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The Manipulation of Historical and Moral Turning Points in Sallust: A Comparative Perspective

Brian Mumper

Rutgers University

      One of the chief attributes of Sallust’s historiographical style, across his corpus, is his emphasis on moral turning points in Rome’s history. This paper reconsiders our understanding of these turning points in Sallust, and argues that they serve as a literary and narratological device for conveying his particular interpretation of Roman history. Moreover, I illustrate that Sallust’s use of turning points as a literary tool finds both precedents in earlier historiographers and confirmation in his historiographical successors.

     Scholars widely agree that in all his works, Carthage’s destruction in 146 B.C.E. is Sallust’s major turning point. It signals not the very beginning of moral decline (for this was present iam inde a principio: Hist. 1.11M; 1.7M; BC 6.1, 3, 7; 9.1, 39.3, 51.4), but the beginning of headlong decline (BC 10, BJ 41, Hist. 1.11, 12, 16M). Despite this consensus on what Sallust's moral turning points are, scholars largely have neglected to explore how his turning points may be used narratologically, or as literary devices that shape the reader's view of the course of Roman moral history. Instead, some have focused on the historical inaccuracies in Sallust’s choice of 146 (Earl 1961, Goodyear 1982, Lintott 1977, Levick 1982); others have explained his idealized picture of pre-146 history as an unintentional result of excessive focus on concordia, which blinded him to other causal factors for moral decline (McGushin 1977; sic Earl 1961). Even when general acknowledgement is made that Sallust’s “schematic” view of earlier history is shaped by literary concerns (Paul 1984, Dunsch 2006), the further step has not been taken of applying this view to understanding Sallust’s deployment of turning points.

     In particular, considering Sallust’s turning points early in the BC through a narratological lense changes how we evaluate his supposedly idealizing digression on early Rome: keeping in mind that for Sallust vice existed at Rome well before 146, such a narratological approach allows us to perceive that the reason Sallust whitewashes pre-146 Roman history in BC 6-9 is to create a sharp moral dividing line precisely at 146. This manoeuvre benefits Sallust by further highlighting the unprecedented decadence of the post-146 era and specifically that of Catiline himself, who came of age in that troubled period, and whom Sallust, through narrative framing, marks as its direct, quintessential offspring (BC 5.6, 5.8-9; 14.1).

     However, Sallust introduces a second fulcrum for precipitous decline in BC 11.4-12.5: Sulla’s return from Asia in the 80s. This may seem to make 146 less of a watershed moment, but I will argue this “Sullan” turning point actually reinforces the watershed status of 146; for Sallust’s addition of this “Sullan” turning point helps build the entire post-146 era in BC 10-12 into a continuous narrative of headlong decline, starting from 146 and continuing down through Sulla’s regime. In yet another way, therefore, Sallust has crafted his narrative of prior Roman history to underscore how the commencement of Catiline’s depravity in the 80s issues directly from this unbroken tradition of headlong decline begun in 146.

     Has Sallust taken excessive license in narrating Roman moral history? Does his use of multiple turning points suggest inconsistency, perhaps even historiographical solecism?  Comparative analysis reveals that earlier historians such as Polybius and Piso offered precedents for using two (or more) turning points to map moral change. Moreover, this usage was followed by several prominent writers after Sallust, including Livy, Pliny, Florus, and others, which suggests that Sallust’s employment of multiple turning points was considered an acceptable literary strategy by many of his contemporaries and successors. The moral turning point in Sallust, and in historiography more generally, is therefore like any literary device: it can be shifted about, duplicated, and ordered and emphasized in different ways – all according to the needs of a particular author or a particular context.

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Time as an Organizing Principle

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