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essential reading on Roman morals
on 16 May 2011
Here I am, re-reading books I still have from college, with faint hope that anyone would ever read a review of it, but here goes:
The two tales in this were hugely influential historical essays more or less up to the early 20C; they served as models of moralistic writing as well as clear exposition in Latin. In the Jugurthine War, you get wonderful details on the rise of the great generals, Marius and Sulla, who were friends and then deadly rivals in a struggle that essentially sowed the seeds of the end of the Roman Republic in the next generation.
While the plot covers a war in Northern Africa on a ruthless rebel King, Jugurtha, the most important aspects of the work are on the transformation of the Roman army from amateur farmer landowners to a professional corps that admitted anyone. While a necessity to maintain the expansion of the Roman empire as the population of traditional army recruits dwindled, this led directly to rise of powerful generals, who could rely on the personal loyalty of their troops to grab power in civil war, which had been avoided for centuries. First, there was Sulla's dictatorship, then Julius Caesar. But the story takes place before that, when the military genius Marius was transforming the army and mentoring the ambitious Sulla. The reader can study the organization of the army as well as the changing mores of Roman society that this reflected. It is a great masterpiece and fun read, with wonderfully quirky details. In many ways, it is about the end of the aristocratic oligarchy that ruled the Republic for so long, as exemplified by the failure of Metellus and how Marius, who was not a aristocrat and knew no Greek, took over from him and triumphed.
The story on Cataline's conspiracy is more about Rome's civil society and governance. It is a far more openly moralistic tale of an attempted coup by a disgraced aristocrat, who was opposed by Cicero; in the background Julius Caesar and Pompey are also present, as are a number of lesser known Senators such as Scaurus. While this adds crucial detail to the historical picture, its preachiness and one-sided portrait - and many sloppy mistakes - make it a fairly boring read, i.e. for scholars. It is a tale of decadence and ruffians who are tempted by power in the promises of a fool, Cataline.
So, while rather recondite, this is a truly great volume of one of antiquity's most influential writers. Recommended.