Plus ca change…

Catiline, who died during his unsuccessful coup against the Roman Republic, was depicted even by his detractors as a man of considerable talent, charisma, and energy, as well as one of unrestrained impulses and vices (he was tried for deflowering a vestal virgin, for instance).

Reader Andrew thought Sallust’s description of Catiline’s character was a fitting description of the “personality,” or one might say, culture, of many investment banks:

Animus audax, subdolus, varius, cuius rei lubet simulator ac dissimulator, alieni adpetens, sui profusus, ardens in cupiditatibus; satis eloquentiae, sapientiae parum. Vastus animus inmoderata, incredibilia, nimis alta semper cupiebat.

His spirit was bold, cunning, changeable according to his needs, in any given
matter capable of pretending both to be things that he wasn’t and not to be
things that he was, hungering for what belonged to others, careless with his
own, violent in his desires; he had a fair amount of eloquence, but little
wisdom. His overgrown spirit constantly longed for what was unbounded,
unbelievable, and beyond his reach.

Of course, the parallel fails on other levels. Cataline was promoting a debt jubilee, something no respectable member of the financial classes would ever back. But his plan to overthrow the Republic appeared to stem from his inability to become consul via legitimate routes, so one has to wonder whether his populist stance was simply a means to an end.

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  1. psychohistorian

    The crimes of the banksters don’t seem deserving of Latin characterizations.

    Social lepers is what they should become with a scarlet B tattooed into their foreheads.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That era was particularly corrupt, so I am surprised you think the comparison dignifies the banksters. I suggest you read up on Catiline.

      And recall Santayana’s warning about those who do not learn the lessons of history….

      1. attempter

        It’s strange, but part of me doesn’t like the comparison either, even though I intellectually get that most of the ancients were just as greedy and corrupt and predatory as the scum today.

        Robinson Jeffers wrote a poem on the subject, “Skunks”. Just like the smell of a skunk can seem vaguely pleasant from a great distance, so the distance of time makes criminals of old seem less bad than those of today.

        Part of it is that at least some of the Romans were more substantial than just being greedy scumbags.

        Caesar wasn’t just a power-seeker, but was also a great writer, had real intellectual curiosity, sincerely wanted reform and a better level of social justice (but not revolution), and was magnanimous by character. Where do we see anything like any of those today?

        I mention Caesar because he’s often compared with Catiline. They were very similar in social background (a patrician family which had fallen on somewhat hard times) and ambition. Sometimes Catiline is called a failed version of Caesar.

        When Caesar had gone deeply into debt running for the office of Pontifex Maximus, as he left the house the morning of the election he told his mother (who was one of his top political advisers) that “I’ll come back as Pontifex Maximus or I won’t come back at all.”

        That’s ambiguous. If he had lost the election he’d have been so unable to pay his debts that his only choices would’ve been becoming the flunkey of his creditors, suicide, or going over into rebellion.

        Catiline was the Caesar who lost his election and was hopelessly in debt (I forget what he was running for). But rather than be a slave, he became a rebel. Caesar probably would’ve done the same. (Indeed at the time Caesar’s enemies, and many others, accused him of having been at least a closet Catiline sympathizer, if not an actual conspirator.)

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          They were probably more concerned Julius Caesar was going to be another Gaius Marius (Caesar restored all his statues as soon as he came to power), his uncle, without the handicap of being Italian instead of Roman as opposed to Catiline.

          Caesar spoke against Catiline at least according to Sallust who was definitely in the Caesarian camp. Sallust included his speech.

          1. attempter

            When the young Caesar defied Sulla and had to flee for his life, and friends of Caesar’s family interceded on his behalf, Sulla relented but said, You guys want this Caesar, you can have him, but you’re going to regret it, because “I see many Mariuses in him”.

    1. i on the ball patriot

      The Star Spangled Banker

      Oh, say can you see, Caitilin got nothing on me,
      I stand proudly the best with the world’s latest reaming?

  2. sean

    The Roman empire and all empires are more or less corrupt.
    Perhaps what makes this crisis different is the scale of the deception.It is a worldwide phenomenon and is not confined to selected individuals in US banks.
    That should nt detract from these people facing the music but it must also be acknowledged this is a worldwide financial systems failure.
    Neither does it appear to be a self righting system.
    It appears to be getting worse through intervention by the Fed and the worlds central banks.

  3. But What do I Know?

    This is an interesting subject, Yves. Cataline was sort of a failed insider who decided to appeal to the populace as a way out–in many respects we have not reached that level of corruption yet, mostly because most of the populace does not yet view the government as a source of the solution to their money problems. The middle class still has assets and the belief that one day they will have more, and the ideal that they do not need to rely on favors from the government for their economic well-being. We are more likely in the time of the Gracchi than Cataline, when any attempts to reverse the concentration of wealth will fail, and the destruction of the middle-class will continue.

  4. Marc Andelman

    Speaking of Romans, if you read Horace, he often decries the ugly particle board palaces of the era, and advocates a return to the simple life of a small farmer. The lessons here is that money is not wealth, and that the more you want, the more you need.

  5. charcad

    thought Sallust’s description of Catiline’s character was a fitting description of the “personality,” or one might say, culture, of many investment banks:

    Interesting. In that end of Republic era I would choose Crassus as the ideal personification of our modern Investment Bank culture. In Crassus we find insatiable greed fed by the conscienceless despoilation of fellow citizens. This was combined with the ultimate in military incompetence. At Carrhae Crassus led greatly superior Roman forces to total defeat at the hands of inferior Middle Eastern forces.

    We are more likely in the time of the Gracchi than Cataline

    Foreign writers have often pointed out that the USA functions internally as a “democracy” and externally as an “empire”. So did the Roman Empire intially. Augustus also carefully maintained all the republican forms. In the past century “Augustus” came and went without being generally recognized due to the excellence of his work: FDR.

    Personally I think we’re more likely on the threshold of an era of Barracks Emperors.

  6. Joe Costello


    This is a very old favorite topic of mine. Many of the diseases that infected the old Roman Republic manifest themselves in our poor republic today.

    In fact, the similarities are extraordinary, from much of the economy becoming concentrated in the last decades, implosion of the republic’s institutions due to the weight of the empire they had won, the dysfunction and the corruption of its politics. It’s an amazing story, with the Republic’s final collapse at the hands of Caesar and then the institutionalizing of the empire at the hands of his heir Octavian. It would be with only a few small exceptions the end of republican or what our founders, who were well aware of the Roman Republic’s fall and its maladies, called “self-government” would be gone from Western history for almost two-thousand years.

    Rubicon, The Last Years of the Roman Republic is a good popular history written a few years ago. I’d highly recommend, although Plutarch’s Lives, while historically a little iffy, is an excellent read for the flavor of the period.

    My look at the republic’s fall gives me a couple important insights,

    1)The republic’s institutions had barely changed in four centuries, they were not up to the job of what was a vastly different Rome from its founding. Two politics vied in the last decades. The first led by the politically inept Cicero called simply for a restoration of the old republic, which was impossible due to changed circumstances. The second politics were the reactionaries, although most were in some respects, but folks like Cataline and of course Caesar, who just disregarded the republics institutions for personal political gain.

    2)The republic fell not due to hardship, but at the very height of its wealth and military power, it was in fact the weight of the empire it had conquered(and the joke of the time was the Romans had conquered an empire defending themselves)that imploded the republics institutions and the vast wealth available corrupted its institutions. Thomas Jefferson once replied to the question of what should have the Romans did to reform their republic by saying, “First they should have given back their empire.” Self-government and empires are incompatible.

    Finally to Charcad, we’re a lot further long than the Gracchi, the constitution now gets shredded by both parties with little thought, corruption pretty high, economy much concentrated. While Caesar might not walk amongst us, Sulla no doubt does.


    1. charcad


      Finally to Charcad, we’re a lot further long than the Gracchi

      I screwed up my HTML italics tags. “But What do I Know?” said we’re in the time of the Gracchi. Repeating myself, we’re way past Octavian, who already came in the form of FDR without being recognized.

      As happened in the Roman Empire, American military commanders have long since ceased to come from the Senatorial class.

      1. Joe Costello

        We didnt dismantle the military for the first time after WWII, that was a big deal. We also made a deal accepting centralization of the economy to an extent not yet seen.

        Historical analogies are important, but limited. However, I’d say we are not yet to Octavian and far away from the point of the barracks emperors, the army’s not choosing our leaders, and while our president has more power than ever, it still meets many checks, though they are getting less. The republic sure isn’t functioning well that’s for sure.

  7. scraping_by

    Actually, if you want historical parallel, note the response to anyone pointing out the failures, foolishness, and fraud of the current policy:

    Noun, Verb, Lehman Brothers.
    Noun, Verb, Lehman Brothers.

  8. bob goodwin

    I did not get a liberal education, so am impressed by the knowledge being broadly demonstrated. It all seems greek to me. I was surprised at the romanticism of the ancients that I am sensing from the posters. I have always assumed the past to have been more brutal and corrupt than the present. Even as bad as it is now. A person in my youth (who I will leave cloaked in polite company) justified pedophillia through Greek precedent. Even political correctness seems tame compared to Caligula. Please don’t flame me. I am being ironical.

  9. craazyman

    I think there’s too much dark glamour, too much Dionysus in Cataline for the parallel to work. Financial looting is Pentheus limp-souled, straining for Viagra. “Audax” alone could kill it for me. And the banksters are all greed, no changeling quality except in the most transparent and meretricious rhetoric of their lobbying.

    For classical parallels, I prefer the damnation of dissolute war looters by Catullus, who in Carmen XXIX called Pompey a “little fucker of Romulus” and hammered Caeser for tolerating profiteering by underlings. But I’m too restrained and patriotic to call our president anything so crass, I still hope he finds his legs. And there’s only one big messiah, who just had a birthday.

    So here’s my update of Catullus’ Carmen 29, for our time, with a very liberal translation and a soft touch on political castigation.

    Who can tolerate this, who can stand it?
    Except a psychopath and a liar.
    The looters have what America had
    And what the world had, before the big rape.
    Little shadow of Lincoln, do you see?
    Are you a psychopath and a liar?
    And will they all now, stuffed like fattened pigs,
    snort their way through our two Houses, and yours,
    and sodomize every hole they find?
    Little shadow of Lincoln, will you look?
    Was it this, you wonderous speechmaker,
    That put you in the biggest house on earth?
    So these buggerers and loathsome beggars
    Can gorge themselves sick with one final loot?
    What is rape, if this madness isn’t it?
    How much is too much lust and gluttony?
    Our good faith and trust first get torn to shreds,
    Then our savings looted, for their bonus,
    And then, for third prize, they borrow for free,
    and they’ve turned your House into their office.
    Why give your cover to these criminals
    Who make nothing and destroy all they touch?
    Are these the mouths, little messiah and
    Shadow of Lincoln, you were hired to feed?

    Yes, Plutarch’s Lives is a good read. Much breezier than Gibbon. ha ha ha

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