A Terrorist Plot in Ancient Rome: Uncovering the Catiline Conspiracy
A Terrorist Plot in Ancient Rome: Uncovering the Catiline Conspiracy

A Terrorist Plot in Ancient Rome: Uncovering the Catiline Conspiracy

Patrick Lynch - April 10, 2017

A Terrorist Plot in Ancient Rome: Uncovering the Catiline Conspiracy
Cicero denounces Catiline. Ancient History Encyclopedia

The Conspiracy is Uncovered

On October 18-19, letters addressed to Roman senators were delivered to Crassus; his letter warned him to flee the city. Crassus visited Cicero, and while the sender is still unknown, many historians believe it was a friend of Catiline and Cicero named Caelius. Cicero addressed the Senate on October 20 and handed the letters to the people they were addressed to. Each one told the recipient to leave Rome and contained details of the plot.

In the meantime, Catiline was trying to assemble an army, and a minor slave revolt began in Capua. Now that civil unrest had started in the Roman countryside, Catiline decided the time was ripe to bring his conspiracy to Rome. He planned to murder several senators and burn important buildings to the ground. On November 7, 63 BC, two of his men tried to assassinate Cicero, but the orator had taken the step of placing bodyguards by the entrance of his home and these men scared the would-be killers away.

The following day, Cicero held a meeting with the Senate and ensured that the Temple of Jupiter Stator was surrounded by armed guards. He was probably astonished to find Catiline in attendance. The conspirator strenuously denied any wrongdoing and verbally attacked Cicero. He complained that he was getting sent into exile without a proper trial and even gave himself up for house arrest. However, he showed his true colors later that day by calling for further uprisings in the countryside, and fleeing the city with 300 men.

Failure & Arrest

The conspirators were desperate for further assistance and believed they found it in the form of the Allobroges, a Gallic tribe. The Gauls met members of the Senate and appealed for a reduction in taxes. As they left the meeting, the Allobroges ran into some conspirators who asked for their help. Once they were outside the city, the tribe met Caius Pomptinus and were told to return to Rome. They told the Senate all about the plot including places, plans, and names.

The Allobroges asked the conspirators to send them letters to prove the plot had a real chance of succeeding. These letters were written by five conspirators but were intercepted en route to the Gauls. Cicero finally had his proof, and he read the letters to the Senate. The five letter writers were arrested and brought into custody. Cicero demanded that the men be executed without trial; a suggestion opposed by Caesar. The Senate were about to listen to Caesar’s appeals for clemency when his rival, Cato the Younger, spoke out against leniency and demanded the death penalty.

The five men were strangled by an executioner in an ancient building in the Forum called the Tullianum. Cicero gained initial praise as ‘father of the fatherland, ‘ but eventually the public began to question his excessive use of executive powers. When news reached Catiline’s army, three-quarters of the men deserted. Eventually, he fought an army commanded by Antonius Hybrida at Pistoia and died in the battle in 62 BC.

While the poor continued to view Catiline as someone to be respected, the Senate, Cicero, and aristocrats all viewed him as nothing more than a power grabber. In recent times, he is viewed more as an agrarian reformer than a bloodthirsty traitor, but as always, one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist.