Coups, murder plots, and plans to topple governments are as old as recorded history. Strategic management of information in ancient Rome saved the day, for a while, and holds invaluable lessons for today.

By Josiah Osgood, Openmind magazine

“No one believes in a conspiracy against an emperor until it has succeeded,” or so the emperor Domitian liked to complain. Domitian, who began his reign in 81 CE, was one of the most paranoid men ever to hold power in Rome. He was even said to have covered the walls of his palace with a special reflecting stone so he could always see what was behind him. But there had been real conspiracies against his predecessors, and there were real conspiracies against him, one of which culminated in his murder by members of his staff in his bedroom in 96 CE.

Domitian’s remark about conspiracies captures a hard truth. In a society teeming with conspiracy theories, like imperial Rome or the United States today, it is easy to disregard evidence of a genuine plot when it starts to take shape, even a plot against the government. The cacophony of falsehoods makes it hard to act preemptively against real threats. But we ignore seditious conspiracies at our peril.

Actual conspiracies pose a particular threat to democracies. To gain insight, go back nearly 150 years before Domitian, when Rome still had a republican form of government. In 63 BCE, a senator named Catiline failed to win election to the top executive position of consul. In response, he initiated an armed uprising to take over the Roman state. Thanks mostly to the famed orator Cicero, Catiline and his uprising were thwarted. Through Cicero’s speeches we learn parts of the story, from Cicero’s point of view. The historian Sallust adds crucial details and analysis. Nimble leadership, these writers suggest, can stop an immediate threat of violence. But the use of violence, even by a few extremists, is a warning sign of greater trouble that must not be ignored.When Romans learned of Catiline’s plans to torch the city, any support he still enjoyed evaporated.

Catiline was born into one of Rome’s exclusive patrician families, a group in power from the earliest days of the city’s history. But the family’s fortunes had decayed. For generations they had been shut out of the high office of consul, held by just two men each year. In Rome, reputation meant everything, and Catiline was determined to reverse the family’s decline in prestige.

He first ran for the consulship in 64 BCE, but despite his considerable charisma and the boldness, even brazenness, of his attitude, much admired by his fellow Romans, he lost. To add to his humiliation, he was beaten out by Cicero, the first in his family to have entered the Senate. Cicero outworked Catiline in canvassing support and also dragged out some unsavory episodes from Catiline’s past.

The elections the following year would be Catiline’s final chance. He had always lived profligately and almost certainly was on the verge of bankruptcy. Without the consulship and the lucrative provincial governorship that would follow it, he would be ruined.

As the election of 63 BCE approached, Italy was in the grip of a full-scale debt crisis. After a long war in the Roman East, peace had been restored and financiers were calling in loans so they could reinvest their capital at higher rates of interest abroad. Calls for a one-time cancellation of debts mounted, and Catiline opportunistically seized on the issue. The arrogant patrician suddenly became the champion of the common man. Supporters flocked to him, including fellow senators in debt, but also the urban poor who struggled to pay rents on their dilapidated apartments and small-scale farmers in the Italian countryside. The most powerful allies Catiline found were a group of especially disaffected men in northern Italy who were organizing themselves into a small army. They could help Catiline seize power by force if he failed to win the consulship legitimately.

As Catiline’s plans developed, Cicero kept himself well informed. Among his sources of intelligence was Fulvia, the mistress of one of Catiline’s associates. Her suspicions of trouble had been aroused when her lover, after failing to give her the gifts she was accustomed to, suddenly started making boastful promises. But Cicero could not publicly reveal much of what he was learning without compromising his sources, and there was a good chance that the Senate would do nothing anyway.

Election day came. Catiline was defeated a second time, and he now fully set plans for a coup in motion. In northern Italy the new militia, 10,000 strong, rose up in arms. Back in Rome, Catiline prepared for assassinations and arson that would destabilize the city and pave the way for his ascension. Two men promised to go immediately to Cicero’s house and kill him at the reception politicians hosted each morning.

At almost the last minute, Fulvia saved the day by getting a message to Cicero so he could stop the assassins. Cicero informed senators of the thwarted murder attempt, and Catiline fled north to join his army. Accompanied by attendants carrying the fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolized the consul’s power, he claimed the top office. The illegality of his act clear, the Senate declared him a public enemy.

Cicero still had to deal with Catiline’s co-conspirators in Rome. He had no evidence against them except verbal reports, and Catiline still enjoyed popular support in the city. Then Cicero learned that envoys from Gaul (modern France), visiting Rome to try to secure relief for their debts, had been invited to join the conspiracy. Cicero instructed the envoys to ask for written pledges from the co-conspirators—which included several senators—to take back to Gaul. The conspirators complied, Cicero confiscated the letters, and the conspiracy leaders were summoned to a meeting of the Senate, where the letters were unsealed and read out, revealing their guilt. When Romans learned of Catiline’s plans to torch the city, any support he still enjoyed evaporated.

The Senate voted to have the five conspirators detained at the houses of leading senators. (Politicians, even when accused of serious crimes, were rarely held in Rome’s small prison, which was used mainly for executions.) But two days later, after a long and passionate debate, the Senate determined that Cicero should execute the men, which he promptly did. Around a month after that, an army sent by the Senate destroyed Catiline’s forces in northern Italy. It was said that when Catiline was found among the corpses, barely breathing, his face retained the defiant expression he had always had in life.

Two decades after Catiline’s death, Sallust produced one of the masterpieces of Roman historical writing, a short book about the conspiracy called The War Against Catiline. Cicero had sung his own praises so much, Sallust felt no need to. The historian does acknowledge Cicero’s cleverness in dealing with the conspiracy, showing him cultivating his sources, gathering evidence, and revealing information at just the right moment to make Romans aware of the danger they faced. Cicero could not stop the uprising in northern Italy, but he did nip in the bud the plans for terrorist activity in Rome.

Sallust enriches his War Against Catiline through deeper reflections on the problem of plots by citizens against their own government. For the climax of his work, he recreates the debate in the Senate on what to do with the five conspirators. (Following the fashion of the time, Sallust does not include verbatim transcripts of what the senators said but rather his own versions of their speeches.) Sallust highlights the contributions of two speakers in particular. One was Julius Caesar, the future dictator, who in 63 BCE was still a politician on the rise. Caesar’s idea was to imprison the conspirators for life and confiscate their property. The other speaker, Cato the Younger, destined to become Caesar’s great enemy in politics, championed execution.

Caesar calmly advised the senators not to be moved by inflammatory rhetoric. The most severe measure might seem warranted, but the precedent of instant execution could be abused: “In another situation, under another consul, . . . some false accusation might be thought true.” Cato’s speech, as rendered by Sallust, was far more passionate and full of memorable lines. “Other crimes you may prosecute after they have been committed. But if you do not take care to stop this one from happening, once it does take place, you will appeal to the courts in vain. In a captured city, there is nothing left for the vanquished.”

Cato’s speech electrified the senators, and they voted to execute. Almost certainly the executions saved many lives. As Sallust explains, when news of the executions reached Catiline’s army, there were mass desertions. But the price paid was a violation of the conspirators’ right to trial and the establishment of a precedent open to later misuse. At just about the time Sallust was writing, execution squads were rounding up men falsely accused of murdering Julius Caesar—an irony that strikes anyone reading Caesar’s speech in Sallust now.

Another strength of Sallust’s account is his consideration of why so many Romans followed so dubious a champion as Catiline. Sallust evinces little sympathy for Catiline and his supporters. Like other ancient historians, he tends to attribute social problems such as indebtedness to deficient character. Yet in some sobering analysis, Sallust suggests that the Senate’s neglect of anyone’s interests but their own led to a widespread feeling of hopelessness and distrust. Faith in shared governance had been shattered. Conspiracy and coup had been normalized. From vicious political fighting, it was not a far step to take up arms and proclaim your leader the consul.To stop a conspiracy, you have to recognize that conspiracies do exist, while also distinguishing real ones from false ones.

As Americans come to terms with what happened in Washington on January 6, 2021, investigation of the day, the events leading up to it, and the response is essential. While historical parallels are never perfect, we can draw on Roman experience to understand the challenges posed by a conspiracy to carry out “violent insurrection,” as Sen. Mitch McConnell called the Capitol riot.

Like Cicero and Sallust, we must recognize that the character of our political leaders matters. We must be alive to the threat of plots, however unpleasant or outlandish they seem. A key part of Cicero’s success lay in his ability to imagine what Catiline and Catiline’s associates were capable of. To stop a conspiracy, you have to recognize that conspiracies do exist, while also distinguishing real ones from false ones.

Leaders must be proactive, but they face challenges. As Cicero found, many politicians and citizens may be unwilling to believe there is a threat. Collecting overwhelming evidence, when possible, is the best answer to that. At the same time, even when a conspiracy is underway, leaders must stay committed to preserving key civil liberties such as freedom of speech and presumption of innocence. Cicero and the Senate’s repression of Catiline’s followers in Rome saved the city from destabilizing violence but established an awful precedent of executing political rivals. Illegality bred illegality—and loss of personal rights is a risk in the United States as well.

The most important lesson of this episode in ancient Roman history is that an uptick in political violence must be a wake-up call for a democracy. The Romans failed to recognize or correct the erosion of democracy. As a result, even Cicero resorted to violence, and the whole system soon fell apart. The Roman Republic survived the conspiracy of Catiline, but a generation later it was gone. Politicians failed to address the underlying problems, such as indebtedness, that drove Romans to sympathize with Catiline and take up arms. In the absence of a hopeful vision of peaceable and effective self-government, feelings of alienation festered, never to be resolved.

We see it clearly today. Violent rhetoric is now routine even in local elections—even in school board races. Members of Congress are trying to take weapons into the Capitol. These are not just shifts in the rhetoric and symbolism of power. They are worrisome signs and prognostications. As Domitian understood, such shifts may not remain rhetorical for very long.

And, as the political scientist Barbara Walter has argued, civil wars today typically start with small extremist groups resorting to violence. Unscrupulous politicians stoke the factionalism for their own ends. Escalating violence erodes the rule of law. In Rome, political violence spiraled first into civil war and then the tyranny of autocrats such as Domitian—and finally a body politic too diluted and ineffectual to hold the Empire at all. An event like the January 6 riot must not be dismissed as something on the fringe. It is a signal, a warning, of deep dissatisfaction, more violent conspiracies, and political change to come.

This story originally appeared on OpenMind, a digital magazine tackling science controversies and deceptions.

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