Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review: Sallust: Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, Histories

Just finished this relatively short book (165 pages, discounting notes and the introduction). It’s cut into three pieces: Catiline’s War, the Jugurthine War, and the fragmentary Histories, with the Jugurthine War being considerably longer than the other two (which is fortunate, as it’s also the most interesting).

Sallust wrote of events in the late 2nd century and first half of the 1st century BC. At this time the Roman Republic had utterly destroyed their feared enemy Carthage, and, with it, had begun the process of dissolving Roman virtue in arrogance and prosperity excessive to the point of luxury.

Sallust’s writing has a fatalistic, doomed feeling to it (not unlike the general sentiment of Battlestar Galactica). He writes of a Rome that’s master of the world, but whose leading lights have become haughty with the people and susceptible to luxury (which makes them open to bribes and corruption, to the detriment of the commonwealth). At the same time, the masses have sunk into timid obedience, their tribunes shorn of power at the hands of Sulla.

Given what happened later that century, it has a prescient undertone.

I had some knowledge of the Jugurthine War beforehand, thanks to Gareth Sampson’s The Crisis of Rome, but none whatsoever of either Catiline’s War or the Histories.

Catiline’s War essentially casts Catilina as a conspirator villain, and Cicero [at this time consul] the heroic fellow who defeats him. It’s a fairly concise episode depicting Rome’s descent into vice. I had a little difficulty getting into it (lots of names, most of whom I’d never heard of and found it a bit tricky recalling who was who).

The Jugurthine War is a little longer, and tracks the remarkable career of Jugurtha, exemplary soldier, fratricidal war-monger, betrayer and king. This very enjoyable episode also includes important characters from Roman history, particularly Gaius Marius (who eventually defeated the Cimbri and was married to the aunt of Julius Caesar) and Sulla (who served as Marius’ deputy during the war, but later came into conflict with him). Jugurtha was notable for enjoying some success bribing the Roman Senate to ignore his fratricide and seizure of Numidia (not a Roman possession at this point, but a Roman ally).

The Histories are in fragments, several of them complete letters, others much shorter. It seems to cover a later period than Catiline’s War, with opposing sides addressing the Senate, and an interesting final letter, which was written by Mithridates to the King of Parthia.


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