Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar

-Rob Goodman

There is no shortage of irony, as Goodman notes, in George Washington holding Cato the Younger up as an example of resistance to tyranny.  Even if we accept that Caesar was a tyrant (and he had yet to take supreme power at the time Cato committed suicide) we have to note that Cato played a large role in creating the crisis that eventually led to the Civil War and Caesar’s eventually victory (and later assassination.)  Cato’s closest analogy during the American Revolution would not be Washington, or Franklin ... but Lord North. 

Cato the Elder was known for holding a grudge.  He was, among other things, the loudest voice demanding the destruction of Cartage; he was very involved in provoking the incidents that eventually led to the Third and Final Punic War.  His son was all that and more, eventually seeing his name becoming a byword for honesty, stubborn integrity and a complete refusal to compromise.  Cicero’s rather snide comment – “he talks as though he were in Plato’s Republic, rather than Romulus’s Shithole” – sums Cato up perfectly. 

That stubbornness developed at a very early age.  When he and his teenage playmates were ordered to serve under the child of one of Sulla’s associates, they rebelled and went on strike.  This could have ended very badly for the teenagers, but instead Sulla allowed them to  choose their own leader.  They chose Cato.  (Caesar too was a recipient of Sulla’s grumbles, but eventual forgiveness.)  Unsurprisingly, Cato became soundly Republican and openly expressed a desire to kill the Dictator.  His tutor insisted on searching him before allowing the young man anywhere near Sulla. 

Like most Roman politicians, Cato spent time in the military.  (The concept of separating the military and political sphere would have been alien to the Romans.)  He shared his men’s hardships and became very popular with them, something that would be of aid to him in later life.  Upon returning to Rome, he was put in charge of managing the treasury, which he did with considerable skill.  However, Cato’s excellent personal example was unable to produce lasting reform – as he discovered upon a return visit.  Honesty and integrity were still largely lacking from the department. 

Cato’s first major clash with Caesar came about in the aftermath of the Catiline conspiracy.  Caesar argued that the suspects should be jailed permanently (a very un-Roman suggestion) while Cato and Cicero argued for their deaths.  They won.  (This would come back to haunt Cicero, although Cato largely escaped the consequences.)   Cato’s personal dislike for Caesar might have stemmed from an incident when he discovered that his half-sister was having an affair with Caesar.  However, there was plenty about the young man to dislike. 

When Pompey returned from campaigning in the Middle East, Cato was one of the politicians who worked to block Pompey’s requests for land for his veterans.  Cato was so stubbornly opposed to this that he refused the offer of a marriage alliance between himself and Pompey, one of many times when his stubbornness and principles cost him a chance to avert the looming disaster.  This was short-sighted, to say the least; eventually, Pompey allied with Crassus and Caesar, allowing them to dominate Rome.  Cato showed no lack of personal courage in opposing the three strongmen, but he failed.

As part of his moves against Cicero, Clodius moved to send Cato to Cyprus and annex it to Rome.  Cato refused, at first, but was unable to avoid being dispatched to the island, clearing the way for Clodius to move against Cicero.  Cato did his task extremely well – unlike many Roman governors, he took nothing for himself – and returned to Rome with perfect account books ... both of which were lost in transit.  Only his reputation for integrity saved him from suspicion of fraud.  (Although, given the nature of most Roman governors of the time, it is hard to think what he could have done that would be worse.)

Cato was back in Rome to witness the political storm that swept over the Republic when Crassus died, unbalancing the relationship between Caesar and Pompey.  Stubbornly defending the ancient system, Cato helped to make it impossible for both sides to find a compromise – and therefore ensured that there would be war.  Cato fled Rome with most of the Senate as Caesar advanced from the north, then accompanied Pompey into exile.  His faith in victory (or stubbornness) kept him going even after Pompey was defeated in the battle of Pharsalus.  Eventually, with Caesar’s forces finishing off the Republicans, Cato committed suicide.

Like many modern-day politicians, Cato had great difficulty balancing his private and personal life.  He was stubbornly incorruptible – there is no reliable evidence that he ever took anything for himself – but tended to take a milder view of corruption when family were involved.  His behaviour with his second wife – he divorced her so that someone else could marry her, then remarried her after her new husband died – was strange even by Roman standards.  (What his wife thought of it, if she was consulted at all, is not reported.) 

Cato also had problems dealing with his friends, preferring to stand by his principles instead.  He was friendly with Cicero, but was responsible for denying him a Triumph (a military parade in his honour) after his return from Cilicia.  He also offended a friend who visited him in Cyprus by not laying on the customary banquet, causing a freeze between the two men that lasted for several years.  Indeed, his reputation was something of a weakness.  Most Roman politicians found him difficult to deal with.  (It is suggested that his removal from naval command and transfer him to a port was because Pompey didn’t like him, although – as only ill-luck prevented Bibulus from scoring a decisive victory, it is possible that Pompey made the right choice.)

Sometimes, this became absurd.  Cato was unquestionably the best person to assume command of the Republicans after Pompey’s death, but chose to stand aside, first promoting Cicero (a laughable concept) and then Metellus Scipio.  His reasoning?  They were both higher than him in the chain of command. is

Outside politics, Cato is best known as an advocate of Stoicism.  Unlike the Greeks, the Romans managed to incorporate it into their political system, with Cato attracting several admirers for his rectitude.  Without him, it is unlikely that it would have continued to gain adherents in Rome, including (eventually) Marcus Aurelius.

There is a certain tendency to idealise Cato as a champion of liberty, a staunch defender of the republic against Caesar.  However, Republican Rome had become a powder keg by the time Caesar and his enemies came to blows.  Cato’s opposition to the Land Bill (which eventually boiled down to ‘let well enough alone’) might have been in the interest of the Senate, but not that of the poor, starving and dispossessed.  His attempts to isolate and marginalise Pompey pushed him into Caesar’s arms; his attempt to cripple, then exile Caesar helped spark off the Civil War.  In short, Cato did a great deal to keep the lid on the powder keg, but all he did was eventually make the explosion worse.  The Republic Cato so loved had become snarled up; if Caesar had fallen, it is unlikely that it would have somehow automatically become better.  By the time the storm passed – and Augustus Caesar became Rome’s first true Emperor – the Republic was well and truly dead.

Cato’s political life might well serve as a warning, rather than something to emulate.  Great political storms will sweep over our world; those that try to be too stubborn in defence of the old order will be destroyed.  Those that learn to bend and adept will survive. 

Overall, this is a very good book on a fascinating character.  Well worth a read.