86-35 B.C.

Roman historian

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, or Sallust, was a Roman historian who lived during the late Roman Republic*. His two surviving historical works, The Conspiracy of Catiline and The Jugurthine War, examine episodes that occurred during the late republic that illustrate the decline of Roman morality. His longest work, the Histories, deals with the years from 78 B.C. to 67 B.C. Only fragments of the Histories remain. Sallust’s writings are noted for their lively speeches and letters, insightful character studies, and concise rhetorical style.

Sallust was born into a plebeian* family that lived in the Sabine region of Italy, northeast of Rome. He served as tribune* during the violent unrest of 52 B.C., when politicians were killed, mobs rioted, and the Roman Senate house was burned. Expelled from the Senate in 50 B.C. for alleged immorality, Sallust joined the Roman general Julius Caesar and commanded a legion* for him during the civil war against Pompey. In 46 B.C. Sallust became the first governor of the African province* of Numidia. But he enriched himself at the expense of the province and was accused of extortion. Sallust quit politics and retired to his luxurious country estate. He devoted the remainder of his life to writing his histories.

Sallust’s first historical study, The Conspiracy of Catiline, recounts the rebellion led by the Roman patrician* Catiline, who rose to political power in the 60s B.C. Catiline was the champion of debtors, dispossessed peasants, and poor people. He exploited the widespread unrest in Italy and called for the cancellation of all debts. After losing an election for consul*, Catiline organized a rebellion against the Roman government. Cicero, the Roman orator* and statesman who was then consul, discovered the plot and convinced the Senate to take action against Catiline. Catiline left Rome when his plot was exposed. His co-conspirators were arrested and executed, and Catiline himself was killed in 62 B.C. In writing about the plot, Sallust stressed the moral and political decline of the Roman upper class. In Sallust’s view, of all the Roman leaders on both sides of the crisis, only Caesar and Cato the Younger upheld traditional Roman virtue. The Conspiracy of Catiline concludes with two long, opposing speeches by Caesar and Cato as Sallust imagined they might have occurred between the two men.

The Jugurthine War relates the Roman struggle against Jugurtha the Numidian from 111 B.C. to 105 B.C. In his attempt to gain control of the entire North African kingdom of Numidia, Jugurtha attacked an enemy city. During the siege*, some Romans in the city were killed. Their deaths enraged Rome. The Romans resolved to crush Jugurtha, and they dispatched two consuls, Metellus and Gaius Marius, to subdue him. Marius won the war militarily, but the war ended only when the Roman quaestor* Sulla, who was Marius’s lieutenant, convinced Jugurtha’s father-in-law to surrender him to Rome. Jugurtha was taken to Rome and executed. In writing his history, Sallust used Sulla’s autobiography and information he himself had gathered during his stay in Africa. Sallust argued that the greed and corruption of the Roman aristocracy resulted in the difficulties Rome had in winning the war.

Sallust wrote the first important monographs* of Roman history. His histories are vivid narratives that display his moralistic view of life. He condemned the corruption of Roman life, especially the willingness of the nobility to be bribed, and despised what he believed was Rome’s moral collapse. Sallust’s concise writing style was influenced by the Greek historian Thucydides. Later writers, especially the historian Tacitus, were in turn influenced by Sallust’s biting style and bleak moral vision. (See also Civil Wars, Roman; Rome, History of.)

* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials

* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class

* tribune in ancient Rome, the official who protected the rights of plebeians from arbitrary actions by the patricians, or upper classes

* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic

* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year

* orator public speaker of great skill

* siege long and persistent effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress with armed troops, cutting it off from aid


In addition to studying the causes of historical events, Sallust analyzed the psychology of his subjects. In his view, Catiline, the leader of a conspiracy to overthrow the republic, was the most corrupt man in Rome. He performed unlawful and evil acts from an early age. He corrupted those who became his friends, and he may even have been insane. According to Sallust, Catiline's guilty mind, at peace with neither gods nor men, could find no rest either awake or sleeping: so completely did conscience ravage his tortured mind. His complexion was pallid, his eyes bloodshot, his walk now quick, now slow; in short, in his face and expression madness sat.

* quaestor Roman financial officer who assisted a higher official such as a consul or praetor

* monograph long, detailed essay on a particular area of learning

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