Essay on Conspiracy Theory

Essay on Conspiracy Theory

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In the Roman world, reputation and character were powerful concepts. A person could be brought up to prominence or down to infamy through their reputation alone. Some attempted to cultivate their image to suit their purposes, while others had theirs ruined by detractors. After the discovery of a conspiracy, the suspected participants could be punished by damnatio memoriae, considered unworthy of remembrance. However, because of the practical difficulties of this and the importance of remembering conspiracies, it was more likely that a conspirator would instead have his or her reputation slandered and any posthumous honors removed from them. Thus their names would remain in the record, but they served as exemplars for any other potential conspirators. The stories of Catiline, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, and Messalina have all been preserved, but they gained ignominious reputations from their contemporaries as well as from historians.
It is debatable whether the Catilinarian conspiracy was actually plotted at all, but it is certain that Catiline was treated as guilty by many of his contemporaries and later historical sources. It does not appear that an attempt was made to erase Catiline from memory; instead his story is recounted in detail by both Cicero and Sallust. Sallust portrayed Catiline as possessing some good qualities that made others follow him, such as physical strength and eloquence, but that he was ultimately depraved (Sallust 5). For Sallust, Catiline represented the moral decay that affected Rome; he was able to surround himself with criminals and reprobates because Rome was already corrupted (Sallust 6, 14). He accused him of corrupting the young and reported the belief that he murdered his stepson (Sallust ...


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...Those powerful enough to avoid or cast off any charges could still be criticized posthumously by historians. Maiestas trials showed the power of reputations; based off of them and a delator’s accusation, a person could lose their life. The concept of damnatio memoriae does pose a problem to the historian. If there were conspirators whose legacies were successfully erased by damnatio memoriae, but it would be difficult to discover this. If instead damnatio memoriae was applied more to remove honors and ruin the reputation of a conspirator, as this essay posits, it may be difficult to ascertain the true character of the person and the actual events that took place. However, with the evidence and tools of analysis that exist, it is clear that a person’s reputation, character, and legacy held great significance for Romans and influenced the histories of the period.

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