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Law and Justice – Constitutional Crisis at Rome – 13.2 Cicero and Catiline

September 20, 2019


>>>>We’ve met Cicero as a thinker, as a man
who was a conduit for Greek philosophy into Roman life, as a constitutional theorist of
a mixed Constitution and of a balanced constitution, as a theorist of justice with profound and
influential ideas of what justice is and how it fits into a view of natural law and constitutional
order. But Cicero is not just a man of ideas. He was a man of action, and in the year 64
his political career was reaching new and truly unexpected heights. Cicero was what
the Romans called a novus homo, a new man meaning he was someone who had no ancestors
who had served in the Roman Senate. Cicero was born a wealthy Roman, an eques, an equestrian,
a knight. The second highest order in the Roman aristocracy, but he’d risen through
his remarkable talents to the very heights of Roman society and in the year 64 sought
to reach the pinnacle of Roman power within the Republican Constitution. He ran for the
office of consul and in the year 64 during the campaign he found himself face-to-face
with a candidate who represented the most radical strains in the populist faction of
Roman politics. A man named Catiline. And in the year 64 the campaign itself turned
towards extremism and violence, and so Cicero in his political thought is deeply informed
by his own experiences as a politician. Catiline ran for office on a radical populist platform.
He promised to redistribute land and just as importantly, cancel debts. Now think of
what this means in terms of a political platform. Catiline runs for office promising to redistribute
land and to cancel debts. Now imagine if you’re creditor and there’s someone running for consul
who’s promising to cancel the debts– that is a radical promise. If you’re debtor then
you like this platform. Imagine in our own society if someone ran for presidential office
on the platform of canceling the debts. Imagine it. Who would oppose it? The banks, people
with capital. Who would support it? People with mortgages, people with credit card debt,
people with college loans. This is a platform that would be, even in our own context, extremely
dangerous. And as unthinkable as it may be, in the Roman world it was a reality that a
major politician was campaigning on a promise to undo the relations of debt and credit that
existed at that moment in society. Arguing that they had become usurious, that these
loans had been made unfairly and that they were oppressing the poor classes, that they
were oppressing the common man, who was the backbone of the Republic. And it was a very
real political platform in a society with deep divisions of wealth. That kind of radicalism
is inherently dangerous in a political society, and certainly in Roman society it threatens
to tear the fabric of this world apart. And the campaign in 64 became itself full of extremism
and radical claims and tensions. And through the support of the wealthy classes, Cicero
as a polished speaker, as a as an accomplished politician, as someone who campaigned on a
platform of social harmony to preserve the interest in property rights of those with
land and those with capital was carried on to victory and entered the office of consul.
But the threat of Catiline didn’t subside, and in fact rumors began to swirl almost immediately
that Catiline wasn’t content to accept the results of the election. That he saw it as
illegitimate that the wealthy had bought this campaign, and that the just course of action
was in fact to overthrow Cicero and to carry out his platform to restore the Republic by
redistributing land and canceling the debts. And almost from his first moments after being
elected, Cicero began to hear rumors of a possible revolt orchestrated by Catiline although,
taking shape in the hills north of Rome in Etruria what’s now Tuscany where it was said
an army of debtors and slaves and veterans was being raised that would march on Rome
itself and overthrow the government of Cicero. Catiline denied this, and in fact remained
in the city of Rome even though the rumors said that he was the architect of this rebellion.
And we know about this episode in detail not only from a Roman historian of the period,
but also from the speeches and writings of Cicero himself whose speeches in this period
he would later polish and publish, The Catilinarian Orations. Some of the most famous Latin texts
ever written, and Cicero in a very famous speech what’s known as the first Catilinarian
Oration tries to shame Catiline to make Catiline feel that everyone knows that he is a rebel
and that he is plotting sedition against the state and indeed the force of his oratory
was so powerful that Cicero was able to convince Catiline that he is known that he’s exposed,
and forces Cataline’s hand who in fact was plotting a rebellion and he leaves the city
meets his forces in the north and the battle ensues. In fact, the rebels under Catiline
and the armies of the state under the ultimate command of Cicero meet in the field of battle.
Catiline himself is killed and Cicero is victorious. He’s hailed as the father of the Fatherland,
the savior of his country, and he’s instantly a hero. But this rebellion left in its wake
a difficult constitutional problem. There were a number of conspirators who in fact
been captured alive in this battle, and in particular there were even members of the
senatorial class who had worked with Catiline to betray the Roman state. To overthrow the
government of Cicero, and Cicero is left in possession of these traitors captured alive
in the city of Rome and it caused an extraordinary constitutional problem for Cicero because,
according to Roman law, Roman citizens could not be executed. Roman citizens could receive
capital punishment, but capital punishment was exile or confiscation of property or other
severe penalties but not death. The Romans had a law that had what we would consider
constitutional force that citizens could not be executed. And this left Cicero with a delicate
security problem and a profound Constitution one. Should the conspirators who had sided
with Catiline be executed in violation of Roman tradition and constitutional principle?
Or should they be exiled? And the security question was obvious. Merely to exile them
would be insufficient because they would return again and raise rebellion and Cicero wanted
to have them executed in order to preserve the Republic. And indeed, Cicero, building
on a relatively recent precedent, went to the Senate and made the case that they should
again pass an emergency decree an ultimate decree of the Senate that would empower him
with the extraordinary extraconstitutional powers to preserve the Republic by executing
the conspirators. And Cicero with this power in hand would indeed execute the conspirators.
So he had saved the republic from Catiline, but in the aftermath had taken steps that
would go beyond the constitutional power of his office.

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