Sallust and Plutarch View of the Moral decline

Though there are varied dates as to the time that the Roman Republic stood, it is agreed upon as lasting approximately 500 years. During the last century of its existence (133 BC -271BC) there were the many violent years of The Civil Wars and much social strife. Though the end result of these final years of the res publica was the adoption of an Emperor and the birth of the Roman Empire, the focus of this paper will be the presentation of the nature of tensions at the end of the respublica using selections from Sallust and Plutarch as a basis.

Sallust and Plutarch, while coming from different worlds and living different lives were very much alike in the thoughts that they presented in their writing on the fall of the Roman Republic. Sallust was an active individual in Roman politics during the Republic’s decline. He was a tribune in 52 BC who was kicked out of the Senate amid allegations of immorality. In 49 BC Sallust was in command of one of Julius Caesar’s legions and was elected to Praetor in 47 BC. Taking part in the African Campaign earned him the governorship of Numidia in.Upon his return to Rome in the early 40’s BC however he was charged with extortion, only to be released by Caesar. At this point in his life he decided to become a writer of history and lived a quiet life doing that. Plutarch’s life was very much different form Sallust’s. Born in Chaeronea he remained there for much of his life. His last 30 years he spent as a Priest at Delphi. There he was a devout believer in the ancient pieties and a profound student of its antiquities. The only involvement in politics at the time were stories that he was a man of influence and rumors of a governmental office being bestowed upon him by both Hadrian and Trajan.Despite the differences in their lives and backgrounds, their surviving literature has a basic underlying similarity; that being morality. To be more specific, the lack of morality on the part of the rulers of Rome during the last century of the Republic. In the following essay I will show examples of how Sallust and Plutarch point out again and again the lack of morality in the characters about whom they write in reference to the decline of the Roman Republic.


Sallust begins his Bellum Catalinae by telling us how the Roman Republic was built. He shows us that the people put aside their differences and kept their common goal, peace, in mind.According to the version I have heard, in the beginning the Trojans who were wandering in exile without a fixed home under the leadership of Aeneas founded and controlled the city of Rome as a free and independent Republic along with the indigenous people, A primitive tribe of men without laws or organized government. It is remarkable how easily these two peoples united after they had been gathered together in one community in the light of their differences in race and in language and the disparity in the way in which each of them lived: in a short time a diverse and nomadic mass of people was transformed by harmony into a Republic. Later after the Republic had grown in population, institutions and territory and seemed to be sufficient in prosperity and strength then, as happens in most human affairs, envy grew out of success.

1 Clearly Sallust is setting up some contrast from what was good and right to what will become the Republic’s demise. At the end of the passage above Sallust points out “as happens in most human affairs, envy grew out of success.” This idea is presented again later when Sallust writes: “… the rule of the Kings of which the original purpose had to protect the liberty and to strengthen the Republic turned into pride andtyranny …”

2 He is reiterating the fact that the agenda of the Kings had changed over time from one that was morally good to one that was mainly concerned with themselves and no longer with the well being of the Republic. In the same piece Sallust shows that Rome herself had degraded. Once Rome was a city where all was moral and just, a city where people lived in harmony. The founding of Rome, from Sallust’s point of view, was a situation that threw people who were very much different with diverse cultures and ideas together. This must have led to all sorts of problems yet they formed the Republic without too much trouble. The line: In a city so great and at the same time so corrupt, Cataline had no difficulty in surrounding himself with bands of criminals and degenerates of all kinds.

3 shows that Rome had very much degraded from the great city that it once was into one that is very much a moral void. In this moral vacuum that Rome has become it is not surprising that conspiracies and conflicts that Sallust chose to write about took place. Though above Sallust seems to give an indication that this behavior is just human nature, he goes on to contradict himself. In section IX of his Bellum Catalinae he says: As a result strict morals were followed both at home and in war. There was the greatest degree of harmony and the least incidence of greed; [and] justice and honesty were prevalent more through the influence of nature than because of the power of the law.

4 .We can see that he is saying that the Romans in the past, the Romans who built the Republic, were just and honest.Further they were this way just out of nature and not because there were laws stating that they had to be that way. Sallust goes on and gives a brief excuse for what the people of Rome became: For men who had easily endured hardship,danger and difficult uncertainty leisure and riches, though in some ways desirable, proved burdensome and a source of grief. Accordingly at first the desire for money increased in them and then the desire for power and these have been as it were the ingredients of all the Republic’s evils.

5  Sallust kind of gives the impression that it is not human nature that makes the Romans go bad but instead it is the soft life that they now have the opportunity to lead. Regardless of the cause though the end result is the same, the people of Rome are no longer the stuff that legends are made of. Plutarch too presents Roman morality as something that is desirable and good. Antony as a soldier on the battlefield for instance takes us back to the days of building of the Republic. Upon the taking of Pelusium Ptolemy wanted to put the people to the sword but “Antony withstood him, and hindered the execution.”

6 This is very similar to the incident in Sallust’s Bellum Catalinae when the men who were punished mainly in war during the building of the Republic were those men “…who had attacked the enemy contrary to orders or men who had withdrawn too slowly from battle after they had been recalled…

“7 Plutarch goes on to tell us that Antony “left behind a great name among the Alexandrines, and all who were serving in the Roman Army looked upon him as a most gallant soldier.”

8 Implying that this morality that Antony exhibited was something that the others respected. This moral attitude contributed to Antony’s rise in Roman Politics, but was soon replaced with a different one.Plutarch gives many examples of the changed Antony. This is the Antony that emerged as a result of his rise in Roman Politics. The story that is relayed to us about Antony’s purchase of Pompey’s house is quite something. Besides the illreputation, he gained by his living in the house of Pompey the  Great, who had been as much admired for his temperance and his sober, citizen-like habits of life, as ever he was for having triumphed three times. They could not without anger see the doors of that house shut against magistrates, officers, and envoys, who were shamefully refused admittance, while it was filled inside with players, jugglers, and drunken flatters, upon whom were spent the greatest part of the wealth which violence and cruelty procured. For they did not limit themselves to the forfeiture of the estates of such were proscribed, defrauding the widows and families, nor were they contented with laying on every possible kind of tax and imposition; but hearing that several sums of money were, as well by strangers as citizens of Rome, deposited in the hands of vestal virgins, they went and took the money away by force. When it was manifested that nothing would ever be enough for Antony, Caesar at last called for a division of property

.9 Antony is not the same person that was portrayed by Plutarch at the beginning of the work. The power that he has achieved has clearly corrupted him, at least that is what is presented by  Plutarch.Plutarch provides us with a glimpse of the depth to which Rome an Antony have fallen. He relates the story of Dolbella where Antony goes straight from the Senate to murder Dolbella.Antony, backed by a vote of the Senate that Dolbella should be put down by force of arms, went down and attacked him, killing some of his and losing some of his own men;Rome has become a place where the Senate deciding the fate of common men or breaking up and turning into a lynch mob is not uncommon. The Gracchi for example were pursued and eventually were no longer living as a direct result of a decision made within the Senate. This is not what the founders of the Republic had in mind I am sure.

Both Sallust and Plutarch come across trying to live their lives right. Plutarch shows this by living as a Priest at Delphi and sternly believing in the ways and rites that such a life involved. When you consider that this was a way of life for him for 30 years, you have to accept the fact that he lived a moral life. Sallust on the other hand displays moral beliefs through his writings. He lived a public life, though by all accounts a prosperous public life, and his writings can be interpreted as his reaction to the way that things are in the Republic at the time of his writing. It is clear that both Sallust and Plutarch hold the view that good old-fashioned morality is a good thing. In their writings they portray the founders of The Republic as possessing this morality. It was the pietas, virtus, clementia, andiustitia that the founders of the Republic possessed that built the res publica against all odds. Also in their writings they choose to make the founders of the Empire (and therefore killers of the Republic) as people who lack these very same morals.


1 Sallust, Bellum Catalinae. Taken from Roman Civilization [CLASS 111.3(08)] Supplementary Readings, sec. VI, p.

2 Ibid. sec VI, p. 30. 3 Sallust, Bellum Catalinae. Taken from Roman Civilization [CLASS 111.3(08)] Supplementary Readings, sec. XIV, p. 31. 4 Ibid. sec. IX, p.5 Ibid. sec. X, p. 31. 6 Plutarch, Antony. Taken from Roman Civilization [CLASS 111.3(08)] Supplementary Readings,paragraph 1, p. 107. 7 Sallust, Bellum Catalinae.

Taken from Roman Civilization [CLASS 111.3(08)] Supplementary Readings, sec. IX, p. 31. 8 Plutarch, Antony. Taken from Roman Civilization [CLASS 111.3(08)] Supplementary Readings, paragraph 1, p. 107. 9 Ibid. p. 115.

All biographical information on Sallust and Plutarch taken from: The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by N. G. L.
Hammond and H. H. Scullard.

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