The Catiline conspiracy is one of the most dramatic episodes in Roman history, because Cicero made sure we would remember it that way. Boissier’s specialty was bringing Roman history to life, and his portrait of Cicero is delightful. All the great characters—the haughty villain Catiline, the old grump Cato, the disappointed and cynical Sallust, the ruthlessly focused Caesar—are painted in indelible colors.
Until now, though, the book has never been available in English, even though several other books by Boissier were quite successful in English translation. Dr. Boli has remedied that omission for you, and once again our friends at Serif Press were kind enough to allow the preface to be reprinted here.
Gaston Boissier was known and loved in his time for his ability to make ancient history come alive for us. A writer of today, setting that as his goal, would probably write his history like a popular novel, with a straightforward narrative and short chapters with cliffhanger endings. Boissier takes almost exactly the opposite approach. He builds piles of fascinating little details; he takes amusing and enlightening detours to explore a character or a custom; he carefully lays out how he has come to his conclusions—all in a conversational style that soon makes us regard him as an old friend. A book by Boissier is an evening in front of the fire with a brilliant historian who loves his subject and is delighted to find someone to talk to about it.
Because Boissier writes conversationally, his personality comes through everywhere. He was in his early eighties when he wrote The Catiline Conspiracy, which came out in 1906; with a bit of subtraction, we can calculate that he lived through a very eventful period in French history. Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston Boissier (to give his full name, which we promise to do only this once) was born in 1823, so we can be sure that he remembered the June Rebellion of 1832; the attempted assassination of Louis Philippe in 1835; the February Revolution of 1848, and the revolutions of the same year all over Europe; Napoleon III’s coup and the establishment of the Second Empire; the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, the Commune, and the Bloody Week; and the Dreyfus Affair. In addition, the papers brought daily news of socialist protests and anarchist outrages. Boissier was not wrong to compare this lifelong instability with the last decades of republican Rome—the more so because the characters in French history were constantly comparing themselves with the characters in Roman history. Napoleon III, in particular, thought of himself as the heir of Julius Caesar, and wrote a biography of Caesar that Boissier found a little naive.
Boissier’s attitude to all this tumult is, we are tempted to say, typically French. He is at heart a conservative, but he accepts turbulence with a Gallic shrug as the price of freedom. Given that it is inevitable, we can at least gain something from it by applying it to our understanding of the past.
This is really the secret of Boissier’s success as a historian. It is his creed that “Man changes only on the surface. We often run to doubtful and distant documents for explanations of events in the ancient world, when it would suffice to look around us to understand them.” The people of ancient Rome are just like us; they have different costumes and different customs, but the fundamental human motivations are the same. Therefore, once we know what their customs and costumes were, we can know them as well as we know our neighbors.
Many of Boissier’s works were translated into English shortly after they were published—including a book about Cicero and His Friends, which necessarily covered some of the same ground as this book. As far as we know, though, The Catiline Conspiracy (La Conjuration de Catilina) has never appeared in English before. This is therefore the place for your translator to make the usual excuses: that he undertook this work because better translators had neglected it; that he knows he has not done justice to the original, but any kind of Boissier in English is better than no Boissier at all; and that he offers his own labor as a small tribute to the many hours of entertainment M. Boissier has given him.
As for the method of this translation, it hardly has any. The intent is to give Boissier’s book in as close to the original form as possible, but in English rather than French. It was tempting to add some notes for modern readers about the French history to which Boissier sometimes refers; but to weigh down the text with notes would be to interrupt our conversation with M. Boissier, and the book’s conversational style is one of its chief attractions. Even this preface is perhaps more of an indulgence than the translator ought to have permitted himself; and having made that observation, he is glad to bring it to an end and leave you to a very pleasant evening with the distinguished French gentleman who is waiting for you by the fire.