Sallust (86-ca. 35 B.C.), or Gaius Sallustius Crispus, was a Roman statesman and historian. Rejecting the annalistic method of writing history, he concentrated with improved accuracy and narrative technique on critical stages in the decline of the Roman Republic.
Sallust was born of plebeian stock in the small Sabine town of Amiternum. Joining the Popular faction, he was elected tribune of the people in 52 B.C. When Clodius was murdered by Milo, Sallust was instrumental in arousing public outrage against Milo. Sallust's motives probably went beyond loyalty to Clodius and certainty of Milo's guilt to revenge arising from the whipping Sallust endured for an adulterous relationship with Milo's wife. In 50 his immoral life and factionalism caused Sallust's name to be stricken from the senatorial roll.
With the outbreak of civil war in 49 B.C., Sallust joined Julius Caesar, who secured for him a quaestorship and command of a legion in the unsuccessful campaign against Pompey in Illyricum. Sallust continued to serve Caesar as praetor in Africa and was rewarded with a proconsular governorship of Numidia. Sallust plundered the province to amass his great wealth, but he either was not brought to trial or was acquitted. In 44 B.C. Sallust retired to Rome and the splendor of his residence, situated amid the famous Gardens of Sallust (Horti Sallustiani). The estate later was the residence of several Roman emperors. His last years were devoted to elegant leisure and the writing of history. He died in 35 or 34 B.C.
Sallust's first historical monograph, The Conspiracy of Catiline (De Catilinae coniuratione), was apparently published in 43 B.C. The work begins with a grave account of the moral decline of the Romans and narrates the career of Catiline with emphasis on the detection and suppression of the conspiracy. Despite Sallust's knowledge of the facts from personal experience and contemporary records, the work is more notable for brilliant speeches and character sketches.
The Jugurthine War (Bellum Iugurthinum), was published about 41 B.C. After a philosophical introduction and an account of the career of Jugurtha, Sallust narrates the war of the Romans against the Numidian king (111-106 B.C.). Sallust drew upon his own knowledge of Africa and literary sources which included translations of Punic documents, but he does falter on chronology and topography.
Probably after 39 B.C. Sallust composed his Histories (Historiae), in five books, devoted to the critical period from the death of Sulla in 78 B.C. to Pompey's rise to power in 67 B.C. Unfortunately, only fragments, including two letters and four speeches, survive.
Sallust was judged by Quintilian to rival Thucydides, and Martial ranked him as Rome's foremost historian. Some critics allege that Sallust's works are politically inspired in favor of Caesar. Whatever his biases may be, Sallust's avowed ambition was an impartial and trustworthy narrative. Rather than writing general or annalistic history, he deliberately selected subjects and portions of history on the basis of their interest and value. Like Thucydides, he fathoms character and motivation; thus his works are never dreary or monotonous but are dramatic, colorful, and concentrated. Sallust's polished, vigorous, and varied style shows a fondness for concise expression, neatly turned phrases, figurative language, archaisms, and colloquialisms.
Further Reading on Sallust
Sallust, translated by John Carew Rolfe (1921), contains the major works. An excellent, incisive critique of Sallust, his work, and his cultural milieu is Ronald Syme's scholarly Sallust (1964). Also useful is D. C. Earl, The Political Thought of Sallust (1961). A brief but clear account of Sallust for the general reader is in Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1970), which, since it reports the conclusions of modern scholarship, is more useful than the older works by J. B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (1909), and Max Ludwig Wolfram Laistner, The Greater Roman Historians (1947).