2000 Years of Latin Prose | History and Literature

Chapter 5 – Cicero: The Most Famous Takedown In History (In Catilinam)

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Two thou­sand years of Latin Prose is a dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two mil­len­nia of gems in Latin. In this fifth chap­ter, we will learn more about the most famous Roman ora­tor of all time: Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero. We will also read the begin­ning of his most famous speech – his speech against Cati­line – In Catili­nam.

If you want to learn more about the anthol­o­gy, you will find the pref­ace here.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 5. Cicero.

Life and Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero

In this sec­tion you will learn about Cicero and his works.

(106–43 B.C)

Cicero needs very lit­tle intro­duc­tion, being one of the most famous Romans of all of antiq­ui­ty. He was a politi­cian, con­sul, a lawyer, a philoso­pher and one of Rome’s great­est ora­tors, and, of course, an avid let­ter writer.

Life of Cicero

White marble bust of Cicero with the Trinity College Library, Dublin, in the background.
Bust of Cicero at the Trin­i­ty Col­lege Library, Dublin. Pho­to by Amelie Rosengren.

Cicero’s life is no small sub­ject, and I shall not even attempt an exhaus­tive treat­ment of it here. Instead, we shall out­line it, a sketch, if you will so that we can get a rough pic­ture of this immense­ly famous and influ­en­tial man.

Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero was born in Arpinum, south­east of Rome, on the 3rd of Jan­u­ary 106 B.C. to a wealthy eques­tri­an family.

He was well edu­cat­ed in both Greek, phi­los­o­phy, his­to­ry, poet­ry, law and rhetoric. He stud­ied phi­los­o­phy under Phi­lo of Laris­sa (c.159/8–84/3 B.C.), the head of Pla­to’s Acad­e­my, law under politi­cian Quin­tus Scaevola Augur (c.159–88 B.C.), and rhetoric under Greek rhetori­cian Apol­lo­nius Molon.

Com­ing from an eques­tri­an fam­i­ly, the nat­ur­al place for Cicero to start his career was the army. He soon left it to become a lawyer and his first major case (that we know of and of which there is still a writ­ten record) was his defense of pat­ri­cide-accused Sex­tus Roscius. Roscius was acquit­ted and Cicero earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a lawyer.

His first office was as quaestor in Sici­ly where he became very pop­u­lar with the Sicil­ians. In fact, he became so pop­u­lar that the inhab­i­tants asked him to pros­e­cute a mag­is­trate, Gaius Ver­res, for mis­gov­ern­ment, to say the least. Cicero returned to Rome and did just that. He wrote four speech­es In Ver­rem, only the first of which was deliv­ered. Cicero won the case and, as a result, added to his rep­u­ta­tion as a great lawyer but also becom­ing known as the great­est ora­tor in Rome.

His next office was as an aedile, the fol­low­ing as prae­tor and in 63 B.C he was elect­ed con­sul togeth­er with Gaius Anto­nius Hybri­da, the uncle of Mar­cus Antonius.

Dur­ing his time as con­sul, he stopped the so-called Cati­line con­spir­a­cy, a con­spir­a­cy aim­ing to over­throw the repub­lic and assas­si­nate Cicero him­self. The head of the con­spir­a­cy was Lucius Sergius Catili­na, or Cati­line (108–62 B.C.), hence the name of the conspiracy.

Comic drawing of Cicero denouncing Catiline made by John Leech c. 1850.
Cicero denounc­ing Cataline, illus­tra­tion by John Leech from the Com­ic His­to­ry of Rome, c. 1850.

Cicero famous­ly drove Cati­line from Rome with four speech­es. How­ev­er, Cati­line did not give up but instead began prepar­ing an army while his fol­low­ers, still in Rome, con­tin­ued with their plans.

Long sto­ry short: Cicero found out and had five of the lead con­spir­a­tors con­fess in front of the sen­ate, at least accord­ing to the side of his­to­ry we have access to, i.e. Cicero’s and Sal­lustius’ side. He then had them exe­cut­ed with­out a for­mal tri­al. (If you want the long sto­ry you can read more about this in Cicero’s In Catili­nam, 3, and in Sal­lustius’ Bel­lum Catili­nae, 46–55.)

Five years lat­er, in 58 B.C. Pub­lius Clodius Pul­cher, tri­bune of the plebs, backed by the Tri­umvi­rate (i.e. Julius Cae­sar, Pom­peius Mag­nus, and Mar­cus Licinius Cras­sus, a part­ner­ship Cicero had been invit­ed to, but turned down), threat­ened to exile any­one who exe­cut­ed or had exe­cut­ed a Roman cit­i­zen with­out trial.

Cicero, hav­ing done just that dur­ing the Cati­line con­spir­a­cy, was forced into exile and went to Thes­sa­loni­ca, Greece. We know from let­ters to his friends and fam­i­ly, that this time in exile hit him hard. He was depressed, mis­er­able, even on the brink of sui­cide (see for ex. his let­ters to his fam­i­ly, Fam. 14.4.4., and to his friend Atti­cus, Att. 3.3, 3.4, 3.7).

After a year, the sen­ate recalled Cicero from exile and he returned to Rome where he tried to re-enter pol­i­tics but end­ed up con­cen­trat­ing on his lit­er­ary pur­suits instead.

After a few years, he accept­ed the office of pro­con­sul in Cili­cia, Turkey, for a year.

Dur­ing all this time, the strug­gle between Pom­peius Mag­nus and Julius Cae­sar had inten­si­fied immense­ly. Cicero avoid­ed open­ly crit­i­ciz­ing and alien­at­ing Cae­sar, but he did favour Pom­peius Mag­nus as he believed him to be on the side of the Repub­lic in which he ardent­ly believed.

Then Cae­sar crossed the Rubi­con.

Cicero fled Rome and joined Pom­peius. War ensued.

After Cae­sar’s vic­to­ry at the bat­tle of Pharsalus, Cicero returned to the city and was pardoned.

In Feb­ru­ary 45 B.C. Cicero’s daugh­ter Tul­lia died. He mourned her great­ly, hid from the pub­lic eye and want­ed noth­ing but soli­tude. He wrote sev­er­al let­ters to his dear friend Atti­cus about his grief and about how he wrote and read to dis­tract him­self from his mourn­ing. (see e.g. Att. 12.14–16) He even wrote a philo­soph­i­cal work called Con­so­la­tio to ease his pain. This work is now lost to us, but frag­ments of are quot­ed by Lac­tan­tius (c.250–c.325) in his Insti­tu­tiones Div­inae.

Illustration from an old manuscript of the assassination of Cicero.
Assas­i­nat de Cicéron, Les cas des nobles hommes et femmes. Rouen – BM — MS. 1440 (F. 213V)

When Cae­sar was mur­dered on the Ides of March the fol­low­ing year, Cicero was not part of the con­spir­a­cy. But he did become a pop­u­lar leader in the after­math of the assas­si­na­tion. How­ev­er, Mar­cus Anto­nius was also a pop­u­lar leader and they became oppo­nents, nay, bit­ter ene­mies. At the end of this strug­gle, Cicero was declared an ene­my of Rome. He was hunt­ed down and exe­cut­ed the 7th of Decem­ber 43 B.C. in Formiae.

Works of Cicero

Cicero’s life may be inter­est­ing and excit­ing, but it is his lit­er­ary and styl­is­tic lega­cy that real­ly gets the blood pumping.

His influ­ence on the Latin lan­guage has endured for millennia.

Cicero was instru­men­tal in trans­form­ing the Latin lan­guage from a prac­ti­cal, straight-for­ward lan­guage to a lan­guage that could be used as a lit­er­ary medi­um, a lan­guage with which abstract thoughts could be expressed.

His skill in rhetoric and his use of the Latin lan­guage made him an ide­al, some­one to look up to, not only in his own time, but well into our times.

Quin­til­lianus per­haps said it best:

“[Cicero] is not the name of a man, but of elo­quence itself.”

Insti­tu­tio Ora­to­ria, 10.1.112

Cicero, his works, and his lan­guage led to the admi­ra­tion from the Church Fathers and he was declared a so-called ”vir­tu­ous pagan” by the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church. A “vir­tu­ous pagan” was some­one who dur­ing their life nev­er had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to rec­og­nize Christ, but still led a good life. This meant that many of his works were pre­served, stud­ied, trea­sured and copied, where­as many oth­er Roman authors’ works were not.

How­ev­er, not all works were pre­served in their entire­ty but have been recon­struct­ed from frag­ments. Luck­i­ly it was not only the Ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church and her fol­low­ers that stud­ied, copied and quot­ed Cicero, but Roman and medieval writ­ers as well. His works De Re Pub­li­ca (On the Repub­lic) and De Leg­ibus (On the laws) espe­cial­ly were quot­ed from all sides, which means that it has been pos­si­ble, to a large extent, to recre­ate them.

Sad­ly though, as with many Roman authors, many works of Cicero’s have been lost to time.

One of the most impres­sive col­lec­tions we have from Cicero is his let­ters. 37 books of his let­ters exist today, we know of 35 more which, unfor­tu­nate­ly, have been lost. These let­ters are writ­ten to and from fam­i­ly, friends, and var­i­ous pub­lic fig­ures. They give great insight into both the Latin lan­guage, but also into Cicero’s life and the his­to­ry of late repub­li­can Rome.

Woodcut showing Cicero writing his letters from 1547.
Wood­cut show­ing Cicero writ­ing his let­ters. This is page 329 of Cicero, Epis­tu­lae Ad Famil­iares (“let­ters to his friends”), from an ear­ly edi­tion print­ed by Hierony­mus Sco­tus (alias Giro­lamo Sco­to) in 1547 in Venice, Italy.

In 1345 Francesco Petrar­ca (1304–1374) found Cicero’s let­ters to his dear friend Atti­cus, Epis­tu­lae ad Atticum, in the Chap­ter Library of Verona Cathe­dral. No one knew they were there. This dis­cov­ery, some schol­ars mean, sparked the begin­ning of the Renaissance.

Cicero became so asso­ci­at­ed with the clas­si­cal Latin lan­guage that a select num­ber of renais­sance schol­ars decid­ed that if a word or a phrase did not appear in one of Cicero’s works it should not be used. This is famous­ly and bril­liant­ly ridiculed in Eras­mus’ Dia­lo­gus Cicero­ni­anus.

Cicero was not only impor­tant for the renais­sance human­ists’ rela­tion­ship to the Latin lan­guage or for our his­toric knowl­edge of Rome, but also for his influ­ence on, as men­tioned, rhetoric, pol­i­tics, and phi­los­o­phy. Works such as De Inven­tione, De Dev­ina­tione, De Fato, De Finibus Bono­rum et Mal­o­rum, de Senec­tute, de Amici­tia, de Offici­is, as well as the above­men­tioned De Re Pub­li­ca and De Leg­ibus had great impact on schol­ars, politi­cians, and philoso­phers and their ideas through­out history.

To give you an idea of just in how high a regard Cicero’s works have been held, here are two examples:

  1. When Johannes Guten­berg intro­duced the print­ing press he began with print­ing two books: Dona­tus’ Ars Minor, and the Bible. But when it was time for a third, he chose none oth­er than Cicero’ work De offici­is.
  2. On May 8th, 1825, Thomas Jef­fer­son wrote a let­ter to Hen­ry Lee explain­ing what he was aim­ing for when he draft­ed the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. In the let­ter, he gives us the sources he used for the draft: “All its author­i­ty rests then on the har­mo­niz­ing sen­ti­ments of the day, whether expressed in con­ver­sa­tion, in let­ters, print­ed essays, or in the ele­men­tary books of pub­lic right, as Aris­to­tle, Cicero, Locke, Sid­ney, &c.” (Note: Locke was him­self an admir­er of Cicero).

For stu­dents of Latin, Cicero has been, and is, per­haps most known for the many speech­es he gave, and wrote down, as a lawyer and as a politi­cian. Not all of them have sur­vived his­to­ry, but out of 88 known, over 50 have been pre­served to this day, giv­ing us an enor­mous well of ele­gant, cre­ative, and enjoy­able Latin, as well as insight into both the legal and the polit­i­cal scene of ancient Rome.

As we men­tioned ear­li­er, dur­ing Cicero’s con­sul­ship, the Cati­line con­spir­a­cy emerged, want­i­ng to over­throw the gov­ern­ment and assas­si­nate Cicero him­self. With his famous four flam­ing speech­es, Cicero drove Cati­line from the city, and in this chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose we will dig into the first part of the first speech, held in Novem­ber 63 B.C.

In it, Cicero begins by ask­ing a row of rhetor­i­cal ques­tions to Cati­line and then points out the absurd: that Cati­line lives! Despite many men hav­ing been put to death for less, Cati­line, plan­ning the destruc­tion of the gov­ern­ment, still lives! O tem­po­ra, o mores!

Fresco showing Cicero denouncing Catiline in the senate, by Cesare Maccari.
Cicero denounces Cati­line, fres­co by Cesare Mac­cari, 1882–88

Further resources

If you want to hear and read more texts from Cicero, we have record­ed the fol­low­ing: Cicero’s sto­ry about fraud, Cicero on the ring of Gyges, Two let­ters from, Cicero, Cicero on true and per­fect friend­ship, Quid Cicero de lud­is circensi­bus sen­sit? What did Cicero feel like going into exile?, and Cicero’s quest for the tomb of Archimedes.

You can find them all in our our Latin audio archive.

We also have a video about when Cicero went look­ing for Archimedes’ tomb (you can also find the sto­ry with­out expla­na­tions as an audio file above)

Anoth­er video about the sto­ry of Canius who want­ed to buy a vil­la from Ciceros De Offici­iswhere Daniel will read the text and explain dif­fi­cult parts in Latin, you will find the pure audio file of the text above in the text about fraud.

We also have a video where Daniel goes through two pas­sages from De senec­tute.

Want to know more about Cicero? Lis­ten to these audio files about Cicero from Car­o­lus Lhomonds Urbis Romae viri illus­tres in our Latin audio archive.

If you want to learn even more about Cicero, espe­cial­ly about his works, style, and influ­ences, I strong­ly rec­om­mend Michael von Albrecht’s A His­to­ry of Roman Lit­er­a­ture: From Livius Andron­i­cus to Boethius.

White Marble statue of Cicero in Rome, Italy.
Cicero, Rome

Audio & Video

Click below to read and lis­ten to a pas­sage from Cicero’s In Catili­nam.

Videos with English subtitles

Audio of Latin text

Latin text

Below you will find the orig­i­nal text of the pas­sage from In Catili­nam in Latin.

In Catili­nam, I.I

Quo usque tan­dem abutere, Catili­na, pati­en­tia nos­tra? Quam diu eti­am furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quem ad finem sese effre­na­ta iactabit auda­cia? Nihilne te noc­tur­num prae­sid­i­um Palati, nihil urbis vig­ili­ae, nihil tim­or pop­uli, nihil con­cur­sus bono­rum omni­um, nihil hic muni­tis­simus haben­di sen­a­tus locus, nihil horum ora vol­tusque moverunt? Patere tua con­sil­ia non sen­tis, con­stric­tam iam horum omni­um sci­en­tia teneri coni­u­ra­tionem tuam non vides? Quid prox­i­ma, quid supe­ri­ore nocte egeris, ubi fueris, quos con­vo­caveris, quid con­silii ceperis, quem nos­trum igno­rare arbitraris? 

O tem­po­ra, o mores! Sen­a­tus haec intel­le­git. Con­sul videt; hic tamen viv­it. Viv­it? immo vero eti­am in sen­a­tum ven­it, fit pub­li­ci con­silii par­ti­ceps, notat et des­ig­nat oculis ad cae­dem unum quemque nos­trum. Nos autem fortes viri satis facere rei pub­li­cae vide­mur, si istius furorem ac tela vite­mus. Ad mortem te, Catili­na, duci ius­su con­sulis iam pri­dem opor­te­bat, in te con­fer­ri pestem, quam tu in nos omnes iam diu machinaris.

An vero vir amplis­sumus, P. Sci­pio, pon­tif­ex max­imus, Ti. Grac­chum medi­oc­rit­er labefac­tan­tem sta­tum rei pub­li­cae pri­va­tus inter­fecit; Catili­nam orbem ter­rae caede atque incendi­is vastare cupi­en­tem nos con­sules per­fer­e­mus? Nam illa nimis anti­qua praetereo, quod C. Servil­ius Aha­la Sp. Maeli­um novis rebus stu­den­tem manu sua occid­it. Fuit, fuit ista quon­dam in hac re pub­li­ca vir­tus, ut viri fortes acrioribus sup­plici­is civem per­ni­cio­sum quam acer­bis­si­mum hostem coercer­ent. Habe­mus sen­a­tus con­sul­tum in te, Catili­na, vehe­mens et grave, non deest rei pub­li­cae con­sil­i­um neque auc­tori­tas huius ordi­nis; nos, nos, dico aperte, con­sules desumus.

Vocabulary & Commentary

Below you will find some key­words and com­ments on the text. 

These fol­low­ing words are key to under­stand­ing the text, if you already know them — great! — if not, make a men­tal note of them.

abutere: This is the future indica­tive of the depo­nent verb abu­tor. Abutere is the alter­na­tive form to the com­mon abu­teris.

caedes, is f.mur­der, slaughter

con­cur­sus, ‑us m.: run­ning togeth­er, gathering

con­stringo, ‑ere, ‑strinxi, ‑stric­tum: bind, restrain

effre­na­tus, ‑a, ‑um: unbri­dled, unrestrained

fuit ista…virtus: there was such virtue that…

furor, ‑oris m.: mad­ness, fren­zy, rage

iam diu machi­naris: you have been plan­ning. The present tense is used when the action begun in the past con­tin­ues into the present.

iam pri­dem: a long time ago

ius­su: by order

pateo, ‑ere, ‑ui: lie open

prae­sid­i­um, ‑ii n.: guard, gar­ri­son, protection

Quam diu eti­am? How much longer?

Quo usque? Up to what point?

tan­dem: at last, here, “May I ask?” or sim. Tan­dem with ques­tions often adds a tone of impatience.

telum, ‑i n., pro­jec­tile

English translation

Below you will find an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the text. 

In Catili­nam I.I

When, O Cati­line, do you mean to cease abus­ing our patience? How long is that mad­ness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbri­dled audac­i­ty of yours, swag­ger­ing about as it does now? Do not the night­ly guards placed on the Pala­tine Hill—do not the watch­es post­ed through­out the city—does not the alarm of the peo­ple, and the union of all good men—does not the pre­cau­tion tak­en of assem­bling the sen­ate in this most defen­si­ble place—do not the looks and coun­te­nances of this ven­er­a­ble body here present, have any effect upon you? Do you not feel that your plans are detect­ed? Do you not see that your con­spir­a­cy is already arrest­ed and ren­dered pow­er­less by the knowl­edge which every one here pos­sess­es of it? What is there that you did last night, what the night before— where is it that you were—who was there that you sum­moned to meet you—what design was there which was adopt­ed by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted? 

Shame on the age and on its prin­ci­ples! The sen­ate is aware of these things; the con­sul sees them; and yet this man lives. Lives! aye, he comes even into the sen­ate. He takes a part in the pub­lic delib­er­a­tions; he is watch­ing and mark­ing down and check­ing off for slaugh­ter every indi­vid­ual among us. And we, gal­lant men that we are, think that we are doing our duty to the repub­lic if we keep out of the way of his fren­zied attacks. 

You ought, O Cati­line, long ago to have been led to exe­cu­tion by com­mand of the con­sul. That destruc­tion which you have been long plot­ting against us ought to have already fall­en on your own head. 

What? Did not that most illus­tri­ous man, Pub­lius Sci­pio, the Pon­tif­ex Max­imus, in his capac­i­ty of a pri­vate cit­i­zen, put to death Tiberius Grac­chus, though but slight­ly under­min­ing the con­sti­tu­tion? And shall we, who are the con­suls, tol­er­ate Cati­line, open­ly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaugh­ter? For I pass over old­er instances, such as how Caius Servil­ius Aha­la with his own hand slew Spurius Maelius when plot­ting a rev­o­lu­tion in the state. There was—there was once such virtue in this repub­lic, that brave men would repress mis­chie­vous cit­i­zens with sev­er­er chas­tise­ment than the most bit­ter ene­my. For we have a res­o­lu­tion of the sen­ate, a for­mi­da­ble and author­i­ta­tive decree against you, O Cati­line; the wis­dom of the repub­lic is not at fault, nor the dig­ni­ty of this sen­a­to­r­i­al body. We, we alone,—I say it open­ly, —we, the con­suls, are wait­ing in our duty.

Trans­lat­ed by C. D. Yonge (1856)

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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