Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.08.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.08.31

Barbara Levick, Catiline. Ancients in Action.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 134.  ISBN 9781472534897.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Mathilde Skoie, University of Oslo (


Despite his central place in the teaching of classics and in the story of the Roman republic, there are few serious recent monographs on Catiline and the so-called Catilinarian conspiracy. It is therefore good news that a distinguished historian such as Barbara Levick, known for her biographies of Tiberius, Claudius, Vespasian, Julia Domna and Augustus, and most recently the imperial women Faustina I and II, has taken on the task of offering a short and accessible modern introduction to Catiline in the Ancients in Action series from Bloomsbury.

Catiline is still a controversial figure. The “conspiracy” is, as Mary Beard recently put it “a prime example of the classic interpretative dilemma: were there really ‘reds under the beds’, or was the crisis, partly at least, a conservative invention?”1 The goings-on around 63 BC are, as we all know, extremely well documented, but at the same time our sources are frustratingly one-sided. Though recently F. Galassi offered a vehement attempt at rehabilitating Catiline,2 most scholars after all end up with a nuanced view closer to the sources.

Levick regards the Catilinarian affair as part of a grander political play; a large-scale tragedy of ambition and envy going back to the days of Romulus. Her thesis is that “we have a set of politicians who were victims of the conventions of their city and forced to play a political game that was governed by long standing rules” (p. 121). Within this larger picture she finds that the movements in 63, which “thanks to Cicero and Sallust came to be called the ‘Catilinarian conspiracy’ was a widespread reality with deep roots and which became a genuine threat to established social structure”, but emphasizes that many of these movements need not have been Catilinarian at all (p. 49). Yet, even in the bigger picture, Catiline, Pompey and Caesar were “all blatantly guilty” (p. 124) and Catiline ends up the worst. She pointedly ends the book by returning to Sallust’s crucial characterisation of him as vastus animus (Cat. 5.5) and finding it fitting that Catiline ends up “portrayed by Virgil tormented by the Furies and by Lucan attempting to seize the Elysian fields” (p. 124). However, along the way she is careful to point out how facts in this case are buried in allegations and vulnerable to political prejudices. And in the preface she urges the reader to mentally preface every mention of “conspirators” with “alleged” until they are seen in action.

The book is roughly organized as a narrative. Chapter one is called a prologue and introduces the protagonists of the story in 89 BC when the three young men Pompey, Catiline and Cicero are all serving as trainee officers in the Roman army besieging Asculum. Chapter two gives the reader a brief introduction to the situation in Rome after Sulla. In chapter three the author returns to the three protagonists and picks up the story in a chapter simply called “Politicians and their problems”. Chapter four deals with the so-called first conspiracy of 66/64 in inverted commas while chapter five, naturally the longest chapter in the book, deals with the conspiracy of 63 without any inverted commas. Chapter six is the tale of the aftermath of the affair, in particular the fate of Cicero. In the final chapter entitled "Historiography and villainy", she gives the reader a brief tour of the reception of Catiline from Cicero’s texts via ancient historians to dramatists and modern scholars.

The book is, as is to be expected from Levick, a solid piece of work. She bases her narrative on thorough knowledge of the sources and in general rather recent scholarship. She is not afraid to take a stance and is aware of the many pitfalls. All this is above doubt and I can therefore highly recommend the book. Yet, I feel that the book is not quite a success, but this is more a matter of format as I will explain below.

According to the back cover, the Ancients in Action series aims to give “short and accessible introductions to major figures of the ancient world, depicting the essentials of each subject’s life and significance for later western civilization”. The back of another volume in the series further specifies the target audience as “the modern general reader”. I must admit that I have read the book mostly thinking about its possible suitability for my own undergraduate students. Given the solidity of the scholarship and the low price, I have no hesitations giving this book my warmest recommendations, but I cannot stop thinking that Levick should have written a longer monograph on the topic. The accessibility of the prose is rather varying throughout. While the narrative approach in general works well, the brief format does at points make for hard reading as it occasionally becomes very dense. I am also not sure that the parallel with Guy Fawkes works very well outside Britain. Yet, there are exceptions. For instance, the section on optimates and populares is very good.

In my opinion the book also suffers from what I tend to think of as publishers’ fear of exact references to primary sources. It seems to be popular opinion among publishing houses that these are intimidating to a general audience. However, I find it much more intimidating as a reader to be confronted with passages that are difficult to track down and only left to be explored by those in the know. While a very few references are given in the section “Further reading” or the text itself, a long quote from Pro Caelio is prefaced by “Seven years later, defending a young man charged with associating with Catiline, Cicero had a different perspective”. In my experience most general readers would appreciate being told which speech this refers to and where in the speech we are. Likewise, references to Cicero’s letters and “an election speech” might not be self-evident and Sallust’s Catiline is a pretty long text. I think it is a gross underestimation of these readers not to think that they might be inspired to look further into these sources themselves and therefore help them to do so. Furthermore, if we consider undergraduates possible readers, using proper references is one of the academic skills we should try to teach them. Offering them a book with only occasional exact references is in this respect rather counterproductive. If publishers find references intrusive in the actual text it is perfectly possible to do this in the “Further reading”, as is done rather successfully in Mary Beard’s aforementioned SPQR, another work which I suppose is aimed at the general reader.3

This new book on Catiline by Levick is great news and I will recommend it to my undergraduates, but I cannot refrain from wishing that she had also written a longer version.


1.   Mary Beard, SPQR, Profile Books 2015. Beard uses Catiline as her entry into Roman history in general and thus confirms his centrality.
2.   Francis Galassi, The Monster of Rome. An Ancient Case of Political Assassination (2014), reviewed by K.F.B. Fletcher, BMCR 2015.01.30
3.   References to primary sources are at least present in one volume of the series, G. Lively, Ovid: Love Songs (2005). However, when discussing a poet I suppose even publishers find it impossible not to give references to the text.

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