Sallust 86 b.c.-34 b.c.

(Full name Caius Sallustius Crispus) Roman historian.

Sallust was a Roman politician and friend of Julius Caesar who after retiring from statesmanship wrote literary-historical works that describe some of the great personages and events of his age. His two major works are the Bellum Catilinae (c. 42 b.c.), on the Catiline conspiracy, and Bellum Jugurthinum (c. 40 b.c.), an account of the Jugurthine War. Fragments of his Historiae (c. 36 b.c.; Histories), which chronicle the events of 78 to 67 b.c., also remain. Sallust's historical writings are distinguished by a terse style and use of archaic language. The historian often uses a moralizing and philosophizing tone, as he does not merely describe events but tries to explain them. Sallust's works are most often praised for their vivid descriptions of historical figures. Character is frequently revealed through speeches that are attributed to people, which allows the historian to show the reader their thoughts—at least as he has chosen to depict them. Sallust was an important public figure in his day and after the second century a.d. was regarded as a historian of significance. Contemporary scholars view him as particularly important because he was the first historian to write detailed works about defined periods and events and because he attempted to be scholarly, rather than merely anecdotal, in his discussion of the process of history.

Biographical Information

Sallust was born in 86 b.c. in Amiternum, a town some fifty miles north of Rome, in what is now the Abruzzo region of Italy. His parents were commoners, but they were well connected and Sallust was sent to Rome at an early age to be educated under Atteius Prætextatus, a celebrated grammarian of the age. He distinguished himself as a student, particularly of history, but also earned a reputation for debauchery and extravagance. After his studies, he rose swiftly to positions of importance in Rome. At the time Rome was internally divided by the struggle of the opposing factions of the optimates, or the aristocracy, and the populares, or the democratic party. The aristocracy supported the power of the Senate and the nobility who controlled it, while the populares attempted to bring all public questions of importance before the popular assembly for decision, resisting the influence of illustrious and powerful families. Sallust belonged to the latter of these parties and aligned himself in particular with Caesar. He became quaestor in 59 b.c. and tribune of the people in 52 b.c. In 50 b.c., Sallust was accused of immorality and adultery and expelled from the Senate by the censor Appius Claudius Pulcher; the real reason for his expulsion, however, was probably his friendship with Caesar. The following year, almost certainly through Caesar's influence, he was reinstated and appointed quaestor and then governor of Numidia. He was later accused of misusing his governorship to acquire a great personal fortune. After Caesar's assassination, Sallust retired to his villa to write historical literature. He died in 34 b.c.

Major Works

Sallust's principal works are two historical monographs: Bellum Catilinae, on the Catilinarian conspiracy, and an account of the Jugurthine War, Bellum Jugurthinum. Sallust's Historiae is extant only in fragments. The historian is also thought by some scholars to be the author of two letters to Caesar, Epistulae ad Caesarem senem, but this claim has been disputed. The essay Invectiva in Ceneronem, an attack upon Cicero, has sometimes also been attributed to Sallust, but authorship has been denied by most contemporary scholars of Roman history.

The Bellum Catilinae presents Sallust's account of events in the year 63 b.c. and the conspiracy of L. Sergius Catilina, or Catiline, and his followers, which seriously threatened the Roman state. In his preface to the work, Sallust explains that he has turned from public life to writing history in order to do something useful. He describes Catiline as the deliberate enemy of law, order, and morality, but does not really attempt to provide any explanation of his views and intentions. Although Sallust denounces the conspirators, the Bellum Catilinae is more concerned with defending Caesar. His view of the aristocracy is critical, and he laments the loss of the traditional Roman ideals of dignity and integrity. The Bellum Jugurthinum deals with events of the late second century b.c., when Rome defeated Jugurtha, the king of Numidia. Sallust explains how Jugurtha, together with his cousins, Adherbal and Hiempsal, governed Numidia. After crushing his cousins by fraud and violence, Jugurtha maintained himself in his usurped kingdom for several years against Rome. After several defeats at the hands of the Roman consuls Metullus and Marius, Jugurtha was betrayed by an ally and put into the hands of the Roman quaestor Sulla. The introduction to the Bellum Jugurthinum is a lament on the moral decay and discord of the present age and a longing for the forgotten ideals of Rome. As in his earlier monograph, Sallust describes the degeneracy and decadence of the Roman aristocracy. Sallust's Historiae was probably intended as a continuation of L. Cornelius Sisenna's work. It covers the period of Roman history from the death of Sulla in 78 b.c. to the appointment of Pompey as the supreme commander in the war against Mithridates in 67 b. c. Of the original work, only four speeches and two political letters remain, including the often discussed “Letter of Mithridates” and speech by Lepidus. Sallust's Historiae is of particular interest to scholars because it is the best-preserved of all the pre-Livian fragmentary annalistic histories.

Critical Reception

Sallust's merit as a historian and stylist has been the subject of contradictory opinions even among his contemporaries. Some complained that his introductions had nothing to do with the works themselves, found fault with minute details of the speeches introduced in the narrative, and viewed him as a mere imitator of earlier Roman historians. Others praised him for his vivid characterization, his vigorous prose, and the dignified tone of his writing. He has also been criticized for his moralizing tone, notwithstanding his own reputation for philandering and dishonesty. Nevertheless, his overall reputation, even in his own era, was as a historian of significance. Contemporary historians view him as important because he was one of the first to write historical monographs dealing with sharply delimited events and periods. He was also probably the first “scientific” Roman historian—one who attempted to be factual and scholarly. His deliberately archaic style conveys a sense of distinction to his reports. Many critics have focused on his commentary on the decay of Roman values and his longing for social harmony in his troubled times. He is also well regarded for providing important insights into the events of his day, despite his political partisanship, and for offering vivid portraits of public figures and descriptions of foreign lands and people. The speeches he attributes to important people may well have been written by him, but they are nonetheless colorful and interesting and have provided a rich area for discussion about the presence of the historian even as he purports to be merely a chronicler of events. Sallust's role model was the Greek historian Thucydides, and critics have noted his indebtedness to him and other writers, including Cato, whose fondness for old words and phrases he seems to have shared. Sallust's dignified style and philosophizing reflections made him a popular author after the second century, and although today he is not counted among the greatest of Roman historians, his monographs are considered invaluable for the insights they provide into the characters of the great men of the age. He is also remembered for his contributions to historiography, as he was one of the first literary historians who went beyond mere reportage and endeavored to explain the meaning of the events he described.

Principal Works

Bellum Catilinae (history) c. 42 b.c.

Bellum Jugurthinum (history) c. 40 b.c.

Historiae [Histories] (history) c. 36 b.c.

Gaii Sallusti Crispi Catilina (translated by C. Merivale) 1882

C. Sallustus Crispi Bellum Catilinae (translated by A. M. Cook) 1884

Sallust (translated by J. C. Rolfe) 1921

Sallusti Crispi Catilina, Iugurtha, Fragmenta Ampliora (translated by A. Kurfess) 1957

Sallustius Crispus, Bellum Catilinae (translated by P. McGushin) 1957

The Jugurthine War & The Conspiracy of Catiline (translated by S. A. Hanford) 1963

Sallust's Bellum Catalinae (translated by J. T. Ramsey) 1984

The Histories (translated by P. McGushin) 1992-94


Walter Allen, Jr. (essay date January 1954)

SOURCE: Allen, Walter, Jr. “Sallust's Political Career.” Studies in Philology 51, no. 1 (January 1954): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Allen discusses Sallust's remarks (in the prologues to his historical monographs) concerning his lack of political ambition after retirement from public life.]

Although some reaction has justifiably been voiced against the notion, principally German, of perceiving in Sallust a profound philosophical historian,1 our limited knowledge of his political career, in addition to the unfavorable reports of his private life, renders difficult the usual biographical method of studying an author's attitude and possible bias. The...

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Lidia Storoni Mazzolani (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Mazzolani, Lidia Storoni. “Sallust—On Harmony.” In Empire without End, translated by Joan McConnell and Mario Pei, pp. 39-83. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Mazzolani surveys Sallust's political history and his views on government and human nature, noting the author's concern with Rome's moral and social decline and his longing for social harmony in the midst of discord.]

… other enemies are within her walls, inside the very heart of Rome.

—Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 52. 351

Sallust chose recent events: the war against...

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P. McGushin (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: McGushin, P. Introduction to C. Sallustius Crispus, Bellum Catilinae: A Commentary, pp. 1-24. Leiden, Amsterdam: E. J. Brill, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, McGushin offers an overview of Sallust's life and writings before commenting on the source, form, structure, and style of the Bellum Catilinae and analyzing the author's reputation based on his performance as a writer and a public figure.]


In spite of the fact that Sallust's life and writings aroused a wide variety of comment in the ancient world, surprisingly little reliable information exists for much of his career. It is now generally accepted that C....

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Duane F. Conley (essay date April 1981)

SOURCE: Conley, Duane F. “The Interpretation of Sallust's Catiline 10.1-11.3.” Classical Philology 76, no. 2 (April 1981): 121-25.

[In the following essay, Conley explores Sallust's account of ambitio and avarita to show that the author does not contradict himself in Bellum Catilinae 10-11, as some scholars have claimed.]

It has long been noticed that in chapters 10-11 of the Bellum Catilinae Sallust appears to contradict himself. Chapter 10. 3 states that “primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit,” and from the next two sentences, which develop these two concepts respectively, it is clear that Sallust identifies...

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William W. Batstone (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Batstone, William W. “Incerta Pro Certis: An Interpretation of Sallust Bellum Catilinae 48.4-49.4.” Ramus 15, no. 2 (1986): 28-39.

[In the following essay, Batstone offers a literary and rhetorical interpretation of Bellum Catilinae 48-4-49 to show that Sallust was exploring the uncertainties of the events and actors he describes and that his reporting is not merely propaganda.]

Sallust's style is provocative and tendentious, but does his admitted moral tendentiousness carry over into a political or partisan tendentiousness? For centuries we have heard of Sallust the partisan, Sallust the propagandist, Sallustian bias. The history of this...

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Lukas de Blois (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: de Blois, Lukas. “The Perception of Expansion in the Works of Sallust.” Latomus 47, no. 3 (1988): 603-19.

[In the following essay, de Blois examines Sallust's works to see how he perceived the effects of Roman expansion, noting his moralizing approach, his view of social reality, and his ideas about the process of history.]

Res … quae ab exiguis profecta initiis eo creuerit ut iam magnitudine laboret sua …

(Livy I, Praef. 4).

Modern scholars regard Roman expansion in the last two centuries of the republic (c. 220-30 B.C.) as one of the main causes of the civil wars in the first...

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F. Ahleid (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Ahleid, F. “Oratorical Strategy in Sallust's ‘Letter of Mithridates’ Reconsidered.” Mnemosyne 41, no. 1-2 (1988): 67-92.

[In the following essay, Ahleid discusses the “Letter of Mithridates” from the Historiae as a work of deliberative oratory.]

In his recent monograph on Mithridates VI Eupator, McGing describes the propaganda with which the king of Pontus tried to obtain support in his wars against Rome1. Among the texts discussed by McGing, Sallust Hist. [Historiae] 4,69 Maurenbrecher figures as “potentially one of the most important sources for Mithridates' propaganda, as it purports to be a personal letter of...

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D. S. Levene (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Levene, D. S. “Sallusts's Jugurtha: An ‘Historical Fragment.’” Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992): 53-70.

[In the following essay, Levene argues that Sallust deliberately composed his Bellum Jugurthinum as a fragment in order to highlight the moral decline and tragedy of Rome and to show that the history he writes is incomplete.]

The ancient historian is used to dealing with texts that are fragments through the accident of transmission. This paper is concerned with a deliberate fragment: a work that is notionally complete, in that it is written and presented as something finished and whole, but which at the same time draws the reader's...

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Thomas Wiedemann (essay date April 1993)

SOURCE: Wiedemann, Thomas. “Sallust's Jugurtha: Concord, Discord, and the Digressions.” Greece & Rome 40, no. 1 (April 1993): 48-57.

[In the following essay, Wiedemann discusses the three digressions in the Bellum Jugurthinum—about the ethnography of north Africa, civil unrest in Rome, and the legend of the Philaeni—which he argues Sallust used to support his belief in social harmony.]

The current fashion for emphasizing ambiguities and discontinuities in literary texts should have found Sallust's writings congenial. The Catiline explores competing and contradictory claims to virtus, exemplified by Caesar, Cato, and Catiline...

(The entire section is 4334 words.)

C. S. Kraus and A. J. Woodman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Kraus, C. S., and A. J. Woodman. “Sallust.” In Latin Historians, pp. 10-50. Oxford.: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Kraus and Woodman examine Sallust's Historiae, focusing on three elements that stand out: the author's preface regarding his profession, his character studies, and his descriptions of foreign lands and people.]

‘In these diverse ways, the lost masterpiece becomes palpable—content, architecture, and tone.’—‘[I]n my judgement the most learned and acute scholars have often been over-confident in delineating the scope of lost histories and the qualities of their...

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D. S. Levene (essay date January-June 2000)

SOURCE: Levene, D. S. “Sallust's Catiline and Cato the Censor.” Classical Quarterly 50, no. 1 (January-June 2000): 170-91.

[In the following essay, Levene argues that in the Bellum Catilinae Sallust was working in the tradition of Cato the Censor as he calls for moral uprightness and condemns the lack of virtue in contemporary life.]

That Sallust1 owed a considerable debt to the writings of Cato the Censor was observed in antiquity,2 and the observation has often been discussed and expanded on by modern scholars.3 The ancient references to Sallust's employment of Cato are mainly in the context of his adoption of an...

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Further Reading


Batstone, William W. “The Antithesis of Virtue: Sallust's Synkrisis and the Crisis of the Late Republic.” Classical Antiquity 7, no. 1 (1988): 1-29.

Discusses the synkrisis in the Bellum Catilinae from a literary and rhetorical standpoint.

Hock, Rudolph Paul. “Servile Behavior in Sallust's Bellum Catilinae.Classical World 82, no. 1 (1988): 13–24.

Analyzes the various aspects of the motif of liberty and servitude in Bellum Catilinae..

Konrad, C. F. “Marius et Eryx (Sallust, P. Rylands 473.1).” Historia: Zeitschrift fur alte...

(The entire section is 508 words.)