Amy Laughlin

Scandal and Political Divisions in the Late Roman Republic and Modern America


In November 2014, when Texas Republican Ted Cruz depicted Democratic President Barack Obama as Catiline, he created an allusion that was possibly more meaningful than he realized. The Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BCE was a long stretch from the current immigration reform and affordable care acts in America, by nature a far more liberal society than Rome. By declaring Obama the Catiline to his Cicero, Cruz effectively accused Obama of high treason to the American government–a statement that is far from the truth (Weiner 2014). Despite the misconceptions that Cruz obviously had in understanding Roman politics in comparison to American ones, his actions pose a question to contemporary American classicists: how similar are ancient Rome and modern America, truly, in the realm of politics?

Aside from the obvious differences in political hierarchy and personal liberties, American and Roman politics hold a key difference–the existence of and reliance upon political parties. Current American politics are indubitably bipartisan. While other factions exist, the reigning groups are the conservative Republicans and the liberal Democrats. Rome, on the other hand, did not have this same bipartisan system (Yakobson 1999:13). The division between the conservative Optimates and comparatively liberal Populares was not the same as modern American political factions, and Roman voting decisions were based on far more than simply knowing which group a particular politician belonged to (Yakobson 1999:39). The closest thing ancient Rome had to modern political parties would be the patronage that many Roman citizens held with others. This, however, was not so much politically based as some scholars have made it seem–in fact, the patron-client relationship was generally much more personal than public or political (Yakobson 1999:79). Therefore, compared to the collectivist team-like partisanship in modern American politics in which people–politicians included–tend to attach themselves to one party and stick with it, Roman politics were more based on personal alliances among political candidates and voters, and therefore was much more individualistic.

Despite the differences, American and Roman politics naturally have similarities as well. One of these is the focus of this paper: both ancient Roman and modern American politicians use scandals and conspiracies, among other misdeeds, to create political divisions between either individuals or factions. The scandals I look at in this paper include Catiline’s sex scandal with the Vestal Virgin Fabia, and former president Bill Clinton’s scandal with Monica Lewinsky, and the conspiracies include Catiline’s second conspiracy against the Roman government and the Watergate scandal from the American 1970s. A distinction is worth making here–scandals are typically based on personal immoral actions that cause the general public to be horrified. Conspiracies, on the other hand, usually begin with secret plots that involve purposefully manipulating or deceiving the public for the conspirators’ gain (Basham 2001:265). Both of these, however, are used in similar ways by the non-offending politicians–to snub the committers of the misdeeds, and to concurrently promote themselves by emphasizing or even manipulating particular facts about the transgression.

Sex Scandals: Catiline and the Vestal; Clinton and the Intern

One of Catiline’s earliest and grandest public blunders was as religious as it was political: his alleged affair with a Vestal Virgin.  Roman government and religion were deeply intertwined, in a way that modern Americans can hardly fathom–to many citizens, the institution of the Vestal Virgins was integral to Roman well-being. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and home, and thus she represented general safety to Romans through her symbolic fire (Cadoux 2005:163). Likewise, the virgins represented purity and the strength of the Roman defense: “her unpenetrated body was a metaphor for the unpenetrated walls or Rome” (Parker 2007:568). Naturally, the virgins were to remain chaste. If they broke their vow, Romans believed that Vesta herself would allocate her displeasure to not only the virgin and her copulatory partner but also to the entirety of Rome and its citizens. Therefore, Catiline’s sexual involvement with the Vestal Virgin was a sure indication of his neglect to Roman security. Cicero and Sallust used this fact to stress Catiline’s wickedness and unsuitability for power in Rome.

Cicero accordingly made use of Catiline’s sex scandal by elaborating on the destruction Catiline either intended to cause or already had caused to the Roman Republic. He may have had even more reason for anger than Sallust as the virgin in question was Fabia, half-sister of his wife Terentia (Cadoux 2005:166). This is due to the fact that Fabia was a member of Cicero’s extended family, which may either suggest Fabia’s irresponsibility in maintaining her virginity, or Catiline’s utter disrespect to not only the Republic’s safety but also Cicero’s wife’s family. In his fourth oration against Catiline, he speaks strongly against Catiline and his relationship with Fabia by describing the destitution Catiline might have brought upon the institution of the Vestal Virgins as well as the rest of Rome. He says:

nunc si hunc exitum consulatus mei di immortales esse voluerunt ut vos populumque Romanum ex caede miserrima, coniuges liberosque vestros virginesque Vestalis ex acerbissima vexatione, templa atque delubra, hanc pulcherrimam patriam omnium nostrum ex foedissima flamma, totam Italiam ex bello est vastitate eriperem, quaecumque mihi uni proponetur fortuna subeatur

“Now if this result is that which the immortal gods have wished of my consulship so that I may rescue you and the Roman people from the most miserable death, your spouses and children and the Vestal Virgins from the most bitter hardship, temples and shrines, this most beautiful fatherland of all of us from the filthiest fires, all Italy from war and waste, whatever fortune will declare for me, may I undergo.” (Cic. Against Catiline 4.2).

Here, speaking to the senate in between Caesar and Cato’s speeches recounted by Sallust, Cicero claims to have single-handedly saved the Vestal Virgins from adversity (Kaplan 1968:112). He also implies that the fates and gods themselves had ordained this task for him. Through these words, Cicero explicitly implies he is the savior in the Catiline-Vestal sex scandal, and acts as a direct foil to Catiline’s perceived depravity in his taking of the Vestal’s virginity.

Though he was separated from the event by a good number of years, Sallust also alludes to Catiline’s sex scandal and its licentiousness. Sallust states, iam primum adulescens Catilina multa nefanda stupra fecerat, cum virgine nobili, cum sacerdote Vestae, alia huiuscemodi contra ius fasque, or “Already in the beginning young Catiline had committed many abominable debaucheries, with a highborn virgin, with a priestess of Vesta, and other things of this sort against statute and divine will” (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 15.1). Here again, much like with Cicero, the audience sees that Sallust intends for his readers to abhor Catiline and his actions against the religious institution of the Vestal Virgins. He uses specific words so that he can focus attention to certain qualities of Catiline: Sallust emphasizes the inappropriateness of Catiline’s affair with nefanda, their irresponsibility with stupra, and their feloniousness with contra ius fasque. Sallust continues this characterization of an evil Catiline throughout the Bellum Catilinae, therefore reinforcing his stance that Catiline and his actions were contrary to the Republic’s best interests.

Overall, from the depictions both Cicero and Sallust give of Catiline in his sex scandal with Vestal Virgin Fabia, the reader sees that these two writers and politicians did not approve of or support Catiline. They both involved religion in their beratings–di immortales in Cicero and fas in Sallust–which reiterates the gods’ disappointment in Catiline (Cicero Against Catiline 4.2; Sallust Bellum Catilinae 15.1). Cicero, more than Sallust, used this involvement as leverage to promote his own standing with the gods and consequently the Romans with his upstanding solo rescue of the Vestals themselves–along with the rest of the Roman population. Both writers use this scandal to signify Catiline’s failure to pay due respect to the Vestals’ significance to Roman religion and security..

A modern example of a personal sex scandal, though it lacks the same level of religious nuance, is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that emerged in early 1998. In this scandal, President Bill Clinton had an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Although to most citizens this affair did not preclude the wrath of god(s) upon America, it naturally made some citizens less comfortable with Clinton’s term in office. A 2011 Fox News video recounting the scandal states that 92% of Americans believe extramarital affairs are morally wrong (“Cheat Sheet: A look at sex scandals and how politicians handle them” 2011). Regardless of the statistical accuracy, this number emphasizes the inappropriateness of Clinton’s sexual relationship with Lewinsky. The video also mentions the more recent affair of potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mark Sanford, a self-proclaimed Christian, who once chastised Clinton for his affair. This mention of religion is important–many Americans see religious affiliations with their corresponding moral issues such as dishonesty and adultery. In comparison, fellow Republicans seemed to be relatively indifferent to Sanford’s scandal: Mississippi governor Hayley Barbour stated that the scandal was a personal issue and that he would not get involved, and Virginia Republican Eric Cantor stated that focus on Sanford’s affair took attention away from the political issues. In this instance, we see a double standard–Republicans are far more forgiving to the same types of scandals within their own political faction. For Barbour and Cantor, Republican scandals are separate from political life but Democratic scandals represent personal character and political ability.

Republican independent counsel Kenneth Starr, in an almost Sallustian fashion, narrated the entire plot of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, in which he described and rebuked Clinton’s actions: “When he took the Oath of Office in 1993 and again in 1997, President Clinton swore that he would  ‘faithfully execute the Office of President.’” (Starr 1998). While, like Sallust, Starr remains relatively factual about the sex scandal, quotes like this seem to emphasize Clinton’s moral questionability by emphasizing his unfulfilled promise of faithfulness. While this faithfulness likely related more to patriotism in Clinton’s speeches, Starr uses his diction to point out Clinton’s infidelity to his wife during his time in office. Another contemporaneous Republican opinion of Clinton’s scandal rests with Lucianne Goldberg, one of the women behind the tapes that incriminated Clinton and Lewinsky. Goldberg “makes no secret of her anti-Clinton animus” and claimed to be glad that Clinton was caught in this affair (Streitfeld and Kurtz 1998). Interestingly, Goldberg also sold information to the Nixon administration during the Watergate conspiracy, which I discuss in further detail below.

Both modern and ancient politicians seem to have a tendency to cite personal moral and religious qualities in their disapproval of other politicians’ sex scandals. As I noted earlier, Cicero and Sallust both mentioned Roman gods in their scoldings, and Sanford cited his Christianity as a moral justification to reprimand Clinton during the scandal surrounding his affair with Lewinsky. Likewise, just as Cicero applauded his own greatness by stressing the toll he took in saving the Vestal Virgins from Catiline, Goldberg seems to celebrate her actions in catching Clinton in such an inculpating act. Thus, ancient and modern politicians alike use sex scandals as personal leverage for themselves and their allies while simultaneously quashing their opponents with their own personal lives.

Political Conspiracies: Catilinarian Coup and Watergate

Catiline’s most notorious misdeed was the conspiracy that he and his co-conspirators put in place against Cicero after Catiline lost two elections for the consulship in 64 and 63 BCE. Catiline began planning around either 64 or 63 BCE, either way subsequent to a failed Catilinarian campaign to the consulship (Kaplan 1968:62-3). He gathered followers, many of whom had significant debts like Catiline (Kaplan 1968:65). With these citizens’ support, Catiline planned primarily to eradicate debts, as well as to quash other policies that benefited the rich and hindered the poor financially and politically. Catiline wished to fulfil these plans by killing Cicero, inciting war, and eventually controlling the Roman government (Kaplan 1968:65). Luckily for the republic, Cicero intercepted Catiline’s plans through the aid of Quintus Curius and his mistress Fulvia (Odahl 2010:51).

Cicero naturally took much offense, both political and personal,  to Catiline’s plots. He expressed this outrage in his first Catilinarian oration to the senate the day Catiline’s assassins approached Cicero’s home (Johnston/Kingsley 1910:25, Kaplan 1968:85). Catiline himself was bold enough to attend the assembly as a senator (Kaplan 1968:86). Doubtless, this exacerbated Cicero’s anger, since Catiline’s actions could have been interpreted as nonchalance to the destruction he intended to bring upon the government. In Cicero first oration, which took place the same day Catiline attempted to murder the orator, Cicero focuses the Senate’s attention to Catiline’s destructive plans for the Republic thereby creating a separation between himself and Catiline. He says close to the beginning, Catilinam orbem terrae caede atque incendiis vastare cupientem nos consules perferemus? or, “Will we consuls endure Catiline desiring to ravage the globe with death and fires? (Cicero Against Catiline 1.3). In this quote Cicero exaggerates the scope of Catiline’s conspiracy against himself and the republic with terrae caede atque incendiis–from what we know, universal arson and murder were not on Catiline’s agenda. Cicero also subtly brings attention to the fact that he is a consul with nos consules. He quite possibly intended to harass Catiline about his consulate losses with these words, so that he might emphasize Catiline’s failures. Later in the first Catilinarian, Cicero addresses Catiline directly to make increasingly extravagant claims about Catiline’s plans: Nunc iam aperte rem publicam universam petis, templa deorum immortalium, tecta urbis, vitam omnium civium, Italium totam ad exitium et vastitatem vocas, or “Now you attack the entire republic freely, the temples of the immortal gods, the lives of all the citizens, you call all Italy to destruction and devastation” (Cicero Against Catiline 1.12). Here, Cicero brings attention to Catiline’s brashness with aperte, and also may allude to Catiline’s scandal with Vestal Virgin and Cicero’s sister-in-law  Fabia by mention of the templa deorum immortalium.

Sallust offers a more objective statement about Catiline’s conspiracy: eis amicis sociisque confisus Catilina, simul quod aes alienum per omnis terras ingens erat et quod plerique Sullani milites largius suo usi rapinarum et victoriae veteris memores civile bellum exoptabant, opprimundae rei publicae consilium cepit, or “Catiline, relying on his allies and companions, at the same time because the debt was huge throughout the lands  and because most soldiers of Sulla having overspent their money, remembering victory and plunders of the past, were longing for civil war, he (Catiline) undertook a plan for oppressing the republic” (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 16.4). He further explains, ipsi consulatum petenti magna spes, senatus nihil sane intentus: tutae tranquillaeque res omnes, sed ea prorsus oppurtuna Catilinae, or “(Catiline had) great hopes for himself seeking the consulship, the senate truly attentive to nothing: all things were safe and calm, but these were directly advantageous for Catiline” (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 16.5). While Sallust’s explanation of the reasoning and timing behind Catiline’s conspiracy does not seem to be anything but explanatory, it represents the motives of Catiline and his army in attempting to overthrow the Roman government. Sallust provides some of the social and economic reasons that the conspiracy had the following it did (McGushin 1995:70).

Aside from these explanatory passages, Sallust is predominantly negative in portraying Catiline. In the beginning of  the Bellum Catilinae, Sallust introduces Catiline as ingenio malo pravoque, or “with a wicked and perverse character” (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 5.1). These traits directly oppose Sallust’s idealized vision of Rome prior to the sack of Carthage (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 9).

Sallust also characterizes Catiline’s depravity through his debauched acquaintances and political allies:

nam quicumque inpudicus adulter ganeo manu ventre pene bona patria laceraverat, quique alienum aes grande conflaverat, quo flagitium aut facinus redimeret, praeterea omnes undique parricidae sacrilegi convicti iudiciis aut pro factis iudicium timentes, ad hoc quos manus atque lingua periurio aut sanguine civili alebat, postremo omnes quos flagitium egestas conscius animus exagitabat, ei Catilinae proxumi familiaresque erant,

“For whatever shamless person, adulterer, or glutton had destroyed his inheritance with violence, gluttony, and lust, and who had forged  grand debt, by means of which  he might atone for shame or wicked deed,  moreover all those everywhere who had been convicted by trial of sacrilegious parricide  or those fearing judgment on their deeds, for this purpose hand and tongue was sustaining by means of the false oath and the blood of the citizens, finally all those whose wicked deeds, poverty, and guilt roused up, these were close to and familiar to Catiline.” (Sallust Bellum Catilinae 14.2-3)

Here, Sallust identifies Catiline by his group of co-conspirators. Sallust repeatedly mentions these men’s crimes, such as impudicus adulter ganeo, which emphasizes their depravity and depicts Catiline as equally evil. Likewise, by bringing up the parricidae sacrilegi Sallust highlights Catiline’s co-conspirators’ crimes.  By describing them as such atrocious individuals , Sallust equates Catiline with the wickedness in his chosen companions.

Both Cicero and Sallust certainly exaggerate some claims about Catiline in their orations and histories, which makes it clear to readers that these two Romans strongly disapproved of Catiline’s actions. Once again, audiences see that Cicero placed himself above Catiline with his cheeky mention of his consulship position in nos consules (Cicero Against Catiline 1.3). Unlike his response to Catiline’s sex scandal, however, Sallust seems to act similarly despite his separation from politics–just as Cicero embellished Catiline’s conspiratorial plots for the purpose of making the transgressor appear even less moral in Roman eyes, Sallust expands upon Catiline’s crew and therefore portrays him as an even worse character due to his chosen confidants.

While contemporary America knows no plot quite as dramatic as Catiline’s, Americans did have one conspiracy that changed the entire nations’ politics: Watergate. In the early 1970s, an incident of men breaking-and-entering into the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, DC led ultimately to a massive internal plot led by none other than President Richard Nixon. Ultimately, Nixon, a Republican, intended to destabilize the practice of democratic elections in the U.S. government by secretly obtaining information about the Democratic campaign (S.B. 1973:2). Not surprisingly, many politicians used Nixon’s dishonesty to their political advantage, the most successful of whom was Jimmy Carter. Carter, a Democrat, placed his honest nature in the spotlight during the entirety of his campaign and much of his presidency in the mid-1970s. He did this by making open claims such as “I will never tell a lie to you” and broadly condemning “big-shot crooks” (Schudson 1992:74-75). Carter placed ethical behavior and overall good character at the forefront of his presidential campaign and thus increased its importance in subsequent elections (Schudson 1992:118). Overall, Carter fully utilized Nixon’s corrupt conspiratorial blunder in his political career (Schudson 1992:86).

Just as with personal sex scandals, politicians ancient and modern alike tend to use the corrupt, conspiratorial plots of others to put down the offender and simultaneously improve their own image. In the case of expansive political conspiracies which threaten national security, like Catiline’s conspiracy and Watergate, politicians not involved in the conspiracy can thoroughly use the mistakes of others to their own political advantage. Implications of personal loyalty and honesty to the state, such as those of President Carter, as well as explicit mention of the disloyalty and corruption of others, such as those of Cicero and Sallust against Catiline, all reinforce the character and political capability of those uninvolved in conspiracy. Simultaneously, they severely demean the morality of others’ actions, therefore creating a distinction between the offender and defender of the government’s wellbeing.


Ancient Roman and modern American politicians, therefore, look upon scandals, conspiracies, and other improper political behaviors as opportunities to advocate for themselves and their own political agendas and campaigns. Regardless of the nature of the blunder–either a personal scandal that does not necessarily involve any person or group outside of the offender’s own personal circle, or a more public political conspiracy that involves potentially all the citizens affected by the government–politicians through time have utilized these wrongdoings for their own advantages.  Even with his vast misconceptions, Ted Cruz attempts this exact method in his affronts against President Obama through assuming the Ciceronian persona in his orations against Catiline. These types of actions–propagandic and biased self-promotions founded upon the misbehaviors of others–are things that classicists and politically-minded citizens alike can and should remain alert to, so that we may judge actions for ourselves instead of blindly trusting another politician’s interpretation of the event and how it reflects upon him or herself.


Basham, L. 2001. “Living with the Conspiracy.” The Philosophical Forum 32.3:265-280.

Cadoux, T. J. 2005. “Catiline and the Vestal Virgins.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 54.2:162-179

“Cheat Sheet: A Look at Sex Scandals and How Politicians Handle Them.” 27 April 2011. Fox News.

Johnston, H. W. 1910. Selected Orations and Letters of Cicero. Ed. by H. M. Kingery. Chicago.

Kalpan A. 1968. Catiline: The Man and His Role in the Roman Revolution. New York.

MacDonald C. 1977. Cicero In Catilinam, Pro Murena, Pro Sulla, Pro Flacco. Cambridge.

McGushin P. 1995. Sallust Bellum Catilinae. Bristol.

Odahl, C. M. 2010. Cicero and the Catilinarian Conspiracy. New York.

Parker, H. N. 2007. “Chapter 4: Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State.” Virginity Revisited. Toronto.

S. B. 1973. “Watergate, Watergate Everywhere…” Social Work 18.5:2,128.

Schudson, M. 1992. Watergate in American Memory. New York.

Starr, K. 1998. “The Starr Report.” The Washington Post.

Streitfeld, D. and Kurtz, H. 1998. “Literary Agent was Behind Secret Tapes.” The Washington Post. p. A01.

Taylor, L. R. 1949. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar. Berkeley.

Weiner, J. 2014. “Ted Cruz: Confused About Cicero.” The Atlantic.

Yakobson, A. 1999. Elections and Electioneering in Rome. Stuttgart.

13 thoughts on “Amy Laughlin”

  1. This paragraph contains my thesis. A problem I had in writing this paper is that I don’t feel like I have a “so what” for this thesis–Yeah, if politician B does something wrong, politician A will use that against him, but so what? I’m not sure how to make this argument significant. This might not be fundamental to this paper, or for this purpose, but it bothers me nonetheless, and any advice will be appreciated.

  2. I’m also unsure how much modern comparison I need for the purpose of this paper. I am trying to keep the audience in mind–I don’t want to focus too much on modern scandals, but I also don’t want to ignore them as the comparison of ancient and modern political scandals is the basis of my paper.

  3. I want to make sure that my political biases don’t weaken my argument. To me, it’s apparent that Obama isn’t trying to overthrow the government on a Catilinarian level, but if it would strengthen my argument to argue this further, I certainly can. If anyone notices any other instances of this throughout the paper, please let me know.

    • I think it might be good to add in how Obama, unlike Catiline, was actually voted into office on his own virtues and did not seize (or attempt to seize) the office through a military coup (something which Sen. Cruz et al. seem to forget quite often).

      • Very true! Good point. I’ll make a note of that. There certainly is a difference between the two, and that distinction will help to reinforce Cruz’s misconception as well as the whole political demonizing-the-other-guy focus of the paper.

  4. I like what you say about the power play behind these judgments. It seems that these sorts of misdeeds are only trotted out when someone wants to diminish that person’s power, as your example of Haley Barbour’s and Eric Cantor’s comments shows. I do think you could emphasize this a bit more in relation to Cataline. The religious aspect adds an important element, but say if Cicero had done the same act, I’m sure there would have been some sort of ardent defense, either suggesting the act never happened or that it was somehow extenuated (or maybe not, I’ll leave you to judge with your superior knowledge of the Vestals).

    • Thanks! Yes, explaining things more thoroughly is definitely on my list. It’s difficult to write all my thoughts out sometimes!

  5. I think this is an interesting point, especially considering the terrible inefficacy of Carter’s administration compared to the great strides which Nixon made (China, Medicaid, etc). However, no one thinks about his achievements, its always just the scandal. Similarly, given the effective smear campaign which you note that Cicero and Sallust have executed against Cataline, I wonder how much of his character profile is legitimate.

  6. True, but I’m not looking at the positive sides of the Catiline, Clinton, or Nixon here. I think it would help my paper to make a statement towards the introduction clarifying that the truth of the accusations matters less to me in writing this paper than how opposing politicians or political groups use those scandals or conspiracies. All of the “bad guys” in my paper do have good sides, as most people do. However, I’m interested in seeing how the other politicians use the bad things they did to make them look all the worse for it.

  7. Maybe you could concentrate your thesis specifically on the political coverage of these scandals and conspiracies, that the Romans and Americans presented and recounted these events with a similar focus on religious morality, civic duty, the well-being of the nation, etc.

  8. I think your examples in modern American politics become stronger when you can latch onto a narrative, like you did so well with Starr’s and Goldberg’s words on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It sets a clear, helpful parallel between the coverage of these events and Cicero’s and Sallust’s writings. In your research have you found a similar sort of narrative of how Watergate was presented to the American people? I do think what you’re doing here with Carter’s political maneuvering is great, though.

  9. I like this comparison but I find that it is hard to compare Clinton and Catiline in light of the fundamental differences in the role of religion in America versus Rome.  I think that an earlier detailed comparison between the two would provide a good introduction to your already thorough comparison.

  10. I see your dilemma and think that if you are going to make modern comparisons, be careful not to force the history to meet your comparison.  Also, as a side note be careful not too sound too political in that the last sentence of this paragraph could surely spark a back and forth over past Republican and Democratic scandals that detract from the point of your paper

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