Cato the Younger: A Foolish Consistency.

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005

The boughs that will not bend must break!
Mary Eulalie Fee Shannon (1825-1855)

Plutarch tells us that even as a child Cato (95-46 B.C.) showed evidence of his resolute character. At age 14 Cato sets himself against the dictator Sylla. He also devotes himself to the study of philosophy and to the practice of justice, which he seeks to advance through rhetoric. (Life of Cato the Younger, 2-4)

Following the customary course he enters the Roman army. In the war to put down the slave revolt of Spartacus (73 B.C.), Cato, though given no opportunity to distinguish himself in arms, is commended for his conduct. Back in civilian life Cato excels at canvassing for votes and he begins to attract the envy of less accomplished politicians. (Life of Cato the Younger, 8)

Cato becomes renouned for his incorruptibility after routing out corruption. In fact, he distinguishes himself as the sole true guardian of Rome's public treasury. Cato consistently places public service above private gain. He also punishes the many colaborators with Sylla in his criminal reign. (Life of Cato the Younger, 16-19)

In 63 B.C. a bankrupt nobleman, Lucius Sergius Catilina, conspired to destroy the Roman Republic, but the plot is found out by Cicero and the conpirators are tried and found guilty. Several important men in the city are potentially implicated and many urge that clemency is the best way forward if future unrest is to be avoided. Cato alone holds out for the ultimate punishment for the Catilinian conspirators, withstanding Caesar's bid for clemency, showing that obstinancy of character which will later undo him and after first rendering him unable to save the republic. (Life of Cato the Younger, 22)

Cato fearing the rising power of Pompey and wishing to moderate his ambition allies with Lucullus against Pompey only to find that in so doing he is assisting Caesar in his more far-reaching ambition. (Life of Cato the Younger, 29-30)

By opposing Pompey's request for land for his veterans and Caesar's reasonable desire for honors such as enjoyed by others, Cato drives Pompey and Caesar into that partnership which, later, will overthrow the republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero begs Cato be more reasonable and save himself and the republic through small compromises rather than sacrifice both to abstract principle. But Cato continues to withstand Caesar's attempts at reforms. (Life of Cato the Younger, 31-33)

Cicero, the orator, who urged upon him that it was perhaps not even right in itself, that a private man should oppose what the public had decreed; that the thing being already past altering, it were folly and madness to throw himself into danger, without the chance of doing his country any good; it would be the greatest of all evils, to embrace, as it were, the opportunity to abandon the commonwealth, for whose sake he did everything, and to let it fall into the hands of those who designed nothing but its ruin, as if he were glad to be saved from the trouble of defending it. "For," said he, "though Cato have no need of Rome, yet Rome has need of Cato, and so likewise have all his friends." Life of Cato the Younger, 31.

Seeing that the great men are intent on seizing power and that the people, far from fighting for the republic are happy to see the advance of a Caesar or Pompey if only they will bring some order to the city, Cato advises Cicero in Rome, Ptolemy in Cyprus, and the other Ptolemy in Egypt each to reconcile himself to the present situation and so save self and country; none follows his advice. As for himself, he refuses to even consider such a compromise with those who would alter the forms of the republic which had come down from ancient times. (Life of Cato the Younger, 35)

When, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar form the first triumvirate in 60 B.C. they bribe the people to keep Cato out of office. (Life of Cato the Younger, 41-42) Pompey continues to assist in the rise of Caesar, not heeding Cato's warning that Caesar, once secure, would turn on Pompey. And Cato warns the people of the danger from such ambitious men.

But Cato, before the voting began, went up into the place of speaking, and desiring to be heard, was with much difficulty allowed two hours to speak. Having spent that time in informing them and reasoning with them, and in foretelling to them much that was to come, he was not suffered to speak any longer; but as he was going on, a sergeant came and pulled him down; yet when he was down, he still continued speaking in a loud voice, and finding many to listen to him, and join in his indignation. Then the sergeant took him, and forced him out of the forum; but as soon as he got loose, he returned again to the place of speaking, crying out to the people to stand by him. Life of Cato the Younger, 43.

But the people do not stand by him and finally Cato, seeing that city in disorder and Pompey the least harmful of the contenders for sole rule, reconciles with Pompey. And with Caesar marching on Rome, Cato advises the senate to put all into the hands of Pompey. (Life of Cato the Younger, 48-52)

Unfortunately, by the time Cato relents and backs Pompey it is too late. Caesar has the army and the people on his side. As we know from Plutarch's lives of Pompey and of Caesar, Pompey is overthrown by Caesar at Pharsalia in 48 B.C. Cato follows Pompey to Egypt where Pompey is destroyed through the treachery of the Egyptians. There Cato takes command and fortifies Utica. There he assembles his council of 300 Roman businessmen and some senators, urging them to stick together the better to stand against Caesar and, failing of that, the better to treat for peace with Caesar as a body rather than singly. The Romans in Utica have such confidence in Cato that they elect to follow him into combat against Caesar and resolve to free their slaves that these might join in the battle. Cato, rather than following through with freeing and arming the slaves immediately, while all are excited and ready to join him, equivocates and quibbles about the technical legality of such a commandeering of private property for the public defense and, so, loses the moment. (Life of Cato the Younger, 56-60)

One of the assembly proposed the making a decree, to set the slaves at liberty; and most of the rest approved the motion. Cato said, that it ought not to be done, for it was neither just nor lawful; but if any of their masters would willingly set them free, those that were fit for service should be received. Many promised so to do; whose names he ordered to be enrolled, and then withdrew. Life of Cato the Younger, 60.

The senators undertake to do what is needed to fight for liberty but the merchants and money-lenders accept the dictatorship of Caesar. The cavalry arrives but cannot agree on the best plan for withstanding Caesar. During the fateful period of Cato's vacilation the businessmen resolve to oppose Cato and throw their lot in with Caesar. Cato leaves the businessmen free to embrace Caesarism and he evacuates the senators to safety. (Life of Cato the Younger, 61-64)

Seeing no way out, Cato chooses death over life under tyranny. He sups with friends and discusses philosophy and then passes his last evening reading Plato the philosopher. (Life of Cato the Younger, 66-68)

When the company was broke up, he walked with his friends, as he used to do after supper, gave the necessary orders to the officers of the watch, and going into his chamber, he embraced his son and every one of his friends with more than usual warmth, which again renewed their suspicion of his design. Then laying himself down, he took into his hand Plato's dialogue concerning the soulLife of Cato the Younger, 68.

In the early morning hours, Cato takes his own life.

Plutarch's digressions on Cato's odd behavior which cases him to be ill spoken of reveal much about the flawed character of Cato.

For he would often come to the court without his shoes, and sit upon the bench without any under garment, and in this attire would give judgment in capital causes, and upon persons of the highest rank. It is said, also, he used to drink wine after his morning meal, and then transact the business of his office; but this was wrongfully reported of him. Life of Cato the Younger, 44.

Likewise, Plutarch comments on Cato's unconventional views regarding marriage.

Among many that loved and admired Cato, some were more remarkable and conspicuous than others. Of these was Quintus Hortensius, a man of high repute and approved virtue, who desired not only to live in friendship and familiarity with Cato, but also to unite his whole house and family with him by some sort or other of alliance in marriage. Therefore he set himself to persuade Cato, that his daughter Porcia, who was already married to Bibulus, and had borne him two children, might nevertheless be given to him, as a fair plot of land, to bear fruit also for him. "For," said he, "though this in the opinion of men may seem strange, yet in nature it is honest, and profitable for the public, that a woman in the prime of her youth should not lie useless, and lose the fruit of her womb, nor, on the other side, should burden and impoverish one man, by bringing him too many children. Also by this communication of families among worthy men, virtue would increase, and be diffused through their posterity; and the commonwealth would be united and cemented by their alliances." Yet if Bibulus would not part with his wife altogether, he would restore her as soon as she had brought him a child, whereby he might be united to both their families. Cato answered, that he loved Hortensius very well, and much approved of uniting their houses, but he thought it strange to speak of marrying his daughter, when she was already given to another. Then Hortensius, turning the discourse, did not hesitate to speak openly and ask for Cato's own wife, for she was young and fruitful, and he had already children enough. Neither can it be thought that Hortensius did this, as imagining Cato did not care for Marcia; for, it is said, she was then with child. Cato, perceiving his earnest desire, did not deny his request, but said that Philippus, the father of Marcia, ought also to be consulted. Philippus, therefore, being sent for, came; and finding they were well agreed, gave his daughter Marcia to Hortensius in the presence of Cato, who himself also assisted at the marriage.Life of Cato the Younger, 25.

Showing up at the senate half-dressed and half-loaded and treating his wife and daugther as brood-mares are queer behaviors in ours, or Cato's, or any time. Such actions mark a man whose affections are seriously disordered through a lack of self-awareness about want is proper and improper conduct. Perhaps Plutarch includes these observations so we can make the connection between character, as manifest in personal conduct and success or failure of the leader. Just as he failed to properly order his personal and family life, so Cato failed to heed his own sound advice to others to accept some of the changes Caesar was introducing to the republic. The result was Cato's distruction at his own hand with Caesar's rise to power not seriously inhibited by Cato's protestations.

Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Cato the Younger.