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Evidence and Narrative in Mrimes

Catilinarian Conspiracy
Michle Lowrie
Osip Brik, perhaps the keenest of the Russian Formalists, . . .
used to say that political conspirators are tried and con-
demned only for unsuccessful attempts at a forcible
upheaval, because in the case of a successful coup it is the
conspirators who assume the role of judges and prosecutors.
Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature
Osip Briks observation, while an overstatement, concerns the location of
power. His analysis is formal: it has to do with the vicissitudes of point of view.
Who judges the conspirators to be such, and at what point? Do conspirators ever
think of themselves by that name, or is it their perception that they are engaged
in legitimate resistance to unjust rule? These questions have to do with story-
telling: without narrative there can be no conspiracy, only acts, whose mean-
ing lies open to interpretation. Who controls the narrative has deeply political
consequences that can lead, under some conditions, to life or death. A further
aspect of Briks observation is that conspirators actions are curtailed before
they can emerge in full felicity. For them not to prevail, there is need for a pre-
emptive strike.
The Catilinarian conspiracy is a signal instance of prejudgment about
thwarted action. In 63 BCE several leaders of this conspiracy were put to
New German Critique 103, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2008
DOI 10.1215/0094033X-2007-016 2008 by New German Critique, Inc.
10 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
death without being tried according to Roman law.
The judgment had already
been made and acted onthe conspirators were strangledbefore a trial in
front of the Roman people could take place. Conspiracy sparks both episte-
mological and political crisis. The task is to articulate the relation between
the two. I propose that in the case of the Catilinarian conspiracy and its recep-
tion, the crisis revolves around interiority and emergence. Citizens act in
such a way as to undermine the state from within, but the threat these actions
pose elicits countermeasures to prevent their full emergence. These actions
can be judged conspiratorial only if they are prevented from full achieve-
ment, because their success would result in a different judgment. But how can
we evaluate objectively a story that only ever partially emerges? The secrecy
shrouding conspirators actions increases our desire to know, and this is one
reason that the Catilinarian conspiracy has a long narrative afterlife. The trau-
matic moment of curtailment results in renarration, which can only ever be
incomplete. I am going to work from outside in, peeling the conceptual onion
from renarration, to narration, to the evidence, to the emergence of events,
and nally to the emergency that is conspiracy. In this particular case, each of
these is only ever partial.
Prosper Mrime, the author of Carmen, had a taste for dramatic stories
of intrigue, passion, and violent revenge.
When he turned his attention to writ-
ing history, the Catilinarian conspiracy offered an opportunity to exercise his
literary and historical acumen.
It is probably one of the best-documented
1. For an introductory overview of the history of the Catilinarian conspiracy see the historical
essays in Susan O. Shapiro, O Tempora! O Mores! Ciceros Catilinarian Orations (Norman: Uni-
versity of Oklahoma Press, 2005), which also offers a substantial bibliography on the topic. For an
analysis according to Giorgio Agambens theory of sovereignty see Michle Lowrie, Sovereignty
before the Law: Agamben and the Roman Republic, Law and Humanities 1 (2007): 3155.
2. Kenneth H. Waters claims that the importance of the Catilinarian conspiracy has been
grossly exaggerated and notes that this is largely due to its having been recorded (Cicero, Sallust,
and Catiline, Historia 19 [1970]: 195n3). His main argument is that Cicero largely fabricated the
affair. He gives a hypothetical reconstruction of the events as he supposed they happened.
3. See Eileen Boyd Sivert, Fear and Confrontation in Prosper Mrimes Narrative Fiction,
Nineteenth-Century French Studies 6 (1978): 21330.
4. Prosper Mrime, La conjuration de Catilina (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2000). Jean Lger
collects references to classical texts in Mrimes letters and shows that he studied the ancients
throughout his life (Mrime professeur de latin, Revue universitaire 65 [1956]: 1219). Corry
Cropper sees a close overlap between Mrimes political and literary concerns in Prosper Mri-
me and the Subversive Historical Short Story, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 33 (2004):
5774, and analyzes several short stories as an outlet for making subversive social and political
commentaries (57). The contemporary context of La conjuration de Catilina is beyond the scope
of this article but would be well worth pursuing. Mrime draws an intriguing contrast between
ancient and recent French history: Nous sommes trop habitus juger les anciens avec les prjugs
Michle Lowrie 11
political upheavals in ancient history. As he lists in his account of his sources
or, as he calls them, witnesses (tmoins) (rst at 38)
Cicero, who was con-
sul that year, left four speeches, all of which Mrime regards as genuine, how-
ever much they were written or rewritten after the fact. We also have Sallusts
monograph, the Bellum Catilinae, written about twenty years after the events it
narrates, as well as a slew of less exhaustive accounts in Cassius Dio and the
But by its nature as a conspiracy, something in this already well-told nar-
rative needs supplementation. Mrimes rst sentence identies his task as one
of renarration: Jentreprends, aprs Salluste, de raconter la conjuration de Cat-
ilina (I undertake, after Sallust, to narrate the Catilinarian conspiracy) (37).
The problem is that the witnesses do not tell the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth, as they swear to do under American law. Their truth,
besides being contradictory and incomplete, does not tell the whole truth in the
sense of providing reasons, without which the story is incomprehensible. Why
would a privileged, though impoverished, member of the aristocracy, namely,
Catiline, attempt to burn down the city of Rome just because he lost an elec-
tion? Mrime identies his task as one of illumination and explanation: Je
cherche jeter quelque lumire sur un des vnements les plus extraordinaires
des annales romaines; je voudrais expliquer ce que Salluste a peint avec tant
dart (I seek to throw some light on one of the most extraordinary events in the
Roman annals; I would like to explain what Sallust painted with such great art)
(37). Despite the wealth of sources, the conspiracy remains in the dark.
Mrimes stated aims are no different from what any modern historian
would say about reconstructing any series of events in ancient history. The dif-
ference is that because the object of his inquiry is a conspiracy, a greater
ou les sophismes de leur histoire. La ntre a une morale plus svre; elle exige que les lois soient
appliques meme ceux qui les veulent dtruire (We are too accustomed to judging the ancients
with the prejudices or sophistries of their history. Ours has a more severe moral; it requires that the
law be applied even to those who want to destroy it) (271).
5. References to primary sources are given in parentheses in the text: Mrime as cited in n. 4;
Ciceros Catilinarian orations as in M. Tulli Ciceronis Orationes, ed. Albert C. Clark, vol. 1
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1905); Sallust as in C. Sallusti Crispi, ed. L. D. Reynolds (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1991). All translations are my own.
6. For the sources available to Sallust see Sallusts Bellum Catilinae, ed. John T. Ramsey, 2nd
ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 89. On Mrimes complex intertextual practices see
Pierre Zoberman, Mrime et la pratique intertextuelle, ou les msaventures dun rcit, French
Forum 6 (1981): 3649. Zoberman analyzes how Mrime manipulates allusion to ction in his
ction (40) under the sign of the literary: Le propre du text, voire sa condition de littrarit, cest sa
capacit inscrire, rcrire dautres texts (The property of a text, that is, its condition of literarity,
is its capacity to inscribe, to rewrite other texts) (42). Mrimes historiographical practice sets the
literary on its head.
12 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
degree of secrecy than usual obscures the events. Mrimes job as renarrator
reduplicates that of the ancient detectiveslargely Cicerowho brought the
events to light. Mrimes description of his task displays his awareness of
the epistemological regress. To effect ltude des caractres et des intrts
propres aux personnages de ce grand drame (the study of the characters and
interests proper to the actors of this great drama), Mrime must interrogate
witnesses who have already come to conclusions about the agents, rather
than the agents themselves (37). The witnesses too have characters, passions,
and interests: Avant dinterroger les tmoins, il convient dtudier leur car-
actre, leurs passions, leurs intrts (Before interrogating the witnesses, it is
tting to study their character, their passions, their interests) (38). From the
witnesses uniformity of judgment, he concludes that original documents
were rare and that the insufciency of information was due to the interests
of contemporaries. Thus he ends up analyzing not the event but the account
given of it by contemporaries or near contemporaries who had already judged
it a narrative of a certain kind, namely, a conspiracy. He views his task as a
historian not to measure the given accounts against countervailing evidence.
There is none. We cannot attempt to produce a counternarrative that would
undo the prejudgment of our sources. His task is rather to give a further nar-
rative, such as to make sense of the ones we have, and the story he tells is
of the uctuations in senatorial power in the decades after Sullas reforms,
which stripped so many powers from the representatives of the people (the
tribunes) and handed them over to the Senate.
As an epistemological prob-
lem, telling the story of a conspiracy does not differ in kind from other his-
toriographical problems.
The difference is that the locus of the original events
in secrecy creates an overlap in the challenges faced by contemporaries and
later historians alike. Secrecy, furthermore, attracts renarration. What is
unusual about the Catilinarian conspiracy in comparison, say, with the con-
spiracy theories on the assassination of President Kennedy is that the narra-
tives are not corrective but expansive. They are, however, similarly traumatic
in that people feel the need to tell the story over and over again, long after
the fact.
7. Shapiros historical essays in O Tempora! O Mores! conrm Mrimes overall story of the
vicissitudes of senatorial power.
8. Victoria E. Pagn makes conspiracy paradigmatic for historiography: it is an ideal circum-
stance in which to observe how a historian confronts the limits of knowledge (Conspiracy Narra-
tives in Roman History [Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004], 4). For knowledge gaps, secrecy,
and their consequences on narrative see also Pagns comments on 3, 7, 22, and, for Sallust in par-
ticular, 32.
Michle Lowrie 13
Let us take a step back in the epistemological regress, since Mrime
faces many of the same problems of weighing evidence that Cicero faced. The
members of a conspiracy cannot be charged with anything until their actions
see the light of day. They are not conspirators until they have actually suc-
ceeded in producing an event, even if the event fails of its intention.
Even plan-
ning constitutes an event, but it does not carry the same penalties, and it tends to
remain hidden. By threatening Catiline such that he actually left Rome, Cicero
claims that he illum ex occultis insidiis in apertum latrocinium coniecimus
(threw him from hidden treachery into open brigandage) (Cat. 2.1), and the
third Catilinarian oration reads as a cloak-and-dagger story Cicero narrates
to the Roman people on how proof emerged to back up his claims. Up to this
point, Sallust tells us that Cicero was relying on spies. Although they informed
him that some of the Catilinarians would show up at his house to try to murder
him, and he was thus able to thwart their nefarious plans, the social status of the
spies made them unreliable for proof;
furthermore, the failed attempted mur-
der meant that no actionable event had occurred. In the third Catilinarian, a
recurrent word encapsulates the overlap between action and revelation: mani-
fest. Manifestus in Latin originally meant caught in the act, in French pris
la main, and later developed the meaning clearly visible, conspicuous.
The event in which the Catilinarians are caught is a textual event.
me give my own textually dependent renarration. A Gallic tribe, the Allo-
broges, sends an embassy to Rome to ask for debt relief. They end up meeting
with some of the Catilinarians, who explain the plot against the state, which
includes provisions for debt relief. The Allobroges are tempted but uneasy.
They report the plot to the authorities, which means Cicero, and agree to serve
as double agents. They get the Catilinarians to write letters to their leaders
back in Gaul, inciting them to revolt, and collude in the seizure of these letters
by the praetors sent by Cicero to do just that. They and Titus Volturcius, a
9. Some conspiracies simply vanish, leaving just a trace. Pagn treats the so-called rst Cat-
ilinarian conspiracy under this guise (ibid., 30, 40).
10. Pagn examines Fulvia as an instance of the unreliability accorded the women who betrayed
conspiracies (ibid., 45; for general comments see 1617). Mrime comments on Ciceros unwill-
ingness to rely on those of unreliable character (146) or low social status (192) for proof before the
11. Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet, eds., Dictionnaire tymologique de la langue latine:
Histoire des mots (Paris: Klincksieck, 1939); P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1982).
12. For an able analysis see Shane Butler, The Hand of Cicero (London: Routledge, 2002),
85102. Butler provides evidence for the use of documents as testimony and their role in Roman
semiotic culture (100).
14 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
Roman envoy sent with messages to Catiline, who has now joined his army
outside the city, are arrested at the Mulvian Bridge, north of Rome. Volturcius,
the Allobroges, and the letters are all escorted back to Rome, where Cicero
insists on calling an emergency meeting of the Senate to witness the opening
of the letters. The leaders of the conspiracy who had remained in Rome are
also arrested and brought to the Senate. Cicero makes a dramatic gesture and
lays his hand on Lentulus, the conspirator with the highest rank, praetor, as he
brings him into the Senate (Cat. 46.5). Lentulus is literally pris la main
(taken by the hand, caught red-handed). The letters are opened one by one as
their authors are introduced individually, with the whole Senate there to wit-
ness their reactions. Each recognizes his own seal, his own handwriting, and,
after initial resistance, confesses. Ciceros description of the evidence for the
conspiracy is twofold: the physical evidence of the letters and, even more
important, the interpretable signs on the conspirators faces.
Ac mihi quidem, Quirites, cum illa certissima visa sunt argumenta atque
indicia sceleris, tabellae, signa, manus, denique unius cuiusque confessio,
tum multo certiora illa, color, oculi, voltus, taciturnitas. Sic enim obstupu-
erant, sic terram intuebantur, sic furtim non numquam inter sese aspicie-
bant ut non iam ab aliis indicari sed indicare se ipsi viderentur.
[And indeed, citizens, both those things seemed to me very sure evidence
and signs of crime, namely, the tablets, the seals, the handwriting, and nally
the confession of each and every one of them, but also those much surer
things, their color, their eyes, their expressions, their silence. For they were
astounded and looked at the ground; they sometimes exchanged glances
among themselves in such a way that they no longer seemed to be informed
on by others but to inform on their very selves.] (Cat. 3.13)
They had guilt written, as it were, all over their faces. Their characters are as
much evidence as what they say. The Senate at any rate is convinced, and the
speech given to the peopleitself written down after the factconvincingly
reports on the scene of the revelation of evidence as itself convincing. Here
the texts come closest to offering Mrime the capacity to judge the charac-
ter of the conspirators, but we might perhaps be forgiven for nding this
evidence rather opaque and the mediating textual layers obfuscating.
A comparison of the letters evidence will both conrm the standard
interpretation and call into question the accurate transmission of evidence. We
are lucky in having two extraordinary witnesses to the textual event that was
the writing of the letters. Both Cicero and Sallust give us verbatim the content
of Lentuluss letter to Catiline. This was the letter apprehended in the hands of
Michle Lowrie 15
Volturcius. The accounts match in content, but do not offer the same words.
Ciceros version can be translated thus:
Quis sim scies ex eo quem ad te misi. Cura ut vir sis et cogita quem in locum
sis progressus. Vide ecquid tibi iam sit necesse et cura ut omnium tibi auxilia
adiungas, etiam inmorum.
[You will know who I am from the one I sent to you. Be sure to be a man
and think over to what place you have progressed. See if there is anything
else now necessary to you and make sure to join the help of all to yourself,
even the lowest.] (Cat. 3.12)
Sallusts thus:
Qui sim ex eo quem ad te misi cognosces. Fac cogites in quanta calamitate
sis, et memineris te virum esse. Consideres quid tuae rationes postulent; aux-
ilium petas ab omnibus, etiam ab inmis.
[Who I am from the one I sent you, you will learn. Make sure to think over in
what a calamity you are, and remember you are a man. Consider what your
accounts demand: seek aid from all, even from the lowest.] (Cat. 44.5)
Are the discrepancies merely a function of the differences between Ciceros
and Sallusts styles? If so, would that imply that both versions differ from the
original? Or is Cicero providing the original wording and Sallust reworking it
to t his style,
or vice versa? These questions are emblematic of the non-
transparency of our sources. Even the content, on which Cicero and Sallust
are in agreement, is not transparent. Lentuluss identity and Catilines alike are
occluded by not being named. Volturcius is necessary as a witness to testify
both that the letter came from Lentulus and that it was addressed to Catiline.
As Mrime points out, all Lentulus needed to do was deny that Catiline was
the addressee (200). His seal convicted him as its author, but it was his silence
that passed for a confession that Volturciuss story was right despite the possi-
bility of refutation (201). Volturcius had furthermore only recently joined the
conspiracy and could easily have been made to seem unreliable.
13. Mrime conates the two sources and provides his own translation (200).
14. This is the view of Ronald Syme, who provides some history of the discussion (Sallust
[Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964], 72n56).
15. Robin Seager argues that Lentuluss letter does not prove that he and Catiline had plotted
together before this point and asks why Catiline would need Volturcius to identify the sender. He
should have been able to recognize the seal if they had already conspired (Iusta Catilinae, Histo-
ria 22 [1973]: 24445).
16 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
What Volturcius provides is the connective tissuethe narrativethat
makes the evidence interpretable, and to that extent his job differs in situation
but not in kind from Mrimes. The crucial difference is that he was an eye-
witness who would speak only when granted immunity from prosecution. For
Mrime, the only consequence to be feared was a failure to be elected to the
Acadmie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres, and in that he succeeded
through his research.
He gets the material for his narrative at several
removes: Volturcius, then Cicero, then Sallust and other ancient historians,
and the intervening scholarship on this material.
With each layer, the narra-
tive becomes more coherent, but perhaps farther from the truth.
How can a
historian, who weighs all the evidence at a distance, have any condence in
the explanation of motives and causes? Even the ancients dismissed accusa-
tions on the basis of their improbability. Sallust reports that the Senate of-
cially judged false L. Tarquiniuss testimony against Crassus and that Tar-
quin ius was locked up despite the promise of immunity (Cat. 48.39). It was
simply too dangerous to entertain such an accusation against such a powerful
man, and Sallust records speculation on the motive for the accusation, including
one showing Cicero in a bad light. Reliable motives and causes were already
lacking to the ancients.
What they provide instead appear to us as defamations of character. The
descriptions of Catiline in Cicero and Sallust become paradigmatic in later
history writing for villains. Their point of view is resolutely exterior. Sallusts
is particularly famous for conveying paradox:
L. Catilina, nobili genere natus, fuit magna vi et animi et corporis, sed
ingenio malo pravoque. Huic ab adulescentia bella intestina, caedes, rapinae,
discordia civilis grata fuere, ibique iuventutem suam exercuit. Corpus patiens
inediae, algoris, vigiliae, supra quam cuiquam credibile est. Animus audax,
subdolus, varius, cuius rei lubet simulator ac dissimulator; alieni adpetens,
sui profusus, ardens in cupiditatibus; satis eloquentiae, sapientiae parum.
Vastus animus inmoderata, incredibilia, nimis alta semper cupiebat.
16. Claude Briand-Ponsart, introduction to Mrime, 14.
17. There are, of course, even oral chains in the transmission of information, as in that from
Umbrenus to the Allobroges to Quintus Fabius Sanga to Cicero (Sallust, Cat. 4041; Mrime, 191).
18. Mrime is conscious of the dilemma. He comments that the Greek historians offer explana-
tions one could demand in vain from the Roman historians who were closer to the events (3839).
19. Ciceros is at Cat. 1.26. These descriptions, with their admixture of virtues and vices, became
conventional of villains; see Livy on Hannibal (21.4) and Tacitus on Seianus (Annales 4.1.3). For the
preponderance of Sallustian language in the latter see the comments in Tacitus, Annals, Book 4, ed.
R. H. Martin and A. J. Woodman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). Thomas Wiede-
mann follows up the two conventional aspects of Catiline, the archvillain and the paradox, in later Latin
literature in The Figure of Catiline in the Historia Augusta, Classical Quarterly 29 (1979): 47984.
Michle Lowrie 17
[Lucius Catiline, born from a noble race, was of great force of both mind and
body, but of an evil and base character. From adolescence, internal warfare,
slaughter, rapine, civil discord were pleasing to him, and there he exercised
his youth. His body was tolerant of fasting, cold, and wakefulness beyond
what is credible to anyone. His spirit was daring, crafty, exible, a pretender
and dissimulator of whatever matter you please, greedy for others goods,
proigate of his own, burning in its passions. He had enough eloquence,
little wisdom. His vast spirit always desired things immoderate, incredible,
excessively high.] (Cat. 5)
By contrast, Mrimes novelistic air lends a sense of interiority. He imagines
the conspirators remaining at Rome once Catiline leaves the city: Parmi les
conjurs demeurs Rome rgnait la plus grand irrsolution (Among the con-
spirators who remained at Rome reigned the greatest irresolution) (185). What
exactly is he narrating? This is an interpretation of a few pages of Sallust, who
recounts what the conspirators did after Catilines departure (Cat. 39.643),
but it corresponds to no such explicit interpretation of Sallusts at that point.
Mrime also engages in supposition about the reactions of the people and the
conspirators to a declaration of the Senate (144). Sallust himself supplements
his narrative with reports of Catilines desires, fears, and beliefs.
Each narra-
tive, however, nds different places to supplement its predecessor, leading into
greater uncertainty the clearer the narrative becomes. In Victoria E. Pagns
words, Displacement is of course the ancient historians prerogative.
But it
is surprising to nd it operating in the same guise by a modern. Mrimes
imagination of what passed through Catilines mind as he left Rome is stun-
ning in the access it purports to give: A peine hors de Rome il sarrte incer-
tain. Ira-t-il dans le camp de Mallius exciter lardeur des soldats? (Hardly
out of Rome, he stops, uncertain. Will he go to Malliuss camp to excite the
soldiers ardor?) (172).
To be fair, the depiction of interiority was not devel-
oped before Augustine, and so the ancient sources for the conspiracy do not
attempt to penetrate the conspirators internal thoughts to this extent. The elu-
cidation Mrime offers could, however, be understood through the ancient
20. Pagn analyzes the techniques Sallust uses for building suspense (Conspiracy Narratives,
3637). She makes general comments on the implicit presentation of information in conspiracy
narratives by suggestion, innuendo, insinuation, or implication (20). Mrime also uses these
techniques: he both reports ancient rumors and puts forward interpretation in the form of rhetorical
questions to which there is no answer (e.g., 92), though he also shows suspicion of some ancient
rumors, notably those for which an ancient source also expressed doubts (123), and also recognizes
the limits of knowledge (e.g., 125).
21. Pagn, Conspiracy Narratives, 46.
22. Mrime attributes rage and an incapacity for reection to Catiline as he exits the Senate
after Ciceros rst Catilinarian oration (171).
18 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
rhetorical term evidentia, from which our modern evidence derives, although
its meaning is antithetical.
Evidentia, repraesentatio, and the Greek enargeia all mean vividness.

It is the gure you use when you put something before your audiences eyes,
and one place Quintilian assigns it is to the narration of the case.
Evidentia in narratione, quantum ego intellego, est quidem magna virtus,
cum quid veri non dicendum, sed quodammodo etiam ostendendum est, sed
subici perspicuitati potest, quam quidam etiam contrariam interim puta ver-
unt, quia in quibusdam causis obscuranda veritas esset. Quod est ridiculum;
nam qui obscurare vult, narrat falsa pro veris, et in iis quae narret debet
laborare ut videantur quam evidentissima.
[Vividness (evidentia) in the narration, as far as I understand, is indeed a
great virtue, when something true is not to be said, but in a certain manner
even pointed out. But it can be joined to transparency, which some have
thought meanwhile as detrimental, because in certain cases the truth should
be obscured. Which is ridiculous. For he who wants to obscure narrates false
things instead of true, and in those things he narrates, he ought to work so
that they seem as evident as possible.] (4.2.6465)
The problem is that evidentia works equally well whether the narrative is true
or false.
One of ancient historiographys central techniques for lending vivid-
ness to the narrative is the speech. Sallust is quite careful in quoted material,
whether of letters or speeches, to distinguish between material for which he
has precise sources and where he is giving the gist: he says quarum exem-
plum infra scriptum est (an example of which is written below) for the former
and the words huiusque modi (of this sort) for the latter (Cat. 34.3, 44.4; Cat.
20.1, 32.3, 50.5, 52.1).
Mrime is similarly careful and gives sources for
speeches in footnotes. He even reproduces one of Sallusts tags in introducing
a letter with En voici la teneur (Here is the gist), though Sallust (Cat. 34.3) is
at that point more sure than Mrime (173). Mrime largely provides transla-
tions for speeches or letters attested in the ancient sources, and he comments
on how authentic he deems a speech.
Although a detailed account of his
23. Pagn analyzes direct and indirect speech, focalization, and description (Conspiracy Nar-
ratives, 2021); these techniques could all fall under the rubric of vividness.
24. See Ramsey, Sallusts Bellum Catilinae, at 20.1, 34.3.
25. See the positive assessment of the textual conservation of Caesars speech in Sallust (Cat.
51) and the negative of Catos (Cat. 52) in Mrime, 222, 244.
Michle Lowrie 19
methods cannot be given here, he betters the transmitted material in several
ways. He often turns material into direct speech where it is only in indirect
speech or alluded to from the sources.
In one instance, he cites verbatim,
without reference to any source at all, the acclamation of mothers pointing
Cicero out to their children and calling him the savior of the republic (254).

In his narrative of the speeches given in the Senate on how to punish the cap-
tured conspirators, Mrime interweaves Ciceros fourth Catilinarian oration
between the speeches by Caesar and Cato that are transmitted by Sallust. This
is certainly a legitimate historical reconstruction, but Mrime furthermore
interrupts the speeches with his own abridgment (239), commentary (207, 234,
239, 246), and interpretation. These include reports on audience reactions:
once Caesar has completed his speech, une agitation extraordinaire suivit le
discours (an extraordinary agitation followed the speech); as soon as Cato
begins to speak, the senators prouvaient une espce de terreur (felt a kind of
terror) (230, 243). Even more embroidered is the attribution of shame to the
Senates most venerable members on hearing Caesars dignied style: Plus
dun vieux consulaire rougit en entendant le jeune prteur dsign parler le
langage de Fabius (More than one old consular blushed on hearing the young
praetor designate speak the language of Fabius) (229).
The epistemological crisis that is conspiracy differs in extent, but not
kind, from other historiographical conundrums, and because the secrecy con-
spiracy entails sets in motion an extreme version of this crisis, it can be paradig-
matic for historiography in general. Secrecy blurs the known and the unknown.
Conspiracy is partially known, which is why it calls for a lling in of the blanks,
although structurally the desire for completion can never be fully met because
evidentia, the technique available for narrative completion, has such a tenuous
relation to the truth. The supplemental method for making what is known
understandable creates a zone of indistinction.
The question remains whether
the political crisis it engenders has a similar or at any rate related structure.
While we might be capable of reconciling ourselves to not knowing
about things of historical interest, in the moment, the uncovering of conspiracy
26. E.g., more quotation in the exchange between Umbrenus and the Allobroges than attested at
Sallust, Cat. 40.34, in Mrime, 189, and in the interrogation of the conspirators in the Senate
than attested at Cicero, Cat. 3.10, in Mrime, 199; a statement by Lucius Caesar is reconstructed
from Cicero, Cat. 4.13, in Mrime, 203.
27. The event can be reconstructed from Plutarchs Life of Cicero 22.35, including the detail
of the torches in front of the houses, but not the speech of the women.
28. Pagn comments on conspiracys interstitial nature: it resides in the space between con-
cealment and revelation, between silence and speech (Conspiracy Narratives, 11).
20 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
requires action. The threat requires a response, and here again, I would argue
that it differs in extent, but not in kind, from other internal threats to the state
and consequently becomes paradigmatic for them. What is perhaps differ-
ent from other situations is the indistinct status of the conspiratorial event. I
mentioned above that Cicero says that by expelling Catiline from the city, he
openly exposed his treachery (Cat. 2.1). In the third oration, he expresses
more clearly the results of his own preventive action. If he had not expelled
Catiline from the city, non ille nobis Saturnalia constituisset, neque tanto ante
exiti ac fati diem rei publicae denuntiavisset neque commisisset ut signum, ut
litterae suae testes manifesti sceleris deprehenderentur (he would not have set
the Saturnalia as the date for us, nor so much ahead of time would he have
given notice of the day of death and fate to the republic, nor would he have
brought it about that a sign, that his letter, a witness of manifest crime, be appre-
hended) (Cat. 3.17). Although Cicero is arguing that his actions resulted in
the production of evidence proving the conspiracy, we can only wonder if his
actions did not produce the events themselves. Prior to his expulsion of Cati-
line, these events were emergent, but had not actually emerged.
How does one legally prevent illegal action before it has occurred? Is
there any legal basis for the preemptive strike? The Roman method for deal-
ing with perceived internal threats was to declare some form of state of emer-
gency. In this particular case, the Senate took recourse to what was later called
the senatus consultum ultimum (SCU), the ultimate decree of the Senate.

Giorgio Agamben has argued that the state of exception, or state of emergency,
is a zone of indistinction.
In the SCU, we nd the temporary suspension
of the rule of law within the larger aim of preserving the rule of law.
gives the phrasing for the SCU in a past, exemplary instance: Decrevit quon-
29. Caesar adds the ultimate (ultimum) to this kind of senatus consultum at BC 1.5.3, so
that the regular phrase used by scholars became senatus consultum ultimum; a more accurate
description would be senatus consultum de re publica defendenda (decree of the Senate for the
defense of the Republic), according to A. W. Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 8990.
30. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. D. Heller-Roazen
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 1529.
31. Agamben treats the SCU in State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005), 4247. This interpretation is controversial; for an overview see A. W. Lin-
tott, States of Emergency, chap. 11 of Violence in Republican Rome (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1968), 14974; Thomas N. Mitchell, Cicero and the Senatus Consultum Ultimum, Historia
20 (1971): 4761; and Lintott, Constitution, 8993. I discuss the SCU in greater detail in Lowrie,
Sovereignty before the Law.
Michle Lowrie 21
dam senatus uti L. Opimius consul videret ne quid res publica detrimenti
caperet (The Senate once decreed that L. Opimius the consul should see to it
that the republic receive no harm) (Cat. 1.4). He has been granted a similar
charge. In the exemplary instances he cites, the consuls acted immediately and
killed the various leaders who were fomenting the revolt. Cicero, however, has
let the matter drag on. Why? The prior political disturbances he cites, though
internal, were carried out in the public sphere. The Catilinarian conspiracy is
called precisely that because it was secret, and its secrecy has meant that not
everyone is convinced of its existence. Cicero, who has informants working for
him, knows, but they are not reliable, and he has no proof. The conspiracy has
not emerged. They have not pulled off any events, though Cicero is anguished
because of the potential for the destruction of the city. In the meantime, how-
ever, he must wait in a kind of limbo.
We have now reached the heart of this conspiracy, a moment of suspen-
sion. The conspirators are in limbo before the conspiracy emerges; the consul
is in limbo waiting for the conspiracy to emerge; the state is in limbo because
of the state of emergency. The conspiracy cannot be judged to be such before
any events, and yet the events, should they be successful, would mean that the
conspirators would occupy the position of judges and so never have been con-
spirators at all. Finally, an event happens, or rather fails to happen: a Roman
knight, C. Cornelius, and a senator, L. Vargunteius, show up at Ciceros house,
as if to give him the morning salutation, but with the intention of murder.
Because Cicero was forewarned, he does not let them in, and the planned event
fails to occur (Sallust, Cat. 28).
It is this threat that leads Cicero to confront
Catiline in the Senate and request that he leave the city. One wonders what
would have happened had Cicero not confronted Catiline.
How long could
the limbo have dragged on? As it is, Catilines departure precipitated action,
32. Seager points out that the visitors intention to murder Cicero could have been entirely
fabricated by him and that the preliminary plots he alleged were also nonevents (Iusta Catilinae,
33. Seager argues that Ciceros confrontation of Catiline precipitated him into action and that
Catiline had not actually decided whether to go into exile in Marseilles or join Manliuss army
until after he left Rome (ibid., 248). Ramsey remarks: If Catiline and his followers had been pur-
suing revolutionary designs against the government since mid-64, it is remarkable that these plans
were not farther along when the conspiracy came out into the open in the latter half of 63 and that
the Senate delayed so long in adopting countermeasures against the revolutionaries (Sallusts Bel-
lum Catilinae, 17). He nds the reason for the plans delay in a switch of Catilines supporters from
powerful aristocrats to the urban poor. For the conspirators inefciency see also Waters, Cicero,
Sallust, and Catiline, 2024.
22 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
produced written traces that could not easily be confuted, and resulted in the
conspiracys becoming a conspiracy.
At this point, we might expect things to become clear, but the political
response to conspiracy in this instance takes the epistemological challenge
into a new zone of suspension, that of the rule of law, and the murky legality
of the Senates judgment on the conspirators remains a conundrum among
Roman political and legal historians.
Capital cases were supposed to be tried
by the people. The SCU was a method for giving the consuls powers that were
otherwise not in their brief, as Sallust species, sine populi iussu (without
the order of the people) (Cat. 29), and it was grounded in the Senates advice-
giving capacity. The SCU in itself could be viewed as infringing on popular
but this decree was operative in the stage of the conspiracy
where Cicero was trying to acquire proof. Once they were caught, the Senate
tried the conspirators without reference to the SCU.
This is the interpretive
sticking point. Theoretically, the Senate trial should also be viewed as infring-
ing on popular sovereignty, but none of the ancient sources present it as such,
including those opposed to capital punishment, a view whose representative in
the sources is Julius Caesar.
There were, of course, pragmatic reasons for immediate judgment. One
was the need for quick action. Catiline and Manlius were still at the head of an
army at Faesulae.
Another is that the Catilinarians had been planning to do
many things that would have been pleasing to the people, such as canceling
debts. There was a legitimate fear that they would be acquitted, and then
there also would have been no conspiracy according to Briks epigram. The
plan to set re to different parts of the city and seize power in the confusion,
however, caused alarm even among the most disenfranchised members of
society (Sallust, Cat. 48.12), so the risk of acquittal was perhaps not so high.
In any event, Sallust and Appian both record a proposal made by Tiberius Nero
(the grandfather of the future emperor Tiberius) that the guards be increased
on the prisoners and the matter be postponed (Sallust, Cat. 50.4).
Had this
34. I rely on the accounts given in n. 31 above.
35. Lintott, Violence, 173.
36. Shapiro summarizes the issues (O Tempora! O Mores! 19293).
37. For a chronology of events see Ramsey, Sallusts Bellum Catilinae, 1821. Catos speech in
Sallust reminds the Senate of the pressing dangers (Cat. 52.3, 2425, 35).
38. Appian records that Tiberius argued for postponement until Catiline could be beaten in
battle and they could obtain certain knowledge, but he makes no comment about the future venue
of the trial (BCiv 2.5). See Ramsey, Sallusts Bellum Catilinae, 193.
Michle Lowrie 23
plan been followed, a more regular trial would perhaps have taken place. As it
is, the Senate overwhelmingly followed Catos advice and punished the con-
spirators who had been caught, as a preemptive strike against the rest: Nam
cetera malecia tum persequare ubi facta sunt; hoc nisi provideris ne adcidat,
ubi evenit, frustra iudicia implores: capta urbe nihil t relicui victis (For you
may pursue other misdeeds when they have been done; if you dont make sure
that this does not happen, when it does happen, you may beg for justice in
vain: when a city has been captured, there is nothing left for the vanquished)
(Cat. 52.4). They therefore put the conspirators who were in custody at Rome
to death immediately, and the remaining conspirators, including Catiline,
were subsequently defeated in battle.
The Catilinarian conspiracy shows confusion between legal and political
categories on several levels. I have picked up Agambens argument that the
state of exception is a zone of indistinction between politics and the law.
argues that the structure of sovereignty becomes apparent in the state of excep-
tion because it is the decision to suspend the law that reveals that the sovereign
is simultaneously inside and outside the law: he who can suspend it must reside
outside, though the law remains at issue in not for the moment applying.
this historical instance, the locus of sovereignty does not become apparent,
and the zone of indistinction Agamben outlines is much less neatly structured
than he describes. There is genuine confusion over sovereignty. Historians are
in accord that under normal circumstances sovereignty in the Roman Republic
was located in the people.
They were the legislative body, and they further-
more had judicial rights. The state of exception, however, causes the Senate to
make a decree that gives the magistrates special powers ordinarily belong-
ing to the people. There is a dispute among historians about whether sover-
eignty is revealed in the SCU to belong to the Senate because the senators are
the ones who decide, or whether the constitutional danger lies rather in the
39. One reason it is hard to pin down the legality of the political actions taken against the Catili-
narians is that Sallust focuses much more on political practice than on the law (see Briand-Ponsart,
introduction to Mrime, 2627).
40. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 15, 22.
41. Lintott, Violence, 173; Lintott, Constitution, 40. Fergus Millar holds a view of the Roman
Republic as a radical example of popular sovereignty untrammeled by constitutional safeguards,
which is generally regarded as extremist (The Roman Republic in Political Thought [Hanover, NH:
University Press of New England, 2002], 8; also Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Repub-
lic [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998]). See Joy Connolly, The State of Speech:
Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
2007), 30.
24 Mrimes Catilinarian Conspiracy
magistrates exceptional powers.
I do not think we need to pin this question
down. The point is that the location of sovereignty in the state of exception
becomes genuinely ambiguous and contested. This in turn results in proce-
dural violations.
Mrime asks the right questions: Why did Caesar not
demand that the case be brought before the people? Why was there no dis-
cussion of the right to appeal? Why did the tribunes, whose job it was to pro-
tect the rights of the people, not interpose their veto? Mrime is frustrated by
the failure of the rule of law and offers an interpretation that clearly does not
satisfy even himself: Cicero used intimidation and violence to put a stop to
any appeal (26870).
Furthermore, the status of the conspirators is legally unclear. Cicero
argues consistently throughout the Catilinarian orations that the conspirators
have given up their rights as citizens, including the right to a trial before the
people, by becoming public enemies (hostis), and after Catiline departed
from Rome, the Senate did declare Catiline and his general Manlius enemies
of the state (Sallust, Cat. 36.2).
Although Cicero wants to distinguish clearly
between citizen and enemy, the problem with the conspirators is that they are
both, and it is consequently unclear how to apply the law to them. Caesars
wish to preserve their lives is recorded in both Cicero and Sallust, and here
again, there is a state of limbo. Caesar proposed stripping them of all citizen
rights, including the right to own property and the right to appeal. All that
would be left them is uitam solam (life alone) (Cicero, Cat. 4.8).
This is
the precursor to Agambens bare life, and it preserves the ambiguity about
the conspirators status: from being both enemies and citizens, they will become
neither. Caesars proposal was not adopted, but the decision to put the con-
spirators to death did not resolve their status. Afterward Cicero was in fact
exiled for putting citizens to death without trial. Although this was the result
42. The dispute is best seen in the debate between Mitchell, Cicero, and Lintott, Constitution,
9293. Mitchell argues that the SCU grants temporary sovereignty not to the consuls but to the
Senate (esp. 5861), while Lintott thinks that the problem lies in the excessive powers given to the
magistrates. Lintott sees the struggle in the scholarship as a reection of the political struggle
between the orders at Rome (66).
43. Briand-Ponsart quotes from a letter in which Mrime consults a jurist about the violation
agrante de la procedure ordinaire (agrant violation of standing procedure) in the treatment of
the Catilinarians (Mrime, 25).
44. E.g., Cat. 4.10: Qui autem rei publicae sit hostis eum civem esse nollo modo posse (How-
ever, he who is an enemy of the republic can in no way be a citizen); therefore the lex Sempronia
(Sempronian law), which protected citizens from being put to death without trial before the people,
does not apply.
45. Caesars speech is recorded in Sallust, Cat. 51, with a summary of their punishments at 43.
Michle Lowrie 25
46. This point is discussed in greater detail in Lowrie, Sovereignty before the law, 43.
47. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans.
G. Schwab (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 5; Agamben, Homo Sacer, 15 and passim. Mitchells
argument in Cicero is Schmittian in that the Roman Senate was the body to decide on the state of
exception, and he focuses on who decides.
48. Agamben opens his discussion of sovereignty with an analysis of Schmitt in this regard
(Homo Sacer, 15).
of political machinations by his enemies and he was brought back to Rome,
the possibility of manipulating the interpretation of the conspirators status
shows that there was real contestation.
Let us take stock. So far I have argued that the secrecy of a conspiracy
creates an epistemological zone of indistinction. Rather than a sharp differen-
tiation between the known and the unknown, where the former provides clar-
ity and the latter obscurity, what is known becomes interpretable through what
is supplied. Similarly, a zone of indistinction clouds both the structure of sov-
ereignty in the state of exception and the legal status of the conspirators. The
question that remains is the relation between these different zones of indistinc-
tion. Do they have the same structure? Is one causative of the other? It would
be facile to say that the epistemological conundrum gives rise to the political.
Each is implicated in much larger questions. Conspiracy provides one locus
among others for the need for historical reconstruction. There lies a core of the
unknown at the center of it, and conspiracy is judged to be such at the hazy
borderline between the known and the unknown. It is like nding a black hole
at the center of an onion. Similarly, the state of emergency is one problematic
among others in the complex debate about the structure of sovereignty. Agam-
ben relies too much on Carl Schmitts idiosyncratic denition of the sovereign
as he who decides on the state of exception to be a full account.
political theory and the Roman constitution would locate sovereignty in the
people. Even within this theory, the SCU is a single instance of a state of
exception. Furthermore, there is no idea of an inaccessible core to sovereignty
the way there is in secrecy. Rather, in Schmitts and Agambens models, it has
a paradoxical relation to the law in lying both inside and outside it.
Even if we
adopt a messier model, the structures do not quite correspond. Still, I think
conspiracy is a limit case both for historiography and sovereigntythe former
because of the participants investment in secrecy, so that we confront a limit
to the knowable, and the latter because of the confusion surrounding both the
sovereign and the citizen body. In short, conspiracy lies at the intersection of
multiple zones of indistinction.

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