Sallust, like some of his contemporaries, had an engaging and didactic approach to writing history. Instead of just spewing facts about events, Sallust offers insight into what men can learn from this historical events.
The Conspiracy of Catiline, for example, begins with a powerful declaration:
All men who seek to be better than the animals ought to exert themselves with the greatest efforts, lest they pass their lives in silence as if they were beasts of burden, which nature has conditioned to be prostrate and subservient to their stomachs.
This theme of avoiding one’s base instincts is a common theme throughout.
Sallust also opens the War of Jugurtha with a warning to those who seek pleasure and offers an alternative:
But if men had the same care for doing good works as they have enthusiasm for chasing what is of no advantage to them–in many cases—what is even dangerous and harmful to them–they would more often rule fortune than be ruled by it, and would advance to such greatness that through their glory they would become immortal among men.
For as a human being is composed of both a physical form and a soul, all of our earthly pursuits attend to the nature of either the body or the soul. Thus a beautiful body, great riches, physical strength, and all other attributes of this type melt away in a short time; but surpassing deeds of character are, like the soul, eternal.
The Shortcomings of Rome
The Conspiracy of Catiline itself reveals the shortcomings of the Roman government at that time, but the issue is echoed in Caesar’s speech as well:
Certainly the masculine virtue and wisdom of our ancestors–who created this empire with few resources–was superior to ours, seeing that we can hardly preserve what we inherited.
Cato the Elder follows this speech, and while he has a different proposal to deal with the conspiracy than Caesar, he also highlights the deficiencies of contemporary Romans:
There were other things they had that made them [our ancestors] great, things that are lacking in us: a hardworking ethic at home, just power abroad, and a free spirit in public debate that was marked by neither sin nor passion.
In place of these qualities we now have luxury and greed, public poverty, and extreme private wealth. We praise riches, and we follow indolence. There is no separation made between good and bad, and ambition seizes all the rewards of virtue. This is no surprise.
Sound familiar today?
Additionally, one of the reasons Catiline was able to rally so much support was because he was a proponent of debt relief. As this was a problem across the Italian countryside at the time, it comes as no surprise that Catiline was able to rally support. The Roman Republic had a great system of government, but it was threatened by demagoguery just as our governments are today.
The Rallying Cry of Marius
Perhaps my favorite section of the book was Marius’ rallying cry to battle in the War of Jugurtha. The Senate, although not fond of Marius, permitted Marius to speak and seek to recruit more troops to fight the war in Numidia. The speech is so powerful, that Marius plants a seed in the minds of the listeners that they will be rewarded with glory and riches if they fight.
The speech goes on for several pages, and I can’t share it in its entirety, but I would like to share some excerpts:
But I have learned very well the best things for my country: to destroy our enemies, to look after our security, to fear nothing except a shameful reputation, to endure equally the extremes of summer and winter climates , to sleep on the ground and to suffer toil and deprivation at the same time.
For I learned from my father and other distinguished men these things: that delicacy of appearance is appropriate for women, and hard work for men; that all good men should have more glory than riches; and that proficiency with arms, not household furnishings, is what brings distinction.
What is most unfair is that their extravagance and laziness–the most despicable of habits–never seen to hurt those who indulge in them, yet turn out to be the ruin of our blameless republic.
A Note on this Translation
There are a number of welcome additions to this book that make it comprehensible for the reader. Firstly, Quintus begins with an overview of the Roman Republic, and provides background information, including a tablet to dissect the various administrative and leadership positions of Rome. This is much needed as these are often referenced throughout the text.
Additionally, there are a plethora of footnotes, translator’s comments, in addition to maps–all of which help to provide a context to the reader who isn’t familiar with the geography of ancient Rome, nor the nuances of history that don’t make it to most textbooks.
Most translations of ancient texts are written in an erudite fashion that will cause most modern readers’ eyes to glaze offer the pages before setting the book down permanently. This style of translation is fluid and intelligible.
The works of Sallust will make an excellent addition to any bookshelf, both for its informative history and powerful wisdom.