By Barbara Levick
Bloomsbury (2015) p/b 134pp £14.99 (ISBN 9781472534897)
‘Catiline (was victim) of a militaristic slave state which saw its subjects too as slaves.’ This is a key sentence (p.123) in Barbara Levick’s exciting new account of this important episode of the collapsing Roman Republic. It’s a good provocation: try translating it into Latin and then seeing how many of the characters from Rome of the 60’s BC you can get to agree with it. In fact none of them come out well, from Cato to Catiline.
After a short preface (‘[Catiline] is the equivalent of Britain’s Guy Fawkes’), three chapters introduce the reader to the context. The meat of the book lies in the next three chapters: was there a ‘First Conspiracy’?; what did the events of 63 BC amount to?; what were its consequences for the Roman state and specially for Cicero? There is a last chapter which deals with reception and the author’s assessment of the episode and its protagonist. There is a helpful timeline at the beginning, and after each chapter there is an extensive passage on ‘Further Reading’—not just a list, but a very constructive guide through the literature, explaining what questions each recommended work will seek to answer.
Catiline, according to Levick, was a catalyst. The troubles of 63 BC which are identified with him were not a single movement but a large number of disparate reactions in may different places to the social troubles which had been left unsolved and often unheeded in the aftermath of the political disturbances of the previous thirty years. They partly coalesced under Catiline when he despaired of making progress by constitutional means after his defeat in the elections for 62; it was Cicero as consul who succeeded in making them all seem a single huge and terrifying threat to the nation. Cicero himself was doing the bidding of the nobility who had most reluctantly and on strict if unstated terms conceded the consulship to him. It was all an effort to preempt Pompey, who was about to return from conquest of the East and, it was feared, establish himself, like Sulla twenty years before, as the necessary dictator. In the outcome it drove Pompey into alliance with Caesar and laid the foundations for the civil wars, the dictatorship of Caesar and the rule of Augustus.
A gripping story, convincingly told. There are only small reservations. It is presumably Bloomsbury policy to have no footnotes. This is quite frustrating when there are extensive passages quoted but no references given. There also seem to be some signs that the book was published a little hastily. The (useful per se) family tree of Marius appears inexplicably on p.13. The prologue is entitled ‘An Italian City under Roman Siege’: this ceases to have any relevance after p.2. ‘Rome After Sulla’ (pp. 9-17) doesn’t become ‘after Sulla’ till p.12. There are a few misprints early on (‘Segestus’ for ‘Sergestus’ on p.4), and some opaque sentences (‘a gap of 5 years was left between 94 and the previous plebeian consul’ p.2). But when Levick gets into her stride, we leave these anxieties behind. This is a thoroughly approachable book, recommended whether you know something or nothing already, about a fascinating and important episode of Roman history.