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Non ut historicum sed ut oratorem: The contio and Sallust’s historiography

Lydia Spielberg

Gratianus Licinianus knew an opinion that Sallust should be read “not as a historian, but as an orator: he criticizes the times and chastises vice and inserts contiones" (32C). Modern scholarship, conversely, has fruitfully read the speeches in Sallust’s histories historiographically, as approaches to the past that are foils to Sallust’s own (e.g. Grethlein 2006, Feldherr 2012). Sallust, however, insists that his histories have a social function, claiming that his otium will be more useful to the state than others' political activity (BJ 4.4). I want to return to the idea of the historian as a quasi-orator who addresses a moral and political critique to an audience, his readers. For this historian, inset speeches become models and foils of genre as well as of historical methodology.

I argue in this paper that Sallust aligns his history specifically with the contio, the archetypical genre of public oratory. Like a contional oration, historiography informs and guides the judgments of its audience, fitting them into a larger picture of Roman identity. But whereas political oratory, Sallust shows, is inevitably tainted by self-interest and partisan politics, however much the speaker may pretend to have pure motives, the historian’s distance and concern for the truth make his genre a kind of "speech" that remains publicly oriented.

Recent work on the contio emphasizes the ideological importance of this genre, in which the orator transmitted information to the public, revealed (his opponents’) misdeeds and often inveighed against corruption and injustice, educating the idealized citizen community from the rostra (e.g. Fantham 1993, Morstein-Marx 2004, Mouritsen 2013). Sallust, moreover, made his oratorical mark as a contionator, cited repeatedly by Asconius as one of the tribunes whose cotidianae contiones incited the plebs against Milo and Cicero in 52 (37C, 51C). The prevalence of contiones in Sallust’s works attests to his continued interest in the genre, and I argue that Sallust presents his history and his picture of Roman decline in terms typical of the contional speaker: only he is motivated by public interest and not factional politics, and only he can guide his readers through the deceptive political rhetoric around them (e.g. BC 4.2, 38.2-3, BJ 41.1-5).

I then turn to the contiones within Sallust’s works, focusing on the case of the tribune Memmius in the BJ, through whom Sallust shows clearly how historiography overlaps, extends and improves the informational and social-critical functions of contional oratory. Memmius’ frequent contiones duplicate the historian's work in subject-matter, as Memmius explains Jugurtha’s history of misdeeds and the collusion of corrupt magistrates in narratives that run parallel to Sallust’s own (27.2, 30.3, 33.4), and also in their theme of moral outrage (31.1-29).

Through Memmius, however, Sallust also demonstrates the limitations of a contional speech, bound as it is to the politics of one side or another in party strife, and puts forward historiography as a genre better able to do the job. This is shown first through a contional failure: Memmius cannot indict the nobiles whom Jugurtha has bribed when he cannot make Jugurtha testify against them during a contio (33.3-4). Sallust juxtaposes this moment of Jugurthine silence with Jugurtha’s single instance of direct speech in the monograph, his famous dictum that Rome is an urbs venalis (35.10). Where the orator is thwarted, Jugurtha does give "testimony" for the historian's case against avaritia throughout Roman society. Secondly, the excesses of the quaestio Mamiliana, where Memmius’ impassioned rhetoric finally propels popularis revenge (40.1-5) contrast with Sallust's use of “contional” methods of revelation and denunciation to diagnose and convict not individual, personal enemies but Rome as a whole of pervasive corruption.

Finally, I argue that such critiques in Sallust are not limited to the past events explicitly encompassed in his histories, but attach to the present as well: through historiography, Sallust can achieve in reality the contional ideal of speaking truthfully for and to the commonwealth.

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Civic Responsibility

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