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Law and Justice – Constitutional Crisis at Rome – 13.3 Debate: Cato the Younger vs. Caesar

September 26, 2019


>>>>In the aftermath of Cataline’s rebellion,
Cicero was left in control of a number of conspirators who had tried to side with Cataline
and assist the effort to overthrow the government of Cicero. And in the wake of this problem,
Cicero went to the Senate and asked for the Senate to empower him with the ability to
execute these conspirators even though it violated constitutional tradition. Which is
fundamentally important in any constitutional system, but especially one where it’s an unwritten
constitution. And the Roman republican historian Sallust preserves for us an extraordinary
passage in his histories of the late republic, his history of the war with Cataline of the
senatorial debates, and while these may be stylized they preserve for us what the kinds
of debates could have been held in the aftermath of this crisis. And in fact they’re two great
speeches that are opposed to one another in this history that took place in the senate
in the aftermath of the rebellion. One is placed in the mouth of the great Roman senator
of the age, Cato, Cato the Younger. Cato argues the way that Cicero wanted him to argue, that
Cicero should be empowered to execute the conspirators. He argued that the highest principle
of state was self-preservation and that the duty to preserve the state superseded other
constitutional principles. In other words he argued for security as a justification
for the ultimate decree of the Senate that would allow Cicero to execute the conspirators.
Against Cato argued another senator, a rising politician named Julius Caesar. Caesar argued
that the conspirators had certainly been traitors and that nothing too evil could befall a traitor.
In other words, Caesar says that these conspirators deserve to die. Caesar says every action in
a society that lives by the rule of law sets a precedent, and if we execute these citizens
it violates a tradition in the Roman constitutional system that we do not execute our citizens,
and once we cross that line, then it’s crossed. Caesar says today we are fortunate because
we have a consul who is a Cicero, and we know that Cicero is a good man but he says, what
about tomorrow when we have a console who’s not a Cicero? What do we what will we do when
the consul comes to us and gives a fine speech just as Cato has given and says that our families
are in danger, our wives and our children, and he says that security is the highest principle
of the state and that it supersedes other constitutional foundations? What will we do
then when it’s not a Cicero? This debate raises profound questions timeless questions about
the tensions between the rule of law and the preservation of the state, the tensions between
liberty and security that echo in our own day. And read carefully the speeches of Cato
and Julius Caesar. Who’s right in this debate? Should the conspirators have been executed
or not? And as you read carefully, think about the kinds of principles that are appealed
to especially in Julius Caesar’s speech. What are the foundations of his arguments? What
is the logic of his claim that it’s dangerous to execute these conspirators?

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