Time’s Path and The Historian’s Agency: Morality and Memory in Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae

Aaron M. Seider


This article focuses on two interrelated themes that structure and fracture much of Sallust’s monograph: time and morality. Driven by a strong narrative voice, vivid representations of its characters’ speeches, and an innovative historiographical structure, the Bellum Catilinae imagines moral progress and decline from often-contradictory perspectives, with its narrative riven by the same asymmetry and variation that characterizes the author’s Latin. Here, by considering several elements of Sallust’s Preface and subsequent narrative of the conspiracy, I argue that Sallust challenges his readers’ expectations about temporal structures and ultimately creates an atmosphere akin to that of a temporal civil war, where the moral value of memory loses its mooring and time’s movement threatens to become meaningless. No longer, in other words, does the memory of earlier events prompt the performance of similarly virtuous actions in the present, and no longer can Rome’s path be imagined to proceed upwards from the valorous deeds of its current citizens.

Divided into two main sections, the paper considers first how Sallust offers a tentative hope for Rome’s future in his Preface and early depictions of Catiline’s conspiracy and then how those glimpses of optimism are utterly undone as the narrative proceeds. In Sallust’s descriptions of Rome’s origins, his own reasons for writings, and Catiline’s impact on the Romans, he portrays both the conspiracy and his own record of it as the kind of forces that could prompt Rome to return to its earlier glory. In the second half of the paper, I claim that this possibility is destroyed in Sallust’s construction of the speeches of Catiline, Caesar, and Cato. Each of these figures exploits the rhetorical power inherent in examples from the past, but they do so in strikingly different ways and for strikingly different reasons. The juxtaposition of their speeches shows the essentially malleable nature of memory, both in terms of its moral impact and its relationship to past events.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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