1902 Encyclopedia > Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Younger)

Marcus Porcius Cato
(also known as: Cato the Younger)
Roman statesman
(95-46 BC)

MARCUS PORCIUS CATO, (commonly distinguished from his great-grandfather, Cato the Censor, by the title of Uticensis, from the place of his death and the renown attending upon it), furnishes a remarkable specimen of the effect of Hellenic training upon the hard and narrow but determined spirit of the old Latin race. While he inherited from his illustrious ancestor, and from the general discipline of his family through many generations, a sour and severe temper, a pedantic adherence to form and usage, and an utter lack of sympathy with any temper or habits alien from his own, his feelings had been deepened, if not expanded, by the study of the Greek philosophy. As a devoted follower of the Stoic teaching he had attained to very lofty principles, and made them, with almost undeviating consistency, the rule of his life and conduct. He became a fanatic in the pursuit of holiness and pureness of living, in the highest sense in which such graces could be acquired by a pagan, with a view to himself and his own perfection only, but with no love of man and no faith in Providence. He waged a brave but hopeless war against the evil tendencies of his age; but he attached to himself no party, gave strength to no cause, effected no good in his generation, and at the last critical moment betrayed his trust to humanity by fleeing from immediate evil by an unreflecting suicide. But his aims were, for the times in which he lived, generous and noble, and his career well deserves to be studied by succeeding generations. It is only in a very slight outline that it can be here presented.

Cato was born in the year 95 B.C., and on the death of his parents was brought up in the house of his uncle, Livius Drusus, who was just then beginning to incite the Italians to claim a share in the Roman franchise and its privileges. This was the commencement of the intestine troubles of the Republic, and the whole of Cato's after-life was passed amidst domestic dissensions and civil wars. In his early years he expressed with striking boldness his dis-gust at the cruelties of Sulla. The priesthood of Apollo, to which he early consecrated himself, commended him to a life of rigid observances, and gave a great impulse to his fervid imagination. He learned the principles of the Stoics under a Greek teacher named Antipater, but his oratory in the Forum represented only the harsh, vehement, and caustic type of his Roman countrymen. After fighting in the ranks against Spartacus he became a military tribune, 67 B.C., and served a campaign in Macedonia. On his return he obtained the quaestorship, and distinguished himself for his zeal and integrity in the management of the public accounts, which recommended him for a provincial appointment in Asia. Again he acquitted him-self with marked disinterestedness, and conceived a disgust equal to that of his great ancestor at the corruption of the public men with whom he came in contact. He saw, however, much to admire in the discipline which Lucullus had enforced in his own Eastern command, and he supported his claims to a triumph, while he opposed the inordinate pretensions of Pompeius. When the favour of the nobles gained him the tribuneship he exerted himself to convict Murena, one of their chief men, of bribery. Cicero, more pliant than himself, defended the culprit and obtained his acquittal ; but Cicero was glad to avail himself of the firmness and stern justice of his recent adversary, when he urged the execution of Catilina's associates. By this time Cato had become a great power in the state. Though possessed of little wealth and no family influence, his character for unflinching resolution in the cause of the ancient free state rendered him a valuable instrument in the hands of the nobles, perplexed as they were by the open hostility of Caesar and the oppressive patronage of Pompeius and Crassus. They were the better disposed, perhaps, to make use of him from the oddity of his unpractical temper, which made it the easier for them occasionally to dis-claim and repudiate his assistance. They did not, in-deed, find him so complacent a dupe as Cicero, nor did they treat him more faithfully. They thrust him into the snare prepared for him by the triumvirs, and let him be sent on a mission of gross injustice towards the king of Cyprus, which his pedantic loyalty to the state forbade him to refuse. He continued to struggle against the combined powers of the triumvirs in the city, and became involved in scenes of violence and riot, while desperately resisting the superior force of their turbulent adherents. He succeeded, however, in obtaining the prsetorship in 54, in which office he strenuously exerted himself in the hope-less and thankless task of suppressing bribery, in which all parties were equally interested. Resolved not to stoop to such practices himself, he failed to attain the con-sulship ; and he had made up his mind to retire from the arena of civic ambition when the civil war broke out in 49.

Cato had now persuaded himself that the sole chance for the free state lay in conceding an actual supremacy to Pompeius. Accordingly he did not scruple to support the unjust measures of the nobles against Caesar, which gave too fair a colour to the invasion of Italy. Cato was, indeed, little prepared for his commander's flight across the Adriatic, and the surrender of the city, the government, and therewith the ostensible right, to the victorious rebel. Though he followed Pompeius to Epirus he found little satisfaction in his camp, where the fugitives were loudly threatening a bloody vengeance on their enemies. He excused himself from accompanying the forces of the Senate into Thessaly, by which he escaped being present at the battle of Pharsalia. After that great disaster, when his chief had abandoned his party and provided only for him-self, he too felt at liberty to separate himself from the main body of the republicans, and conducted a small remnant of their forces into Africa. His march through the deserts of Libya gained him immortal glory. The struggle between the senate and Caesar was renewed in the African province. Cato shut himself up in Utica, and prepared to defend it as the most important post for communication with Italy. The battle of Thapsus, and the total rout of the senatorial forces, now threw upon him the whole weight of maintaining a cause which had become evidently desperate. The people of the place were anxious to make terms with the victor; but he would not trust the Roman citizens and soldiers to the clemency of the heir of Marius. Hitherto the civil wars of Rome had been con-tinually marked by bloody retaliation; even if Caesar himself were disposed to mercy he might not be able to restrain the violence of his allies; and it was rumoured that terrible execution had been inflicted upon the captives of the last battle. Accordingly Cato determined to keep the gates closed till he had sent his adherents off by sea. While the embarkation was in progress his own demeanour continued calm and dignified. He supped familiarly with his friends, discoursing with them, as was his wont, on philosophical topics. On being informed that the last of the transports had left the port he cheerfully dismissed his attendants, and soon afterwards stabbed himself on his couch. Assistance was promptly offered, but he refused to avail himself of it, and so perished, much, it may be said, to his own fame, but with little advantage to his country (46 B.C.)

Cato had been reading, we are told, in his last moments Plato's dialogue on The Immortality of the Soul, but it is not likely that the Stoic, with his keen and rigid logic, put much faith in the vague aspirations of the idealist of Academus. His own philosophy had taught him to act upon a narrow sense of immediate duty without regard to future con-tingencies. He conceived that he was placed in the world to play an active part, marked out by circumstances, and when disabled from carrying out his principles, to retire gravely from it. He had lived for the free state, and it now seemed his duty to perish with it. Caesar had slain the commonwealth; it never occurred to him that Caesar himself was mortal, and that the commonwealth might live again. Had he condescended to ask his life, the conquerors would have been proud to grant it; in two years more he might have been the survivor, for he was hardly yet fifty years of age, and might have formed a rallying point for the few devoted spirits, though few indeed they were, who really cared for freedom. Cato has left perhaps, from the cir-cumstances of his life and of his death, the most marked name in the history of Roman philosophy, but he was a student, possibly a dreamer only, composed no works, and bequeathed to posterity no other instruction than that of his example. The memory of his career proved indeed fruitful. The school of the Stoics, which took a leading part in the history of Rome under the earlier emperors, looked to him as its saint and patron. It continued to wage war against the empire, hardly less openly than Cato himself, for two centuries, till at last it became actually seated on the im-perial throne in the person of Marcus Aurelius. (c. M.)

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