Sallust by Quintus Curtius: A Review
Sallust: The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha is a work of Roman History, written by one of Julius Caesar’s lieutenants during his retirement (the eponymous Caius Sallustius Cripus) and translated by my colleague Quintus Curtius. He had several reasons for assembling a new translation.
The first is the sheer beauty of the prose:
For in every state those who have no resources envy the productive and, due to dissatisfaction with their own lot, are eager for everything to be changed. They are nourished by upheaval and sedition without care, as poverty is easily maintained without great expense.
“…poverty is easily maintained without great expense.” This is but one example of the wit and humour which Caius Sallust employs throughout the work, which in Quintus Curtius’ opinion had never shon through in previous translations. Several of his footnotes explain his choice of words, his attempts to convey the rhyme and metre of Caius Sallust’s Latin, and while I cannot speak to the original Latin text, I can confirm that the translation is a delight to read.
The second reason for translating it was his love of Roman historians – particularly their fondness for moral narratives.
Modern history books are pretentiously objective; in an attempt to appear scientific, they abandon speculation and character descriptions. Only the ‘bare bones’ facts are laid out, and any sort of overarching purpose, tragedy, or harmony to events is excised from the scripts. Passionate morality plays have been replaced with stuffy statistics; is it any wonder that most young people learn most of their World War 2 history from Marvel Comics rather than actual historians?
Perhaps this focus on objective facts and on compiling statistics allows for a more accurate analysis, perhaps it prevents the modern researcher from falling sway to the charismatic words of yesteryear’s propagandists… but what good is factual analysis if it never leaves the dusty halls of academia?
Compare the following passage to what your textbooks taught you in school:
Before Carthage was destroyed the senate and the Roman people handled the political affairs of the republic peacefully and with discipline; rivalries among citizens for glory or domination did not exist. Fear of the external enemy kept the state focused on useful domestic endeavors. But when this fear lost its hold on the minds of the citizenry, unrestraint and arrogance inevitably grew, as these vices go hand-in-hand with opulence. Thus the leisure they hoped for during their hardships was in fact – after they had gotten it – more bitter and unkind than their original troubles. So the nobles abused their positions to indulge their vices, and the people abused their liberty to indulge their own; every man stole, plundered, and robbed for himself. Thus everything was pulled forcibly to two extremes; and the republic, which was caught in the middle, was torn apart.
I can only imagine this paragraph being submitted as part of a modern PoliSci paper (just replace Carthage with Soviet Russia), and the TA responding that more citations and footnotes were needed; more jargon and weasel words. Caius Sallust jumps in with both feet, he makes bold claims, and through doing so manages to paint a picture which makes sense to anyone who understands human nature. Of course peace led to softness – without a foreign challenger, Romans decided to rest on their laurels. It has always been thus, for republics as well as individual men; leisure leads to complacency, ushering in the next conflict.
The third reason for compiling this book should be evident at this point: it’s applicability to our modern world.
The Catilinian Conspiracy and the War of Jugurtha were tumultuous events which served as stepping stones in Rome’s transition from republic to empire; while Quintus allows Sallust to speak for itself, rather than putting it into a meta-historical narrative, it’s not at all surprising that Caius Sallust’s moral analysis is applicable to the events unfolding on today’s world stage. Take these words form one of Gaius Marius’s speeches:
What makes them happy, what they believe is worthwhile, let them continue to do. Let them indulge in sex and drink. Let them live out their elder years in the same way they spent their youth: in lavish dinners, ruled by their stomachs and the most indecent parts of the body. Let them leave sweat, dirt, and other such things to us, for whom such things are more pleasing than banquets. But in truth it will not be this way. For when these most repulsive men disgrace themselves with their scandals, they then snatch away the just rewards earned by good people. What is most unfair is that their extravagance and laziness – the most despicable of habits – never seem to hurt those who indulge in them, yet turn out to be the ruin of our blameless republic.
The obvious relevance to contemporary events will constantly strike the astute reader; by understanding this ancient history, you will better understand our present era.
Earlier I suggested that modern historians have chosen to focus on objective evidence out of envy for the honour given to scientists; in fact, I suspect there is more to it than that. I can easily imagine a modern person describing Sallust as “Morally Didactive”; Caius Sallust firmly believes that morality isn’t something arbitrary and socially determined, but something which is absolute. That virtue and vice are timeless qualities, known to all men in all ages, and that prosperity naturally flows from the former, while the latter brings ruin upon all who indulge him.
Sallust offends modern sensibilities. It demands more of the reader, and more of civilization. Today we celebrate comfort and complacency, seeking to ease all burdens, and smooth all ruffled feathers. Caius Sallust demands that we pursue virtue against all odds, and overcome our weaknesses, to become the sort of great men who can guide our society back on to the righteous path.
Quintus Curtius ensures that you’re given a full picture of what’s going on in these ancient times; he provides maps, explanatory footnotes, and an introduction which introduces the significant characters, helping fill in Caius Sallust’s ‘lapses’, where he trusted on his era’s common knowledge. Furthermore, Quintus falls back on his own military service to help explain certain aspects of the battles, as well as to draw his own observations on the nature of war. I strongly recommend this book for any man of a scholarly bent, with an interest in history, politics, and warfare, not just for the book’s content, but for how it relays the content. We’re severely lacking in moral narratives these days, and Sallust is filling a much needed gap, showing you what history used to be, and what history could be again.
Furthermore, there is the beauty of the prose itself, as well as the wisdom dispersed throughout it:
He who is most desperate is the most useful for an ambitious man seeking power; because he has nothing, he is not worried about preserving wealth. For him, anything that brings him a salary is considered respectable.
Sallust: The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha is available in paperback and ebook through Amazon.