The class struggle in the Roman Republic

In the epoch of the decline of the republic and the rise of powerful generals appeared the figure of Julius Caesar, who was destined to play a key role. Initially he had many enemies and had to manoeuvre in order not to be destroyed himself. The Catiline conspiracy was one such critical moment.

Julius Caesar (102-44 BC) was a member of the great Julian family – one of the old Patrician gentes of Rome, which traced its ancestry back to Iulius, son of Aeneas. His name was taken over after his death by the first Roman emperor, Augustus (Octavian), and later used by the emperors as a title, from Hadrian onwards. It is the origin of Kaisar in Germany and Tsar in Russia. That is to say, it is synonymous with absolute power.

Despite his impeccable patrician origins, Caesar’s start was inauspicious. His father had died when he was 15 years old and he became head of the family. His family was noble, but short of cash. And to make a political career in Rome, one needed a lot of cash. From the start he was an adventurer. This ambitious young man was preparing for better things. He is reported to have said: “I would rather be the first man in a barbarian village than the second man in Rome.”

He was prematurely balding and seems to have suffered from epileptic attacks, but his ambition was accompanied with great colossal vanity. We are told he was inordinately preoccupied with his appearance. According to Suetonius he removed body hair with a tweezers. Some cast doubt on his sexuality. The story was circulated that he was “every wife’s husband and every husband’s wife.” But this was probably propaganda inspired by his enemies to discredit him. He went to Rhodes to study oratory with the best Greek teachers. But despite his smooth skin, impeccable appearance and his acquaintance with rhetoric and Greek literature, Caesar was an utterly ruthless man.

The historian Plutarch informs us that on the way to Rhodes he was captured by pirates who demanded a ransom of 20 talents. The smallness of the sum struck Caesar as amusing. He actually got on very well with these ruffians – probably they reminded him of himself. When he had handed over the money, he promised them he would have them crucified. They may have thought it a joke, but he hunted them down remorselessly, and he kept his word. However, he showed his appreciation of his “friends”: in a gesture of magnanimity, he had their throats cut first.

He married into money – his first smart career move. His choice of partner was not accidental. He married Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, who had taken over the leadership of the Popular Party after the death of Marius, to whom Caesar was also related. His aunt Julia was Marius’ wife. He therefore had close links with the populares, which he no doubt hoped would help his advance. Then (as we have outlined in an earlier part) came the Civil War between the populares led by Marius and Cinna and the optimes led by Sulla. Caesar, however, was on the wrong side. Sulla defeated the populares and proclaimed himself dictator, not for the traditional six months but for life.

The reign of terror that followed Sulla’s victory was more terrible than anything that had gone before. The first list of victims included forty senators and 1,600 Equites. The total number ran into thousands. Caesar escaped with his life, but along with many others, had all his wealth confiscated. His first political gamble thus proved to be a failure. But when a gambler loses, he just shrugs his shoulders and gives the dice another throw.

Sulla offered to further his career, but on condition he divorced his wife. This he refused to do, either because he was really in love, or, more likely, because he was already looking beyond Sulla. To cross the man who had murdered thousands was a risky thing to do. His family decided it would be best to get him out of Rome and send him as far away from Sulla as possible. He took up a post in the army and was sent to Asia Minor, where he served with distinction. It was there that he learned of the death of Sulla, and he immediately went back to Rome.

The senate proved to be too weak to use the power that Sulla had placed in their hands. The Popular Party was reviving. It was at this time that Italy was convulsed by the great uprising of the slaves led by Spartacus, [see Spartacus - a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times], which failed because it was not supported by the urban masses. In the end Crassus crushed the slaves with ruthless efficiency. The defeat of the slaves condemned the movement of the masses in the cities to impotence. It led to a kind of stalemate between the classes, in which neither side could inflict a decisive defeat on the other.

As we have seen, this explains the rise of ambitious generals like Pompey, who rose to prominence at this time. The rapid rise of Pompey was both unprecedented and highly irregular. During the Civil War, when he was only 23 years of age, he had raised three legions to fight for Sulla. He defeated the Marians in Sicily and Africa, for which he was awarded a triumph. Later he fought against Sertorius in Spain for four years, and was awarded another triumph.

The politics of the slums

There was plenty of combustible material in Rome to take advantage of. The lower classes were filled with seething resentment after the bloody proscriptions, murders and confiscations by which Sulla had destroyed the Popular Party. Caesar saw his chance. His first wife had died, and his second wife, like the first one, was rich (he was always after money). But money alone was insufficient to obtain an admission ticket to the world of Roman high society. Rome’s wealthy aristocratic elite regarded him as an upstart. Rejected by the Establishment, he looked for a base among the poor of the slum districts.

The Roman historians report that when the Emperor Vespasian's son, Titus, complained to him about the disgusting nature of the tax on public toilets, his father held up a gold coin and told him, “Non olet!” ("This doesn't stink!"). This celebrated phrase could well serve as an epitaph to the political career of Julius Caesar. He was quite prepared to wade up to his knees in blood and excrement in order to secure his aims.

The slum districts where Caesar looked for a political base were appalling places where people threw shit from the windows of multi-story tenements that were always falling down. But the declassed lumpenproletarians who inhabited these dangerous and unsanitary districts had the vote, and, while Caesar doubtless held his nose while canvassing their support, he needed them as a battering ram to shatter the political power of his enemies.

When his aunt Julia died, he took a bold initiative. Her husband, Marius, had been the darling of the populares in his lifetime. But ever since Sulla came to power, his name was utterly prohibited. At Julia’s funeral, Julius Caesar not only delivered her obituary speech, in which he praised her and her husband, but had portraits and statues of Marius paraded through the streets. Shortly after, his own wife Cornelia died, and he did exactly the same, publicly praising her late father, the revolutionary Cinna. By these means he attached himself firmly to the Popular Party.

In order to obtain this support, he did not mind currying favour with the urban poor and flattering them, as Dio Cassius informs us. In order to get support, he financed big games for the enjoyment of the populace. He brought in vast numbers of wild beasts and 320 pairs of gladiators who fought to the death, dressed in silver, for the crowd’s amusement. He even had the arena flooded to create a mock naval battle. “He was lavish in spending”, says Plutarch. In other words, he bought votes. However, his extravagance got him into trouble. He was soon in debt again and was forced to go into exile or face death. But then he had a brilliant idea.

At 37 years of age this man, who is not known for his piety, suddenly developed an urgent interest in religion. He stood for the post of Pontifex Maximus – the Supreme Priest of Rome. This post would give him not only prestige but a huge patronage and therefore lots of money. In order to secure his election, he probably prayed to the Gods. More importantly, he borrowed huge sums of money to bribe his electors. If he won he could repay all his creditors with interest. If he failed, he would be in deep trouble. In the event, he won.

The Catiline conspiracy

Events now took a dramatic and unexpected turn. It seems that about this time a plot was hatched by desperate men from many different classes: bankrupt aristocrats, poor unemployed, capitalists in search of extra profits and political adventurers of all kinds. At the centre of the conspiracy was Lucius Sergius Catilina (108 BC–62 BC), better known as Catiline. He was a man similar to Caesar in many ways. He was yet another of that breed of impoverished upper class adventurers that were common at that time. He is one of the most enigmatic figures of Roman history.

His memory has been obscured by the insults of Roman historians, particularly his arch-enemy, Cicero. It is practically impossible to disentangle the truth from the calumnies. What we do know is that, like Caesar, he came from an aristocratic but impoverished family and had a distinguished military career, serving in the Social Wars under Pompey. We know that he was hated and feared by the Roman aristocracy, and we also know why they feared and hated him. Like the Gracchi, he supported the rights of the urban poor, along other things, advocating the universal cancellation of debts. Whatever else he was, he was certainly not a coward, as he proved in the end.

He was put on trial several times, but was acquitted repeatedly, some said through the influence of Caesar, who was suspected of having connections with him. This is quite possible, since Caesar was always prepared to fish in troubled waters, to see what he could catch. Catiline stood as a candidate in the consular election in 64 BC, when he seems to have had the backing of Crassus. He must therefore have had a lot of money for his campaign, but was not elected. One of the successful candidates was Cicero, a “new man”.

He stood again the following year, but by this time he had probably lost the backing of Crassus, as he was already making vague threats against the Establishment and he had announced a policy of the general cancellation of debts. This would have been popular with Sulla’s veterans, but it provoked the hostility of the rich. Predictably, he was defeated once more. Seeing that the road to power by legitimate means was blocked, he decided to adopt other methods.

The ranks of the conspirators included a variety of other patricians and plebeians whose advance had been blocked for different reasons. They were all desperate and displaced people, individuals who had a grudge against the Establishment. But Catiline’s main base of support was among the poor, who flocked to his banner as a result of his policy of debt relief. The problem of debt had existed from early times, but had never been greater than in 63 BC.

Decades of war had led to a severe economic depression in the Italian countryside. As we have seen, many poor farmers had lost their farms and were forced to move to the city, where they swelled the numbers of the lumpenproletariat. Prominent among Catiline’s supporters were a large number of veterans from Sulla’s armies, hungry for land. They were prepared to march to war under the banner of the "new Sulla”. One of these, Gaius Manlius, a centurion from Sulla’s army, was sent to Etruria where he assembled an army ready for revolt, as Sallust reports

“Meanwhile, in Etruria, Manlius was agitating among a populace whose poverty, added to the resentment which they felt at their wrongs, made them eager for revolution; for during Sulla’s tyranny, they had lost their lands and all the rest of their possessions. He also approached some of the many types of brigands who infested that part of the country, as well as some veteran soldiers from Sulla's colonies, whose lavish indulgence of their appetites had exhausted the enormous booty they had brought home.” (Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, Penguin edition, p.196)

Other men were sent to different locations throughout Italy. The mood of society was explosive. There was even a small slave revolt in Capua, the same place where Spartacus had begun his uprising. Manilus made an appeal that begins with the words:

"We call gods and men to witness, sir, that our object in taking up arms was not to attack our country, or to endanger others, but to protect ourselves from wrong. We are poor needy wretches; the cruel harshness of moneylenders has robbed most of us of our homes, and all of us have lost reputation and fortune. Not one was allowed the benefit of the law, established by our ancestors, which should have enabled us, by sacrificing our possessions, to save our persons from bondage. Such was the inhumanity of the moneylenders and the praetor.” (Sallust, The Catiline Conspiracy, p. 200)

While civil unrest spread throughout the countryside, Catiline was making the preparations for the conspiracy in Rome, where, as Sallust confirms, he enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the poor:

“Yet there were Roman citizens obstinately determined to destroy both themselves and their country. In spite of two senatorial decrees, not one among the conspirators was induced by the offer of reward to betray their plans, and no-one deserted from Catiline’s camp. A deadly moral contagion had infected all their minds. And this madness was not confined to those actually implicated in the plot. The whole of the lower orders, impatient for a new regime, looked with favour on Catiline’s enterprise. In this way they did what was expected of them. In every country paupers envy respectable citizens and make heroes of unprincipled characters, hating the established order of things and hankering after innovation; discontented with their own lot, they are bent on general upheaval. Turmoil and rebellion bring them carefree profit, since poverty has nothing to lose.

“The city populace were especially eager to fling themselves into a revolutionary adventure.” (op cit., p. 203)

Here is the authentic voice of the frightened ruling class, faced with the rebellion of the masses in all historical periods. The signal for the commencement would be the assassination of Cicero. It seems his plans included arson and the murder of a large number of senators. They would then link up with Manlius’ army in Etruria, and return to Rome and take control of the government. But the conspirators were betrayed when Quintus Curius, a senator they had approached, turned informant, warning Cicero of the plot. Cicero escaped death that morning by placing guards at the entrance of his house.

The next day, Cicero convened the senate and surrounded it with armed guards. To his astonishment, Catiline was present, which shows remarkable coolness of mind. Cicero denounced him before the senate in his celebrated Catiline Orations. But Catiline did not retreat. He took the floor, recalling to the senate the history of his family, reminding it how it had served the Republic, advised them not to believe false rumours and to trust the name of his family. Finally, he played his ace card, rebuking them for taking the word of a “new man” (homo novus), Cicero, in preference to a "nobilis" like himself. This might have had some effect, but then he began to threaten the senators, saying that he would “put out his own fire with the general destruction of all”.

Before they could react, he dashed out of the senate, and left Rome under the pretext that he was going into voluntary exile. Instead, however, he joined Manlius’ camp in Etruria to continue the fight. But meanwhile, events at Rome took a fatal turn. The conspirators discovered that a delegation from the Allobroges, a Gaulish tribe, were in Rome to complain about debt and the oppressive conduct of their governor. The conspirators established contact with them and to meet them and told them of their plans. It seems that the Allobroges wanted nothing to do with them and informed Cicero.

This was the kiss of death to the conspiracy. The Romans could not bear the thought of foreigners interfering in their political life, and least of all their traditional enemies, the Gauls. Cicero got hold of incriminating letters, which he read before the Senate the following day, and the death sentence was demanded for those implicated. Caesar made an eloquent protest against such a step, which initially got an echo. But a savage speech by Cato, the thirty-two year old great grandson of Cato the Elder cut across this. He was an implacable defender of the aristocratic caste. He hated Caesar and Caesar hated him. The fate of the five named conspirators was sealed. They were condemned to death without even the pretence of a trial and Cicero had them strangled immediately. He even personally escorted some of the condemned men to their execution. Afterwards, he announced to a crowd gathering in the Forum what had occurred. The conspiracy in Rome had collapsed.

When the news reached the rebels in Etruria, many men deserted, reducing the size of the rebel force from about 10,000 to a mere 3,000. In the end, Catiline was forced to fight the legions of Antonius Hybrida’s army near Pistoria (Pistoia). Despite overwhelming odds, Catiline fought bravely in the front line of battle. Seeing that there was no hope of victory, he threw himself into the thick of the battle. When it was all over, the victors found that all Catiline’s soldiers had frontal wounds, and the lifeless corpse of their leader was found far in front of his own lines.