While taking in all of the news recently about the NSA and the people exposing government secrets I am, of course, looking constantly for links to the Classical World. Government corruption and secrets were pretty common in the ancient world and I think that might be too obvious a connection to point out for the purpose of this blog. What I do find interesting though is the comparisons that can be made between the language used by politicians to describe whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning and the language used to describe the conspirator Catiline. Whether you find these whistleblowers to be heroes or traitors may make you question this comparison, but remember that it is just the language used, I am not comparing the situations rather the way that politicians describe these men. My use of the word whistleblower is not to give a leaning either way, it is the easiest noun to use for them. It is also important to keep in mind that we do not have the common man’s opinion of Catiline. We only have the politicians’ and historians’ views on him. Imagine the shape of today’s debate if we took out the common person’s voice and only had record of what politicians say about these men.
First a brief rundown of Catiline and his conspiracy in case you are not familiar with this part of Roman history. The wiki is pretty good on this and while I don’t endorse wiki as a scholarly source, it is a great way to get a general understanding of most things. I will link to that at the bottom. In a short version, Catiline was a Roman Senator so someone in a position of relative power and with access to information. He didn’t like the way things were going and in the year 63BCE was to execute a plot to overthrow the republic until Cicero called attention to his plan and effectively squashed it. Catiline may not have been simply a rogue senator the way he is painted to be by historians and politicians. He had people on his side who were senators, generals, and even a former consul. He had people of power who agreed with him, just not the most important people or the ones that would end up writing it down. Remember, the victors write history. I’m not defending the actions of Catiline or claiming to know which side of that political debate I would have even been on, but it is important for me to make clear that he was not alone, he had followers and powerful ones at that who agreed with him for one reason or another.
As stated, the situation is not as important as the way he is described. Both Cicero and Sallust give accounts of Catiline’s Conspiracy and describe in detail Catiline himself and the nature of his conspiracy. In America we have similar sides reacting to Snowden and Manning, politicians and historians (I will include some mainstream media in this category, begrudgingly), but we also have other outlets like not so mainstream media, blogs, tweets, the general public, etc. When looking at the comments of politicians and some major media the descriptions line up with the ancient ones.
Snowden has been consistently called a traitor and his acts called treasonous by politicians including President Obama, Boehner, and Feinstein. Cicero in his first oration against Catiline says, “And shall we, who are the consuls, tolerate Catiline, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter?” If we are going by position, Cicero is probably the equivalent to Catiline of Obama and Boehner to Snowden and Manning. Sallust and Cicero also attack Catiline at a personal level. Sallust points out that prior to Catiline’s political career he had done unspeakable things with a Vestal Virgin. The best is the way he calls him a madman though, “His pallid complexion, his bloodshot eyes; his gait now fast, now slow; in his face and his every glance showed him a madman” (15.5). Toobin, writer for the New Yorker, said about Snowden that he is a, “grandiose narcissist.”
Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his leaks, is seaking pardon from Obama which I find incredibly interesting given the reaction to Snowden. Obama said prior to any trial that Manning was guilty. Obama, whose speeches already sound Ciceronian, sounds very much like Cicero in the aftermath of these two leaks. He even does the self aggrandizing thing Cicero was so known for by always making it sound like he is doing everything personally and on his own to stop all of these traitors. Specifically though the video floating around (below) in which he says Manning broke the law sounds much like Cicero reacting to Catiline.
I suggest reading Cicero and Sallust as well as the wiki on the conspiracy. While it is not a perfect comparison it is an interesting one in terms of the language politicians use towards “traitors” and the way politicians view security.