photographRitchie Robertson (Oxford): SML Distinguished Speaker Series

Arch-villain or heroic rebel? Images of the conspirator in Schiller, Burke, and Ibsen

Location: Beehive 2.20
Time/Date: 10th November 2011, 16:00 - 17:00

A highly influential image of conspiracy and the conspirator goes back to Sallust’s partisan account of Catiline’s conspiracy against Rome in his Bellum Catilinae (c. 42 BC), which represents Catiline as unscrupulous and insane. For many centuries Catiline was considered an arch-villain in revolt against the humanist values praised by Sallust in the earlier Roman republic. This is how Ben Jonson represents him in Catiline (1611), which alludes to the recent conspiracy by Guy Fawkes. In the late eighteenth century, however, Schiller, who read the Bellum Catilinae eagerly, portrayed a heroic conspirator in Die Räuber (The Robbers, 1781), whose protagonist, Karl Moor, was modelled on Catiline and on Milton’s Satan. In the mid-nineteenth century Ibsen also reclaimed Catiline by making him the hero of his first play (1850). Schiller’s epoch-making drama did much to create the modern image of the heroic terrorist. However, the image of Catiline as villain was resurrected by opponents of the French Revolution who attributed it to a conspiracy among intellectuals. Prominent among the Revolutions opponents was Edmund Burke, who in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) supported the conspiracy theory of the Revolution; his book, and other more elaborate fantasies, would exercise considerable influence on the Continent. 'Catiline' was used by conservatives to typify the would-be revolutionary, as can be seen from various ironic references by Heine; and it was after the 1848 revolutions that Ibsen wrote his first play in Catiline’s defence. The figure of Catiline has therefore served in multiple ways to define various attitudes towards the rebel, conspirator, and/or revolutionary.

Illustration: Title-page of the first edition of 'Die Räuber' 

Published: 31st August 2011