On this date in 63 B.C.E., Publius Cornelius Lentulus was executed by strangulation in Rome’s Tullianum for conspiring to overthrow the Roman Republic.
He was one of the key figures in the Catiline conspiracy, a political intrigue set against a ruinous social crisis that pushed the country to the precipice of civil war.
Roman had fought Roman intermittently over much of the preceding 70 years in episodes underpinned by a class conflict pitting wealthy landowners (politically represented by the Senate) against the growing populations of plantation slaves who tilled their fields and urban plebeians displaced from independent farming on the other. Debt was choking the Roman economy.
Catiline, an ambitious politician from a fading patrician family, had sought the consulship on a populist platform of debt forgiveness; failing to win the office through legal channels, he maneuvered to take it by force. The affair is known mostly through the testimony of its enemies, so it is difficult to gauge the true mixture of opportunism and conviction that informed the conspirators.
A cliffhanger sequence of moves and countermoves against the consul Cicero ensued, highlighted most spectacularly by one of Cicero’s famous orations driving every Senator to seat himself away from Catiline — who nevertheless rose passionately in his own defense.
Catiline left Rome to raise an army in the countryside, leaving Lentulus (himself a former consul) to manage the intrigue within Rome.
Lentulus made the least of the moment, dilating when he could have acted and exposing the plot by dint of a ham-handed attempt to involve visiting Gauls with grievances of their own.
The arrested conspirators’ fate was debated in the Senate this very morning. The young Gaius Julius Caesar, then conducting an affair with
Cicero’s Cato’s [correction] sister, stood against (illegal) summary execution, but the victories he would enjoy over Cicero yet lay some years into the future; fearing an attempted rescue, the Senate’s grim sentence was carried out immediately. Cicero personally escorted Lentulus to his death.
Lentulus’ failure likewise doomed Catiline, whose army shrunk from desertions before its commander hurled it into martyrdom with a stirring speech that recalled in passing “how severe a penalty the inactivity and cowardice of Lentulus has brought upon himself and us.”
Part of the Themed Set: The Fall of the Roman Republic.