(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman historian{$I[g]Roman Republic;Sallust} Sallust’s most important accomplishments were influential works of history composed after his retirement from a checkered political career. The tone, style, and subject matter of his writings reflect the perils and disenchantments of his earlier career.

Early Life

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, or Sallust (SAL-uhst), was born in 86 b.c.e. in the town of Amiternum in the Sabine uplands, some fifty-five miles northeast of Rome in the central Italian peninsula. Though likely a member of a locally eminent family, Sallust was in Roman terms nonaristocratic, that is, a plebeian. As a politician, he was thus a nouus homo (new man). Although by the first century b.c.e. plebeians regularly attained political office and senatorial rank, the highest offices—the praetorship and especially the consulship—remained almost exclusively the preserve of a few wealthy, aristocratic families and such men as they chose to support. To fulfill his political ambitions, the new man needed skill, sagacity, tact, perseverance, luck, and, most particularly, powerful friends. This helps to explain both Sallust’s general dislike of the entrenched conservative aristocracy and his affiliation with Julius Caesar.

Sallust was elected quaestor (a junior official with financial responsibilities) around 55 and tribune of the people in 52. In the latter position, he was involved on the side of the prosecution in the murder trial of a notorious right-wing politician (defended by Cicero) who habitually used intimidation and mob violence. This involvement, along with various other anticonservative actions, gained for Sallust numerous political enemies, who retaliated by having him expelled from the senate in 50 on apparently trumped-up charges of sexual immorality.

Hoping for a restoration of status, Sallust sided with Julius Caesar against Pompey the Great in the civil war that broke out in the year 49. He was rewarded with a second quaestorship (c. 49), a praetorship (47), and various military commands. His service in these posts was undistinguished and occasionally incompetent. He failed to quell a troop mutiny, for example, and was not entrusted with a battle command during Caesar’s African campaign. Caesar did, however, see fit to appoint Sallust as the first governor of the province of Africa Nova in 46, a fact that implies at least minimal faith in his administrative abilities. After his governorship, Sallust was charged with abuse of power—extortion and embezzlement—but saved himself from conviction by sharing his spoils with Caesar, who was by then dictator. Still, the scandal severely limited Sallust’s political prospects and forced him into an early retirement, from which the assassination of Caesar in 44 made it impossible to return.

Life’s Work

Sallust’s inglorious political career was marred by factional strife, sensational scandals, sporadic ineptitude, and outright misconduct. Whatever he may have lost in public esteem, however, Sallust handsomely recouped in property and possessions. The wealth he amassed in office ensured an opulent style of retirement. Sallust purchased a palatial villa at Tivoli, said to have been owned at one time by Caesar himself. At Rome, he began construction of the famed Horti Sallustiani (gardens of Sallust), in which an elegantly landscaped complex of parklands surrounded a fine mansion. The loveliness of this estate in the capital city later attracted the attention of Roman emperors, whose property it eventually became.

Sallust did not, however, simply settle into a genteel life of disillusioned and indolent leisure. He used his knowledge of the dynamics of Roman government as a lens through which to examine the gradual disintegration of the political system in the late republican period.

The personalities and events in Sallust’s historical works are typical of a period of decline and fall. His first work, the Bellum Catilinae (c. 42 b.c.e.; The Conspiracy of Catiline, 1608), is a historical monograph devoted to the failed conspiracy of Catiline, a disgruntled, impoverished aristocrat who intended to make good his electoral and financial losses by resorting to armed insurrection. The planned coup d’état was quashed by the actions of Cicero during his consulship in 63. The story of the exposure of the plot and of the measures taken by consul and senate to eliminate the threat—ultimately in battle—is familiar from Cicero’s four Catilinarian orations.


(The entire section is 1890 words.)