Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your imagination. You are a Senator in ancient Rome, sitting on the back bench as the Senate convenes on November 8, 63 BC. The great orator, the Consul Cicero, a self made man, has just noticed that his mortal enemy, the Senator Catilina (Catiline or Cataline in English), has entered the chamber and has sat down among his supporters. Catiline is from one of the oldest noble families in Rome, now fallen on hard times. Only yesterday Catiline’s henchmen had failed to assassinate Cicero in an attempt to unleash chaos and bring down the Roman republic.
As Cicero begins to address Catiline the other Senators around Catiline flee as if being near him would contaminate them with his deeds. At this point no Senator, including an ambivalent supporter named Julius Caesar, dares associate with him. Cicero begins one of history’s greatest speeches, a denunciation of Catiline and all for which he stands.
“O Catiline, how long must you abuse our patience!” Cicero thunders. This scene, a real incident, is one of the most dramatic and theatrical moments of history, replayed again and again in literature and the arts.
The story was so involving that it has become the focus of many works of fiction, including the new book Conspirata by Robert Harris, of Fatherland and Enigma fame. Other notable works include Steven Saylor’s Catilina’s Riddle in the great Roma sub Rosa series, SPQR II: The Catiline Conspiracy by John Maddox Roberts, as seen through the eyes of another senator, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. Readers may even reach back as far as 1611 for Catiline His Conspiracy by Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare.
What drives this drama? In terms of setting there is Rome, immensely interesting on its own merit and reflective of our society. In plot, there is a secret revolution brewing. Will it be thwarted and at what cost? In personalities, we have Cicero trying to preserve the Republic by rule of law, and yet in the course of this action he executes five men without a trial. Is he a hypocrite or a hero? Historical giants like Julius Caesar, Cato, Pompey the Great, the fabulously wealthy Crassus, and the beautiful but deadly duo of Clodia and Clodius all pass through the story.
We know what was said that day and many other days when Cicero spoke because of his famous slave, Tiro, who is traditionally credited with inventing shorthand to preserve the exact words of the great orator. Incidentally, the ampersands (&) in the title above are appropriate, since the symbol is believed to have been created by Tiro for his shorthand system. Tiro, a character in many of the fictional accounts of the action, outlived Cicero. He became a freedman and lived to a rumored age of 99, specializing in Ciceronian biography.
The superbly evocative painting is by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919), and is called Cicero Denounces Catiline. It looks down on the walls of a chamber of the current Roman Senate, which is the city council of today’s Rome, as a reminder of glories past.