1902 Encyclopedia > Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder)

Marcus Porcius Cato
(also known as: Cato the Elder)
Roman statesman
(234-149 BC)




MARCUS PORCIUS CATO, surnamed Sapiens, Priscus, Cen-sorius, or Major, was born at Tusculum in the year 234 B.C. of an ancient plebeian family, noted for some military services, but not ennobled by the discharge of the higher civil offices. This man may be taken as a type of the genuine B,oman character at the critical moment when the free state was in its fullest vigour, but was threatened with sudden and rapid decline. His early youth fell in with the period of Hannibal's invasion of Italy. Before he had reached middle age Bome had escaped from imminent danger of destruction, and had entered upon its career of universal conquest beyond the limits of the Italian peninsula. He was bred, after the manner of his Latin forefathers, to agriculture, to which he devoted himself assiduously when not engaged in military service. But having attracted the notice of L. Valerius Flaccus, a magnate of the city, he was brought to Bome, and became successively qusestor (204), sedile (199), praetor (198), and consul (195). Meanwhile he served in Africa under Scipio, and took part in the crowning campaign of Zama (202). He had a command in Sardinia, where he first showed his strict public morality, and again in Spain, which he reduced to subjection, and gained thereby the honour of a triumph (194). In the year 191 he acted as military tribune in the war against Antiochus, and con-tributed to the great revolution by which Greece was finally delivered from the encroachments of the East, and sub-jected to the dominion of the West. From this period the morals and principles of the Romans became fatally affected by their contact with the advanced and corrupt civilization of the Hellenic world. Cato was among the first of his countrymen to perceive the danger, and to denounce it. His character as an able soldier was now well established; and henceforth he preferred to serve the state in the Forum at home. For several years he occupied himself in scrutinizing the conduct of the candidates for public honours, and whenever he seemed to detect in them a decline from the stainless virtue of the olden time, he persistently opposed their claims. He questioned the " pretended battles" of Minucius Thermus, and baffled.his demand for a triumph (190); he denounced the " pecula-tion " of Acilius Glabrio, the conqueror of Antiochus (189); he declaimed against Fulvius Nobilior for meanly flattering his soldiers, and for carrying about with him in his campaigns a " frivolous verse-writer," such as Ennius. If he was not personally engaged in the prosecution of the Scipios (Africanus and Asiaticus) for corruption, it was by his spirit that the attack upon them was animated. Africanus, indeed, refused to reply to the charge, saying only, " Romans, this is the day on which I conquered Hannibal," and the citizens absolved him by acclamation; nevertheless, so marked was the blot which Cato had hit in the character of the self-seeking commanders of the time, that Africanus himself found it necessary to retire self-banished to his villa at Liternum.

But Cato was engaged in making head against corruptions more deeply-seated and more widely-prevalent than these. The pride of conquest, the infection of foreign manners, and the dissolution of national ideas and prejudices had made formidable inroads upon the narrow simplicity of the ancient Bomans. Both the Etruscans and the Greeks were imbued with a more refined and artificial culture; and with their higher education and enhanced power of persuasion, both these peoples were now exerting a powerful influence upon the minds of their conquerors. Cato conceived it to be his special mission to resist this invasion. It was in the discharge of the censorship that his character as a maintainer of primitive discipline was most strongly exhibited, and hence that he derived the title by which he is most generally distinguished. He revised with unsparing severity the lists of senators and knights, ejecting from either order the men whom he judged unworthy of it, either from their want of the prescribed means, or from notorious crimes or vices. The expulsion of the great imperator L. Quinctius Flamininus was a splendid example of his rigid justice. He regulated with pedantic strictness the expenses of the table, and also of dress and personal ornament, especially of the women. He contended gallantly, but even more ineffectually, against bribery at the public elections ; and though he gained little success in the crusades to which he thus religiously devoted himself, it may be allowed that the example of the great censor did actually raise and maintain a higher spirit of public morality among his con-temporaries, and gave encouragement and strength to many struggling consciences even in later generations.





From the date of his censorship (184) to his death in 149, Cato held no public office at home or abroad; but continued to the last to distinguish himself in the senate as the persistent opponent of the new ideas and the men who supported them. He was struck with horror, along with many other Eomans of the graver stamp, at the licence of the Bacchanalian mysteries (181), which he attributed to the fatal influence of Grecian manners ; and he vehemently urged the dismissal of the sophists who came as ambassadors from Athens. It was not till his eightieth year that he consented to learn even the rudiments of the Greek language. His speeches, of which as many as 150 were collected, were principally directed against the young free-thinking and loose-principled nobles of the day. It is hard to say, was the remark of Livy, whether he attacked them most or they him; for they too did not fail to retaliate, and when he was required to defend himself in his eighty-first year against a capital charge, he was heard to complain of having to plead his cause before men of other minds and of another generation. Almost his last public act was to urge his countrymen to the third Punic war and the destruction of Carthage. Borne, he constantly declared, could never be safe while so great a city lay so near her; and he plucked, on one occasion, from under his robe the fresh figs which, he said, had been gathered but three days before on the coast which fronted the mouth of the Tiber, exclaiming again and again " Delenda est Carthago !"

The great principle of Cato's life was to do everything by rule. With him the individual life was a continual disci-pline, and public life was the discipline of the many. He regarded the individual householder as the germ of the family, the family as the germ of the state. All his actions were measured, and every one assigned to its proper place and hour ; he was a great economist of his time, and thereby enabled himself to get through a great variety of work, though it all lay within narrow limits. He exacted similar application from his dependents, and proved himself a hard husband, a strict father, a severe and cruel master. There was little difference, apparently, in the esteem in which he held his wife and his slaves ; his pride alone induced him to take a deeper interest and indulge a warmer feeling in regard to his sons. It may be remarked, however, that among the Eomans themselves there was little in this behaviour which seemed worthy of censure; it was respected rather as a traditional example of the old Boman manners. In the remarkable passage in which Livy describes the character of Cato (Hist., xxxix. 40), there is no word of blame for the rigid discipline of his household.

During the course of his long and industrious life, Cato contributed to the formation of the Latin language by at least two important works, the treatise De Re Rustica, which is supposed to be at least substantially his own, and the Origines, of which last only fragments remain. The one is a miscellaneous collection of rules of good husbandry, conveying much curious information on the domestic habits of the Romans of his age, the other seems to have been a more methodical compilation of Roman history from the foundation of the city to his own time. The fragments which remain of it furnish us with information which is often interesting, but sometimes perplexing, and it is observed that Livy seems to have made no use of the work of which he could not have been ignorant. Of the numerous speeches of Cato but few passages have been pre-served. His collection of Apophthegmata—he was himself curt, caustic, and sententious in conversation—is wholly
lost.

We possess the life of Cato as written by Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, and Aurelius Victor. Many particulars of his career and character are to be gathered from Livy and Cicero. (c. M.)







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