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Catilina’s Arrest

The Streets of Rome 63 bc
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Remove your filthy hands from me,
  You wall-eyed dog!  What’s this, a writ?
Ah-ha!  So Cicero makes free
  With yet more lies, the hypocrite!

Rome’s blood runs true, as all Rome knows,
  And mine’s patrician to the core,
While as for wretched Cicero’s...
  By all the gods!  The Plautian Law?

Sweet vestals of the Aventine,
  Our consul’s mad!  The Senate, too!
See here, now, Crassus, read this line:
  ‘Conspiracy!’.  For what?  With who?

There’s not one jot of evidence,
  I’ll warrant that.  What?  House arrest?
No, Crassus, no!  No violence!
  Pass on this verse at my behest:

“I see two bodies:  One grown thin
  And wasted with a giant’s head;
The other — headless — strong as sin:
  The one shall strike the other dead.”

By Jupiter, he’ll pay for this —
  I’ll wall him up in Grecian dung!
I’ll boil his balls in blood and piss!
  I’ll feed the Optimates his tongue!

Yes, yes, I’m coming.  Stand aside!
  My riddle soldier?  One small clue—
In years to come you’ll brag with pride
  That Catilina walked with you!

I am no classical scholar, but no matter!  The role of Lucius Sergius Catilina in Roman history has provoked furious debate among academic historians for twenty centuries.  The official line is that Catilina conspired to take the consulship by force.  Indeed, he died a rebel on the field of battle shortly after escaping from house arrest.  The trouble is that his enemies wrote all the books (nothing new there, then!) including Cicero’s orations and Sallust’s biography of him. Ever since, the debate has been, in Steven Saylor’s words: “...Catilina the depraved insurrectionist, or Catilina the heroic revolutionary?”  His notorious riddle survives in the Lives of Plutarch:   “I see two bodies.  One is thin and wasted, but has a great head.  The other body is big and strong — but it has no head at all.”  Go ahead. There have been many suggested answers (one is, obviously, dictatorship versus democracy) but your guess will be as good as any!  The Plautian Law was a rarely used state defence against political unrest.  Cicero, as consul, demanded and received authority for extreme decrees and used them to put to death (probably unlawfully) several of Catilina’s supporters.  The Optimates were ultra-conservative Roman patricians who used Cicero as their mouthpiece while despising him as a plebeian social climber, raising interesting comparisons with Hitler’s rise to power in the mid 1930’s.