Fred Drogula examines the truth behind the man and his times.
Marcus Porcius Cato ‘The Younger’ was one of the most fascinating and important men in a critical era of Roman history: the mid-first century BC, when the Roman Republican system of government finally collapsed and gave way to an imperial monarchy. Cato was a staunch champion of the traditional prerogatives of the aristocratic elite in the Senate, and so a fierce antagonist of any man who sought to gain individual influence and power at the expense of the Senate. Cato championed the traditional system of government that for centuries had enabled the senatorial elite to use its collective influence and resources to dominate Roman politics, religion, and society. The citizens in their assemblies made laws and elected magistrates, but they were very deferential to the social rank and moral authority of Rome’s senators. As a result, so long as the senators and their families worked together, they were usually able to deploy their combined influence to control the outcome of elections and legislative votes. This cooperation was usually arranged by the most senior and important senators, who were normally able to bring the Senate to a consensus position on major issues, and that consensus among Rome’s leading men was usually sufficient to guide the votes of the citizens. Thus a unified Senate could project a nearly-irresistible influence over the voters, enabling it to maintain control of public affairs.
Cato was a member of Rome’s senatorial elite and supported its traditional ability to run the state, but things were changing quickly in his lifetime. As Rome’s empire expanded and its wars became larger, more glorious, and more profitable, competition for the consulship—which enabled a man to exercise senior military command—increased exponentially. Rome had not been a wealthy state in earlier times, and the profits generated by its earlier campaigns had rarely been outstanding or controlled by a single commander, which meant that wealth had not been particularly important in determining a senator’s status and prestige. By Cato’s birth in 95 BC, however, Rome’s wars had become far more profitable, and some senators acquired astronomical wealth from military command, thereby eclipsing their less successful senatorial peers and triggering intense competition for the consulship and military commands. This competition slowly began to erode the Senate’s ability to build consensus among its members.
By the time Cato was born, the most elite senatorial families—the nobiles or nobles—worked together to promote the careers of their own members and their supporters, building overwhelming support for their own candidates in elections and making it extremely difficult for others to advance politically. Since most other senators could not match the resources and influence of these nobiles, they usually had little choice but to accept that they would never reach the highest magistracies and opportunities for command. Some, however, refused to accept being passed over, and attempted to win election to that exalted office by finding new ways to appeal to the voters, even if it meant winning individual popularity by acting against the interests of the Senate as a whole. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, for example, won tremendous popularity with the voters by proposing to give free land to many of Rome’s poorest families, while his younger brother Gaius later did the same by proposing that the state subsidize grain to keep it affordable to Rome’s poor. Across the late Republic (133 to 44 BC), a series of senators adopted such popular (popularis) tactics to circumvent the influence of the senatorial elite and win elections, but the defenders of the traditional system—often called optimates—pushed back aggressively. Cato was from an old and noble family, and he rose to become a leader of these optimates and spent his career defending the traditional Republican system. In particular, he tenaciously opposed those men who sought individual advancement at the expense of the senatorial elite, which meant working to reinforce the preeminence of that elite by opposing the ambitions of men like Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and—most famously—Julius Caesar.
Cato was a powerful advocate for traditional government because of his ability to present and promote himself as the champion of traditional Roman values, and to use this status to mobilize support both among the senators and among the citizenry as a whole. The Romans were a tremendously conservative people who believed (rightly or wrongly) that they followed the customs laid down by their ancestors—the mos maiorum or ‘way of the elders’. Of course, what exactly was or was not in accordance with the mos maiorum was nowhere defined, so every Roman politician could claim to be following his own interpretation of ancestral custom, but Cato did this far more effectively than any other senator. For example, he dressed in extremely old-fashioned clothing and refused to wear a tunic under his toga because that was the style of dress depicted on statues of ancient Roman heroes set up around the city—his attire was highly unusual, but promoted his devotion to ancestral custom. He also did his best to act with the utmost integrity when holding public office, inspiring Romans with his old-fashioned virtue. Cato was no doubt sincere in his championing of traditional values, but they also served his political objectives—he argued that electoral bribery (a common thing during his lifetime) was contrary to ancestral tradition, but he also opposed it as a tool that populares often used to counter the influence of the Senate.
Cato’s fierce defense of tradition and the Senate’s traditional prerogatives drew the admiration of many, but his aggressive and uncompromising political tactics also raised concern even among his allies. His energy and determination to defend the preeminence of the Senate made him a figurehead for Rome’s elite, but many thought his implacable opposition towards Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar went too far, and he was later blamed by many for causing those three to form a private alliance that ultimately overwhelmed the Senate and set events in motion that would bring down the Republic. Thus Cicero admired Cato’s virtue and tenacity, but also lamented that his inflexibility often did more harm than good in the dangerous political affairs of their day. Cicero hoped to accommodate and utilize the ambitions of men like Caesar for the good of the state, and feared that Cato’s antagonism would drive these powerful men with armies to resort to violence. Yet Cato did not want the civil war that ultimately broke out, and sincerely lamented the death of fellow citizens in that conflict. He dutifully served as a senior commander in that civil war, and maintained the Senate’s cause far longer than most other optimates who had similarly opposed Caesar. When Caesar was ultimately triumphant, Cato committed suicide rather than accept mercy from his arch-rival.
Cato’s legacy has had a profound influence on European and American political thought, but it also poses a challenge to historians. Of all the famous Romans who drove events in the final decades of the Republic, Cato is most often remembered as a caricature: he is remembered as an extreme conservative, an aggressive orator, an implacable enemy, an inflexible politician, and a tireless champion of traditional values. In the popular imagination, Cato is always an extreme, and his legacy lacks the nuance and complexity present in other Romans of his time: Pompey had changing priorities and wrestled with his support of Caesar; Cicero was torn between joining Caesar or Pompey in the civil war and repeatedly tried to forge compromises to save the Republic; Caesar’s ambitions are constantly debated, but he made proposals and counterproposals to the Senate and sought to negotiate terms to avoid the civil war; and Brutus was trapped between his loyalties and hesitated to join the conspiracy against Caesar. Historians perceive the complexity of these men, and have written countless books debating their thoughts, wishes, and intentions. Very few books, however, have been written about Cato, because—on the surface—there seems to be nothing to debate: he is remembered as an unchanging monolith, always opposed to Caesar, always inflexible in his opinions, always certain in his action, always unwilling to yield. There has been little question or debate about Cato’s views—he is remembered as an ideal, as a caricature of the perfect champion of the dying Republic.
In fact, Cato was as complex and nuanced as other men of his day, but this has been obscured by the way his legacy was reshaped—and indeed reinterpreted and rewritten—in the months and years following his death. Almost as soon as Cato took his own life in Utica in 46 BC, those who survived him began a literary process that transformed him from a complex statesman into an unambiguous symbol for the lost Republic. Shortly after his suicide, several men who had known him began writing treatises about his life, each one shaping their presentation of him to suit their goals. Brutus, for example, set out to eulogize his uncle and glorify his career, and in doing so he seems to have written some things that were not true: when Cicero read the work, he bitterly complained to friends that Brutus had given Cato credit for things that he (Cicero) had actually done.
Cicero also began writing a treatise on Cato, but was faced with a serious problem: Caesar was now dictator and master of Rome, and Cicero worried that he would incur Caesar’s wrath if he praised Cato’s political career, which had ended in declaring Caesar a tyrant. Brutus could get away with praising his uncle out of family devotion and because he was a favorite of the dictator, but Cicero did not have those advantages and wanted to avoid offending the powerful Caesar by praising his defeated enemy. Cicero’s solution was masterful: instead of praising him as a politician and senator, he framed his discussion of Cato’s life in philosophical terms, making him a philosopher dedicated to the ideal of liberty (libertas) rather than a politician who declared Caesar a tyrant. By discussing him through a philosophical (rather than political) lens, Cicero was able to praise Cato’s dedication to Republican values without appearing to attack Caesar. Cicero had actually used this rhetorical tactic before when dealing with Cato: when Cato prosecuted Lucius Licinius Murena for electoral bribery in 63 BC, Cicero successfully defended Murena by portraying Cato as an impractical philosopher rather than as a prosecutor, convincing the jury that the entire prosecution was a silly philosophical matter rather than a serious legal case. Cicero had not wanted to attack Cato’s standing as a Roman senator, so he instead recast him as a Greek philosopher and attacked Stoic philosophic principles, thereby changing the target of his defense and gaining an acquittal without damaging (or even touching upon) Cato’s real reputation as a statesman. Cicero used this same technique when writing about Cato after his death: by praising him as a philosopher dedicated to libertas, and as an ideal exemplar of traditional Roman virtue, he downplayed the nuances that had made Cato a complex figure. Around the same time, Munatius Rufus—a celebrated philosopher—also wrote an encomium on Cato, advancing the veneration of his dead friend by adding a third treatise that presented him through a philosopher’s lens. Caesar’s response to these writings was to have a work published denouncing Cato’s moral and political shortcomings, but Cicero thought such a clumsy attack actually enhanced Cato’s memory more than damaged it.
This idealization of Cato was handed down to later writers, who further transformed the man into a legend. In particular, those writers and thinkers who lived under Rome’s more tyrannical emperors envisioned Cato as a Stoic guru and as a champion of the ideals of the now-lost Republic. These men saw and described Cato as representing the ideal of libertas, and as setting an example of how one could escape injustice through suicide. Sallust described Cato as the mirror-opposite of Caesar, Virgil placed Cato in his Underworld, giving laws to the dead, and Horace praised Cato’s noble death. Under the tyrannical rule of Nero, philosophers such as Seneca and Thrasea Paetus transformed Cato’s suicide into a philosophical action, overlapping and confusing it with details drawn from Socrates’ famous death, and even composing fictional death speeches to augment Cato’s reputation as a philosopher. Seneca and Thrasea later modelled their own suicides after Cato’s, showing how his death—rather than his life—had become the thing about him that was best known. By the time Seneca’s nephew Lucan wrote his Civil War, Cato’s legend had reached its zenith as an exemplar of how to live and die under tyrant.
Cato had already become a legend by the time Plutarch began to write a biography of him, the biography that more than any other work has been responsible for the preservation of Cato’s legacy. Plutarch was a good scholar, but he grew up in a time when Cato’s memory had already been transformed by several generations of writers. Unlike Caesar and Cicero, who left behind them many written works preserving their own voices and ideas, virtually nothing of Cato’s own writing survives (a single letter to Cicero), so Plutarch’s biography presents Cato as he had been canonized by over a century of Latin literature. In addition, Plutarch was writing a biography, and so he structured the work to emphasize those particular themes that he thought important to understanding Cato as he (Plutarch) understood him—yet a further revision and reorganization of Cato’s life. Plutarch’s biography is therefore a combination of material Plutarch found; some of it was reliable, and some the product of considerable and repeated revision of Cato’s memory. Scholars have identified many of these revisions, and noted the inconsistencies in how Plutarch presents Cato in biographies of other men (which are structured around different themes), but Plutarch’s work is still the window through which Cato’s legacy has been widely disseminated to modern audiences.
While Plutarch’s biography is by far the fullest and most complete account of Cato’s life that survives from the ancient world, it is certainly not the only source of information on him. Evidence from Cicero, Caesar, and other contemporary and near-contemporary writers survives that enables us to evaluate and even correct sections of Plutarch’s later biography. In addition, scholars have done a great deal of research on how Plutarch composed his biographies and used his evidence, helping readers to better evaluate his work, separate fact from fiction, and identify bias, omission, and exaggeration. Using all of this information, it is possible to bring more nuance and detail to Cato’s life and career, and to better understand the complex man who grappled with the unprecedented times through which he lived. This requires setting aside the idealized Cato and searching for the man as he truly was. It can be difficult to let go of an ideal, but the result is a better understanding of one of the most important men of the late Republic.
Dr. Fred K. Drogula is the Charles J. Ping Professor of Humanities and Professor of Classics at Ohio University. His recent book Cato the Younger: Life and Death at the end of the Roman Republic was published by Oxford University Press this summer.