradigm for learning the first declension. The Augustan poet Virgil moreover emphasises the negative image of Catiline by placing him in the underworld amongst the crooks hanging from the edge of a cliff shivering in front of the furies in his epic poem The Aeneid.

Catiline is described in these sources as a typical villain out to ruin the republic and his name works as a metonymy for a conspiracy. Cicero has to a large extent won the battle of his reputation in the reception. As Henrik Ibsen´s Catiline says prophetically in his play by the same name:

Now in the senate has my adversary,

The crafty Cicero, trampled me to earth.

His speech was a portrayal of my life,

So glaring that I, even I, must gasp.

In every look I read dismay and fear;

With loathing people speak of Catiline;

To races unborn my name will be

A symbol of a low and dreadful union

Of sensuality and wretchedness,

Of scorn and ridicule for what is noble. –

And there will be no deed to purge this name

And crush to earth the lies that have been told!

Each will believe what rumour tells –

(Ibsen, Catilina, 1850, Act I, transl. Orbeck)

Cesare Maccari, Cicero denounces Catiline (1889). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Cesare Maccari, Cicero denounces Catiline (1889). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The same power structure is pictured in the fresco by Cesare Maccari in the Senate of Rome. This image accompanies almost every edition of the classical texts about Catiline as well as instances of later reception. Almost everything in it is wrong: The senate meeting was not in the senate, but in the temple of Jupiter Stator; the senate did not have that kind of seating etc. Most interesting to me, however, is the way Cicero is portrayed as an elderly statesman with white hair, while Catiline looks much younger. In reality Cicero was                                                                                        two years younger than Catiline.

Henrik Ibsen – and his play Catiline (1850) – was also my way into this project. For someone writing an introduction to Classical Reception in Norwegian, his play was an obvious choice. It is a classic example of someone appropriating antiquity for his own aesthetic and political purposes. The conflict between ability and ideal seen in so many of his later plays is here seen in nucleo in the character of Catiline. And in a later preface he explicitly writes about his own revolutionary passion(i.a. inspired by the French 1848-revolution). Studying at night for his finals, the set texts were Cicero and Sallust. Inspired by these texts and his current situation he staged them in his own image – filling in the gaps, cutting and pasting from the sources and drawing out potential different meanings of them. These are interpretations which enrich and colour our image of the ancient Catiline.

Ibsen´s play is both typical and untypical of the reception of Catiline as I have seen it so far. He is typical in the way that he finds the figure and the conflict relevant to his own times and fills it with his own passions and ideas. He is also typical in the fact that he was writing this at a very young age – and while studying Latin. Quite a lot of the reception of Catiline may be categorised as juvenilia and there are not that that many really famous or prestigious instances of reception compared to the reception of Caesar, Spartacus or Nero. Apart from Ben Jonson´s Catiline. His Conspiracy (1611) and Voltaire, Rome Sauvée ou Catilina (1752), most of the authors and artists are unknown. And Catiline is still popular among the young. Try a search on YouTube and you´ll find a wide range of inventive reworkings of the story.

​  Disraeli (as Cicero) denouncing W. E. Gladstone (as Catiline), by John Leech. From The Comic History of Rome  ​
​Disraeli (as Cicero) denouncing W. E. Gladstone (as Catiline), by John Leech. From The Comic History of Rome ​

Ibsen is also typical in the way he exploits gaps and elements in the classical texts and fleshes out, frames and plots the story in his own image. Typically, the sources give room for manoeuvre in Catiline´s motivation. Here authors may also play up the social circumstances in contemporary Rome. Or they can choose to make Catiline into a purely selfish villain. Likewise, the role of women is a place where artists may fill in gaps. Sallust has already given the story a feminine angle in his presentation of Sempronia and Fulvia, but this may also be expanded upon. Ibsen for instance, lets Catiline´s wife Aurelia and an invented vestal virgin drive the plot as they fight over Catiline representing and appealing to different aspects of Catiline´s own character.

Ibsen is perhaps less typical in trying to offer a more nuanced Catiline and leaving Cicero completely out of it. Though there are some attempts to claim him as a kind of revolutionary hero, Catiline is mostly presented as a through and through negative figure.  Though the people cast as this villain cover a wide range – from from Martin Luther via Robespierre and Gladstone (see illustration) to Angela Merkel or opponents of the Clintons.

Catiline may play a part both in the story of the glory of Rome (or at least Cicero’s version of it) and the decline of Rome. The conspiracy accordingly plays no little part in political treatises – not least since Machiavelli treats the conspiracy as an important point of reference. The view of Catiline is in these cases influenced by people´s view on Rome as a whole and wider issues such as republicanism, decline, populism and change. And this colours not only overtly political treatment of Catiline, but touches upon issues of labelling and translation important for any one dealing with the ancient texts. Thus a study of the reception of Catiline is an important reminder to us all of the importance of scrutinizing our own horizons of interest when we meet the ancients.