BMCR 2021.01.11

Cicero’s Catilinarians

, Cicero's Catilinarians. Oxford approaches to classical literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780195326468 $99.00.

Table of contents

The series “Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature” aims to provide engaging introductions to major works of classical literature for readers previously unacquainted with them. D. H. Berry is well placed to write the volume on the Catilinarians, having published annotated translations of all four speeches and of several related ones for the “Oxford World’s Classics” as well as a detailed commentary on Pro Sulla.

After a brief Introduction, Chapter 1 supplies historical background. This will in future be the first source to consult on such matters. Berry’s attention to realia, for instance, is exemplary. He thus brings into the discussion two small earthenware bowls first published in 1980 that are inscribed with the names of Catiline and Cato and may have been given to voters filled with food in order to promote their candidacies in 63, albeit the authenticity of these objects and/or their inscriptions is still debated (cf. pp.21–25 and 240–45). Berry also points to two silver denarii, one of Scribonius Libo, the other of L. Aemilius Paullus, which show how Catiline’s defeat was exploited in the propaganda of the financial class (pp.52–54).

Occasionally one can question Berry’s judgment. Upon reviewing the testimonies for Catiline’s character, he remarks: “What Sallust adds to Cicero’s characterization is Catiline’s desire for kingship (regnum). That is an allegation not found in Cicero.” He adds that Cicero does claim such a desire for P. Cornelius Lentulus Sura and, in a loose sense, for some of Catiline’s other followers, citing Catil. 2.19. He concludes: “in this instance, the historian [is] exaggerating and the orator refraining from doing so” (p.9). Certainly in 2.19 Cicero speaks of a group of Catiline’s followers as hoping for dominatio and indeed dictatores aut etiam reges; and in 2.20 he speaks of another group for whom only Sulla’s resurrection could provide safety; similarly in 2.18 he speaks of novae tabulae as a possible goal of another group, a policy that could only be implemented in (quasi)dictatorial circumstances. Surely Cicero wants his readers/listeners to infer that these hopes were nurtured by Catiline; they strongly imply that Catiline had in mind the Sullan model of civil war followed by dictatorship and proscriptions as the solution both for his own indebtedness and that of his followers. Elsewhere Cicero speaks of Sulla as a tyrannus (Agr. 3.5) or possessing regalis potestas (Har. 54; cf. regere ibid.). In speaking of regnum as Catiline’s goal, Sallust surely reads Cicero’s implications correctly.

Chapter 2 focuses on the composition and publication of Cicero’s speeches in general and the Catilinarians in particular. The general view is that Cicero published his forensic speeches soon after delivery based upon key portions that he memorized and the notebooks (commentarii) that he prepared in advance of trial as well as his own excellent memory, so that the forensic speeches generally are a fairly close approximation to what was said. The question is whether the same applies to public speeches in the senate or contiones. Berry believes that Cicero deployed one or more secretaries to take down such speeches, and he elicits confirmatory evidence for that proposition based upon the alternative endings of Catil.4 (pp.57, 75).

Now the case of the consular corpus, including the Catilinarians, is complicated by the fact that it was assembled and published two and a half years after delivery, as we know from Att. 2.1.3, dated June 3, 60. This leaves a range of different possibilities, from the view that the Catilinarians essentially document the speeches actually delivered in 63 with no later alterations (so, e.g., Cape 2002) to the view that, for instance, Catil. 4 “may be largely a fiction” (Lintott 2008: 147). In other words, in the year 60 he could either have simply collected and published texts that he had on hand already written out, or have drafted them de novo. Some scholars have sought a via media, acknowledging some revisions to suit Cicero’s situation in 60 but regarding the bulk of the speeches as reflecting what was said in 63. Berry, too, takes this latter line in Chapter 2, pointing to the fairly uniform length of the speeches and the prominence of the lenitas motif that he used in the face of criticism beginning in Sul. as grounds for suspicion. Then he homes in on Catil. 4, whereby he builds on earlier observations by Fuchs, Winterbottom, and Lintott apropos of the speech’s alternative endings and the possibility of separating out different strands such as Cicero’s relatio to the senate, his own intervention in the debate, and personal considerations added later. To these he adds the point that the comparison of military commanders and Cicero’s civilian achievement at Catil. 4.21 seems to echo a remark attributed to Pompey at Off. 1.78 and therefore must also be a later addition; but this, too, was previously argued (Dyck 1996: 210, not cited by Berry).

At the end of Chapter 2, Berry acknowledges that “as much as 90 percent of the total” of the surviving Catilinarian speeches “may perhaps correspond to Cicero’s original speeches to the same degree that the majority of the published forensic speeches correspond to the original trial speeches” (p.81). This would imply that, using analytical methods such as Berry has just illustrated, one can in most cases separate an original core from later additions. One might, therefore, have expected the detailed study of the individual speeches that follows to take the form of such an analysis. Chapter 3 offers a different account, however, namely that “the Catilinarians are, strictly speaking, fictional (because they are recreations by Cicero)” (p.87). Berry arrives at this position by the analogy of Piers Morgan’s The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade (2005), a memoir that the famous journalist published in diary form. Certainly there are points of contact between Morgan’s project and Cicero’s: both are relentless self-promoters, and both commit occasional anachronisms. But the analogy fails at a critical point: Morgan never kept a diary, whereas Cicero certainly did deliver speeches corresponding to the four Catilinarians. It is surprising to see Berry now apparently abandon the arguments developed in Chapter 2 that Cicero had the possibility of obtaining a transcript of his speeches in the senate or in a contioand the confirmatory evidence he had elicited. Though in the past the analogy to the composition of Cicero’s forensic speeches may have been carried to an extreme, it does not follow that it is wholly inapplicable.

When one comes to the detailed analysis of the speeches in chapters 3-5, it becomes clear that Berry does not press the idea of “fiction” as far as he had seemed to. In fact, without clearly articulating the procedure, Berry operates on two levels: (1) he analyzes the transmitted speeches for possible later insertions, as he had started to do in chapter 2; (2) he offers two different ways of reading the speeches, which designates Approaches A and B. A involves “reading the speeches on their own terms” (p.87), i.e., as products of the year 63, which is, of course, the traditional approach, whereas B reads them as products of 60. The first two speeches do not lend themselves to analysis on level (1), and Berry claims no arguments in them as clearly added in 60. Thus for these speeches he analyzes the rhetoric and shows how they also satisfy Cicero’s needs in 60.

Level (1) analysis returns apropos of Catil. 3. One can grant that, in view of the similarity to the ending added to Catil. 4, 3.26–29a is likely to be a later addition; and the same applies to the duplicated reference to Lentulus’ abdication (3.15). One wonders whether Catiline’s “obituary,” written in the past tense (3.16–17), might have been added subsequently upon receipt of news of his adversary’s demise. Berry also wants to claim 3.1–2 as a subsequent addition (based upon the theme of memorialization shared with 3.26–29a and 4.21: Berry, pp.124-25), but the argument seems weak in view of Cicero’s standing concern with memorialization (cf., e.g., Ver. 2.4.72-80, Rab. perd. 27–30).

Catil. 3 is notable for its gripping narrative of how Cicero secured the decisive evidence against the city conspirators and trapped them into confessing. Berry is particularly good in analyzing Cicero’s account in comparison with Sallust’s and showing how the orator’s strategic omissions are sometimes the key to successful persuasion. Catil. 3 is also remarkable for its use of religious themes. Perhaps the virtuosic touch was Cicero’s exploitation of the coincidence (if such it was) of the erection of Jupiter’s new statue, with a new orientation, on the very day when the evidence of the conspiracy was disclosed. Dio tells us that this point is what sparked the people’s anger at the conspirators (37.34.4). In his summary, Berry lumps together Catil. 2–3 as “not . . . supreme examples of Cicero’s influence over the people” (p.162), but surely on the evidence of Dio—no admirer of Cicero—Catil. 3 should be so classified.

Chapter 5, dealing with Catil. 4, is the strongest chapter. Here the case for later revision is the clearest; this is not surprising, since it was his actions on December 5 that were most in need of subsequent defense. Moreover, the hypothesis that Cicero inserted passages into this text in the year 60 clarifies much that is otherwise puzzling in the logic and organization of a speech that was ostensibly given at a meeting at which the senate was under the severe time constraint of having to render a decision by nightfall. I would single out as especially acute Berry’s explication of Cicero’s complex argument about the true and false popularis (pp. 180–81) and his comment that “by applying lukewarm praise with exquisite politeness, [Cicero attempts] to undermine [Caesar’s] proposal” (p.192). He writes that the final section of the speech “is the culmination not so much of the Fourth Catilinarian as of the set of four speeches” (p.184). He might have compared the prayer that concludes the Verrine corpus, which is likely to have been conceived for the end of Ver. 2.4 but transposed so as to cap the corpus (see detailed argument by von Albrecht 1980).

Chapter 6 on the reception of the speeches covers a wide swath of examples from Sallust, writing shortly after Cicero’s death, to Bill Clinton, inspired to study law by the experience of defending Catiline in a mock trial organized by his high school Latin teacher. Apropos of the Middle Ages Berry discusses two products of the eleventh or twelfth century (pp.202–3). They did not arise in vacuo, however; discussion of the medieval circulation of the speeches, their appearance in lists of set-books, etc., would have provided context. But what Berry does offer tells a remarkable story of perceptions changing in tandem with the needs and interests of the receiving authors and the societies in which they lived. It would have been helpful had a concluding chapter clarified the potentially confusing overall argument for the benefit of the primary target audience of first-time readers.

Berry, then, has produced an important book with which serious students of the Catilinarians will want to engage closely (but not, of course, uncritically). He has diligently collected and sifted relevant evidence and has set out his case with flair. Building on the work of predecessors, he mounts a strong argument for extensive revision of Catil. 4 and parts of Catil 3. Perhaps Berry’s main contribution is to formulate systematically how the publication of the speeches after an interval of two and a half years served Cicero’s political interests in 60.


Cape, R. W. 2002. “Cicero’s Consular Speeches.” In J. M. May, ed., Brill’s Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric, 113–58. Leiden.
Dyck, A. R. 1996. A Commentary on Cicero, De officiis. Ann Arbor.
Lintott, A. 2008. Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion. Oxford.
von Albrecht, M. 1980. “Cicero und die Götter Siziliens (Verr. II, 5, 184–189).” Ciceroniana 4: 49-62.