Sallust and Tolstoy

A staple topic for the Cicero and Catiline paper (one of the long-standing ancient history special subjects for the first part of Oxford Classics course) is Sallust’s attitude to Caesar and his comparison of Caesar and Cato in BC 53.6-54, two men ‘ingenti uirtute, diuorsis moribus’ (‘of immense virtue but different way of life’). Here is my take on it: it doesn’t claim all that much originality, but I found it useful in explaining the topic to students and even have been thinking that it might be worth developing for an article aiming at a student or general audience.


Sallust’s comparison has attracted immense scholarly literature (some of it annotated by J. T. Ramsey in the extremely useful bibliography to his student edition), which has largely concentrated on the question of whether Caesar or Cato comes out better from it – with widely diverging conclusions. I don’t think myself that Sallust makes his preference very clear: one could perhaps argue that in the comparatio itself Cato is presented in a rather better light, but then we should remember that in the pair of speeches that precedes Caesar is given more prescient arguments, some of them indeed borrowed from the speech by Cato’s famous ancestor for the Rhodians.

At any rate, particularly in the circumstances in which Sallust was writing this isn’t a work of a ‘Caesarian propagandist’ (as Sallust was sometimes characterised in earlier literature) – in the year of Philippi, immediately following the proscriptions in Rome, casting Cato (and also Cicero) in a good light could hardly be seen as such even if Sallust ultimately preferred Caesar. Nor would the triumvirs necessarily like Sallust relating the debate on the fate of the conspirators in a way which seems to have followed Brutus’ Cato (a pamphlet praising Cato following his suicide in Utica) in its essentials, insofar as we can tell from Cicero’s reaction to Brutus’ publication (Cic. Att. XII.21.1). Caesar’s own Anticato and Octavian’s response to Brutus represented the ‘official Caesarian’ attitude even when the dictator was alive: now, after he had been murdered by Brutus and Cicero had been put to death by his heirs (one of them, Antony, stepson of Lentulus the executed Catilinarian), it was improbable that it softened.

What most scholarly analyses don’t in fact bring out clearly is just how peculiar in these circumstances the whole comparison is: to single out as two men of pre-eminent virtue in contemporary Rome two noted and implacable political enemies, whose enmity was in the end instrumental in bringing about the civil war. They fought each other (with Sallust serving as one of Caesar’s generals in that particular campaign) and in the end one of them committed suicide rather than surrender to the other. Their enmity was first extended beyond Cato’s death by the literary polemic we just mentioned, but by the time Sallust was writing Caesar was murdered by Cato’s heir, and Caesar’s own heirs were facing him on the field of battle. All of this would have been known to everyone among Sallust’s original readers; none of this is even mentioned.

What explained to me what Sallust was about here was listening to the inaugural lecture of Oxford’s Professor of Russian, Andrey Zorin, on Tolstoy’s War and Peace almost a decade ago now: it has now been published in a somewhat compressed form as a piece in the TLS. Tolstoy famously claimed that the structure of his great novel is unconventional and it lacks a denouement. This, as Zorin stresses, despite the rather obvious fact that on the face of it, it  ‘is a conventionally structured novel that has its denouement in marriage.’ The explanation, as Zorin shows, lies in the history of the novel’s creation: what began as a novel about a Decembrist (participant of an 1825 attempt to overthrow Russian autocracy) returning from Siberian exile in 1856, developed first into a novel about the events of 1825, and then into the story of his earlier life. It is obvious from the novel’s first epilogue to any Russian reader with even a smattering of nineteenth-century history (let alone the original readers of the War and Peace) that Pierre Bezukhov and Nikolay Rostov will find themselves on the different sides in the Decembrist Rebellion, and Bezukhov will be among the Siberian exiles. It is never explicitly mentioned, however: the novel’s ‘prospective focus’ (Zorin’s words) in the Decembrist Rebellion is there to be deduced by the reader.

It appears to me that Sallust is doing exactly the same thing in his comparatio and, moreover, that this is precisely the reason why the debate between Caesar and Cato is made so central to his monograph, and indeed an important reason why the Catilinarian conspiracy, now made relatively insignificant by subsequent events, became the subject of his first monograph: it was the first political encounter between Caesar and Cato. The comparison needs to be read at face value and in combination with Sallust’s prologue on the profound corruption of Roman polity and Sallust’s own mistake in entering politics. It is precisely the fact that Caesar and Cato were the two men of pre-eminent uirtus in their generation that makes their conflict (apparent to any reader, but not mentioned explicitly) so tragic, rather like the fact that Pierre and Rostov, the two positive heroes of the War and Peace, are set up to be antagonists in their future. In a corrupt political community like this their confrontation was coming, and Sallust, admiring both, was to fight for one against the other: but here they are, while already disagreeing profoundly on methods, in a way on the same side. It is important for this tragic effect that Sallust gives no credence to reports of Caesar’s involvement with the conspiracy (admittedly, he is extremely unlikely to have seen Cicero’s posthumous de consiliis suis at that point) and no space to less edifying attacks on Caesar by Cato himself (compare Plutarch, Cato Minor 22-23). What interests him is the good in both men, and the differences in their ingenium (an important word for him).

An observation of Michael von Albrecht in his perceptive History of Roman Literature (vol. 1, 451-2 of the English translation) seems to the point: perhaps Sallust wants us to ask whether Caesar’s and Cato’s complementary qualities taken together could have saved the Republic, but he refrains from a direct answer. And in any case, could they ever be together ‘in tanta tamque corrupta ciuitate’ (BC 14.1)? Sallust later attempted something similar in his Bellum Jugurthinum (as noted by D.S. Levene in a seminal 1992 article characterising it as a ‘historical fragment’), somewhat more explicitly. We leave Marius and Sulla as they are still friends, fighting together against Rome’s enemies, and the monograph ends ominously with Marius’s return to Rome when ‘hopes and resources of the state were given to him’, but this time the characterisations of the two protagonists refer explicitly to their later fate. The more subtle way of presentation in the Bellum Catilinae should not obscure the similarities in their conception.


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