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A Spartan Ghost at Pistoria: Xenophon's Agesilaus and the End of Sallust's Bellum Catilinae

Marian Makins

            This paper explores a long-neglected intertextual allusion to shed new light on one of the most striking endings in Roman literature: Sallust’s portrayal of the aftermath of the Battle of Pistoria (62 BCE) in the final chapter of his Bellum Catilinae.

            Nearly a century has passed since Norwegian philologist Eiliv Skard published a brief note (Skard 1925) pointing out a correspondence between the opening words of Sall. Cat. 61 and the scene in Xenophon’s Agesilaus depicting the aftermath of the Battle of Coronea (394 BCE). The two passages begin as follows:

            ἐπεί γε μὴν ἔληξεν ἡ μάχη, παρῆν δὴ θεάσασθαι…  (Xen. Ages. 2.14)

            sed confecto proelio tum uero cerneres…  (Sall. Cat. 61.1)

Some scholars have since acknowledged this verbal reminiscence (e.g., Avenarius 1957, Vretska 1976, Perutelli 2004), but none has pursued the possibility of a more meaningful intertextual engagement with Xenophon’s encomium, preferring to compare passages in authors such as Thucydides (Perrochat 1949) and Lucretius (Fowler 1997). While I do not deny the validity of these parallels, I contend that taking the reference to Xenophon seriously will reveal another dimension of Sallust’s text that would otherwise be missed. In particular, and in complement to two recent studies focusing on the two groups whose presence dominates the end of the Bellum Catilinae—the rebels whose citizen status is problematically re-inscribed by evidence of their heroic deaths (Melchior 2010), and the Republican soldiers who presage a continuation of civil strife through their reactions to the dead (Batstone 2010)—I will show that the allusion to Xenophon points up a conspicuous absence, namely that of the Republican commanders.

            I begin the paper by briefly explaining the verbal echo quoted above. Next, I explore two further parallels between the two passages, one structural (vivid description of the unburied dead is followed in both by an account of actions carried out the next day by soldiers in the victorious army), the other thematic (both highlight the difficulty of distinguishing victory from defeat in civil war). I then discuss the most obvious difference between the two episodes—the absence in Cat. 61 of a strong, virtuous military leader—which the foregoing parallels only accentuate.

            At Ages. 2.14, Xenophon depicts an exemplary general and statesman who not only imposes order on a chaotic battlefield scene, but also displays a Philhellenism that precludes his experiencing victory over fellow-Greeks as a triumph (cp. Palazzo 2011). Indeed, subtle structural and verbal signaling connects Agesilaus' respectful treatment of the 'enemy' dead with his lack of tyrannical ambition. Sallust, by contrast, ends his monograph with Republican soldiers still wandering leaderless among the corpses on the field, collecting spoils from fellow-Romans and reacting emotionally in accordance with their own interests and allegiances. Neither the allegedly ailing commander-in-chief, C. Antonius Hybrida, nor his legate M. Petreius ever appears to reinstate military discipline or determine the fate of the dead, both of which tasks Agesilaus carries out seemingly as a matter of course. Sallust's readers may also have recalled an alternative tradition concerning Hybrida, which ascribed his absence from the battle to fear and resentment of Catiline rather than illness (Cass. Dio 37.39.4).

           Thus, for those who perceived the allusion to Xenophon—and evidence suggests at least some Romans would have done so (e.g., Cic. ad Fam. 5.12.17; Nep. Ages. 1.1 and 5.2)—the specter of the Spartan king at Pistoria would have underscored their need for a kind of effective, ethical leadership that had already come to be viewed as a thing of the distant past.

Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Kingship

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