Cicero, Catiline, and the American Left

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the fact that, for many years now, nobody has studied Latin in school is this: Hardly anybody remembers Cicero and the conspiracy of Catiline. If we could remember this, it would be helpful in thinking about what those on the American Right call “enhanced interrogation” and those on the Left call “torture.”
The story, briefly, is this: It was the year 63 B.C. Catiline, a talented, restless, ruthless, and ambitious Roman senator from an old patrician family, had for a number of years been plotting to seize power in Rome. He hoped to do what Sulla had done before him, and Caesar would do after him: namely, make himself the sole ruler of the city and empire. He gathered round himself many young men who, despite being from good families, were in dire financial need: young men who stood to profit from a revolution that would turn the Roman world upside down, giving license to assassination, the cancellation of debt, and the confiscation of property. Twice Catiline stood for election as consul, and twice he was defeated at the polls.
Following his second defeat, which probably took place in October of 63 B.C, Catiline decided to make his move. He had confederates at key places throughout Italy, including in the city of Rome itself. One of his men headed an army that was being assembled near what is now the city of Florence. In Rome, the plan was to throw the city into a state of chaos and panic by means of widespread arson and assassination, including the murder of the strongly anti-Catiline consul, Cicero, the great lawyer, orator, and man of letters. With the city in chaos and panic, the army from Florence could attack, power could be seized, and Catiline could become dictator.
Cicero, however, foiled the plot. By adroit detective work he learned what was happening, arrested a number of key conspirators who were in the city, and revealed the plot to the Senate. (You can read these revelations in Cicero’s four anti-Catiline orations.) The Senate, convinced that strong measures were urgently needed, passed what is known as “the Ultimate Decree” — that is, a decree that urged the consul to take whatever steps may be needed “for the safety of the republic.” That was a euphemistic way of saying: “Put the conspirators to death — immediately and without trial.” And this Cicero did.
The trouble with these executions, even though they may have saved the republic (at least for the time being: less than 20 years later, Caesar, a far more brilliant leader than Catiline, would extinguish the republic forever), was that they were, strictly speaking, illegal. According to the law of Rome, a citizen could never be put to death by the authorities without first having a trial. The fact that the Senate had authorized the executions didn’t make them legal, for the Senate was neither a legislative nor a judicial body; it was simply an extraordinarily influential advisory body.
Cicero was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends make a coup d’etat? When he saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Rome was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a political enemy of Cicero indicted Cicero for the illegal executions. This political enemy was a reprobate by the name of Publius Clodius — who, among his other claims to ill-fame, was at one time the adulterous boyfriend of Caesar’s wife. To avoid standing trial, Cicero was forced to go into voluntary exile, leaving Italy for a few years, although eventually he came home when political tides shifted.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo really did constitute torture, and that they were illegal under either American or international law. And let’s further grant that they did some real good in protecting the United States from further terrorist attacks. What would Cicero say? He would say, “Go ahead and torture.” He would say, “Necessity knows no law.”
Keep in mind, however, that Cicero was a man of high ethical standards. He was one of the most notable moralists of the ancient world: see, for example, his work De Oficiis (On Duties). It is one thing for a good man to feel that he has a license to break the rules; it is something else for a bad man to feel he has that license. Were Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld good men doing illegal things (assuming, for the sake of argument, that they did illegal things), or were they bad men doing these things? Today’s American Left would have us believe that they were bad men. This, to my mind, is an utterly preposterous accusation. Clearly they were well-intentioned American patriots, even if their judgments may not have been error-free.
There was a time when Americans were politically wise enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic — for instance, when President Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus in the early days of the Civil War. But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American Left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute those who authorized the enhanced interrogation/torture that took place at Gitmo. If the indictment of Cicero by Clodius was an ominous sign that the Roman republic was on its last legs, I fear that the widespread leftist desire to put Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. on trial is an ominous sign that something dreadful is happening to the American political system.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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