Conspiracy Theory Essay

1694 words - 7 pages

In the Roman world, reputation and character were powerful concepts. A person could be brought up to prominence or down to infamy through their reputation alone. Some attempted to cultivate their image to suit their purposes, while others had theirs ruined by detractors. After the discovery of a conspiracy, the suspected participants could be punished by damnatio memoriae, considered unworthy of remembrance. However, because of the practical difficulties of this and the importance of remembering conspiracies, it was more likely that a conspirator would instead have his or her reputation slandered and any posthumous honors removed from them. Thus their names would remain in the record, but they served as exemplars for any other potential conspirators. The stories of Catiline, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, and Messalina have all been preserved, but they gained ignominious reputations from their contemporaries as well as from historians.
It is debatable whether the Catilinarian conspiracy was actually plotted at all, but it is certain that Catiline was treated as guilty by many of his contemporaries and later historical sources. It does not appear that an attempt was made to erase Catiline from memory; instead his story is recounted in detail by both Cicero and Sallust. Sallust portrayed Catiline as possessing some good qualities that made others follow him, such as physical strength and eloquence, but that he was ultimately depraved (Sallust 5). For Sallust, Catiline represented the moral decay that affected Rome; he was able to surround himself with criminals and reprobates because Rome was already corrupted (Sallust 6, 14). He accused him of corrupting the young and reported the belief that he murdered his stepson (Sallust 15, 16). With characteristics and a history such as this, it was not difficult to believe that Catiline plotted a conspiracy. Cicero is even more heavy-handed with his description of Catiline’s faults. His diatribe against Catiline, In Catilinam I, was performed in front of the man himself and the entire Senate. The evidence for the conspiracy appeared to consist mainly of Catiline’s character, Cicero’s testimony, a few ambiguous letters, and suspect confessions rather than anything concrete (Parenti, pg. 98-102). Cicero’s invective served to rally support for his accusations and place enough suspicion upon Catiline to force him into exile. In In Catilinam II, given to the public after Catiline’s departure from Rome, Cicero described him as “crazed with recklessness, panting with criminality, treacherously plotting the destruction of his country, and menacing you and this city with fire and the sword” (Cat. 2.1). He went on at great length about Catiline’s crimes and criminal cohorts, accusing him of associating with all types of criminal and participating in every sort of crime (Cat. 2.7-2.11). Cicero’s speeches were given in 63 BC, the time of the supposed Catilinarian conspiracy, but they were not published...

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