Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.25

Charles Matson Odahl, Cicero and the Catilinarian Conspiracy. Routledge Studies in Ancient History 1.   London:  Routledge, 2009.  Pp. xvi, 102.  ISBN 9780415874724.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew R. Dyck, Los Angeles


Readers of this journal will know C.M. Odahl as the author of Constantine and the Christian Empire (2004).1 As in the earlier volume, he relegates scholarly debates to the endnotes so as not to impede the narrative (p.x) and tends to affix a single footnote to each paragraph, a practice that can leave the reader in doubt about the source of his direct quotations. This volume is addressed to "both ancient history students and educated general readers" (p.xi).

The first chapter surveys the ancient sources, including, of course, Cicero's Catilinarian speeches; but Cicero's defenses of Murena and Sulla would also have merited mention here. Odahl has a few comments on Cicero's evidence (p.3), but much more was needed about Cicero's position and viewpoint and the relation of the published to the delivered speeches.2 Sallust is said to have "turned . . . away from political activities and to historical writing" in view of Caesar's assassination (he dates Sallust's turn to writing still later on p.74). But in fact, Sallust's public career was over before Caesar's assassination, destroyed by his own corruption. Sallust's approach was, of course, different from Cicero's, as one expects from a Caesarian partisan, but it is doubtful that his picture is "more detached" and "more well-rounded": Sallust had his own axes to grind. When Odahl calls Plutarch a "Greco-Roman scholar," he inevitably invites the question from students: "Was he Greek or Roman?" Moreover, his description of Plutarch's biographies fails to make clear their organizing principle and tendency.

The second chapter sketches the sociopolitical background. Apropos the optimates and populares, Odahl acknowledges difficulties with the terms, since Cicero's usage is loaded; moreover, these groups should not be treated as if they were modern political parties (p.8 and p.78n4). But in spite of these caveats, Odahl tends, in practice, to treat the factions as "conservative" and "liberal" parties (with a "standard-bearer" at their head: p.25); from p.27 on Odahl refers to the "Pompeian populares" as if they formed their own wing of the party (as opposed to the "radical populares": p.33). Moreover, Odahl seems not to have taken on board recent research suggesting a careerist dimension: younger politicians often tried to make their name by espousing popularis policies but later hewed to an optimate line.3 In this chapter we likewise meet the equites as the "men of business" as opposed to the "landholding aristocracy" of the senate (pp.11-12; similarly p.23); but the distinction has been overdrawn, as has been shown by Brunt.4 Transpositions and ellipses make parts of this chapter seem like a narrative for those who already know the story: thus on p.12 Odahl speaks of the independent farmers as "the backbone of Roman society" but only on p.14 explains that this means that they were "the backbone of the Roman legions." Odahl speaks of Marius' use of his troops to advance his political career and of Sulla's marches on Rome but nowhere explains that there was a civil war between the two; and on p.16 he speaks of a fear that "Pompey . . . might carry out proscriptions" but with no explanation of this term or that such a thing had already happened.

Chapter 3, "Catiline and the radical politicians," narrates Catiline's early life down to the eve of the consular campaign of 63. When charges of atrocities and personal immorality must be dealt with, Odahl turns apologist, pointing out that "many of Rome's prominent citizens had been guilty of excesses during the Sullan Era" and that "illicit relationships were common in the permissive and cosmopolitan society of Catiline's Rome" (p.19). Perhaps, but even so, it is a stretch to sink Catiline into a group of similar sinners: fornication with a Vestal Virgin, for instance, was hardly a routine charge. A more convincing defense would be that the charges come from Catiline's enemy and some of the worst charges are unproven. The greater problem, however, is that Odahl does not convey the formative process at work. Catiline was one of Sulla's most ruthless henchmen during the civil war and the proscriptions, a time when citizens could be killed with impunity and Sulla's favorites amassed great wealth. Sallust saw the pattern: huic [sc. Catilinae] ab adulescentia bella intestina . . . grata fuere (Cat. 5.2). Catiline became used to thinking that the usual rules did not apply to him; when he and others like him fell on hard times, they reverted to the familiar pattern that had served them so well.

Chapter 4 describes Cicero's rise at the bar and in politics down to the middle of 63. One would have liked to see Odahl work out a bit more concretely how politics and the courts were intertwined and how, in default of family connections, Cicero's work in advocacy powered his political career. In addition, Odahl assumes rather than explains Cicero's ties with Pompey (cf. the brief mention of Cicero's support of Pompey's command in Asia [p.27], with emphasis on his politeness to Lucullus). Also, Atticus' role in Cicero's electoral success (mentioned on p.29) would have merited more explanation: students will inevitably ask how Cicero knew him, how he made his money, and why he was so influential.

"The Conspiracy of Catiline" (chapter 5) narrates events from the consular elections of 63 through the conspirators' meeting at Laeca's house on the night of 6-7 November. More on the socioeconomic background would help readers understand how Catiline was able to gain a following among young men, the urban poor, and Sulla's veterans. It is good to see Odahl recognize Cicero's staging of the elections as evidence that he was "a master showman" (p.49). The discussion of the senatus consultum ultimum passed on 21 October includes a quotation, the source of which is unspecified, declaring that this measure entitled the consuls to "levy troops and conduct war, apply unlimited force to citizens and allies alike, and exercise unlimited jurisdiction and command at home and abroad" (p.53). That being so, readers will be puzzled that further decrees were needed on 27 October, that Cicero consulted the senate on the fate of the captured conspirators on 5 December, and that Clodius was able to procure Cicero's exile on grounds of putting citizens to death without a trial before the people. Odahl really needed to devote greater detail and nuance to the history and constitutional status of the senatus consultum ultimum.

In chapter 6 ("The Victory of Cicero") Odahl narrates events from the foiling of the attempted assassination through the defeat and death of Catiline at the Battle of Pistoria. He gives Cicero full marks for isolating Catiline in his senate speech on 8 November (he follows the traditional dating) and precipitating his withdrawal from the city. Odahl describes 19 December as "the night of the Saturnalia festival" when the urban conspirators planned to spring into action; but in fact, at this period the festival ran from 17 to 23 December;5 Odahl might have explained why the conspirators thought this a favorable time.

The last chapter ("The Aftermath and Modern Echoes") narrates the rest of Cicero's life with a final paragraph about Rome's possible lessons for modern republics. Cicero's vigilance certainly spared Rome some bloodshed; whether he also "added a few years of life to the republican constitution" (p.71) is debatable, however. This would only have been the case if, as in Odahl's scenario, Pompey had had to return from Asia to deal with the conspiracy and had set up a dictatorship in the aftermath, but other scenarios are conceivable. Odahl is perhaps a bit too quick to pronounce Cicero a "wise elder statesman" in the years after his consulship (p.72). Certainly there were occasions when he shone, e.g. in governing Cilicia and in his literary output of those years, but he also made his share of political misjudgments. To deal adequately with the "deleterious trends" that led to the fall of the Roman Republic that Odahl sees paralleled in modern states (p.74) would require a book of its own; as it is, readers may be tempted to conclude that the study of ancient history is barren if it merely yields bromides about the evils of divisive politics, etc.

Since, as Odahl declares, scholarship in this field "is legion" (p.96), the ancient history students for whom the book is partially intended would benefit from orientation as to the major issues and approaches. Odahl offers something of the kind apropos the "first Catilinarian conspiracy" (p.80n10), but elsewhere his choices among modern sources seem arbitrary and out of touch with recent literature: e.g., the emphasis on E.S. Beesly's eccentric 1878 book Catiline, Clodius and Tiberius, the citation of J.E. Sandys' Companion to Latin Studies (1910) for the fate of defaulting debtors under Roman law, or the citation of R. von Pöhlmann's 1925 book for economic and social conditions of the time.

Though it is claimed that the bibliography provides "comprehensive coverage of the major subjects and prominent people in the era" (p.96), one misses such standard works as the Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, Magistrates of the Roman Republic, the Cambridge Ancient History, or the Barrington Atlas. The best biographies of Odahl's two principal actors, Cicero and Catiline, are missing, perhaps because they are in German (both by M. Gelzer); but even Cicero's second-best biography, that of T.N. Mitchell, has eluded Odahl. In dealing with Cicero's career he might also have found T.P. Wiseman, New Men in the Roman Senate helpful.

A few details: On p.25 Odahl declares that in his extortion trial Catiline "seemed to be so certain of victory that he did not feel that he needed the services of the inquilinus ('the lodger')," i.e., Cicero; but he forgets that we know that Cicero "considered" defending Catiline (cogitamus), not that he actually offered his services (Att. 1.2.1). Odahl describes Cicero's would-be assassins as "the senator Lucius Vargunteius and the equestrian Gaius Cornelius" (p.55), but he should at least have included a note explaining why he follows Sallust here, rather than Cicero, who describes them as duo equites Romani (Cat. 1.9). What the senate gave Volturcius was fides publica, a public pledge (sc. of immunity from prosecution) in exchange for his evidence (Cat. 3.8), not "good faith" (fides bona: Odahl, p.62), a concept from the civil law. In referring to Cethegus as Gaius Cassius Cethegus, Odahl seems to confuse him with another conspirator, Lucius Cassius Longinus; Cethegus' cover story about collecting weapons as a hobby is not to be taken seriously (p.50); and Cicero says that the conspirators' arms were removed from Cethegus' house (Cat. 3.8) but not that they were "brought to the Senate" (so Odahl, p.63). In reporting Silanus' view on the conspirators' punishment greater nuance might have been advisable (p.65), since he expressed himself with sufficient ambiguity to enable him to claim he had merely meant imprisonment, not execution (Plut. Cat. min. 22).

Odahl, then, offers a fluent narrative with a certain amount of background; but there are some lacunae and inaccuracies, and there is no new or particularly penetrating analysis. The book is, apart from a few typos and the like, well produced; it is also equipped with ten black-and-white illustrations and two maps. But the price of nearly $100 for a book of barely 100 pages is likely to put this volume out of reach of the students and general readers for whom it is intended and relegate it almost exclusively to university libraries.


1.   Reviewed by Tom Robinson, BMCR 2005.09.57.
2.   A. Lintott, Cicero as Evidence (Oxford, 2008), might have proved helpful.
3.   W.J. Tatum, The Patrician Tribune: Publius Clodius Pulcher (Chapel Hill, 1999), 1-7.
4.   P.A. Brunt, "The Equites in the Late Republic" in The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (Oxford, 1988), 144-93, especially 162-79.
5.   Cf. H.H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (London, 1981), 205-7.

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