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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1944

Article abstract: Roman statesman{$I[g]Roman Republic;Catiline} In an attempt to overthrow the Roman government in 63 b.c.e., Catiline led an unsuccessful conspiracy.

Early Life

Modern understanding of the life and career of Lucius Sergius Catilina, or Catiline (CA-tuh-lin), is hampered by a lack of reliable historical sources. Two prominent Roman authors...

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Article abstract: Roman statesman{$I[g]Roman Republic;Catiline} In an attempt to overthrow the Roman government in 63 b.c.e., Catiline led an unsuccessful conspiracy.

Early Life

Modern understanding of the life and career of Lucius Sergius Catilina, or Catiline (CA-tuh-lin), is hampered by a lack of reliable historical sources. Two prominent Roman authors recount many details of his life, yet the integrity of their comments is suspect. The Roman politician Cicero wrote of Catiline in several speeches, vilifying his political rival. The historian Sallust provides important information about Catiline, but his account is hostile. For Sallust, Catiline was the embodiment of Rome’s moral decay. Despite these problems, however, modern scholarship has pieced together the main details of Catiline’s career.

Catiline was born to an aristocratic family in approximately the year 108 b.c.e. Although his ancestors included prominent politicians and distinguished military leaders, in recent years his family had fallen into obscurity. Little is know of his parents or his childhood, other than a suggestion that his father had to face financial difficulties.

The first public mention of Catiline occurs in 89 b.c.e. when he served in the army of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo. Like many other young Roman aristocrats, Catiline served as a junior officer in order to receive military experience, normally a prerequisite for a successful political career. Among his fellow officers were Strabo’s son, Pompey, who would go on to become one of the preeminent generals in Roman history, and Cicero, who would later contend with Catiline for political office. As one of the two Roman consuls for the year 89 b.c.e., Strabo led a successful campaign on Italian cities rebelling against the domination of Rome.

Catiline’s activities for the next several years are uncertain, but he reappears in 83 b.c.e., when he supported Sulla in his confrontation with the senate. As a lieutenant in Sulla’s army, Catiline apparently shared the general’s propensity toward violence, participating in the systematic assassinations of Sulla’s opponents. Various authors provide details about Catiline’s activities, but their comments cannot always be accepted as credible. One commonly accepted story indicates that he murdered several individuals, most notably Marcus Marius Gratidianus, a relative of Cicero and perhaps his own brother-in-law. Catiline is also said to have decapitated Gratidianus and carried his head throughout the city before delivering it to Sulla at the temple of Apollo. Other authors claimed that Catiline murdered his own brother.

In addition to persistent tales of the youthful Catiline’s eagerness for violence, sources provide several stories about his sexual indiscretions. He was accused of violating the chastity of the Vestal Virgin Fabia, the half sister of Cicero’s wife (Fabia was brought to trial in 73 b.c.e. and acquitted of the charge; it is unknown whether Catiline was also brought to trial). Catiline was also accused of marrying his own daughter, the product of an adulterous affair. This young woman was probably Aurelia Orestilla, around whom a second story was told. Orestilla refused to marry Catiline because she did not want to live with a grownup stepson (the product of Catiline’s previous marriage). Consequently, Catiline is said to have murdered his son to win her hand.

Life’s Work

Despite the scandalous stories that surrounded him, Catiline pursued an active political career in his adulthood. Along with other ambitious Roman senators, he aspired to a series of political offices that would culminate in his being chosen as one of the year’s two consuls. This goal became a directing force in his life. After serving abroad in the early 70’s, in 69 b.c.e. he was elected praetor, one of the eight officials who oversaw the law courts in Rome. After he completed his one-year term, he followed tradition by leaving the city to rule as governor in one of the provinces conquered by Rome. For the following two years he remained in northern Africa, ensuring Roman interests in the region and preparing to stand for the consulship in 66 b.c.e.

Even while he was serving as governor in Africa, delegates from his province traveled to Rome and accused Catiline of extortion. When he returned to declare his candidacy, charges were brought against him for his behavior, and election officials barred him from standing as consul. He stood trial and was eventually acquitted, having received the support of several eminent politicians who spoke on his behalf. However, his acquittal came too late for him to stand as consul in the following year, so he set his sights on the election in 64 b.c.e. Some ancient sources suggest that Catiline was a member of a conspiracy in 66 and 65 b.c.e. that planned to murder the consuls, but this charge is uncertain and probably the result of his rivals spreading stories about his behavior.

As Catiline planned his campaign for the consulship, he surrounded himself with a retinue of supporters and bodyguards. According to Sallust and Cicero, many of these were young men easily seduced by the attention and gifts that Catiline showered on them. It is also likely at this time that Catiline received the covert support of two influential politicians. Marcus Crassus, a former consul, used his exceptional wealth to fund Catiline’s campaign; Julius Caesar used his growing reputation among the senators and the people to support his candidacy. The two men undoubtedly expected that Catiline, if he were elected consul, would support legislation benefiting their interests. The election proved to be extremely close, with Cicero being elected the senior consul and an aristocrat named Gaius Antonius narrowly defeating Catiline for the second position.

As Catiline prepared to campaign for the consulship in the following year, he was charged with murder stemming from his actions while supporting Sulla twenty years earlier. He was acquitted in time to stand for the consulship in 63 b.c.e., but by then he had lost the patronage of Crassus and Caesar. Nevertheless, he was confident of his chances. He spent lavishly on bribes and anticipated support among the lower classes because of his calls for agrarian reform and debt relief. However, his arrogant behavior alienated the senate and greatly frightened the consul Cicero. After Cicero spoke out against him, the senate postponed the normal July elections until August or September in order to take additional precautions against any actions that Catiline might take. Once the election day arrived, Catiline was convincingly defeated. Now believing that he had failed in his last opportunity to achieve the consulship, and suffering from a great amount of debt, Catiline resolved to overthrow the government through violent measures.

He courted the support of dissatisfied fellow senators and wealthy businessmen who were eager for political change. He proposed to instigate a widespread insurrection in Rome and Italy by taking advantage of dissatisfaction among the masses, many of whom were overwhelmed by debt and demanded relief. Catiline planned to raise an army among the impoverished veterans of Sulla in the countryside and to march on Rome as conspirators in the city revolted. Few details are known of what he intended to accomplish after he came to power, other than his intention to cancel debts, proscribe his enemies, and seize their property. Unfortunately, even the ultimate political objectives of Catiline are uncertain: Many modern scholars feel that he merely wanted to seize power for himself, while others claim that he was a true populist bent on providing relief for citizens overwhelmed by debt.

Through September and October the conspiracy proceeded as Catiline dispatched men into surrounding villages in order to recruit an army; he and others focused on gaining support in Rome itself. Rumors about the conspiracy soon began to circulate throughout the city and by the middle of October news reached Rome that an army was being raised in the region of Etruria. On October 21 the senate, fearing Cicero’s dire predictions about Catiline’s intentions, passed emergency measures that granted the consul special powers to protect the state. Catiline was formally charged under a law dealing with violence, but no solid evidence could be brought forth, and so he was able to continue his preparations. Cicero, however, remained vigilant and tried to gather more information on the conspiracy.

Early in the morning of November 7, a pair of conspirators unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Cicero at his home. The next day the consul delivered a dramatic speech in the senate, publicly accusing Catiline of treason. That evening Catiline fled Rome, joining the rebel army that had been raised in Etruria, and began making his final preparations for an open rebellion. However, events began overtaking his plan, and the conspiracy quickly unraveled. In the middle of November he was declared a public enemy, and Cicero prepared defenses throughout Rome. On December 3 the consul arrested several conspirators who confessed and provided evidence about Catline’s activities; documents seized on the arrested men confirmed their story. After a short debate over punishment, the conspirators were executed on December 5.

Throughout December Catiline prepared his forces outside Rome. When news reached him that the conspiracy had been unmasked and that Cicero had firm control of Rome, he decided to withdraw his army to Gaul (modern-day France). However, loyal forces soon boxed him in at the foot of the Apennines, and, though greatly outnumbered, he was forced into battle. In early January, near the city of Pistoria (modern Pistoia, Italy), his army was defeated, and he was killed. According to the historian Sallust, at the end of the battle the dying Catiline was discovered far in advance of his own troops, surrounded by the bodies of those he had slain, defiant to his last breath.


Although Catiline’s quest to become consul failed, his career and bold attempt to overthrow the government have remained matters of great interest among historians and classicists. According to Cicero and Sallust, Catiline was a paradox. Both men acknowledged that he possessed remarkable talents, yet his actions were often monstrous. For Sallust, Catiline’s career could be explained by the collapse of traditional moral standards that had begun in the previous century once Rome had vanquished its Carthaginian rivals. According to Sallust, Catiline represented a breed of man corrupted by the prosperity engendered by security and wealth. Among modern scholars, he is closely identified with the political competition and violence that ultimately undermined Rome’s republican government.

Further Reading:

Everitt, Anthony. Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. New York: Random House, 2001. Everitt recounts Catiline’s life primarily as it pertained to the consulship of Cicero and the conspiracy.

Gruen, Erich. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Gruen’s account of the last years of the Roman Republic provides a context for understanding the career and motivations of Catiline. Although Catiline is often not the exclusive focus of Gruen’s comments, this book successfully presents the turbulent political world in which Catiline was active.

Hutchinson, Lester. The Conspiracy of Catiline. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967. Hutchinson develops a picture of Catiline’s activities, starting with his relationship with Sulla. Unlike most modern scholars, he accepts Sallust’s claim that Catiline began planning his conspiracy in 64 b.c.e.

Marshal, B. A. A Historical Commentary on Asconius. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Marshall provides many details of Catiline’s career. Extensive references are given to all the ancient authors who mentioned Catiline.

Syme, Ronald. Sallust. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. This book offers one of the best summaries of Catiline’s entire career, including his poorly documented early life. Syme excels in distinguishing between rumor and actual events.

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