Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.30

Francis Galassi, Catiline, The Monster of Rome: An Ancient Case of Political Assassination.   Yardley, PA:  Westholme Publishing, 2014.  Pp. xxiii, 187.  ISBN 9781594161964.  $26.00.  

Reviewed by K. F. B. Fletcher, Louisiana State University (

[The Table of Contents appears at the end of the review.]

Francis Galassi’s book on Catiline is the most recent in a long line of attempts to suggest that Catiline was not the monster that Cicero and Sallust have made him out to be. While Galassi has numerous predecessors in this endeavor, his is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to recast Catiline as a noble hero trying to reform Rome for the sake of its poor and wrest it from the hands of a corrupt oligarchy. But few people—even those most inclined to believe that Cicero and Sallust exaggerated or even invented details—will recognize Galassi’s Catiline, whom he likens to the German soldiers who tried to kill Hitler (125).

The book’s value lies in the fact that it represents so clearly the role of bias in people’s view of the Catilinarian conspiracy. And Galassi’s bias is clear throughout, in part through his comparison of first-century Rome to contemporary America. Galassi frames Catiline as a defender of the 99% against the 1%, and sets the tone for the book by beginning the prologue with a thought experiment in which the reader is to imagine a “great empire” (ix) that sounds a great deal like contemporary America, at which point he reveals, “No, this is not the United States of America in the twenty-first century. This is the Roman Empire in the first century BC” (x). Galassi wears his heart on his sleeve throughout.

Galassi begins the book proper by providing the relevant background for a discussion of the conspiracy, laying out the nature of Roman government in 100 BCE and then explaining the upheavals under Marius and Sulla. He devotes most of the book to events from 66–62, covering all of what we know about Catiline from before the conspiracy. He dismisses the earlier charges against Catiline, saying that there is no evidence for his murder of Gratidianus, and that his affair with the Vestal—if it happened—was of no consequence. He also minimizes Catiline’s association with Sulla by saying that Catiline was only killing for the republic, not for personal reasons, and that—although poor—he was one of the few Sullan supporters not to loot.

The argument that Catiline was a noble-minded reformer necessitates an attack on all our sources for the conspiracy, primarily Cicero and Sallust, but also Asconius. Galassi’s approach to the primary sources is simple: while anything that paints Catiline in a negative way must be dismissed as propaganda, anything that may be taken to present Catiline in a positive manner is true. Thus, Catiline’s association with women of ill repute actually means that his program included “a general social equality that appealed to the much abused and disregarded women of Rome” (121–22). This kind of selective use of sources even leads him to claim of Catiline’s associates that “only one had a rather checkered career,” referring to Curius (133).

Heroizing Catiline necessitates vilifying Cicero, and Galassi’s extreme distaste for Cicero is apparent throughout from the fact that he can barely mention him without including an insult. His attempts to emphasize Cicero’s frailty carry with them the implication that Cicero was a nerd who was jealous of the quarterback of the football team. Cicero is “a physical coward” (66) and a “sickly boy who had not passed his army admission exam” (68). He “had a narrow chest and a stooped back” (127), a “sickly frame” (128) and was “not naturally brave” (136). Galassi refers to him as a “weak, thin, provincial lawyer” (71), and in his discussion of Catiline’s reaction to the first Catilinarian oration suggests that, “He probably smiled at the words of this little, dishonest, provincial lawyer” (137). While Galassi seems to be focalizing this view of Cicero through other figures (such as Catiline) at times, it occurs with enough frequency that it is clear that it is Galassi’s view, too. And this approach is ultimately what makes this book most interesting: it reveals that one’s view of the Catilinarian conspiracy is in no small part predetermined by one’s view of Cicero and of first-century politics.

It is unclear what the intended audience of this book is, but it is not an academic book. It lacks any real scholarly apparatus (there are a handful of footnotes and about three pages’ worth of endnotes, each rarely more than a one-line citation to one work, ancient or modern), and so scholars and advanced students will not find it useful for moving the subject forward, as Galassi does not engage in any meaningful way with any of the scholarly controversies surrounding Catiline and his conspiracy. What sources Galassi does cite are idiosyncratic and often outdated. At the beginning of his overview of Rome in 100, for example, he says he is drawing on Carcopino’s Cicero: The Secrets of His Correspondence (1951), Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte (1854–1856) and Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926).

Similarly, with the exception of the occasional phrase, there is no use of the original Latin or Greek for the primary sources and so little real analysis of the sources. The translations that appear (uncredited, and so perhaps done by Galassi) are very loose, and generally noticeably skewed to convey a point. Mistakes such as using the word gens as a plural do nothing to instill confidence (22).

Moreover, while the introductory overview to Roman government is pitched at the right level for readers new to the material (the tone is light and admirably breezy throughout, and I suspect that undergraduates would find it an easy go), it is so full of errors that it will make more knowledgeable people uneasy. In this chapter, Galassi claims inter alia that the Roman constitution (which he seems to think was written down) had no checks and balances; not all optimates were conservative (he generally confuses orders and factions); and Gaius Gracchus died before Tiberius Gracchus. In later chapters he claims that Julius Caesar instituted proscriptions in 43 BCE and that Antony killed Cicero before forming an alliance with Octavian.

But there is no need to continue to catalogue the numerous errors in this book. Ultimately, its value resides in its status as one of the most ambitious attempts to rehabilitate Catiline, and those interested in Catiline and his reception will find it worth their time as a recent and passionate example of this type. Because of the problems with the arguments and the numerous factual mistakes, however, this book probably does Catiline’s case more harm than good.

Table of Contents

A Note on Roman Names
A Note on Geographical Names
Rome, 100 BC
The Government of Rome
Catiline, Soldier
After Sulla
Catiline on Trial
The Election of 66 BC
Political Intrigue
Enter Cato
The Catiline Conspiracy
The Movement Unravels
The Sentence
A Private Position of Honor

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