The last days of the Roman Republic were home to some true titans of history, the likes of Anthony and Cleopatra, Cicero and the most famous Roman of all Julius Caesar have all been committed to the annals of history. These characters have survived in our imaginations because of the times of which they lived and the great deeds they accomplished. In this age, there was one man who stood head and shoulders above all others, whos conduct and commitment to what he believed to be right was unwavering in the face of tyranny and has echoed through the ages. This man was Marcus Porcius Cato, the last hero of the Republic and surely, the noblest of all the Romans.
This work will describe the landscape of the last days of the Roman Republic because as we know, we are nothing if not products of our environment and it would be wrong to examine an individual without looking at their surroundings. Then Marcus Porcius Cato will be examined, his tendencies and personality, what makes him tick in no uncertain terms. Then we will follow his actions throughout the last days of the Roman Republic until his death where she lost her most spirited champion. As ever the colourful writings of Plutarch will be our guide as we assess the life of Cato and his love of liberty during the last days of the Republic.
The Roman Republic in the 1st century BC
The Romans were truly a unique people in the ancient world, one of the things which made them so unique was the love they bore for their Republic, in their eyes it was what made them different, what made them Roman. It was a balanced constitution as the Romans had no wish to be like the Greeks with a rampant democracy. As the early version of democracy was very rough around the edges and allowed unjust charges and popular rule to govern, the trial and execution of Socrates and the exile of the war hero Themistocles being prime examples of democracy clearly being a tool of the unjust action. Rome in its first incarnation had kings until Tarquin the 7th king was driven from the city by Lucius Junius Brutus who became the first Consul of the Roman Republic. The hatred for tyrants and dictators ran deep with the Romans and almost all of the high echelon political offices held veto powers to deter one official from gaining too much control thus was the apprehension of one man gaining too much power.
Under the republic, the Romans power and sphere of influence grew exponentially, the vast majority of all Roman conquests were made in the name of the Roman Republic, the latter emperors other than Augustus and Trajan added very little territory. The most influential conflicts of the republic were fought against the empire of Carthage, also named the Punic wars (264-241, 218-201, 149-146 BC). Rome emerged from these conflicts as a dominant Mediterranian power with a revolutionised commercial economy as opposed to the traditional agricultural economy. This would change the lives of the ordinary Roman and set in motion the fall of the Roman Republic. The ordinary Roman struggled to find a place in the new Roman economy, with the massive influx of slaves from foreign conflicts jobs for Romans became few and far between. Just like the groans of people today, immigrants were taking all the work and resentment was growing.
By the time of Marcus Porcius Cato, known as Cato the younger (due to his grandfather having the same name) Rome was in political turmoil, the social reform was in the air. The young life of Cato was dominated by the conflict between two great generals, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Gaius Marius (uncle of Gaius Julius Caesar) was a political reformer aiming to give more power to the people. His opposite was Lucius Cornelius Sulla who fervently opposed any notion of popular rule. Politics often turned violent, corruption was rife and on numerous occasions including Sulla becoming temporary dictator the Republic was on the verge of civil war. It would not be the last time two generals would do battle for the right to call themselves saviour of the Republic, this social conflict was very much the prelude to the larger and more decisive conflict between Caesar and Pomey (and Senate). This was the world that the young Cato lived, and now we will turn to our attention to the life Cato the younger.
The early life of Cato
Cato was born into a noble family with his grandfather of the same name being consul, his grandfather was known for stout Roman values and was held up as a paragon of good Roman virtues. From his earliest days, we are told that Cato had a very altogether stout and steadfast disposition and at times displayed vigour out of place in a child. Unlike his contemporary Cicero, Cato was not a gifted student of learning, his stubbornness made it difficult for him to learn and although his was diligent and did everything his teacher asked of him his early education was difficult. But what he did learn he committed to memory. Plutarch suggests that it was the young Catos reluctance to be influenced or persuaded was the main cause for his early struggles learning, resistance to being influence would be a sure theme throughout the life of Cato.
There are two instances by which Plutarch demonstrates the mindest fo the young Cato which truly illuminates the mindest of which he would become famous for. Once is where the representatives from Romes Italian allies were in Rome appealing for their people to be granted Roman citizenship. They were staying at the house of Cato’s father and one day they asked in jest for Cato and his brother to persuade their father to help them gain citizenship. Cato uttered nothing but cast a stern glare towards the official. When questioned he said nothing but maintained the stern glare, the official then picked the young Cato up and held him out of a window as if to throw him out of it and still Cato remained unchanged. Upon realising the young child was not in the slightest moved the official put him down and turned to his fellow representatives and quietly said ”What a piece of good fortune it is for Italy that he is a boy; for if he were a man, I do not think we could get a single vote among the people”.
Thus was Cato’s unmoveable resolve even at a young age. When he was older (early teens) his teacher took him to the court to see the dictator Sulla in action. Sulla was in no uncertain terms a tyrant, ruling by fear. and Upon seeing Sulla sentence Romans to death unjustly the young Cato turned to his teacher and that man is robbing Romans of their liberty, he is a tyrant exclaimed Cato:
“Give me a sword and I will kill him, thus setting our country free”
These instances of the illumination of Cato’s character, his immovable moral perspective and his willingness to act and vigour to defend the liberty of the Roman Republic.
The young Cato was also very popular with his peers, at an annual religious event he was not chosen as the main representative but the other children refused to participate unless Cato lead them as he was the most worthy. This deep respect would also be present during his time as a military tribune, he garnered respect my being the most disciplined commanded in the army. He endured the same hardships as his men and he had the best outfit in the entire army. Even when leaving the army he gained a reputation for willingly enduring hardship, he ate only the simplest of food, refused to ride a horse insisting to walk everywhere. He shunned all the luxurious aspects of life including fashion trends as flamboyant colourful togas were worn he chose a plain black almost as a statement of defiance, again he was not going to be influenced.
He was a student of Stoic philosophy which originated in the teachings of Socrates. Stoicism taught that true peace lies in the realisation that the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain. Another key ideology that Cato believed in was that the only true form of harm you could experience was that of the soul if you committed a wrong and immoral act. That the welfare of your soul was of utmost importance. Most people who talk about morality are by their actions hypocrites, but not Cato. Upon entering political life he proves to be determined to uphold the law, it was common for low-level officials to ‘play the game’ as it were in order to advance. However, Cato refused to be corrupt and climbed the ranks to an influential senator through just and moral action.
As the rise of a maverick corrupt politician, Gaius Julius Caesar threatened the Republic Cato would be his most stubborn adversary, opposing him in the Senate and in battle. It is to these events we will now turn.
Opposition to Caesar
The great fear of the Roman nobility was that one of them would break ranks, become a champion of the people and overthrow the Senate. This was why Scipio Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic war defeating Hannibal was treated so harshly on his return to Rome. The Senate was afraid that due to his popularity he was a threat to take power so he was exiled where he died. Cato saw this very same threat in Caesar, and it would oppose his every move as long as he lived.
Caesar was a rouge, hero or villain? you decide. He is an example of backing yourself to the hilt with unshakeable self-belief and as a young an old man, on the political and military scene repeatedly put everything on the line and came out on top. He was everything Cato stood against, he bribed, blackmailed, assaulted, threatened, lied his way (with a considerable amount of help from Crassus and Pompey) to the position of consul and later governor of Gaul. It was in Gaul that Caesar demonstrated his extraordinary military ability, by the reckonings of today he is often cited as the 2nd greatest general of the ancient world after Alexander the Great (basically the Michael Jordan of Generals, that is, unassailable).
For Caesar unlike Cato, the ends justified the means and although undoubtedly he was obsessed with power and being the leading man in Rome he was a champion of the people and wanted to reform Rome. Cato undoubtedly thought that a poorly run republic was 1000x better than a Dictatorship and took it as his mission to oppose the rise of Caesar at all costs. Early in Caesar’s political career, Cato tried to implicate him in a conspiracy to overthrow the republic and when he was in Gaul Cato daily campaigned against Caesar I the Senate accusing him of war crimes. Cato understood the threat of Caesar long before anyone else it was the countless individuals underestimating him that aided in his meteoric rise. Even when he was extremely popular and brought glory to Rome Cato remained obtuse. Because don’t you see you can disguise tyranny however you like it is still tyranny, the devil takes many forms yet it is still the devil. And when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and became a dictator of Rome and ushered in the last days of the Republic.
The last days of the Republic
Once Caesar crossed the Rubicon river civil war was commenced, the Senate and their elected General Gnaeus Pompey Magnus sailed to Greece to allow Pompey to muster an army to fight Caesar. Despite a small victory over Caesar at a town called Dyracchium Caesar struck the decisive blow and Pharsalus. This was the end of the civil war, Pompey fled to be killed in Egypt and the other Senators including Cicero and Marcus Junius Brutus surrendered to Caesar. Cato was disgusted, he would never surrender to Caesar even with a full pardon like Cicero and Brutus received. Caesar was a tyrant who must be opposed at all costs. This clemency was not without purpose by Caesar, by accepting his clemency you became his creature, loyal to him. Cato and a few other Senators went to North Africa and raised another army which vastly outnumbered Caesar but again they were defeated at Thapsus. Cato and his sons went to Utica, Caesar pleaded with Cato to surrender, in one letter he wrote saying how he never wanted to be Cato’s enemy and of his respect for Cato. Despite this his situation was dire and there was little hope of continuing the fight against Caesar.
After dinner one night where he and his sons had discussed the immortality of the soul he went to bed reading Plato’s dialogues of the last days of Socrates. At this point, Cato must have been truly melancholic. He had dedicated his life to righteous action and the protection of the Republic but he had lost. He slept and woke to hear the birds singing, he took his sword and stabbed himself in the stomach whilst lying on a couch. However he had a broken hand and the blow was not fatal, hearing the groans his sons and rushed in an attempted to save his life but Cato decided in his fate reached into the wound and ripped out his intestines and lay dying on the floor. The significance of this was that the Republic was truly dead, with no one left to continue to oppose Caesar the ideals that the Roman people had believed in were dead. Hearing the news of Cato’s suicide Caesar said:
“Cato, I must grudge you your death, as you grudged me the honour of saving your life”.
The nobility of Cato
I believe Cato is the noblest of all the Romans, noble not in a sense of social status but the status of the soul. The ability to live with outstanding moral action, never relenting on what he thought was right even in the face of certain defeat. His contemporaries Cicero and Brutus later betrayed Caesar with the latter stabbing him to death in the Senate house. This is the literal type of cloak and dagger action Cato would not allow himself to do. He would oppose his enemy openly and with honour. Cato’s life has sometimes referred to as a failure as Caesar effectively brought down the Republic. I would argue that an individual who lived his life so purely, who never allowed himself to take the easiest road, Who died at peace cannot be called a failure.
The dyer’s hands are stained with the colours he works with, Cato’s hands have no such stains. It was such in the winter of 1776 while encamped at Valley Forge George Washington performed the play of Cato, to further instil the desire to fight for life liberty and the pursuit of happiness which Cato dedicated his life.
Whether the soul is immortal as Cato believed is uncertain, what is not uncertain is that Marcus Porcius Cato is a titan of history whose actions deserve to be remembered, and which truly make him the noblest of all the Romans.
Oliver J. Hallett