Catiline Orations

The Catiline Orations, or Catilinarian Orations, were speeches given in 63 BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the consul of Rome to expose to the Roman Senate the plot to overthrow the Roman government, purportedly led by Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) and his allies. There is scholarly debate about the trustworthiness of Cicero's speeches, including questions as to how factually true they are. Other accounts of the same period (most notably that written by Sallust) portray Catiline in a more sympathetic light, even going so far as to excuse him of any involvement at all,[1] leading to questions of whether the Catilinarians were political propaganda designed to solidify Cicero's position in the political sphere rather than a factual account of the events of 63.


Running for the consulship for a second time after having lost the first time, Catiline was an advocate for the poor, calling for the cancellation of debts and land redistribution. However, there was substantial evidence Catiline had bribed numerous senators to vote for him and engaged in other unethical conduct related to the election. Cicero, in indignation, issued a law prohibiting such machinations.[2] It seemed obvious to all that the law was directed specifically at Catiline. Catiline, in turn, conspired to murder Cicero and the key men of the Senate on the day of the election in what became known as the Second Catilinarian conspiracy. Cicero discovered the plan and postponed the election to give the Senate time to discuss the attempted coup d'état.

The day after the election was supposed to be held, Cicero addressed the Senate on the matter, and Catiline's reaction was immediate and violent. In response to Catiline's behavior, the Senate issued a senatus consultum ultimum, a kind of declaration of martial law invoked whenever the Senate and the Roman Republic were considered to be in imminent danger from treason or sedition. Ordinary law was suspended, and Cicero, as consul, was invested with absolute power.

When the election was finally held, Catiline lost again. Anticipating the bad news, the conspirators had already begun to assemble an army, made up mostly of Lucius Cornelius Sulla's veteran soldiers. The nucleus of conspirators was also joined by some senators. The plan was to initiate an insurrection in all of Italy, put Rome to the torch and kill as many senators as they could.

Through his own investigations, Cicero was aware of the conspiracy. On November 8, Cicero called for a meeting of the Senate in the Temple of Jupiter Stator, near the forum, which was used for that purpose only when great danger was imminent. Catiline attended as well. It was then that Cicero delivered one of his most famous orations.

Oratio in Catilinam Prima in Senatu Habita

Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888.

As political orations go, it was relatively short, some 3,400 words, and to the point. The opening remarks are still widely remembered and used after 2000 years:

Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?

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?[3]

Also remembered is the famous exasperated exclamation, O tempora, o mores! (Oh the times! Oh the customs!).

Catiline was present when the speech was delivered. When he arrived at the Temple of Jupiter Stator and took his seat, however, the other senators moved away from him leaving him alone in his bench. Catiline tried to reply after the speech, but senators repeatedly interrupted him, calling him a traitor. He ran from the temple, hurling threats at the Senate. Later he left the city and claimed that he was placing himself in self-imposed exile at Marseilles, but really went to the camp of Manlius, who was in charge of the army of rebels. The next morning Cicero assembled the people, and gave a further oration.

Oratio in Catilinam Secunda Habita ad Populum

Cicero informed the citizens of Rome that Catiline had left the city not in exile, as Catiline had said, but to join with his illegal army. He described the conspirators as rich men who were in debt, men eager for power and wealth, Sulla's veterans, ruined men who hoped for any change, criminals, profligates and other men of Catiline's ilk. He assured the people of Rome that they had nothing to fear because he, as consul, and the gods would protect the state.

Meanwhile, Catiline joined up with Gaius Manlius, commander of the rebel force. When the Senate was informed of the developments, they declared the two of them public enemies. Antonius Hybrida (Cicero's fellow consul), with troops loyal to Rome, followed Catiline while Cicero remained at home to guard the city.

Oratio in Catilinam Tertia ad Populum

Cicero claimed that the city should rejoice because it has been saved from a bloody rebellion. He presented evidence that all of Catiline's accomplices confessed to their crimes. He asked for nothing for himself but the grateful remembrance of the city and acknowledged that the victory was more difficult than one in foreign lands because the enemies were citizens of Rome.

Oratio in Catilinam Quarta in Senatu Habita

End of the 4th Catiliniarian Oration, in a manuscript written by Poggio Bracciolini. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 48,22, fol. 121r.

In his fourth and final argument, which took place in the Temple of Concordia, Cicero establishes a basis for other orators (primarily Cato the Younger) to argue for the execution of the conspirators. As consul, Cicero was formally not allowed to voice any opinion in the matter, but he circumvented the rule with subtle oratory. Although very little is known about the actual debate (except for Cicero's argument, which has probably been altered from its original), the Senate majority probably opposed the death sentence for various reasons, one of which was the nobility of the accused. For example, Julius Caesar argued that exile and disenfranchisement would be sufficient punishment for the conspirators, and one of the accused, Lentulus, was a praetor. However, after the combined efforts of Cicero and Cato, the vote shifted in favor of execution, with the sentence carried out shortly afterwards.

While some historians agree that Cicero's actions, in particular the final speeches before the Senate, may have saved the republic, they also reflect his self-aggrandisement and, to a certain extent envy, probably born out of the fact that he was considered a novus homo, a Roman citizen without noble or ancient lineage.[4]


  1. Suetonius Divi Julii 1.9
  2. Dio Cassius XXXVII.29.1
  3. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. "Against Catiline". Trans. Charles Duke Young. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  4. Robert W. Cape, Jr.: The rhetoric of politics in Cicero's fourth Catilinarian, American Journal of Philology, 1995


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