|Cicero denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari|
Then again, considering that the Southern half of the country renounced the Union and broke away to form a new nation in 1861, all to preserve slavery, maybe we have treason aplenty, but just don't recognize it as such. Nixon, remember, scuttled the Vietnam peace talks to help himself get elected in 1968. Tens of thousands of American soldiers subsequently died. The truth came out, but barely left a mark on him.
Even now, with a president so obviously enamored with the Russians, if not in their actual employ, nearly half our country displays a willful blindness even toward the possibility. They don't want to know.
They should. History, including American history, is rife with traitors, and as their stories, each its own way, could be applicable to the current moment, and since readers might be unfamiliar with most, I thought them worth revisiting during the mid-summer lull, while I am on vacation from the paper and Donald Trump is holding his Treason Summit with his master, Vladimir Putin.
Much of our Roman history comes to us through Shakespeare. We know Julius Caesar, and his murder, "Et tu, Brute?" Plus a few writers—Marcus Aurelius, Virgil—whose works remain popular. We are aware of the worst emperors—Nero, Caligula. We know the empire fell to various Goths and Vandals.
And that's about it.
Ancient Rome's greatest traitor isn't on the radar, or wasn't, until Donald Trump was elected and started his virulent opposition to key elements of our republic—the free press (when it disagrees with him); the courts (when they make rulings he doesn't like). His efforts to burn down our government evoked another patrician who wanted to burn down his motherland: Catiline.
In March, 2017, Nation reporter M.A. Niazi dubbed Trump, "The American Catiline," though his article bogs down more on the historical differences—Lucius Sergius Catiline lost two elections in 65 and 64 BC and his plot to seize power in 63 BC failed. He was killed in battle, which displays more courage than Trump could ever muster.
Besides, Trump won.
To me, the similarity is more a matter of tone, particularly after I took the time to read Sallust's "The War With Catiline" translated by J.C. Rolfe (Harvard University Press: 2013).
The parallels pop out.
"Catiline could be held up as a prime specimen of a decadent nobleman who sought political advancement by espousing the cause of the drowntrodden simply to maintain and further selfishly his own dignitas," Rolfe wrote in his introduction, using an untranslatable Latin word akin to "prestige."
That sounds familiar. Or consider Sallust's description of Catiline's motives:
"His insatiable mind always craved the excessive, the incredible, the impossible. After the tyranny of Lucius Sulla, Catiline had been assaulted by the greatest passion for seizing control of the government, and he did not consider it at all important by what means he achieved his objective, provided he gained sovereignty for himself."
Sallust saw Catiline as a reaction, not to adversity, but success.
"Those who had easily endured toil, dangers, uncertain and difficult undertaking, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. Hence a craving first for money, then for power, increased; these were, as it were, the root of all evils. For avarice subverted trustworthiness, integrity and other virtuous practices; in place of these it taught insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything."
Trump wasn't conjured up by desperate poor Americans, but by desperate rich ones.
Just as the right cavils against the media, even while Fox dominates TV news, so Catiline in his speeches made it seem like his rebellion was an uprising of those on the fringes, and not powerful insiders trying to grab even more.
"All the rest of us, energetic, good—nobles as well as nobodies—have been a common herd, without influence, without prestige, subservient to those to whom, if the state were healthy, we would be an object of dread," Catiline told his supporters. "Accordingly, all influence, power, office, and wealth are in their hands...How much longer still will you put up with this, o bravest men?"
Like Trump, he made tearing down the state seem easy.
"We need only to begin," he exclaimed, "existing conditions will take care of the rest.
Ring a bell? Sound familiar? The Roman mob also bought it. Ancient Rome was also a powerful republic stabbing itself in the heart.
"At that period the dominion of the Roman people, it seems to me, was by far the most pitiable," Sallust writes. "Although the whole world, from the rising to the setting of the sun, had been subdued by arms and was obedient to Rome, although at home there was peace and wealth, which mortals deem the foremost blessings, nevertheless there were citizens who from sheer perversity set out to destroy themselves and the state."
The Republic of Rome, like the United States of America, had no enemy who could damage it the way a committed traitor could.
The left tortures itself with polls, amazed that Trump's supporters cling with him. So did Catiline's followers
"Neither was anyone out of such a great throng induced by a reward to betray the conspiracy, nor did a single individual desert Catiline's camp, a disease of such great intensity and just like a plague, had infected the minds of a great many of our countrymen."
In a sense, we have it worse. Catiline was opposed by the greatest Roman statesmen of all time, Cicero and Cato. The Democrats are a ragtag, disillusioned band, placing our hope in Joe Biden.
Cato saw the problems as an embrace of enemies and a paralyzing cynicism:
"Citizens of the highest rank have conspired to set fire to their native land; they summon to war the Gauls, a nation most bitterly hostile to the very name of Rome....
"We extol wealth, we pursue idleness. No distinction is made between good men and bad, and ambitious appropriates all the prizes for merit. And no wonder! When each of you takes counsel, separately for his own personal interests, when you are slaves to pleasure in your homes and to money or influence here, the natural result is an attack upon the defenseless republic."
He tried to put the situation in the materialistic terms that even senators could understand.
"I call upon you, who have always valued your houses, villas, statues, and paintings more highly than the nation; if you want to retain the possessions to which you cling, of whatsoever kind they are, if you want to provide freedom from disturbance for indulging your pleasures, wake up at least, and lay hold of the reins of government. At issue is not revenues or the wrongs of our allies, but our very lives and liberty are at stake."
Cato's appeals at least inspired action. Today, the Trump crisis isn't even perceived by his supporters, at least not publicly. There is no one to stir them to resistance. At least not yet.