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Sallust - The Grumpy Historian

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

If you do not already know Sallust’s works or have not previously heard of him, I hope you will be inspired to investigate him further by the end of this article. He was a Roman historian from the late Republic and I think he is a fantastic writer. He is the earliest surviving Latin language historian and his works give a gritty and gloomy view of their chosen periods.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus lived c.86-35 BCE. He came from the Italian town of Amiternum and was from a wealthy plebeian family. That is to say, his family had no history of curule office-holding at Rome. The term for this was a novus homo, or new man, just as Cicero was, and before him successful general and seven-times consul, Gaius Marius.

Sallust enjoyed a moderately successful political career. His political approach can be described as popularis. What does this label mean?

· He cultivated the people directly for support, rather than focusing on cosying up to the

nobiles (those whose families possessed a history of holding office at Rome, especially the


· Populares politicians were often opposed to the Roman noble elite, often referred to as the

boni or optimates (the ‘best’ men), who formed something of a clique within the senate. Try

as hard as he might, Cicero never broke into the circle.

· Populares politicians usually won their support by appealing directly to the ills and

demands of the plebs, such as grain supply and handouts, plots of land.

That said, noble politicians could be populares in their political approach. Caesar, a patrician, was a popularis, much beloved of the people, who rioted angrily upon his assassination. His support of Caear undoubtedly aided his political advancement.

Sallust, therefore, unsurprisingly was in Caesar’s camp during the Civil War of 50-45. He may well have held the praetorship in 55 and was tribune of the plebs in 52. He had supported the prosecution of Milo, charged with the murder of Clodius and unsuccessfully defended by Cicero. He was removed from the senate by Appius Claudius Pulcher. The charge was immorality, but the optimate Appius was likely finding an excuse to get rid of a Caesar partisan.

After the Civil War he was praetor in 46 and served Caesar in Africa. Following his assistance in Caesar’s campaign against the remnants of the Pompeians in Africa, Caesar appointed him governor of the province Africa Nova. However, upon his return, he found himself prosecuted for extortion in his province. It is likely that he was guilty, but he was hardly atypical. Scrupulous governors were as rare as blue moons. Caesar’s influence helped him escape conviction, but that marked the end of Sallust’s public career, and he withdrew from public life.

His works were written after his withdrawal and probably after the death of Caesar. His works are:

· Bellum Catilinae: an account of the Catilinarian Conspiracy

· Bellum Iugurthinum (my personal favourite): the war with Jugurtha in Numidia.

· The Histories: a history of the Republic down to 70 BCE. Sadly very fragmentary.

This last work sadly survives only in a very fragmentary state. The most substantial fragments are speeches (and one letter) by key figures in the turbulent final four decades of the Republic.

Key themes of Sallust’s works are:

  • How Rome became so corrupt and the role this played in the fall of the Republic.

  • A lament for the probably highly idealised ‘good old days’, namely the middle Republic. The subversion and abuse of good values looms large in all Sallust’s works.

  • The metus hostilis, that is to say the effect on Rome on the removal of any enemy that posed sufficient challenge or fear. Sallust seems to suggest that the internal concord of the state fell apart, when Rome’s primary fear, Carthage, ceased to be a fear in 146 BC.

  • The power of rhetoric – speeches form an important part of Sallust’s works. Are they historical. Well, we have no idea. I suspect as lot has been added or moulded to fit Sallust’s purpose (this was quite permissible in ancient historical works). But this does not mean he did not capture a certain historical truth, either in his characterisation of the relevant figure, or in his comment on the state of Rome.

  • Language and its changing usage. This links back to the themes of rhetoric and distortion of values.

  • Human nature and its role as a causative factor in history. It is not a particularly optimistic view of human nature that emerges.

This introduction to Sallust will be in two parts. The second, which I will bring you soon, will give a description of his works, their plots and themes.

You may well read that Sallust took liberties with historical events. Ernst Badian even described him as rather a ‘poor historian’. My opinion, however, is that such a judgement emanates from a modern view of history and what it should be. Sallust might play fast and loose with chronology, and he certainly has a peculiar topography in the Bellum Iugruthinum. But does he cultivate the political atmosphere of the late Republic and what made it vivid, or a least his view of it? I would argue that he does.

My favourite historian Polybius, would, I think have had mixed views on Sallust (he lived and wrote a good hundred years earlier). He would have taken issue with his accuracy and the narrow focus of his works on Catiline and Jugurtha. Polybius believed in writing the history of the ‘whole picture’. However, where he would have praised and, I think, admired Sallust was his hands on experience and his achievement of a feeling of realism. Polybius believed politicians were the best people to write history. They had the technical experience (empeiria) to write about the events they described, political processes, military encounters. If they wrote contemporary history (which Sallust did not), they had witnessed events for themselves (autopsia). But they also had a unique type of experience. Namely of the kinds of events they described, how they felt and what they were like (autopatheia). This Sallust does very successfully drawing on his own experience, bleak and jaundiced though that view is.

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