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October 25, 2014

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From the Archives - Catiline's Speech to His Troops before the Battle of Pistoria, January 5, 62 B.C.

Known in English as Catiline, Lucius Sergius Catilina (108 B.C.–62 B.C.), was an Roman from a family of impeccable lineage, though recently fallen on hard times. Ambitious, he worked hard to establish himself as a force in the Republic. He performed the normal round of political and military duties required of an ambitious young Roman well, indeed often impressively so. But twice his attempts to win the consulship were frustrated by his political enemies.

At that, he decided to follow the example of L. Cornelius Sulla, and seize power by force. Though the record is somewhat murky, he seems to have been involved in several plots, including one to assassinate the consuls in 65 B.C. This poorly documented effort, was soon followed by a much more elaborate plot, in 63 B.C. Catiline managed to cobble together a coalition of debt-ridden Sullan veterans, unhappy young aristocrats, and disgruntled Etruscans, and began concentrating an army. But word of the plot eventually reached M. Tullius Cicero, one of the consuls. Cicero revealed the plot to the Senate in a series of speeches beginning on November 8, 63 B.C., in a session at which Catiline himself was present. His cover blown, Catiline fled the capitol to join his troops, even as several of his co-conspirators were rounded up and executed.

Just a few weeks later, troops loyal to the Senate encountered Catiline’s supporters, reportedly as many as 10,000 men, near Pistoria, the modern Pistoia. As the two armies readied for battle, Catiline delivered a speech to his troops, which is found in Sallust's monograph “The Conspiracy of Catiline.”

I am well aware, soldiers, that words can not inspire courage; and that a spiritless army can not be rendered active, or a timid army valiant, by the speech of its commander. Whatever courage is in the heart of a man, whether from nature or from habit, so much will be shown by him in the field; and on him whom neither glory nor danger can move, exhortation is bestowed in vain; for the terror in his breast stops his ears.

I have called you together, however, to give you a few instructions, and to explain to you, at the same time, my reasons for the course which I have adopted. You all know, soldiers, how severe a penalty the inactivity and cowardice of Lentulus has brought upon himself and us; and how, while waiting for reinforcements from the city, I was unable to march into Gaul. In what situation our affairs now are, you all understand as well as myself. Two armies of the enemy, one on the side of Rome, and the other on that of Gaul, oppose our progress; while the want of corn, and of other necessaries, prevents us from remaining, however strongly we may desire to remain, in our present position. Whithersoever we would go, we must open a passage with our swords. I conjure you, therefore, to maintain a brave and resolute spirit; and to remember, when you advance to battle, that on your own right hands depend riches, honor, and glory, with the enjoyment of your liberty and of your country. If we conquer, all will be safe; we shall have provisions in abundance; and the colonies and corporate towns will open their gates to us. But if we lose the victory through want of courage, those same places will turn against us; for neither place nor friend will protect him whom his arms have not protected. Besides, soldiers, the same exigency does not press upon our adversaries, as presses upon us; we fight for our country, for our liberty, for our life; they contend for what but little concerns them, the power of a small party. Attack them, therefore, with so much the greater confidence, and call to mind your achievements of old.

We might, with the utmost ignominy, have passed the rest of our days in exile. Some of you, after losing your property, might have waited at Rome for assistance from others. But because such a life, to men of spirit, was disgusting and unendurable, you resolved upon your present course. If you wish to quit it, you must exert all your resolution, for none but conquerors have exchanged war for peace. To hope for safety in flight, when you have turned away from the enemy the arms by which the body is defended, is indeed madness. In battle, those who are most afraid are always in most danger; but courage is equivalent to a rampart.

When I contemplate you, soldiers, and when I consider your past exploits, a strong hope of victory animates me. Your spirit, your age, your valor, give me confidence; to say nothing of necessity, which makes even cowards brave. To prevent the numbers of the enemy from surrounding us, our confined situation is sufficient. But should Fortune be unjust to your valor, take care not to lose your lives unavenged; take care not to be taken and butchered like cattle, rather than, fighting like men, to leave to your enemies a bloody and mournful victory."

Oddly, Sallust does not tell us how he came to have Catiline's speech. By his account – and all other ancient accounts as well – Catiline's troops perished to a man during the battle, along with their commander. So who provided a copy of the speech?

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