Sallust was born in 86 BCE in Amiternum in the land of the Sabines (northeast of Rome) as Gaius Sallustius Crispus. He tried to make a political career in Rome, he was a quaestor around 54 BCE and a people’s tribune in 52 BCE. Moreover, Sallust was a great Roman historiographer and writer.
Like Cicero, he came to Rome as homo novus (“new man”, a disrespectful name used by nobles to describe a man who was the first in his family to hold the office giving him the right to sit in the senate). In the capital, he initially used the support of Marcus Licinius Crassus, later his protector was Caesar, whom Sallustius was an ardent supporter of. Thus, he belonged to the popular party.
About 54 BCE he became a quaestor and in 52 BCE people’s tribune. In 50 BCE he is expelled from the Senate for immoral conduct, which was the work of the censor Appius Claudius Pulcher. Sallust, as a tribune, exposed himself to the Optimate party with his violent speeches, and it, in the aforementioned 50 BCE, had a majority in the Senate. So it was a visible political ploy. After being expelled from the Senate, Sallust reaches Caesar, who entrusted him with tasks of considerable importance during the Civil War. In the meantime, Sallust returned to the Senate.
Fighting on the side of the Caesarians, he was defeated in Illyria, but already in 46 BCE, he captured the island of Cercina, where Pompey had stockpiled grain. Soon after, he took over the governorship of Africa Nova, from where he returned with quite a lot of wealth, for which he may have founded Sallustiani Gardens (horti Sallustiani). It is not certain, however, whether it was he, and not another member of the Sallustius family, who donated these beautiful gardens to the capital.
In 44 BCE after Caesar’s death, Sallust devoted himself to his private life, starting his work as a historian. He knew, of course, the works of Greek writers such as Plato, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Hellenistic historiography and, above all, Thucydides, to whom he owed a great deal.
We know three works by Sallustius: “The Conspiracy of Catilina” (De coniuratione Catilinae), “The War with Jugurtha” (Bellum Iugurthinum) and “History” (Historiae), which, however, have survived to our times in fragments.
The first describes a subversive conspiracy attempt in 63 BCE thanks to Lucius Sergius Catilina. According to some scholars, this work was written in response to the posthumously published work of Cicero De consiliis suis to free Caesar of suspicions that he was involved in exposing the plot. The entire first part does not focus on presenting facts, but on interpreting a disturbing revolutionary phenomenon in the light of historical, moral and psychological categories. It shows a dark but extremely lively image of a thoroughly corrupt society, against which emerges as the dominant figure in Catilina, intelligent, brave and wicked – the negation of the perfection and virtues which, as Sallustius recalled, guaranteed the former greatness of the republic.
The second work of Sallust is also monographic in nature and describes the war fought in the years 111-105 BCE by the Romans against Jugurtha, king of Numidia. The subject, which would seem to be purely military, has a significant political significance for the author because it was the first time that the shoes of the nobles were opposed. The war event in a distant African country intersects with the party’s struggle in Rome and the appearance of Marius, the popular leader, and thus acquires a deeper meaning and universal value. The narrative is interrupted by the characteristics of the characters, speeches, letters and digressions. Numerous inserts serve to deepen and define the psychology of the character, historical criteria and political ideas of the author.
The third position of Sallust, “Histories”, in five books describing the events of 78-67 BCE, is a continuation of “The Histories” by Lucius Cornelius Sisenna, which ended with Sulla’s death and described the rebellion of Marcus Emilius Lepidus and Quintus Sertorius, campaigns against the pirates of Sertorius, campaigns against pirates Pompey the Great and Mark Antony and rise of gladiators under the leadership of Spartacus, as well as the third war against Mithridates. The text has survived to our times only fragmentarily: the state of the work, however, allows for some general observations.
“Dzieje” presents, in comparison with earlier works of Sallust, an important innovation: the author abandons the monographic scheme in them in order to apply a chronological one. In this work, Sallust again chooses the problem of the crisis of Roman society as the theme, and this time too – but with more pessimism – he finds the reasons for the discord in greed and ambition, which are reinforced by the absence of external threats. He considers even the origins of the republic to be full of errors and failures, especially with regard to social conflicts that had only been put to sleep before the Second Punic War.
Far from any anecdote, Sallust set himself the goal of psychological introspection of the characters and researching the causes of events, in which he remains faithful to the teachings of Thucydides. He also feels a deep moral requirement that pushes him to search for causes in an ethical nature rather than in relationships of power or in conflicts of interest regarding the actions of the individual or all social phenomena responsible for the evolution of history. He draws a pessimistic interpretation of the facts that shows true features of originality and differs from the historical vision proposed by the Greek model.
In the minds of posterity, Sallust was the greatest Roman historian. Tacitus calls him rerum Romanorum florentissimus auctor – “the greatest historian of Roman history”. His oratory talent was also appreciated, as evidenced by the opinion of St. Augustine: vir diesrtissimus Sallustius – “Sallust is an outstanding orator”, and impartiality: Sallustius autem auctor certissimus – “Sallust is the most credible”. He was also honoured by the Roman poet Martial: Hic erit, ut perhibent doctorum corda virorum / primus Romana Crispus in historia: “As the more powerful minds believe, this Crispus will be called the first in the science of the history of the Roman nation”.
He died in 35 BCE.