Review – Catilina’s Riddle

Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book in 1998 when I was taking a first year Latin class at the University of Chicago. As our Latin vocabulary grew, we started to read excerpts from famous Roman authors in the original language. Cicero’s Against Catilina was one of them. My Latin teacher, Lee Behnke, recommended this book Catilina’s Riddle as a very optional reading because it was historical mystery fiction. I found a copy and the rest is history.

Years later, I bought my own copy and read it for a second time. The third time I read it was in 2020 right when the presidential elections got interesting. Whatever you think of Trump, Biden, or January 6, 2021, that is amateur hour compared to Late Roman Republic politics. Back then, it was much more cutthroat with plenty of great and notorious men. Crassus, Cicero, Caesar, and Pompey were the prime movers and you can make a good argument that they were also the destroyers of the Republic.

The problem with understanding Lucius Sergius Catilina is that much of his story comes from Cicero and his allies. Therefore, everything is extremely biased and slanted to say the least. The story that Catilina seduced a Vestal Virgin – a capital offense – was controversial; was it a story made up for propaganda value? Or was it true and somehow he managed to get off on a technicality? The author Steven Saylor repeated the story in this book as a true incident and introduced Gordianus as the one who exonerated him in the short story House of the Vestals in the collection of the same name.

For those who do not know the real story of Catilina, to sum up, he was a Roman aristocratic politician with Populist leanings. He campaigned on a promise to redistribute the wealth more equitably to the lower class and thus threatened the more conservative Optimates. In the run up to the elections, there were plenty of accusations and counter-accusations of fraud (much like the 2020 elections). Catilina lost the elections and even worse, Cicero accused him of collaborating with the Allobroges, a Gaulish tribe, to overthrow the Republic. Cicero wass granted emergency powers to deal with a potential rebellion.

It did not help that Catilina has a private army of his own of former veterans. In the ensuing battle, everyone was killed with no survivors. How convenient for Cicero, some would say. The victor truly and literally wrote the history book. All hail Cicero, Father of the Fatherland. What is more, historically, Roman politicians were never executed or hounded to death but went into exile. (Read the trial of Titus Annius Milo – also fictionalized by Saylor in A Murder on the Appian Way. Despite Milo being guilty of a capital crime, Milo was forced into exile and not executed.)

In the 2000 years since, and knowing who wrote the primary source on Catilina, people have already revised their opinions of Catilina. Certainly Saylor portrays in him in a very sympathetic light and makes Cicero almost the villain of the story in Catilina’s Riddle.

In the midst of this political drama – the one that Cicero won’t stop crowing about for years, is Gordianus’ own struggles as a new farm owner. He has to deal with a blight and contentious neighbors, all of them who have reasons to get him off the land. The real culprit behind the troubles was unexpected and thus a great mystery.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.

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