Cato, Marcus Porcius


Cato, Marcus Porcius
known as Cato the Censor or Cato the Elder

born 234, Tusculum, Latium
died 149 BC

Roman statesman and orator, the first important Latin prose writer.

Born of plebeian stock, he fought in the Second Punic War. His oratorical skills paved the way for his political career. He held conservative anti-Hellenic views and opposed the pro-Hellenic Scipio family, whose power he broke. Elected censor (magistrate in charge of censuses, taxes, and the public good) in 184, he tried to restore the mos majorum ("ancestral custom") and combat Greek influence, which he believed undermined Roman morality. He crafted laws against luxury and the financial freedom of women and never ceased to demand the destruction of Carthage. His writings include works on history, medicine, law, military science, and agriculture. His great-grandson Cato the Younger (b. 95
d. 46 BC) was a leading Optimate (see Optimates and Populares) who sought to preserve the republic against Julius Caesar.

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▪ Roman senator [95-46 BC]
byname  Cato The Younger  
born 95 BC
died 46, Utica, Africa [now in Tunisia]

      great-grandson of Cato the Censor and a leader of the Optimates (Optimates and Populares) (conservative senatorial aristocracy) who tried to preserve the Roman Republic against power seekers, in particular Julius Caesar (Caesar, Julius).

      On the death of his parents, Cato was brought up in the house of his uncle Marcus Livius Drusus (tribune in 91). He served in the ranks against the insurgent slave Spartacus in 72 and was military tribune in Macedonia (67) and quaestor (perhaps in 64) before obtaining a provincial appointment in Asia. As tribune-designate for 62, he incurred the resentment of Caesar by voting to execute the Catilinarian conspirators. Cato's opposition to Pompey, Caesar, and Marcus Licinius Crassus helped to bring about their coalition in the so-called First triumvirate (60). With the Optimate Calpurnius Bibulus, Cato attempted unsuccessfully to obstruct Caesar's agrarian legislation. He was sent to annex Cyprus (58), but upon his return in 56 he continued to struggle against the Triumvirate.

      Failing to obtain the consulship of 51, Cato had decided to retire from public life when civil war (Caesar against Pompey and the (Pompey the Great) Optimates, 49–45) broke out. Cato realized that the sole chance to preserve the republic lay in supporting Pompey, whom he had formerly opposed. He was entrusted with the defense of Sicily but found it impossible to hold the island and joined Pompey at Dyrrhachium. After Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus (in Thessaly), Cato led a small remnant of troops to Africa. He shut himself up in Utica, and even after the decisive defeat of the republican forces at Thapsus (46), he was determined to keep the gates closed until he had evacuated his adherents by sea. When the last transports had left, Cato committed suicide.

      Although Cato was a doctrinaire and obstructionist politician, he provided the Optimates with relatively honest leadership in a corrupt age. His only surviving composition is a letter to Cicero (preserved in Cicero's Ad familiares, xv, 5). Immediately after his death Cato's character became the subject of debate. Cicero's panegyric Cato was answered by Caesar's bitter Anticato. In the Bellum civile by the poet Lucan (1st century AD), Cato is represented as a model of virtue.

▪ Roman statesman [234-149 BC]
byname  Cato The Censor, or Cato The Elder  
born 234 BC, Tusculum, Latium [Italy]
died 149

      Roman statesman, orator, and the first Latin prose writer of importance. He was noted for his conservative and anti-Hellenic policies, in opposition to the phil-Hellenic ideals of the Scipio family.

      Cato was born of plebeian stock and fought as a military tribune in the Second Punic War. His oratorical and legal skills and his rigid morality attracted the notice of the patrician Lucius Valerius Flaccus, who helped him begin a political career at Rome. Cato was elected quaestor (205), aedile (199), and praetor (198) in Sardinia, where he suppressed usury. He was elected consul with Flaccus in 195, and as consul he unsuccessfully opposed the repeal of a measure restricting female extravagance (Lex Oppia). Then, in an extensive and bitter military campaign, he stamped out an insurrection in Spain and organized the province of Nearer Spain. In 191 Cato served with distinction under Manius Acilius Glabrio at Thermopylae in the war against the Seleucid king Antiochus III. Shortly thereafter he included Glabrio in his denunciation of the supporters of the Scipios. He then attacked Lucius Scipio and Scipio Africanus the Elder and broke their political influence. This success was followed by his election to the censorship in 184, again with Flaccus as his colleague. (The censors were twin magistrates who acted as census takers, assessors, and inspectors of morals and conduct.)

      As censor Cato aimed at preserving the mos majorum (“ancestral custom”) and combating all Greek influences, which he believed were undermining older Roman standards of morality. He passed measures taxing luxury and strictly revised the list of persons eligible for the Senate. He checked abuses by the tax gatherers, and he promoted much public building, including the Basilica Porta (the first market hall in Rome). Cato's censorship impressed later generations but was too reactionary; his anti-Hellenic policies, in particular, were retrograde and lacked wide support. His sternness as censor made him so many enemies that he later had to defend himself 44 times against various accusations and attempted prosecutions.

      After his term as censor, Cato continued to preach his social doctrines and to support such measures as the Lex Orchia against luxury (181) and the Lex Voconia (169), which checked the financial freedom of women. In his later years he turned to capitalistic farming, speculation, and moneylending on a considerable scale. His embassy to Carthage (probably 153) convinced him that the revived prosperity of Rome's old enemy constituted a new threat. Cato constantly repeated his admonition “Carthage must be destroyed” (“Delenda est Carthago”), and he lived to see war declared on Carthage in 149.

      Cato's dislike of luxury and ostentation partly explains his deep hatred of the Scipio family. He himself affected rustic manners and speech, though he was witty and deeply learned. Cato's influence on the growth of Latin literature was immense. He was the author of Origines, the first history of Rome composed in Latin. This work, of whose seven books only a few fragments survive, related the traditions of the founding of Rome and other Italian cities. Cato's only surviving work is De agri cultura (On Farming), a treatise on agriculture written about 160 BC. De agri cultura is the oldest remaining complete prose work in Latin. It is a practical handbook dealing with the cultivation of grape vines and olives and the grazing of livestock, but it also contains many details of old customs and superstitions. More important, it affords a wealth of information on the transition from small landholdings to capitalistic farming in Latium and Campania. Cato also compiled an encyclopaedia and Praecepta (“Maxims”) for his son, in addition to works on medicine, jurisprudence, and military science. Of at least 150 speeches he published, only meagre fragments of about 80 survive.

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Universalium. 2010.

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