We like to think of terrorist plots as being a condition of the modern world. However, there were such plots were around over two thousand years ago.
During the hectic period of the end of the Roman Republic, Rome was faced with a terrorist plot of its own.
A group of disgruntled aristocrats wanted to burn down the city and take control of the republic.
Learn more about the Catiline Conspiracy on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Catiline Conspiracy, also known as the Catilinarian Conspiracy, is often overlooked because of the even bigger events which came before and after.
The events of the Catiline Conspiracy came between the civil war between Marius and Sulla, and the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.
It isn’t so much that the Catiline Conspiracy wasn’t important so much as it is overshadowed by bigger events that happened. Sort of in the same way that the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic isn’t quite given the same amount of attention as World War I or World War II.
The first civil war between Marius and Sulla left major scars on Rome. Many of Rome’s elite were killed via Marius’s massacres and Sulla’s proscription lists, which basically made it legal to murder anyone on the list and to take some of their stuff.
The war wrecked the Roman economy and dramatically hampered international trade. As a result, many Romans incurred major debts. This included both the lower-class plebeians and the upper-class optimates.
One of the Romans who had incurred serious debt was one Lucius Sergius Catiline.
Catiline was from an aristocratic family who could trace its origins back to the founding of the republic.
However, no one in his family, the Sergia, had been a consul for 300 years. Having consuls in your family was a really big deal in Rome, and the more consuls your family had, but more prestige and honor your family had.
On paper, Catiline was a decent candidate for consul. He had the right kind of family, he served as a governor in Africa, and he had been elected to the position of praetor.
However, there were rumors that had followed him around. His wife and son died in Africa under mysterious circumstances, and many people believed that he had his family killed so he could marry a wealthy new wife.
Catiline thought that the solution to all his problems would be getting elected consul.
He made an all-out effort to win the election to consul in the year 63 BC. He went even deeper into debt to get votes, and he made promises and alliances with elite Romans.
He basically thought that this was his one and only chance to get elected, and restore some of the honor back to his family….and when he would be appointed proconsul after his term in office, he could make a lot of money off being corrupt, just like everyone else did.
The problem was, he wasn’t elected.
The consuls elected for the year 63 BC were Gaius Antonius Hybrida and Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Gaius Antonius Hybrida’s biggest claim to fame would be being the uncle of Marc Antony, who could come to power years down the road. He was a pretty shady guy himself and had actually been kicked out of the senate previously.
However, the character that is central to this story is the other consul: Cicero.
Cicero was not like Catiline at all. For starters, Cicero managed to become consul “in his year” which was a major accomplishment. At the time, the minimum age for being consul was 42. If you became consul the first year you were eligible, you were considered to have been consul “in your year”.
On top of that, Cicero was what was called a novus homo, or a new man.
A novus homo was someone who was the first person in their family to become consul. Something that happened infrequently. He was born in a small town outside of Rome to a family of the equestrian rank, which was still upper class, but below that of senatorial rank.
Cicero is best known as one of the greatest orators in Roman history, and a full 3/4th of the known Latin texts written from this period, all come from Cicero. His writings have been the basis for students of Latin for almost 2,000 years.
When Catiline lost the election, he got angry. Really angry. Burn everything to the ground angry.
He was upset that he lost, but he was really upset that he lost to an outsider like Cicero.
Having rolled the dice for the consulship and lost, he also lost much of his support amongst the optimates.
Catiline began to assemble a motley crew of senatorial class Romans and plebeians who all had similar problems and grievances. Many of the senators had been discredited in one form or another, usually kicked out of the senate or removed from some other office.
They, like the plebeians he worked with, were pretty much all heavily in debt.
Two of his more noteworthy conspirators were Lucius Cassius Longinus, a former praetor, and Publius Autronius Paetus, a former consul.
The plan was to first assassinate a whole bunch of senior senators, including Cicero. They would start fires around the city, burning down much of it, and in the process destroy all of the debt records of everyone in the city.
Then they would join up with the army of Gaius Manlius whose soldiers served under Sulla, and hadn’t been paid, and then march on Rome, where Catiline and his conspirators would take control of the government.
As plans went, it was rather blunt, but it was a plan which would overthrow, or possibly end the Roman republic.
Word of the conspiracy leaked to Cicero from the mistress of one of the conspirators.
The mistress’s name was Fulvia and the conspirator was Quintus Curius. Fulvia was going to leave Curius because he was broke, but he convinced her that she should stay because his fortunes were about to change for the better. He told her about the entire plan.
Fulvia immediately went to Cicero’s wife, Terentia, who then told Cicero.
The next day, Cicero convened the senate at the Temple of Jupiter Stator, which was a sanctuary, surrounded it with guards, and outlined the plot, with Catiline present in the senate for the whole thing.
Supposedly, as the charges against Catiline were given by Cicero, the senators sitting next to him slowly began to move away.
Catiline defended himself by denying the charges, and by appealing to his family’s history, and that there was no way the word of a new man like Cicero could be believed or someone like him.
Cicero had no evidence, only hearsay, so nothing was done. Cicero did, however, hire bodyguards for himself.
Soon after, however, some senators were sent anonymous letters telling them to leave Rome and outlining the plan. Crassus, one of the most richest and powerful men in Rome was given a letter and went directly to Cicero.
Cicero presented the letters to the senators to whom they were addressed in a season of the senate, and again Catiline denied all the charges. In fact, he offered to put himself under house arrest, even in Cicero’s villa if necessary.
That night, after offering to put himself under house arrest, Catiline fled the city to meet up with a group of soldiers and plebs that were assembling north of Rome.
While Catiline was with the army, the rest of the conspirators worked on the plot in Rome.
It was then that an envoy of Gauls from the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul was in Rome to make an appeal about their governor.
Five of the conspirators wrote letters to the Gallic leaders to get their support. As the letters were sent out of Rome, they were intercepted, which was finally the proof that the Senate needed. This wasn’t hearsay or anonymous letters. This was something they could take action on.
So they did. The Senate issued a Senatus consultum ultimum, known as the final decree of the Senate. This was rarely done and it was the final step before declaring a dictator during an emergency.
It gave the consuls the go-ahead to do anything within their power to solve the problem. The language I used in that last sentence was very specific, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
Cicero then arrested the five conspirators still in Rome that wrote the letters, and sentenced them to death without a trial, with the execution to be carried out immediately.
All five of the conspirators were strangled to death. When Cicero left the prison where the sentences were carried out, he met a cheering crowd and simply said one word: Vixere, which means “they are dead”.
There was an objection to the death sentence given by Julius Caesar. While he wasn’t defending the conspirators, he noted that as Roman citizens they had a right to a trial, and the Senatus consultum ultimum did not give the power to waive the right to a trial.
After an impassioned speech by Cato the Younger, the executions went ahead.
Once the army to the north heard about the conspiracies, the vast majority of the soldiers fled. An estimated force of 10,000 to 20,000 was reduced by 75%.
Roman legions eventually confronted Catiline and his men, and wiped most of them out. Supposedly, knowing there was no escape, Catiline put himself on the front line and committed suicide by centurion.
The conspiracy had been foiled, and the Roman republic was saved.
The senate bestowed upon Cicero the title of pater patriae, which means father of the fatherland.
Five years later, Julius Caesar and his allies in the Senate would use Cicero’s death sentence without a trial against him to have him exiled from Rome.
So much for being the father of the fatherland.
The entire episode of the Catiline conspiracy ended up just becoming another stepping stone towards the end of the Republic. While it was the defining event in the career of Cicero, ultimately it became one of many issues which lead to the next Roman civil war.