Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC)

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, usually anglicised as Sallust (86 to 35 BC), is the first Roman historian by whom a complete work survives – we know the names of earlier Roman historians but none of their works have come down to us. In fact, we have just two works by Sallust, being his account of the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC and the Jugurthine War of 112 to 106 BC.

A third work, the Histories, covered the period from 78 (the year the dictator Sulla died) to 66 BC, taking in the war against Sertorius (72), the campaigns of Lucullus against Mithradates VI of Pontus (75 to 66 BC), and the victories of Pompey in the East (66 to 62). Invaluable as this material would be, nothing of the Histories survives except a fragment of book 5, describing the year 67 BC, and scattered quotes in later works.

His two surviving works are relatively brief – Cataline 44 pages and Jugurtha 86 pages long in the 2007 Penguin paperback edition, edited and translated by A.J Woodman. Throw in a detailed introduction, notes, index and a couple of maps, and it adds up to a tidy little 204 page-long paperback.

In his own time and ever since, Sallust’s brief oeuvre has been famous for two things: a terse style much given to archaic vocabulary and phrasing; and his insistent moralising.

Theories of history

The editor and translator, A.J. Woodman echoes critics quoted on Sallust’s Wikipedia article who all emphasise that Sallust relies on a moralising interpretation of history. He attributes the prolonged failure to end the Jugurthine War on the corruption and willingness to be bribed of numerous Roman officials, and the Catiline conspiracy on the same kind of falling away from Rome’s venerable notions of honour and duty among its ruling class.

Critics point out that Sallust therefore misses the deeper social and economic causes of the events he describes, interpretative paradigms which the last couple of hundred years of economic, sociological, historical and political theorising have elaborated to sophisticated heights.

He doesn’t even take into account the clash of personalities, which was obvious enough to contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and should have informed Sallust’s accounts.

I see what the critics mean but I’m inclined to take Sallust as he is – I mean, to read and enjoy Sallust for what he says rather than what he doesn’t. There’s no shortage of modern histories of the Roman Republic which overflow with economic, sociological, Marxist, feminist or other schools of interpretation. Throw in the findings of modern archaeology, the study of contemporary texts from other cultures, numismatics and so on, and modern scholars often know more about ancient events than contemporaries did – and are certainly able to spin more elaborate and sophisticated analyses of them than the ancients could.

It’s always seemed obvious to me that the value of ancient (so-called) histories is not to reach a ‘true’ account of events because a) they are frequently littered with exaggerations (of casualties in battles), made-up speeches and bizarre omens and b) modern editors routinely point out their factual errors and elisions, to the extent of getting the dates of key events or names of people wrong.

I’ve always read them not for a strictly accurate account of what happened so much as to get a sense of the meaning the events they describe had for their contemporaries – not so much what happened, but how they thought about what happened. What it all meant to them. How they made sense of human existence, human actions, big historical events. They did this in ways very different from us, but it’s precisely those differences which shed light both ways, bringing out the subtly but profoundly different world they lived in, and also helping to understand the (sometimes taken for granted) bases of our own worldview.

Historiographical motifs

There is another factor at play, here. Woodman devotes a section of his introduction to explaining the simple fact that ancient historians often didn’t describe what happened because half the time they didn’t know what happened and went by hearsay and folk tradition.

Instead you often find ancient historians describing what should have happened. When two great generals confronted each other in battle, everyone knows the outcome i.e. who won, but the ancient historian garnished his account with a lengthy set speech from each general setting out their aims and motivation, probably calling on the gods to help him.

To take a well known example. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD) in his profile of his father-in-law, the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, describes him leading Roman legions against Caledonian tribes somewhere in Scotland, a long list of places they trudged through and minor skirmishes against tribes whose names Tacitus may or may not have got correct. The campaign leads up to a climactic battle, which, again, he may or may not describe accurately, but either way is a bit boring. What has made the scene live forever is that Tacitus invented a Caledonian chieftain, giving him the name Calgacus and, on the eve of the battle, gives him a great long speech to inspire his troops, which includes vivid accusations against the Romans and their ideology of imperialism. There now! Much more dramatic and satisfying.

Same in Sallust. In the case of the Cataline conspiracy actual speeches were given in the Senate during the days of the crisis (November and December 63 BC) and official records and eye witnesses survived which Sallust could consult. But for the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC), by the time Sallust was writing in about 40 BC, all eye witnesses were dead.

To really drill home this point, Woodman quotes Cicero. He summarises Cicero’s description of the central role of what he calls inventio in oratory, particularly in prosecuting a case in the courts. Cicero defines inventio as ‘the devising of matter true or lifelike which will make a case appear convincing‘ (On Invention 1.9, quoted in Woodman’s introduction, page xxiii). Woodman then applies this interpretation to Sallust’s practice, concluding that ‘a significant portion of his narrative was the product of “invention”‘ (p.xxiv).

Sallust wanted his accounts to be powerful, convincing and persuasive – and so it can be shown that he gave protagonists, at key moments, long moralising speeches which a) they probably never gave and b) which echo similar speeches in the works of previous historians (especially the Greek historian, Thucydides, who Sallust borrows from extensively). He is not recording objective history, he is reworking well established literary motifs to make his history more convincing and dramatic.

In other words, Sallust is one of those ancient historians who thought of writing history more as an art form than as an objective attempt to record ‘the truth’.

Moralising

This brings us to Sallust’s moralising. In a nutshell, Sallust took the entirely traditional view that Rome had declined from the former greatness of its glorious past and that the age he lived in was uniquely corrupt, depraved and fallen, a very, very common view of human existence, shared throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages and among pub bores down to the present day.

Like his contemporaries, Sallust had been buffeted by the chaos of the 50s (which happened to be the years when he held political office – quaestor in 55, plebeian tribune in 52, expelled from the Senate by Appius Claudius Pulcher in 50 BC).

With the coming of civil war in 49 Sallust opted, wisely as it turned out, to support Caesar (unlike Cicero who made the mistake of backing Pompey). In fact, in 46 BC Sallust served as a praetor and accompanied Caesar on his African campaign, so he was significantly more than an armchair supporter and actively involved in Caesarian campaigning.

Nonetheless, in the absence of modern sociological theories of historical causation, Sallust’s view of history is cast entirely in terms of personal morality. For Sallust history consists of, and is entirely driven by, the moral or immoral behaviour of great men. His three works can be threaded on this single principle:

  1. The pitiful failure of Rome to end the Jugurthine war was caused by – and symptomatic of – the increasingly venal, selfish and amoral Roman nobles and officials of his day.
  2. The Catiline Conspiracy represented the complete abandonment of the Roman ideals of loyalty, duty and devotion to the state in the shape of the vile traitor Catiline.
  3. The preface to the Histories repeats the accusation of personal irresponsibility, greed and corruption against the Roman nobles, taking an even more pessimistic view of Tome’s moral collapse than the two monographs.

This approach to history was widely shared in the ancient world. The idea was not to present a definitive ‘truth’ about events, but to present them in such a way as to instruct the present. Rather than invoke impersonal forces such as economic or social developments, a historian like Sallust is presenting the good or bad behaviour of high profile individuals from the past as lessons in morality for the present. The aim of this kind of history is to make us behave better, and if that requires colouring and dramatising events, well so be it.

Translating ‘virtus’

By contrast with the decline and fall which he sees everywhere, Sallust posits a quality which stands as polar opposite to the corruption of the Roman ruling class and which he calls virtusVir is the Latin for ‘man’ (hence ‘virile’ meaning ‘manly’) and therefore virtus describes the qualities and attributes of an ideal (Roman) man (loyalty, devotion to family, duty to the state, military ability and so on).

Unhappily, in my view, Woodman translates this key word, virtus, as ‘prowess’. The dictionary definition of ‘prowess’ is ‘skill or expertise in a particular activity or field,’ so I can see what he’s driving at, but I still think it’s too narrow? ‘Prowess’ by itself doesn’t immediately convey all the attributes of the ideal man in the way virtus obviously does for Sallust. Maybe it’s one of those instances in making a translation where leaving the word in the original language might have been best, because its frequent repetition would have allowed the reader to build up multiple meanings accrued from its various contexts. Slowly the reader would have been taught by the text what Sallust’s multiple uses of virtus mean to him.

It’s worth mentioning all this because the word and concept virtus occurs on virtually every page of the Jugurthine War, sometimes multiple times per page. It is an absolutely central theme in Sallust’s discourse, so the reader is reminded several times a page of the shortcomings of Woodman’s preferred term of ‘prowess’.

Woodman makes several other odd lexical decisions which undermine trust in his translation. Sallust repeatedly refers to the lack of action or energy with which the first Roman commanders prosecuted the war against Jugurtha. Woodman translates this quality as ‘apathy’ which, to me, conveys a completely different meaning; someone who is apathetic doesn’t care about anything, whereas someone who is inactive or is guilty of inaction is capable of more but is making a conscious decision not to act, and so is reprehensible. That’s much closer to the sense of what Sallust means.

Another peculiar translation choice is Woodman’s repeated use of the word ‘muscle’, the application of ‘muscle’, the use of ‘muscle’ in political or military situations, which makes his text sound like an American book about the mafia. I’d guess a better or more dignified translation would be ‘might’ or ‘manpower’.

In a nutshell, although I enjoyed Sallust, I came to dislike and distrust Woodman’s translation.

Mind versus body

Both Jugurtha and Catiline open with general remarks about human nature and, above all, how humans are separate from all other species by virtue of having mind, by the ability to think and reason. Here’s the opening of Jugurtha (in the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson which is available online and doesn’t use ‘prowess’ to translate virtus):

The ruler and director of the life of man is the mind, which, when it pursues glory in the path of true merit [virtus], is sufficiently powerful, efficient, and worthy of honour, and needs no assistance from fortune, who can neither bestow integrity, industry, or other good qualities, nor can take them away. But if the mind, ensnared by corrupt passions, abandons itself to indolence and sensuality, when it has indulged for a season in pernicious gratifications, and when bodily strength, time, and mental vigour, have been wasted in sloth, the infirmity of nature is accused, and those who are themselves in fault impute their delinquency to circumstances.

If man, however, had as much regard for worthy objects, as he has spirit in the pursuit of what is useless, unprofitable, and even perilous, he would not be governed by circumstances more than he would govern them, and would attain to a point of greatness, at which, instead of being mortal, he would be immortalised by glory. (From the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson)

The Catiline also opens with an extended passage explaining how humanity’s possession of reason behoves us to use it. Woodman here again uses ‘prowess’ in a dubious way whereas the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1921 (which can be found on the excellent LacusCurtius website) translates virtus as ‘mental excellence’. Where Woodman has:

The glory of riches and appearance is fleeting and fragile, but to have prowess is something distinguished and everlasting.

The Loeb edition has:

For the renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.

Which seems to me both more precise and more impressive. Or again, Woodman:

Ploughing, sailing and building are all dependent on prowess.

Loeb:

Success in agriculture, navigation, and architecture depends invariably upon mental excellence.

Woodman’s hangup with the word ‘prowess’, in my opinion, distort Sallust’s meaning on every page. Also, as a general rule. Woodman’s phrasing of English is worse. Woodman:

His eloquence was adequate, scant his wisdom. (5)

Loeb:

He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion.

Which is a hundred times better – clearer, more vivid, more precise and also, paradoxically, more modern. ‘Scant his wisdom’ feels Elizabethan. Despite being a hundred years old the Loeb version is much clearer and more attractive and enjoyable, as prose than Woodman which is why I gave up reading the Penguin translation and read both books online.

After Carthage

One last point. Like many later Romans, Sallust thought the collapse in Roman honour, integrity etc set in at one very particular moment – after Carthage was conquered in 146 BC and Rome faced no more great enemies:

Before the destruction of Carthage, the senate and people managed the affairs of the republic with mutual moderation and forbearance; there were no contests among the citizens for honour or ascendency but the dread of an enemy kept the state in order. When that fear, however, was removed from their minds, licentiousness and pride – evils which prosperity loves to foster, –immediately began to prevail and thus peace, which they had so eagerly desired in adversity, proved, when they had obtained it, more grievous and fatal than adversity itself.

The patricians carried their authority, and the people their liberty, to excess; every man took, snatched, and seized what he could. There was a complete division into two factions, and the republic was torn in pieces between them.

Yet the nobility still maintained an ascendency by conspiring together for the strength of the people, being disunited and dispersed among a multitude, was less able to exert itself. Things were accordingly directed, both at home and in the field, by the will of a small number of men, at whose disposal were the treasury, the provinces, offices, honours, and triumphs while the people were oppressed with military service and with poverty, and the generals divided the spoils of war with a few of their friends. The parents and children of the soldiers, meantime, if they chanced to dwell near a powerful neighbour, were driven from their homes.

Thus avarice, leagued with power, disturbed, violated, and wasted every thing, without moderation or restraint, disregarding alike reason and religion and rushing headlong, as it were, to its own destruction. For whenever any arose among the nobility who preferred true glory to unjust power the state was immediately in a tumult and civil discord spread with as much disturbance as attends a convulsion of the earth. (Watson translation)

2,000 years later, many of the contemporary historians I’m reading, despite their use of much more sophisticated theories of history and society, and economic and social evidence, broadly agree. 146 BC, the year when Rome destroyed Carthage in the West and Corinth in the East (thus decisively taking control of all Greece) was the turning point. On this, a soldier who served under Caesar over 2,000 years ago and the most up-to-date scholar in a Cambridge college, agree.

Summary

To summarise, then: Sallust makes up most of his speeches, and maybe even some of the events he describes, in order to:

  • make his account more powerful and convincing
  • further his worldview or ideology – his scathing criticism of Rome’s nobles and senatorial class, his lament at the decline of Rome’s morality and behaviour
  • all with a view of instructing his readers and encouraging them, by showing the bad behaviour of people in the past, to behave better in the future

Roman reviews

  • Sallust
  • The Jugurthine War by Sallust (41 BC)
  • The Catiline Conspiracy by Sallust (42 BC)
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