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Sallust and the Mytilenean Debate

Charles Muntz

University of Arkansas

The influence of the Greek historian Thucydides on the Roman Sallust has long been noted, particularly regarding language and style, but also in famous passages of Thucydides that Sallust uses as models (Patzer, Parker, Syme, Scanlon). An educated Roman audience would have been familiar with Thucydides, and recognized both how Sallust reworks these passages and how he uses these intertextual relations to further comment on the history and personages of his own time. One such passage occurs in the Bellum Catilinae, when the Senate debates the fate of the captured conspirators, and initially leans towards executing all of them. This leads to the speech of Julius Caesar (51) arguing against this course of action, which nearly persuades the Senate until Marcus Cato’s rebuttal (52) convinces the Senators to follow their original inclination. Thucydides’s famous Mytilenean debate between Diodotus and Cleon before the Athenian assembly is a clear model for Sallust, and numerous similarities in phrasing and argument have been noted, as well as important differences (Scanlon). But the extent to which Sallust is using his reworking of Thucydides to force his audience to more fully consider the role the Catilinarian conspiracy and its aftermath play in the civil wars that followed as well as to critique the two great statesmen involved, Caesar and Cato, has not been fully appreciated.

Sallust links Caesar with Diodotus and Cato with Cleon. This is clear through numerous verbal echoes throughout both speeches. From the outset these equations create tension between the two texts, since Cleon was introduced by Thucydides as “the most violent” of the Athenians and is portrayed unfavorably elsewhere, whereas Cato is eulogized by Sallust as one of the two greatest Romans of his time. But the connection with Cleon forces the audience to consider Sallust’s praise for Cato's integrity and strictness in a different light, especially given the severity he calls for in his speech. Caesar on the other hand is connected with Diodotus, clearly a statesman of considerable ability but one who was unknown outside this passage of Thucydides. By this pairing Sallust enhances Caesar’s stature as a statesman who made a major impact during his career compared with Diodotus.

Another example of Sallust’s engagement with Thucydides involves the outcome of the debate itself. In both cases the issue revolves around the severity of punishment, with Caesar and Diodotus arguing for a lesser punishment, and Cato and Cleon arguing for a harsher one. However, whereas in Thucydides the milder penalty succeeds, in Sallust the more severe prevails, turning the model on its head and forcing the audience to consider the implications of executing the Catilinarian conspirators in a completely different light. For instance, a major part of Diodotus’s and Caesar’s argument revolves around the danger of setting bad precedents with good intentions (Mitchell). But whereas Diodotus’s warnings deal with setting precedents for future Athenian policy, Caesar cites examples of bad precedents from Rome’s past, including the dictatorship of Sulla. This forces the audience to examine the problems of precedent in terms of their own history, and ponder unintended consequences more carefully. In particular, the audience would be well aware that the execution of the conspirators contributed to the rise of Clodius Pulcher and Cicero’s exile. But Sallust invites his audience to consider this even further by having Caesar warn of what a future consul with an army might do. So by drawing attention to this reversal of the outcome of the Mytilenean debate Sallust is forcing his audience to reevaluate the outcome of the Catilinarian conspiracy and its role in the Roman politics and civil wars. It also forces a further reevaluation of the speech that Sallust gives to Cato, and the subsequent eulogy of both leaders, and requires the audience to more closely consider how Caesar will embrace the very precedents he warns about.

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Roman Republican Prose and its Afterlife

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