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Representation of Caesar and Cato by Sallust

May 11, 2013

In a well-documented Senate session, Sallust recalls an exchange between Caesar and Cato over the fate of five Catilinarians. It is clear that the majority of the Senate want the death penalty imposed but Caesar argues against it, suggesting life imprisonment would be more effective, Cato emphatically disagrees. I believe that the following represent the key points of the speeches of Caesar and Cato.


Sallust records three key points in the speech Caesar makes. The first of these is that when pronouncing a judgement on an individual you ought to be ‘free from hatred and friendship, anger and pity’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 51). Caesar is represented as believing that if you are not free from these you cannot make a decision on the truth. Caesar recounts several examples that elaborate on this point; a man cannot serve ‘at the same time his passions and his best interests’ and ‘if passion possesses you, it holds sway, and the mind is impotent’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 51). This demonstrates Caesar as a thoughtful person who can put aside his interests and analyse a situation based on reason alone. Gelzer (1969, 52) observes that ‘at a meeting where passions ran high, [Caesar] used the language of reflection and objectivity, defended the principles of the populares, yet remained personally unassailable.’ It is this approach that Caesar adopts throughout the speech that allows him to influence the viewpoint of the senate. Caesar in these statements also begins to distance himself from a conspiracy that Cato and others believe he was involved in.

Sallust then recounts that Caesar issued a word of warning that these men are ‘known to the world’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 51). Caesar advises the Senate should be aware that the criminals may continue to be known but their crime forgotten ‘and the people left only with the impression of their dreadful end’ (Gelzer 1969, 51 – 52). It is suggested that the memory of the death penalty, should it be applied, could be used as fuel for political agitators as a means to revolution later; the men could become martyrs.

Caesar condemns the prisoners actions stating that ‘no tortures [are] sufficient for the crimes of these men’ but continues to propose an alternative punishment given that ‘death is a relief from woes, not a punishment’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 51). Caesar proposes that to put the criminals to death would be a relief. In order to truly punish them Caesar suggests that they have their property confiscated and they are put under permanent arrest in appropriate Roman settlements. They could not then rally an army and join an uprising. Caesar in support of his case references the Porcian Laws and other Roman precedents in his arguments; demonstrating that he is a knowledgeable man with a great rhetorical skill and ability to put forward a defence even for a heinous act. Caesar also indicates that he is a philosophical person (Meir 1995, 170) considering how time will reflect on the decrees put forward by the Senate and what a future government may do with them referencing the actions of the Lacedaemonians and Sulla.

The final point Sallust advises that Caesar raised are the actions of the Roman ancestors. Caesar observes that they learnt from foreign powers that were conquered and ‘devised the Porcian law. Which allowed the condemned the alternative of exile’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 51). Caesar questions why the Senate would revert to a new precedent when an appropriate law devised by their wise ancestors, who brought the empire into being, exists. Caesar demonstrates his passionate belief in Roman law observing that the death penalty ‘was inconsistent with Roman Practice’ (Gelzer 1969, 51). The argument represented in the speech Sallust recounts is primarily a warning that ‘the repression of the Catilinarians [is] a possibly dangerous precedent for future proscriptions’ (Canfora, 2007, 59).


Sallust represents Cato’s position to be completely opposed to Caesar, ‘My feelings are very different’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). The first point presented is that the Senate should not dwell on the punishment rather ‘take precautions against them’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). Cato argues for measures to be taken to stop it happening; for once Rome is taken there will be nothing that the Senate can do. Canfora (2007, 55) observes that Cato’s speech, as recorded by Sallust, ‘is memorably harsh and uncompromising’. This is evident in Cato’s points where he indicates that all the senators care about are their possessions and pleasures reminding them that their ‘lives and liberties are at stake’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). Within the text it becomes clear that Cato is extremely tough. Meir (1995, 175) describes him as ‘unshakeable…with a rock-like conviction’ which stems from his stoic perspective.

Gelzer refers to Cato as having ‘the moral principles of Stoicism’ (1969, 53) this is evident throughout the argument and particularly Cato’s statement that he ‘deplored the extravagance and greed of our citizens’ and ‘have never granted to myself or to my impulses indulgence for any transgression’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). These principles appear to have guided his every action and also present him as the very opposite of Caesar (Gelzer 1969 52 -53). Cato in this approach takes the Senate to task over their behaviours making it quite clear that there is no time to mess around considering morality; stating quite firmly that a decision has to be made (Meir 1995, 174). The Senate must decide whether ‘all that we have…is to be ours, or with ourselves is to belong to the enemy’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). Cato uses the Senates desires against them in order to sway opinion whilst putting across his own concerns that by letting the enemy live it could ‘bring ruin upon all good men’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52).

Cato’s third key point is to deconstruct Caesars argument against the death penalty. The well reasoned argument put forward suggest that there would be people who would try to free them all over Italy and that by being lenient it would show weakness to Catiline which could prompt an immediate attack. Cato calls upon the ancestors, like Caesar, to support his case, ‘do not suppose that it was by arms that our forefathers raised our country from obscurity to greatness’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). One such example of this is where he recalls a case of a father who executed his own son because he had disobeyed orders. Cato concludes that he would be quite happy to let the Senate learn from its mistake but that there is no leeway for error in this circumstance as Rome is at stake. Therefore he concludes that it is only fitting that those who conspire against the state should be punished in, ‘the manner of our forefathers’ (Sallust The War with Catiline 52). Sallust in the way he has constructed the speeches ‘compares and contrasts Cato and Caesar’ (Meir 1995, 175). Cato and Caesar were of a similar age and rank but were opposite in every respect. Cato was severe and firm whereas Caesar is presented as generous and flexible. However, both are represented as wanting what was best for the Republic but each took a different approach to this (Meir 1995, 176). I would suggest that Sallust did not want to bring into question anyone’s loyalty to the state. However, it is clear from the representation of Caesar that Sallust admired him more than Cato.

The problem with representation

It is possible to identify characteristic traits within the speeches as recounted by Sallust but exactly how accurate are they. Canfora (2007, 55 – 56) comments that it is likely that the account of Caesars speech is likely to be more representative than that of Cato. However, due to the likely circulation of Cato’s speech it may be less ‘fanciful’. This is one perspective, Sallust’s, and there are other accounts of this debate which need to be considered in order to establish whether the representations of Sallust are accurate. Canfora (2007, 56) also notes that Sallust and Caesar were close for a time and as such Sallust is likely to represent Caesar in a far better light than Cato.



Sallust The War With Catiline Translated by Rolfe, J (1931) LacusCurtius*.html [Accessesd 11/05/13]


Canfora, L. Caesar. The People’s Dictator, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Gelzer, M. Caesar. Politician and Statesman, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968.

Meier, C. Caesar, London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.


From → Julius Caesar

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