What Cicero Should Have Done: The Catilinarian Conspiracy Revisited

Robin Alington Maguire

What Happened

In 63 BC, the great orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) was Consul in Rome, having been voted in ahead of Lucius Sergius Catilina (c.108–62 BC), among others. 

Catiline – as he is known in English – came from an ancient noble family claiming descent from Sergestus, a companion of Prince Aeneas, who – according to legend – had founded the Roman people a millennium earlier after fleeing the sack of Troy. Catiline was a proud, vicious and dissolute man; deeply in debt, he had long coveted power at any price. He despised Cicero, a novus homo (“new man”) from a family with no history of public achievement and from a provincial town which had only gained full Roman status some 125 years before.

The oath of Catiline, Joseph-Marie Vien, 1809 (Burton Constable Hall, Skirlaugh, UK; after Salvator Rosa’s 1663 original, in the Museo di Casa Martelli, Florence, Italy).

Furious at failing to be elected Consul and desperate to escape from his difficulties, Catiline hatched a plot with others in similar circumstances to overthrow the established order and murder leading citizens. They bound themselves together by a fearsome oath which they solemnised (it was said) by murdering a child and consuming its blood. Intelligence of the plot led Cicero to utter a blistering denunciation of Catiline in the Senate. Catiline then left Rome to join his army of malcontents. In response to this, Cicero and his fellow Consul, Gaius Antonius Hybrida, were empowered to take all measures necessary to safeguard the Republic – a significant step, similar to a modern declaration of emergency, which invested the Consuls with absolute power but did not guarantee them immunity for their actions. 

Soon after, Cicero uncovered definite proof of the plot and orchestrated the arrest of nine of Catiline’s co-conspirators. These included some of Rome’s leading citizens.  

The Senate debated what to do with the conspirators with some pressing for the death penalty. The accused were undoubtedly guilty, and far too dangerous to be released or allowed to go into exile. Rome had no system of long-term imprisonment, although Julius Caesar (100–44 BC), who was suspected of involvement in the plot, did suggest an arrangement of this sort. A conventional trial could not be contemplated because of the delay involved and the risks associated with a jury trial, given Catiline’s significant following among the people and the definite possibility of the jury being bribed or suborned. 

Bust of Cicero, 1st cent. AD (Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy).

The Senate never had the power to try or condemn a citizen, and the Senators were conscious of the longstanding Porcian Laws which gave Roman citizens condemned to death the right to appeal to the people, or to escape execution by going into exile. 

The debate in the Senate was inconclusive. At last, the famously upright Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Younger) argued vehemently for the guilty men to be put to death. The Senate eventually resolved that, in this dire emergency, the conspirators should be executed. The sentence was carried out immediately, the culprits being removed to a dungeon beneath the Tullianum prison and there strangled by the public executioner. The illegality of this deed was to haunt Cicero for ever. 

Soon after, Catiline and his army were annihilated by consular forces under Cicero’s colleague in office, Hybrida. 

Discovery of the body of Catiline, Alcide Segoni, 1871 (Gallery of Modern Art, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy).

Cicero was proclaimed Pater Patriae (“Father of the Fatherland”) by the Senate for having saved the Republic. He gloried in this title, and never failed to remind everyone of his magnificent accomplishment – a habit which soon wearied his hearers and lost him respect. 

Five years later, in 58 BC, the informal Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, the wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus and the outstanding soldier Gnaius Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) gave its support to a rabble-rousing politician called Publius Clodius Pulcher. A bitter foe of Cicero, Clodius persuaded the Plebeian Assembly – Rome’s legislature – to pass laws decreeing that anyone who had brought about the execution of a Roman citizen without trial should be obliged to go into exile and be banned from setting foot within 400 miles of Rome on pain of death. This was squarely aimed at Cicero, who had no option but to endure a miserable exile at Thessalonica in Northern Greece. There he remained until the political tide turned and Pompey and Caesar (who had fallen out with Clodius) put their influence behind a law to rescind Cicero’s exile.  

While in Greece, Cicero wrote to his close friend Atticus “Your pleas have prevented me from committing suicide. But what is it for? Don’t blame me for complaining. My afflictions surpass any you ever heard of before.” Meanwhile, Clodius engineered the confiscation and demolition of Cicero’s grand house on the Palatine Hill in Rome, erecting a shrine to Liberty on the site.

The Palatine Hill above the Roman Forum, where Cicero’s house stood and fell.

What Cicero Should Have Done 

During the debate on the fate of the conspirators, Cicero held great sway the Senate, both as Consul and as the man who had saved Rome from destruction. He could and should have had one of his supporters propose that he be appointed Dictator with full authority to deal with all aspects of the Catilinarian conspiracy. It seems likely that Cicero would have been appointed to the role, bearing in mind that this would have relieved the other Senators of the uncomfortable responsibility of having to vote directly for the executions. The advantages of this strategy would have been significant:


  • Under the Roman Republic, a Dictator was an individual appointed at a time of great national emergency to take sole charge of the State for a limited period. He was mandated to address a particular crisis with unlimited authority, provided he did not exceed his brief and stepped down as soon as the issue was resolved.


  • It is generally held that a Dictator who complied with these requirements enjoyed immunity from any subsequent challenge to his actions while in office. 


  • The appointment of a Dictator was one of the few legislative actions which could be undertaken by the Consuls and the Senate without the need for ratification by the Plebeian Assembly prior to taking effect.


  • If Cicero had been appointed Dictator – perhaps for only a very brief term of office – he could legally have ordered the execution of the conspirators without attracting the stench of illegality which in the event was to hang around after these men were killed.
Detail of Catiline from Cesare Maccari’s 1889 fresco of Cicero denouncing Catiline (Palazzo Madama, Rome, Italy). The full image stands at the head of the is article.

Today’s strongly pejorative overtones did not then attach to the term ‘dictator’, although the office was not without controversy. It had only been used once in the previous 140 years, when in 82 BC the powerful general Lucius Cornelius Sulla became the first person to overthrow the Republic and assume supreme power: he had himself appointed Dictator for three years, against the background of a programme of bloody murders and confiscations (in which, incidentally, Catiline played a part). But if in 63 BC Cicero had been appointed Dictator for the sole purpose of putting down the Catilinarian revolt, this would have accorded with the proper purpose of the Dictatorship and could surely have been distinguished from Sulla’s unconstitutional reign of terror. 

We cannot be entirely categorical about the powers and immunity of a Dictator. After a lapse of two millennia, the same uncertainty applies to numerous aspects of Rome’s complex and uncodified constitution. It is perhaps arguable that even a Roman jurist of Cicero’s time would have had difficulty giving firm answers to some of these questions, given the sovereign right of the Plebeian Assembly to pass any law it chose, potentially including retrospective legislation and laws overturning established practice.

Cicero accusing the conspirator Catiline in the Senate, Hans W. Schmidt, 1912 (priv. coll.).

In addition, established procedures could be used (or misused) in unexpected ways, as the case of Clodius demonstrates. He was born a patrician, the most aristocratic tier of Roman society, but in 59 BC, with the connivance of Julius Caesar (in his capacity as Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest) and Pompey (as Augur), he had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian, a man younger than himself. This legal fiction enabled him to stand for the powerful position of Tribune of the Plebs, in which capacity he was able to table the law that led to Cicero’s banishment. 

If Cicero had had the conspirators executed while holding the office of Dictator, this would not have definitively prevented Clodius from later promoting a law aimed at Cicero’s downfall, but it would surely have made the enactment of such a law much harder to achieve.

Robin Alington Maguire is a former civil engineer and banker with a keen and longstanding interest in ancient history and culture. He likes to seek out new deductions from fragmentary ancient sources, particularly in matters of science and technology. He has translated and edited Napoleon Bonaparte’s Commentaries on the Wars of Julius Caesar (Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, 2018).

Sources and Further Reading:

The story of Catiline’s conspiracy and Cicero’s subsequent banishment is well recorded by a number of sources. Plutarch, the Greek biographer of the 2nd century AD, wrote lives of Cicero, Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cato and Sulla. The story is also told in Suetonius’ Life of Caesar, written in around AD 120, and in the History of Rome by Cassius Dio, written around 200.  

A detailed contemporary account appears in The Conspiracy of Catiline by Gaius Sallustius Crispus. Sallust became active in politics around the time of Cicero’s exile and was a supporter of Caesar in the civil wars of 49–45 BC which brought Caesar to supreme power. Sallust’s account of the Catiline affair is sometimes rather too kind to Caesar. Sallust later served as a more than usually corrupt provincial governor in North Africa, and laid out a fine set of gardens in Rome which later passed to the emperors. We are told that his house in Rome was destroyed by Alaric the Goth in 410.  

Cicero’s private thoughts are preserved in hundreds of surviving letters, many of which bewail his exile. Sadly there are none surviving from the year of his consulship. (The manuscript containing many of Cicero’s letters was rediscovered in Verona by the poet Petrarch in the year 1345.) We also have four white-hot speeches denouncing Catiline from 63 BC.

Tom Holland’s Rubicon, an account of the last decades of the Roman Republic, is highly recommended as are Lustrum, Imperium and Dictator, a trilogy of novels by Robert Harris giving a fictionalised account of the life of Cicero as seen through the eyes of his faithful (and real-life) secretary Tiro.