Comfort Classics: Connor Hickey

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Connor Hickey

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

Well, as a student of Roman history, it’s a bit of a struggle for me to think of any particular work I turn to whenever I want to feel better. At the risk of sounding melancholy; wars, death, destruction, greed, corruption, injustice, assassinations and the like are somewhat constant themes in my research which, unfortunately, I have largely come to associate with life in the ancient world!

Having said that, if I were to name a source that gives me some form of comfort, it would probably be Sallust’s The War with Catiline (the title certainly doesn’t hint at any uplifting content, but bear with me!)

When did you first come across this text?

I first came across The War with Catiline back in 2015, during the first year of my BA. I was taking a module on the decline and fall of the Roman Republic and we, naturally, spent a couple of lectures examining the infamous Catilinarian conspiracy. Apart from Cicero, Sallust is our most extant source for this event, so we were encouraged to do some further reading into his work. It wasn’t until a few years later, however, when I started learning Latin during my MA studies, that I was able to revisit Sallust again, this time in much greater detail. Needless to say, studying the text in its original language brought a wealth of new insights (and challenges) for me.

Can you tell me a bit about Sallust and this source?

Of course.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus (or Sallust, as we call him), was a Roman historian and politician, born around 86 BCE in the municipal town of Amiternum. It’s likely that his political career began (as most politicians did) with a quaestorship sometime in the 50s BCE, before an ascension to the tribunate in 52 BCE. As he was not born into a traditional elite Roman family, Sallust entered the political arena with the stigma of being a novus homo (or ‘new man’). After embroiling himself in a political rivalry between Titus Anninius Milo and the demagogue Publius Clodius Pulcher, Sallust was later expelled from the Senate, supposedly on the charge of ‘immorality’ (although the fact that he took sides against Milo and Cicero during the Clodius affair likely had something to do with it). As Sallust (perhaps alluding to this event) writes:

‘I myself as a very young man, like a great many, was initially carried along into politics by my inclination, and there I encountered many setbacks; for instead of modesty, instead of incorruptibility, instead of merit, there flourished shamelessness, bribery and greed. And although my mind, a stranger to evil practices, rejected such conduct, nevertheless amid such rampant vices my youthful weakness was seduced and held captive by the desire for advancement; and despite having no sympathy with the evil ways of the rest, nonetheless, the craving for public office made me the victim of the same ill-repute and jealousy as the rest.’                           

Sallust, The War with Catiline, 3.3, translated by J.C. Rolfe

Sallust appears later in 49 BCE in Caesar’s camp during the civil war against Pompey (an unsurprising development, given his municipal origins). After proving himself a capable officer during Caesar’s campaigns, Sallust was entrusted with the governorship of the Africa Nova province in 46 BCE. It was during this tenure, however, that Sallust was charged, upon his return to Rome in 45 BCE, with having plundered the province for his own enrichment (quite ironic, given his own proclivity to lament the corruption of the Republic). While Caesar (quite possibly receiving a handsome share in these spoils) was able to protect his subordinate from any serious harm, Sallust (perhaps wisely) decided that it was time to retire from political life.

It was from this ignoble end to his political career that Sallust was able to return to the occupation he had (supposedly) left behind when entering politics, that being historical writing:

‘Accordingly, when my mind had found peace after many perilous misfortunes and I had determined that I ought to pass the remainder of my life apart from public affairs, it was not my plan to waste my precious leisure in indolence and sloth, nor yet to spend my life by devoting myself to the slavish employments of turning the soil or hunting. Rather, I decided to return to an undertaking and pursuit from which the harmful craving for advancement had held me back, and to write up the deeds of the Roman people selectively, according to whatever seemed to me worthy of record; all the more was this my intention because I possessed a mind free from hope, fear, and partisanship.’   

                      Sallust, The War with Catiline, 4.1-2, translated by J.C. Rolfe

His first historiographical work was The War with Catiline, a monograph written in about 42/41 BCE recounting the attempt by Lucius Sergius Catilina (or Catiline) to overthrow the Roman government in 63 BCE (Catiline had run for the consulship of 63 and 62 BCE, but having lost on both counts, he appears to have turned to more extreme measures for gaining power). A second monograph (written around 41/40 BCE) presents an account of The Jugurthine War, while a more ambitious annalistic work, known to posterity as Sallust’s Histories, appears towards the end of the historian’s life (though today it survives only in fragmentary form). 

Statue of Sallust in the Piazza del Palazzo, L’Aquila, Italy

What is it about this work that appeals to you most?

Well as a monograph, The War with Catiline is a rather short but entertaining read. Given that I spend so much time working with quite voluminous texts (like Tacitus and Josephus), I think it’s nice to have a bit of a respite through a more concise and straightforward work. There’s also the fact that Sallust was one of the first real Latin authors I translated and studied in depth (my first year of language classes were mostly spent on Wheelock exercises and grammar memorization), so I suppose there’s a sort of nostalgia mixed in with my overall appreciation for this work. I’m also quite taken by the ‘grumpiness’ in Sallust’s writings, particularly when he talks about the moral degradation of his contemporary Republic. Take, for instance, his comments on Sulla:

‘But after Lucius Sulla had regained control of the state by arms and brought about bad results despite good beginnings, all men began to rob and pillage… Sulla, so as to secure the loyalty of the army which he had led in Asia, had allowed it luxury and excessive license contrary to our ancestral custom; charming and pleasure-filled places had easily sapped the warlike spirit of his soldiers in their idle moments. There it was that an army of the Roman people first became accustomed to indulge in women and wine; to admire statues, paintings, and chased vessels; to steal them from private houses and public places; to pillage shrines, and to desecrate everything, both sacred and profane.’

Sallust, The War with Catiline, 11.4-6, translated by J.C. Rolfe

I guess it’s comforting to know that, even in ancient times, people were still looking at the distant past through rose tinted glasses!

But I think what appeals to me most in The War with Catiline is Sallust’s characterization of the main antagonist; Catiline himself. Unsurprisingly, Sallust gives us a rather negative description of Catiline’s demeanour. He’s bloodthirsty, greedy and quick to anger, deceitful, dishonest and never content. But he also possesses some positive qualities; persuasiveness, eloquence and a great mind and body which are capable of enduring the harshest of elements. So, despite his villainous nature, Catiline is somewhat more complicated than we might initially suppose.

This complexity is highlighted best, I think, towards the end of the monograph, when Catiline and his co-conspirators are (spoiler alert!) eventually caught. Having been sentenced to death by the Senate and cornered by a Republican army, Catiline is reported by Sallust to have addressed his men with a rousing speech:

‘“When I contemplate you, soldiers, and when I weigh your deeds, I have great hope for victory. Your spirit, youth, and valor encourage me, not to mention necessity, which makes even the timid brave. For the narrowness of this place prevents the throng of our enemies from being able to surround us. But if Fortune frowns upon your bravery, take care not to lose your lives unavenged, nor to be captured and slaughtered like cattle rather than leaving the enemy a bloody and mournful victory by fighting like heroes.”’

Sallust, The War with Catiline, 58.18-21, translated by J.C. Rolfe

These rather heroic words are complemented by a similarly heroic death:

‘Now when the battle was ended, truly then you might have beheld what boldness and resolution had been present in Catiline’s army. For nearly every man covered with his body, when life was gone, the position he had taken while alive and fighting. On the other hand, a few whom the praetorian cohort had scattered in the center, lay a little apart from the rest, but nevertheless all had fallen with wounds in front. Catiline, it is true, was found far from his men, amid the bodies of the foemen, still breathing slightly and showing on his face the fierceness of spirit that he had possessed when alive. Finally, out of the whole force, neither in the battle nor in flight, was a single freeborn citizen taken prisoner; thus had all been no less sparing of their own lives than their enemies.’

Sallust, The War with Catiline, 61.1-6, translated by J.C. Rolfe

I found this to be quite a stirring section upon my first reading. The idea that such a reckless and villainous individual could perish in such a heroic and admirable way is incredibly striking. Moreover, I think what affects me most about this passage is the fact that it shows Catiline, in my opinion, to be somewhat of a tragic character. He was, at least in my view, a potential hero, who, sadly, was turned into a petty villain on account of the immoral climate in which he grew up (something which was outside of his control).

Of course, from a historical perspective, I highly doubt that Sallust is giving us an accurate depiction of Catiline and his supposed conspiracy. The real details (and, for that matter, the real Catiline) are forever lost to time. Nevertheless, there is a sort of comfort in knowing that an ancient text can have such an impact on me almost 2000 years later. I guess that’s what appeals to me the most… 

Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari (1889)

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

Since submitting my thesis back in July, I’ve found running to be quite an enjoyable experience. I’m not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I have found it to be a nice distraction that helps take my mind off of current affairs and other responsibilities. I also have quite a passion for cinema and television, particularly science fiction (whether films like Blade Runner, Moon and Gattaca or TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica). I’d say my love of sci-fi also extends to novels as well, so you’ll probably find me trying to wind down with either Frank Herbert’s Dune or some work by Philip K. Dick (my favourites being The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Apart from that, I’m quite a fan of motorsport, so if the Grand Prix or some other race is on, I’ll most likely watch that (I guess there’s something therapeutic about watching cars drive around a track for a few hours?).

Connor Hickey is a former graduate student of Classics from Maynooth University. He completed his BA at Maynooth in 2018 before pursuing an MA in Classics from 2018-2020. His research interests focus mainly on the political, social and military history of the Roman world from the Late Republic to the Early Empire. Under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Davies, Connor submitted his thesis, The Outbreak of Provincial Revolt in the Early Roman Empire, which explored the origins of provincial resistance in the Roman provinces.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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