Introduction

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.