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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Sallust (c. 86–c. 34/35 B.C.)

SALLUST survives as the author of two brief historical monographs. The ‘Conspiracy of Catiline’ is twelve thousand words in length; the story of the war against Jugurtha is told in about twice as many. In the career of a Mommsen or a Parkman, these might be mere contributions to a semi-popular magazine,—perhaps later gathered up in a sheaf of minor essays. As to thoroughness in investigation, and conscientious faithfulness, Sallust never rose to the level of Macaulay’s schoolboy.

Yet among historians he has a right to echo Heine’s boast:—

  • “When the greatest names are mentioned,
  • Then mine is mentioned too.”
  • Whence comes this lasting fame? Partly, no doubt, from the meagerness of our salvage from the Roman historians. Even Livy and Tacitus survive only as torsos. Cæsar’s memoirs alone remain intact, as indestructible as are his larger monuments. The really laborious and scientific work of Varro, like Cato’s ‘Origines,’ has vanished almost utterly. And so we descend almost at once to late and dull compilations. This pair of essays, therefore, each effectively centralized in plot, highly finished rhetorically, is almost like an oasis in a desert land of conjecture and doubt.

    In the great story of Roman imperial growth these two episodes are incomparably less prominent than—let us say—the Nullification incident and the possible annexation of the Sandwich Islands to the United States. Still, both have a certain epochal and pivotal character which Sallust has not failed to emphasize. Indeed, Mommsen offers much to support his own judgment that both these little books are political pamphlets, whose chief purpose is to discredit still more completely the beaten aristocracy, to glorify Marius and Julius as the successive champions of the populace, and so contribute to the rise of their successor, the young Octavian.

    In fact, this political purpose is frankly though quietly indicated to the attentive reader. Passing over the rather dismal personal preface (‘Jugurtha,’ i.–iv.), we find early in Chapter v.: “I am about to describe the war against Jugurtha, because … then first was opposition made to the insolence of the nobility.”

    On an early page, again, there is a clever introduction of Scipio Africanus, evidently as the last of the great patriot nobles, to be contrasted with the greed and folly of his degenerate successors. When the young African princeling Jugurtha had won his spurs under Scipio’s eye in the campaign against Numantia, he is ushered, at parting, into the great consul’s private tent, to hear words that foreshadowed the tragedy of his own life. “Cultivate rather the friendship of the Roman people itself than of individuals. Do not fall into the custom of bribe-giving. It is perilous to purchase from the few what truly belongs to the many. If you persevere in your own character, then glory, and royal power as well, will come to you unsought. If you make undue haste to meet them, the very money you spend will bring your headlong downfall.”

    We need not wonder whence Scipio derived his prophetic insight, nor inquire too curiously which of the two would have handed down, to Sallust the scribe, the very words of this secret fatherly counsel. Nearly every page offers equally clear evidence that our two sketches belong to the same “historical” school as Xenophon’s romance of Cyrus’s boyhood.

    In the use of grave general apophthegms, in a certain austere ruggedness of condensation, and in occasional archaisms,—all traits found chiefly in the longer set speeches,—our author clearly attempts at times to recall Thucydides. The comparison thus forced upon us is, upon the whole, rash, not to say suicidal. Still, we may well remember that even the conscientious Athenian lover of truth often made his statesman’s or general’s speech represent merely the substance of what should have been said on some decisive occasion.

    While the fierce Numidian chief long remains the central figure, Marius is quietly and skillfully brought to the front of the stage. It was impossible to make him the hero of the war itself, which had been nearly finished by Metellus before he was displaced by his lieutenant. Moreover, the final betrayal of Jugurtha throws little credit on any one concerned. The essay culminates rather in the long harangue to the people by the newly elected consul (Chapter lxxxv.).

    The final words of the pamphlet bear out the views here suggested as to its purpose, when they remind us that Marius was re-elected consul before he could return from Africa to Italy, because the Romans were panic-stricken by the great Celtic invasion. “All other tasks seem easy to our valor: against the Gauls alone we have always had to fight, not for glory, but for our very existence.” Thus no reader could fail to be reminded that Cæsar, the conqueror of Gaul, had completed the hardest of Marius’s tasks, the defeat of the Teutones and Cimbri, and so finally rescued Italy from its century-long terror.

    Space does not permit an adequate analysis of the ‘Catiline.’ The depreciation of Cicero and other patriotic aristocrats, the “whitewashing” of the youthful Cæsar,—and even in some degree of his friend the arch-conspirator,—have always been noted by observant readers. The recognition of such a deliberate partisan purpose, followed out in masterly fashion, only increases our sense of Sallust’s rhetorical skill. It is not to be supposed that any one studies him as a trustworthy source of historical facts.

    Sallust’s lost History covered only the years 78–67 B.C. The speeches and letters of this work are preserved in a special collection; and several fragments from a vanished manuscript of the entire work have also come to light in our century to pique our curiosity. Perhaps the author’s own memories would make this work doubly valuable, though the contemporary Catiline by no means equals the traditional Jugurtha in romantic interest. Once more, it is as a stylist, more than as a historian, that Sallust lives at all. Over the question “What is truth?” he lingered painfully as little as did “jesting Pilate.”

    The recorded incidents of Sallust’s life are perhaps sufficient to explain his Cæsarian partisanship. His first public appearance is as tribune of the people, fiercely opposed to Cicero in the famous trial of Milo. Only two years later he was expelled from the Senate on account of his outrageously vicious private life. It was Cæsar who by appointing him quæstor restored his senatorial rank. During the civil war he was active on sea and land, and at its close remained in Africa as proconsul. There he acquired enormous wealth; and retiring henceforth from public life, he laid out upon the Quirinal Hill those Gardens which remained so long a byword of imperial luxury. He can hardly have been much more extortionate than other provincial governors. Even his profligacy, and its punishment, may have been exaggerated by political malice and partisan ferocity. However, he is not a winning character; and we are hardly reassured by the pessimistic and Pharisaic tone struck in the personal introduction to each of his two essays.

    There are numerous school editions of the ‘Jugurtha’ and ‘Catiline.’ Sallust is, however, hardly fitted to inspire or elevate the youthful soul, and is passing somewhat out of popular use. There are sufficiently faithful English versions, but none of high literary quality.