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Sallust, The Conspiracy of Cataline, Cato's Speech

From S.A. Hanford's translation (linked in title above), pp. 221-225. Cataline has been found guilty of conspiracy against the Roman state; Cato is responding to Caesar's plea against the death penalty and for life imprisonment, both of which are punishments that departed from precedent. The date is December 5, 63 BC.

I record the speech here for obvious echoes it has for our own context; there is a lot of debate about just who was guilty of what in the Cataline Affair.

When I turn, gentlemen, from contemplating the dangerous situation in which we stand to reflect upon the opinions of some of the previous speakers, the impression made on my mind is very different. If I understood them rightly, they were discussing the punishment to be meted out to these men who have planned to make war on their country, parents, altars, and hearths. But the situation warns us rather to take precautions against them than to deliberate what sentence we shall pass on them. Other crimes can be punished when they have been committed; but with a crime like this, unless you take measures to prevent its being committed, it is too late: once it has been done, it is useless to invoke the law. When a city is captured, its defeated inhabitants lose everything.

I will address myself for a moment to those of you who have always been more concerned for your houses, villas, statues, and pictures, than you have for your country. In heaven's name, men, if you want to keep those cherished possessions, whatever they may be, if you want to have peace and quiet for the enjoyment of your pleasures, wake up while there is still time and lend a hand to defend the Republic. It is not a matter of misappropriated taxes, or wrongs done to subject peoples; it is our liberty and lives that are at stake.

Many a time, gentlemen, have I spoken at length in this House; many a time have I reproached our fellow citizens for their self-indulgence and greed -- and by so doing have made many enemies; for as I had never, in my own conscience, excused myself for any wrongdoing, I found it hard to pardon the sins which other men's passions led them to commit. You took little notice of my remonstrances; but the stability of the state was not impaired by your indifference, because of its great prosperity. Now, however, it is not the question whether our morals are good or bad, nor is it the size and grandeur of the Roman empire that we have to consider. The issue is whether that empire, whatever we may think of it, is going to remain ours, or whether we and it together are to fall in to the hands of enemies. In such a crisis does anyone talk to me of clemency and compassion? For a long time now we have ceased to call things by their proper names. To give away other people's property is called generosity; criminal daring goes by the name of courage. That is why our affairs have come to such a pass. However, since such is our standard of morality, let Romans be liberal, if they want to, at the expense of our subjects, let them be merciful to plunderers of the exchequer. But let them not make a present of our life-blood, and by sparing a handful of criminals go the way to destroy all honest men.

It was an eloquent and polished lecture that Gaius Caesar delivered to you a few minutes ago on the subject of life and death. Evidently he disbelieves the account men give of the next world -- how the wicked go a different way from the good, and inhabit a place of horror, fear, and noisome desolation. Therefore he recommended that the property of the accused should be confiscated and that they should be imprisoned in various towns. No doubt he feared that if they remained in Rome, either the adherents of the conspiracy or a hired mob might rescue them by force. What does he think? Are there bad characters and criminals only at Rome, and not all over Italy? Is reckless violence not more likely to succeed where there is less strength to resist it? His proposals are useless if he apprehends danger from the conspirators; and if amid such universal fear he alone is not afraid, I have the more reason to be afraid for myself and for you. In making your decision about Publius Lentulus and the other prisoners, you must realize that you will also be determining the fate of Cataline's army and of the whole body of conspirators. The more energetically you act, the more will their courage be shaken. Show the slightest weakness, and you will soon have the whole pack of them here barking defiance at you.

Do not imagine that it was by force of arms that our ancestors transformed a petty state into this great Republic. If it were so, it would now be at the height of its glory, since we have more subjects and citizens, more arms and horses, than they had. It was something quite different that made them great -- something that we are entirely lacking in. They were hard workers at home, just rulers abroad; and to the council-chamber they brought untrammelled minds, neither racked by consciousness of guilt nor enslaved by passion. We have lost these virtues. We pile up riches for ourselves while the state is bankrupt. We sing the praises of prosperity -- and idle away our lives. Good men or bad -- it is all one: all the prizes that merit ought to win are carried off by ambitious intriguers. And no wonder, when each one of you schemes only for himself, when in your private lives you are slaves to pleasure, and here in the Senate House the tools of money or influence. The results is that when an assault is made upon the Republic, there is no one there to defend it.

I will say no more on that subject. A plot has been hatched by citizens of the highest rank to set fire to their native city. Gauls, the deadliest foes of everything Roman, have been called to arms. The hostile army and its leader are ready to descend upon us. And are you still hesitating and unable to decide how to treat public enemies taken within your walls? I suggest you take pity on them -- they are young men led astray by ambition; armed though they are, let them go. But mind what you are doing with clemency and compassion: if they unsheathe the sword, you may have reason to regret your attitude. Oh yes, you say, the situation is certainly ugly, but you are not afraid of it. On the contrary, you are shaking in your shoes; but you are so indolent and weak that you stand irresolute, each waiting for someone else to act -- trusting, doubtless, to the gods, who have often preserved our Republic in times of deadly peril. I tell you that vows and womanish supplications will not secure divine aid; it is by vigilance, action, and wise counsel, that all success is achieved. If you give way to sloth and cowardice, the gods turn a deaf ear to your entreaties: their wrath makes them your enemies.

In bygone days, during a war with the Gauls, Aulus Manilus Torquatus had his son put to death for fighting the enemy against orders. That noble youth paid with his life for an excess of valour; and do you, who are trying a set of ruthless traitors to their country, hesitate about the appropriate sentence to pass? If their past lives are urged in extenuation of their crime, by their past lives let them be judged. Spare Lentulus for his high rank -- if he ever spared his own chastity and good name, or showed any respect for god or man. Pardon the youth Cethegus -- if this is not already the second time he has made war on his country. As for Gabinius, Statilius, and Caseparius, if they had not been utterly unscrupulous, they would never plotted as they did against the state.

To conclude, gentlemen: if we could afford to risk the consequences of making a mistake, I should be quite willing to let experience convince you of your folly, since you scorn advice. But we are completely encircled. Cataline and his army are ready to grip us by the throat, and there are other foes within the walls, in the very heart of our city. We can make no plans or preparations without its being known -- an additional reason for acting quickly. This therefore is my recommendation. Whereas by the criminal designs of wicked citizens the Republic has been subjected to serious danger; and whereas, by the testimony of Titus Volturcius and the envoys of the Allobroges, confirmed by the prisoners' own confession, they stand convicted of having planned massacre, arson, and other foul atrocities against their fellow citizens and their country: that, having admitted their criminal intention, they should be put to death as if they had been caught in the actual commission of capital offences, in accordance with ancient custom.