I’ve now re-read Conspirata, the second in Robert Harris’ historical fiction trilogy covering the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero. When I first purchased this book, nearly five years ago, I had a terrible time finding it. The reason is because the title, Conspirata, was only used in the United States and in Italy. Elsewhere, the book was sold under its original title, Lustrum. The book, at that time about six years beyond its publishing date, seemed nowhere to be found I was convinced it was out of print. It is not; it can easily be found, here, just under its American name.
The original title, Lustrum, is the Latin term for a half-a-decade, the period of the census in the Roman Republic*. The taking of the census also had religious trappings, so the Romans associated the word with sacred rituals. Within the story, its use specifically refers to Caesar’s securing of a 5-year military command in Gaul at a time when terms were limited to a single year (although they were renewable). Someone at the publisher, apparently, decided that this was a bit too obscure for the American consumer and went with a title that more obviously references the Catiline Conspiracy. Conspirata/Lustrum begins where the previous volume left off, with Cicero as Consul. We follow through Cicero’s discovery and foiling of Catiline’s plans as well as the fallout in the years thereafter.
Having simultaneously read Conspirata and watched Good Night, and Good Luck, I got to thinking about what these two historical events have to tell us about American politics in the here and now. The last shall be first.
The excesses of Joseph McCarthy’s hearings are a defining characteristic of the modern body politic. For as long as I have been alive, all Americans, no matter their political leanings, agree that the “witch hunt” of McCarthyism is a dark mark on our democracy. Particularly in the mid-to-late 1950s, the consensus of America was decidedly anti-communist, but it was also decidedly anti-McCarthyism. It was a living example of ends not justifying the means. Generations grew up with The Crucible being taught in schools and the imagery of colonial Salem’s court and McCarthy’s hearing room being tied together.
What does this mean today? For George Clooney** in 2005, he saw shadows of the 50s in the media and politics of that present day. Jump ahead fifteen years, and I have to wonder how much that context has changed in a rather short time. Clooney, quoting Edward R. Murrow, raises the issue of the responsibility of television and, by extension, film to not just entertain, but to inform. In the case of Murrow, with his direct criticism of McCarthy, he was pushing an envelope – framing newsworthy events of the day within editorializing opinion. From Clooney’s standpoint, one might assume, this duty to inform includes separating right opinions from wrong opinions when “reporting” the news.
But now we are fifteen years into the future of Good Night‘s present. The likes of CBS are no longer leaders in terms of informing the American public. People get their news from a variety of sources and trust in major media*** is low. The old networks, for that matter, can barely hang on to their role as entertainers much less use their bully pulpit to cultivate, convince, and cajole.
Consider also whether a “witch hunt” atmosphere pervades our society today (or, at least, is on the rise). Assuming it is even possible, try to see past the othering and objectively consider from whence restrictions on speech and restrictions on thought come. This isn’t the 1950s, so using the pressure of “the system” to control political dissent doesn’t seem to be possible anymore – if it was even then. Instead, the phrase “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” is used to justify an enforcement of conformity without, ostensibly, restricting speech or using the power of the state to suppress dissent. Is driving a cake-maker out of business really any less onerous than seeing that a newsreader or screenwriter can no longer find employment in the industry? Is there much difference?
So perhaps America is condemned to repeat our periodic witch trials, in one form or another, because the impulses that lead to them are so ingrained in our nature. Furthermore, we’ve proven we can survive it; even thrive. A defining characteristic of the McCarthy period is, despite an overwhelming anti-communist consensus, we rapidly integrated into our national self-image that the freedom of speech and freedom of conscience which our nation protects is more important than the political consensus du jour. Thus far, we’ve always come out of it alright, albeit occasionally at great cost. We are not, after all, like the late Roman Republic, where bribery, murder, intimidation, and might-makes-right were considered politics-as-usual? Are we?
The Catiline Conspiracy is a lesser-known incident in the tumultuous period leading up to the end of the ancient Republic. In popular culture it is overshadowed by Plutarch-cum-Shakespeare and our focus on the life of Julius Caesar. It is Cataline, not Caesar, however who would seem a little more at home in the current election cycle.
Cataline, or Lucius Sergius Catilina, was understood to be descendant from Sergestus, a figure who had come with Aeneas to Italy following the Trojan War. His family name was synonymous with old money and old power, although it lacked the clout that it once wielded as well as the wealth that so often is required to back up power. On top of his ancestry, Cataline had distinguished himself with his military service during tumultuous times. Amazingly, he also avoiding becoming entangled in Sulla’s civil war. While he supported Sulla in the end, he also had marital ties to Marius. With his reputation and name, he expected to eventually rise to the consulship of Rome.
He wasn’t all solemnity and service, however, as it was well known he had his dark side and more than few skeletons in his closet. Cataline was accused of killing his brother-in-law and suspected of killing his first wife and son (so that he could remarry more favorably). He was brought to trial for defiling a Vestal Virgin, which was then a capital crime. Although he was acquitted, it more likely was due to his political connections than his actual innocence. Conspirata portrays him as slightly mad and more than a bit homicidal.
Misbehavior while Governor of Africa resulted in delaying his run for Consul (Senators on trial could not stand for the consulship). The result of the delay was that he found himself running against the ambitious Cicero, rather than the unremarkable Gaius Marcius Figulus. While Cataline’s campaign had massive financial backing from dark money (again, relying on Harris as my source), Cicero was able to secure the unlikely support of the “old guard.” A key plank of Cataline’s platform was a blanket forgiveness of
student (oops, wrong millennium) debt. Cataline lost and blamed Cicero for stealing an election for the office which was his destiny.
By the following election, when Cataline ran a second time, an alliance between Cataline and Julius Caesar had become evident. The two Senators advocated the combination of debt cancellation and distribution of free land to the poor as a vote-grabbing, populist platform. While Caesar was, himself, too young to stand for Consul, he managed to secure the position of Pontifex Maximus – ruffling more than a few feathers. Cataline began to be seen as Caesar’s proxy in the Consul’s seat. Appreciating the threat, (again****, we’ll rely on Harris’ narrative), Cicero conspired with the patrician establishment and wealthy general Lucius Licinius Lucullus to block Cataline from the office. As Consul, Cicero proposed to hold a triumph for Lucullus concurrent to the next election. A legionnaires traveled from distance provinces to celebrate within Rome’s walls voting would be titled toward’s Lucullus’ lieutenent Lucius Licinius Murena, another candidate for the office. Murena won, but it was a dirty election even by Roman standards.
Outright bribery aside (which was both frowned upon and condoned simultaneously), the annual election season was expected to be accompanied by lavish spending by the candidates. Frustrated by the obvious corruption, Cato (the younger) with consular candidate Servius Sulpicius Rufus (a student and friend of Cicero, thrown under the bus to foil Cataline) proposed a law which declared the hosting of banquets and games to be bribery, prosecutable**** under the law.
Up until this point, I feel like it would only take some minor adjustments to match today’s political environment to Cataline’s story. What is also missing is the dark forces behind the scenes that were funding it all. One must assume that the populist leanings of Cataline, Caesar, and the likes of Publius Clodius Pulcher were merely the means to power, not an end unto themselves. Similarly the money and backing of Crassus and Pompey, critical to any conspiracy, was invested according to the self-interest of the investor. Do the politics of today similarly have a unifying purpose behind them all? Or is that sort of thing just the fantasies of the far-flung partisan commentators. What about what happened next in Rome? Could anything like it happen in the here and now?
After losing the election to Murena and Decimus Junius Silanus, Cataline felt that he had been robbed by his birthright not once, but twice, by Cicero. Feeling he had no other recourse, he plotted the murder of Cicero and the armed overthrow of the Roman Republic. Although originally to be an expression of the will of the people over corrupt, moneyed interests, his proposed tactics began turning ugly (again*****). He planned to kill not only Cicero, but other Senators who represented Rome’s ancient nobility. His forces would burn Rome and sow destruction and chaos. He even proposed augmenting his army by instigating a slave uprising and taking the side of their revolution.
For Cataline, the defense of freedom was too important to let tradition, law, order, or much of anything stand in the way of removing the illegitimate politicians from power. For most of Rome, he had taken it too far.
So where are we, now, on this timeline?
*The primary reason for the census was to determine the number of men eligible for military service.
**I’ve long been aware of the fame of Clooney’s aunt. I did not realize that his father was a network anchorman and a (failed) candidate for the U.S. House. Dad, need I say, is a Democrat. Clooney needed to establish himself as an actor well before he became an activist, but Clooney first attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps by majoring in journalism.
***Identification of big media as biased or “fake news” is nearly universal if one allows that the culprit is restricted to those on the other side of the political divide from one’s self.
****In the Roman Republic, there were no public prosecutions. Instead, prosecutions were done by private individuals. After losing the consular election it was Servius Sulpicius Rufus and Cato who prosecuted the winning candidate for bribery.
*****The heavily politicized environment means there are two sides to each of these stories. Cataline was considered a reformer and a friend to the common man by many and one must assume that any of the evils of which he stands accused by history may well have been exaggerated or even fabricated by those who were against him.