Cato the Younger, so called to distinguish him from his famous great-grandfather Cato the Elder, was one of the most fascinating figures of the Late Roman Republic. Cato was a politician, a follower of the Stoic philosophy, and a man renowned for his legendary unyielding nature. He was reputed to be immune to bribes, a paragon of virtue, and possessed of a character that could not abide corruption or graft. For all this, however, it is also arguable that Cato’s legendary stubbornness actually created the conditions that led to the eventual fall of the Republic, as Cato’s unwillingness to compromise in any particular would leave Julius Caesar little choice but to cross the Rubicon. Cato’s extreme character may perhaps best serve as a reminder that, as Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.” As the Republic spiraled ever more out of control, Cato played a powerful role in ensuring that neither side would have any room to compromise.
Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis was born in 95 BCE in Rome. He was the son of Marcus Porcius Cato and Liva Drusa, and was also related to both Servilia (one of Caesar’s lovers) and Marcus Porcius Brutus (who eventually participated in the assassination of Caesar). He lost both of his parents very early and was forced to live in the house of his maternal uncle Marcus Livius Drusus. Drusus also looked after Quintus Servilius Caepio (Cato’s inseparable half-brother) and Servilia. Cato’s uncle Drusus was assassinated when Cato was only four years old.
Cato was reputed to be an obedient and questioning child, albeit a bit slow and stubborn. The legendary stubbornness of Cato is attested to in his youth in a story by Plutarch. According to the ancient biographer, Quintus Popaedius Silo (leader of the revolting Marsi) was visiting his friend Drusus and playfully asked for the support of the children. All of them readily agreed with the exception of Cato, who instead stared silently and suspiciously at Silo. Silo demanded an answer from the boy and, upon receiving no response, picked him up and hung him by the feet from the window. Even then, Cato refused to respond, prompting the frustrated Silo to release him.
An additional testament to Cato’s fearless stubbornness can be found in his interactions with the dictator Sulla. As a teenager, Cato was often in the company of Sulla and frequently disagreed with the dictator in public. Rather than becoming angered, Sulla delighted in the company of Cato and Caepio. Such was Cato’s youth.
Upon entering his majority—and thus his inheritance—Cato moved from his uncle’s house and began his life as an adult. He intensely studied politics and Stoic Philosophy, and also began to emulate his great-grandfather Cato the Elder in both temperament and action. He exercised vigorously, subjected himself to extreme heat and cold to toughen his body, ate only what was necessary, and drank only the cheapest of wines (of which he was reputed to be overly fond). He even went so far as to wear his toga in the traditional style, without a tunica, in the cold of winter. In short, Cato lived a spartan existence, in line with his vision of the Stoic Philosophy. Significantly, although he remained secluded for an extended period of his life, when he did take his place in the forum his rhetorical skills were admired and applauded. The young Cato’s forthright speech was to stand him in good stead throughout his life.
Cato was betrothed to Aemilia Lepida, from a noted patrician family, but she married the famous Caecilius Metellus Scipio instead. Cato threatened to sue both of them, but eventually was convinced to marry Atilia instead. He had a son, Marcus Porcius Cato, and a daughter, Porcia. Porcia would one day marry Marcus Junius Brutus.
At the age of 28, Cato was sent to Macedon in 67 BCE as a military tribune. He was granted command of a legion and, though a strict disciplinarian, was much loved by his legionaries. Cato led from the front, sharing his men’s work, food, and even their sleeping quarters. In the midst of his command, he received notice that Caepio, his half-brother, was dying in Thrace. To Cato’s everlasting regret he arrived in Thrace too late to see his brother before he died. Cato was devastated by Caepio’s death, spending lavishly on a funeral for the dead as he had never spent on the living. Caepio’s fortune was divided between his daughter Servilia and Cato.
Upon returning to Rome in 65 BCE, Cato ran for and was elected to the office of quaestor, the first significant rung on the cursus honorum. He studied intensely prior to assuming the office, learning the laws and rules that pertained to his new position—particularly the laws pertaining to taxation. When Cato assumed office he began an intensive examination of the tax books and discovered numerous irregularities. He prosecuted several former quaestors for stealing from the public treasury and for public graft and corruption, and even prosecuted a number of men who had used Sulla’s proscriptions to enrich themselves. By the end of his year as a quaestor Cato’s reputation for incorruptibility was firmly established in the mind of his fellow Romans. Cato would also keep a vigilant eye on the public treasury for the remainder of his political career.
Now a senator, Cato’s rigid sense of social order ensured that he would become a member of the conservative Optimates faction. While initially mistrusted by many of the Optimates for his prosecution of Sulla’s allies, Cato quickly grew into a mainstay of the conservative Senate. As a tribune in 63 BCE, he was crucial in assisting the consul Cicero in stopping the Cataline conspiracy, including securing a sentence of death over the objections of Julius Caesar.
It was during the Cataline conspiracy that the intense animus between Cato and Caesar began. During the Senate debate, Cato observed Caesar receiving a personal message. Cato accused Caesar, who had already argued against executing the conspirators, of being involved in the conspiracy. Caesar loftily replied that it was only a love letter. Cato seized the letter and read it, discovering that it was in fact an “unchaste letter” from Servilia. Cato hurled the letter back at Caesar and the men of Rome began to look to their own wive’s chastity. Cato himself divorced his wife Atilia soon afterward, leading to speculation that Caesar might have visited more members of his family than just Servilia. Servilia, meanwhile, was promptly divorced by her husband.
Cato proceeded to marry Marcia, the daughter of Lucius Marcius Philippus, and a woman he was thought to deeply love. This led to one of the more bizarre moments in Cato’s life, as only a few years later Cato’s close friend, the famed rhetor and lawyer Quintus Hortensius, approached Cato and asked for the hand of his daughter Porcia in marriage. Porcia, however, was already married to Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. As though it were the final proof that nothing and no one could have a hold upon the iron Cato, he divorced Marcia and gave her to the aged Hortensius. After Hortensius’ death, Cato would again marry Marcia, receiving part of Hortensius’ inheritance in the bargain.
The First Triumvirate
The aftermath of the Catiline Conspiracy saw the rise of the First Triumvirate to power. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus together represented a force that no one else could resist, but Cato was determined to try. He opposed Pompey’s request to have the consular elections postponed so that he could first celebrate his triumph (an official possessed of imperium could not enter the city limits except during a triumph without laying down his imperium, and one had to be within the city to stand for office), forcing Pompey to choose between his third Triumph or a second consulship. Pompey would chose the Triumph, leaving him a mere senator, albeit an influential one. When Caesar returned from his governorship of Hispania Ulterior, Cato again forced the issue, hoping that Caesar would make the same decision. Caesar, however, chose to sacrifice the prestige of a Triumph and instead was elected Consul. Cato’s son-in-law, Marcus Bibulus, was elected consul as well.
Cato and Bibulus now began to oppose every law that Caesar put forth, particularly the agrarian laws that would provide land for Pompey’s veterans—a crucial element in the bargain that created the Triumvirate. Caesar became so incensed at Cato’s interference that he even took the unprecedented move of arresting and jailing Cato as he was speaking out against Caesar from the rostra. Senate outrage prompted Caesar to relent and release Cato. Turning to less legal means, Caesar’s Populares supporters began harassing and even physically assaulting Cato and Bibulus, to the point that Bibulus locked himself away in his home and declaring unfavorable omens for every act that Caesar passed. Cato, meanwhile, continued his resistance to Caesar’s consulship, including an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Caesar’s five year appointment as governor of Illyria and Cisalpine Gaul.
Cato’s opposition was so onerous that the triumvirate determined remove Cato from the political scene. They promptly arranged to have him offered the governorship of Cyprus, a new province. Cato realized the true intentions of the Triumvirate, but the plum was too tempting, and he accepted the offer. Cato seemed to have felt that this offered him the opportunity to both demonstrate his belief that a more just form of governance for the Roman provinces would prove beneficial to Rome and to exercise the reforms he began as quaestor on a grander scale. Cyprus was a wealthy province ripe for the plucking, but Cato took none for himself, instead raising an enormous amount for the Roman treasury, which he meticulously documented in lengthy accounting books. Cato created two copies of the books, but in a fluke of fate, neither survived (Cato’s copy was lost in a fire, while the courier carrying the other was lost at sea). Cato’s sterling reputation not only saved him from charges of extortion, but the Senate even voted him a praetorship in recognition of his efforts. True to form, Cato turned down all offers as being unlawful.
The Civil War
The Optimates had spent the years of Caesar’s successes in Gaul and Germania regrouping. By 53 BCE the double blows of Julia’s death (Caesar’s daughter and wife of Pompey) and the defeat and death of Crassus in Parthia had seen the effective dissolution of the First Triumvirate, and Cato and the Optimates attempted to both woe Pompey Magnus to their side and to force the recall of Caesar from Gaul. The battles between the Populares and Optimates factions were rarely more vicious, and the political processes were overwhelming corrupt. In 51 BCE, Cato ran for the consular office, but he was defeated, in large part because he ran a campaign without resorting to bribery or the buying of votes.
By 49 BCE events had come to a head. The Optimates had convinced Pompey that Caesar was a potential threat to the Republic, although it is arguable that he was at least as concerned that Caesar’s great successes might eventually overshadow his own. Caesar meanwhile, aware that Cato and the Optimates intended to prosecute and banish him as soon as he lay down his imperium, had requested permission to run for the consulship again. His request was immediately denied, and several attempts at compromise were all vigorously—and successfully--opposed by Cato. True to form, Cato would allow for no compromises.
Caught between his own political (and possibly corporeal) demise and creating a civil war, Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE accompanied by a single legion. One last chance for a peaceful solution may have remained, but the Optimates formally declared Caesar an enemy of the State. The Civil War had begun.
Caesar began his march on Rome, greeted by city after city with open arms. The Optimates, now led by Pompey, abandoned first the city of Rome and finally Italy, fleeing to Greece to raise new armies. Initial success at Dyrrahecium led many Optimates to believe that Pompey should engage in a pitched battle with Caesar, and the Pompeians finally had their battle at Pharsalus in 48 BCE. It was a disaster for the Pompeians, resulting in total defeat, and most of the Pompeians appealed to Caeasar’s magnanimity for protection. Cato and Metellus Scipio refused to concede, however, and fled to Africa, where they continued the resistance from the city of Utica.
After a lengthy delay (caused partly be Cleopatra VII), Caesar brought his armies to Africa and in 46 BCE he defeated the final Republican forces in a pitched battle at Thapsus. Cato had remained in Utica and, upon receiving word that all was lost, he laid down upon a couch and began to read from Plato’s dialogue concerning the soul. After a time, he realized that his sword was missing and called for his son and servants to bring it to him. After several delays, for his household had hidden the sword for hear that Cato might do himself harm, he struck several of his servants, injuring his hand, declaring that he was betrayed by those he most trusted. His son and friends came rushing in and, falling at his feet, begged him to not do himself harm. Cato reprimanded them for choosing guile over reason in seeking to convince him, and ordered his sword again. Secure with his weapon in hand, he lay down to read his book once more, finally shutting his door and attempting to commit suicide by running himself through with his sword. One of Cato’s slaves found him and summoned a physician who attempted to bandage his wounds, but Cato awoke and, thrusting the surgeon away, he tore open his wound and died immediately. For Cato, there was no room for compromise, to the bitter end.