The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Roman coup with lessons for addressing the Jan. 6 committee’s findings

The delicate balance that can prevent future threats to democracy.

Demonstrators hold signs on June 9, 2022, as they rally before the first prime-time hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is laying out in painstaking detail a plot to overturn the 2020 election that emanated from the highest levels of government. As Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) said in the first hearing, this plot is not over.

But one question remains: will Americans believe what they’re hearing and act to prevent future such attempts?

The definitive historical account of a coup attempt in ancient Rome over 2,000 years ago offers a potential answer — only if we can balance our desire not to overplay what happened with the urgent need to act swiftly and decisively.

In 63 B.C., a corrupt but charismatic Roman politician named Catiline lost an election for the republic’s highest office. In anger, he fled the capital and took command of a militia in northern Italy, while associates stayed behind with orders to burn the city and kill elected officials. The coup failed — but at a cost of many lives in the bloody battle that stopped Catiline’s militia. After evidence of their guilt emerged, his associates in Rome were executed on the recommendation of the Senate.

About two decades after Catiline’s coup failed, Sallust, a senator who had quit politics, wrote the classic account of what happened. His “War Against Catiline” had delicious details. Readers learned how the famed orator Cicero, who was holding the top office of consul at the time of the plot and was one of its targets, got tipped off by the mistress of one of the conspirators. She had become suspicious when her lover started promising lavish gifts.

But Sallust also had a deeper purpose behind writing about the coup. Early in his book, he says that he chose to write about the plot of Catiline because of “the novelty of the crime and its danger.” A powerful and bold claim, indeed. But Sallust wanted to highlight the danger of bad precedents. Even though Catiline had failed to stop the peaceful transfer of power, others would try again — and understanding what happened and how to prevent it was crucial for stopping future coup attempts from actually succeeding.

Like other ancient historians, Sallust himself wrote the elaborate speeches he imagined his protagonists giving. Catiline’s ring with stirring phrases. “Victory lies within our grasp,” he told his supporters as he prepared to run for the consulship. “All that’s needed is to make a start; the course of events will see to everything else.” He would be their general, he said. At the end of the book, he urges his followers on again — on the battlefield where they are about to die: “We’re in a struggle for our fatherland, our freedom, our lives.”

Catiline’s rousing rhetoric rallied supporters but early hints of violence and metaphors of fighting prepared the way for something more sinister — motivating his allies to overturn an election. Sallust exposed how political talent could be deployed to dangerous ends, even an attempted coup.

The speeches that Sallust imagined Catiline giving sound eerily similar to the words of President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021. “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump told the crowd shortly before it headed for the Capitol.

What advice would Sallust give us from studying the story of Catiline?

He comes closest to answers in his account of a debate in the Roman Senate over what to do with Catiline’s associates, after they had been caught red-handed. First speaks Julius Caesar, then a young senator, his dictatorship and assassination still years off. He delivers a cool speech, recommending that the conspirators be imprisoned for life. Senators needed to calm their passions and use their heads, he said. To act severely was appealing in the moment, Caesar warned, but it would open up the Senate to criticism and set a precedent that could be abused later.

Then we hear Caesar’s rival Cato give the decisive speech in favor of execution. Cato skewers the senators. They must wake up to the threat their country faces. “In a captured city, there is nothing left for the vanquished,” he grimly remarks.

More than the two senators’ specific proposals, it is their personal qualities that Sallust highlights. In the face of ongoing threats to democracy, he seems to say, only balancing the urgency of Cato with the collectedness of Caesar can quell the danger.

The execution of Catiline’s associates in Rome led to mass desertions from his militia and stopped the plot from attracting new followers. But as Caesar had predicted, the Senate came under attack for failing to give the conspirators full trials. The Senate also made no real effort to consider why so many had fought for Catiline. The consul Cicero gloated over his victory. Deep resentments remained, fueling more political violence that further eroded democracy.

The lesson? Exposing what Trump did and keeping him from the presidency again won’t alone save our republic. Instead, the coolheaded rationality of Caesar counsels clinically examining who followed him on Jan. 6, why American citizens have increasingly been turning to political violence and what politicians from both parties can do to restore a sense of shared national purpose and peaceful self-government. Addressing the underlying problems — even while acting with urgency is the task before us.

The attempted coup on Jan. 6 was a novel and dangerous crime. It also revealed bigger challenges that we face.