Society / People

234BC , Duration 85Y

Event #5536: Cato the Elder

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Text #9528

"Cato the Elder", in Wikipedia.

Cato the Elder (Latin: Cato Major; 234 BC – 149 BC), born Marcus Porcius Cato and also known as Cato the Censor (Cato Censorius), Cato the Wise (Cato Sapiens), and Cato the Ancient (Cato Priscus), was a Roman senator and historian known for his conservatism and opposition to Hellenization. He was the first to write history in Latin.

He came of an ancient Plebeian family who were noted for their military service. Like his forefathers, Cato was devoted to agriculture when not serving in the army. Having attracted the attention of Lucius Valerius Flaccus, he was brought to Rome and began to follow the cursus honorum: he was successively military tribune (214 BC), quaestor (204 BC), aedile (199 BC), praetor (198 BC), junior consul (195 BC) together with Flaccus, and censor (184 BC). As praetor, he expelled usurers from Sardinia. As censor, he tried to preserve Rome’s ancestral customs and combat “degenerate” Hellenistic influences. His epithet “Elder” distinguishes him from his equally famous great-grandson Cato the Younger, who opposed Julius Caesar.

Cato the Elder was born in Tusculum, a municipal town of Latium like some generations of his ancestors. His father had earned the reputation of a brave soldier, and his great-grandfather had received a reward from the state for five horses killed under him in battle. However the Tusculan Porcii had never obtained the privileges of the Roman magistracy. Cato the Elder, their famous descendant, at the beginning of his career in Rome, was regarded as a novus homo (new man), and the feeling of his unsatisfactory position, working along with the belief of his inherent superiority, aggravated and drove his ambition. Early in life, he so far exceeded the previous deeds of his predecessors that he is frequently spoken of, not only as the leader, but as the founder, of the Porcia Gens.

His ancestors for three generations had been named Marcus Porcius, and it is said by Plutarch that at first he was known by the additional cognomen Priscus, but was afterwards called Cato—a word indicating that practical wisdom which is the result of natural sagacity, combined with experience of civil and political affairs. Priscus, like Major, may have been merely an epithet used to distinguish him from the later Cato of Utica. There is no precise information as to when he first received the title of Cato, which may have been given in childhood as a symbol of distinction. The qualities implied in the word Cato were acknowledged by the plainer and less outdated title of Sapiens, by which he was so well known in his old age, that Cicero says, it became his virtual cognomen. From the number and eloquence of his speeches, he was styled orator, but Cato the Censor (Cato Censorius), and Cato the Elder are now his most common, as well as his most characteristic names, since he carried out the office of Censor with extraordinary standing, and was the only Cato who ever accomplished it.

In the surrounding area of Cato’s Sabine farm were the lands of Lucius Valerius Flaccus, a young nobleman of significant influence, and high patrician family. Flaccus could not help remarking the energy of Cato, his military talent, his eloquence, his frugal and simple life, and his traditional principles. Flaccus himself was a member of that purist faction which displayed its adherence to the stricter virtues of the ancient Roman character. Within Roman society there was a transition in progress: from Samnite rusticity to Grecian civilization and oriental voluptuousness. The chief magistracies of the state had become almost the patrimony of a few distinguished families, whose wealth corresponded to their upper-class birth. Popular by acts of graceful but corrupting generosity, by charming manners, and by the appeal of hereditary honours - they collected the material power granted by a multitude of clients and followers, and the intellectual power provided by the monopoly of philosophical education; their taste in the fine arts, and their knowledge of stylish literature. Nevertheless, the reaction to them was strong. The less fortunate nobles, jealous of this exclusive oligarchy, and openly watchful of the decadence and disorder associated with luxury, placed themselves at the head of a party which showed its determination to rely on purer models and to attach much importance to the ancient ways. In their eyes, rusticity, austerity, and asceticism were the marks of Sabine robustness and religion, and of the old Roman inflexible integrity and love of order. Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Scipio Africanus and his family, and Titus Quinctius Flamininus, may be taken as representative of the new civilization; Cato’s friends, Fabius and Flaccus, were the leading men in the faction defending the old plainness.

Flaccus was a perceptive politician who looked for young and emergent men to support him. He had observed Cato’s martial spirit and eloquent tongue. He knew how much courage and persuasiveness were valued at Rome. He also knew that the merits of the battlefield opened the way to achievements in the higher civil offices. Finally, Flaccus knew too that for a stranger like Cato, the only way to the magisterial honors was success in the Roman Forum. For that reason, he suggested to Cato that he shift his ambition to the fruitful field of Roman politics. The advice was keenly followed. Invited to the townhouse of Flaccus, and ratified by his support, Cato began to distinguish himself in the forum, and became a candidate for assuming a post in the magistracy.

In 205 BC, Cato was appointed Quaestor, and in the next year (204 BC) he entered upon the duties of his place of work, following Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major to Sicily. When Scipio, after much opposition, obtained from the senate permission to transport armed forces from Sicily to Africa, Cato and Gaius Laelius were appointed to escort the baggage ships. There was not the friendliness of cooperation between Cato and Scipio which ought to exist between a quaestor and his proconsul.

Fabius had opposed the permission given to Scipio to carry out the attack into the enemy’s home, and Cato, whose appointment was intended to monitor Scipio’s behavior, adopted the views of his friend. It is reported by Plutarch, that the lenient discipline of the troops under Scipio’s command, and the exaggerated expense incurred by the general, provoked the protest of Cato; that Scipio immediately afterwards replied angrily, saying he would give an account of victories, not of money; that Cato left his place of duty after the dispute with Scipio about his alleged extravagance, and returning to Rome, condemned the uneconomical activities of his general to the senate; and that, at the joint request of Cato and Fabius, a commission of tribunes was sent to Sicily to examine the behavior of Scipio, who was found not guilty upon the view of his extensive and careful arrangements for the transport of the troops. This version is barely consistent with the narrative of Livy, and would seem to attribute to Cato the wrongdoing of quitting his post before his time. If Livy is correct, the commission was sent because of the complaints of the inhabitants of Locri, who had been harshly oppressed by Quintus Pleminius, the legate of Scipio. Livy says not a word of Cato’s interference in this matter, but mentions the bitterness with which Fabius blamed Scipio of corrupting military discipline and of having illegally left his province to take the town of Locri.

The author of the abridged life of Cato which is commonly considered as the work of Cornelius Nepos, asserts that Cato, after his return from Africa, put in at Sardinia, and brought the poet Quintus Ennius in his own ship from the island to Italy; but Sardinia was rather out of the line of the trip to Rome, and it is more likely that the first contact of Ennius and Cato happened at a later date, when the latter was Praetor in Sardinia.

In 199 BC Cato was chosen aedile, and with his colleague Helvius, restored the Plebeian Games, and gave upon that occasion a banquet in honor of Jupiter. In 198 BC he was made praetor, and obtained Sardinia as his province, with the command of 3,000 infantry and 200 cavalry. Here he took the earliest opportunity to demonstrate his main beliefs by practicing his strict public morality. He reduced official operating costs, walked his trips with a single assistant, and, by the studied lack of ceremony, placed his own frugality in striking contrast with the oppressive opulence of provincial magistrates. The rites of religion were celebrated with reasonable thrift; justice was administered with strict impartiality; usury was controlled with deep severity, and the usurers were banished. Sardinia had been for some time completely calmed, but if we are to believe the improbable and unsupported testimony of Aurelius Victor, a revolt in the island was subdued by Cato, during his Praetorship.

In 195 BC, Cato was elected junior consul to his old friend and patron Flaccus. Cato was 39 years old. During his consulship, he enacted the first two of the Porcian Laws, which expanded the protections of Roman citizens against degrading or capricious punishment under the Republic’s Valerian Law.

In his campaign in Hispania, Cato behaved in keeping with his reputation of untiring hard work and alertness. He lived soberly, sharing the food and the labours of the common soldier. Wherever it was possible, he personally superintended the execution of his requisite orders. His movements were reported as bold and rapid, and he never was negligent in pushing the advantages of victory. The sequence of his operations and their combination in agreement with the schemes of other generals in other parts of Hispania appear to have been carefully designed. His stratagems and manoeuvres were accounted as original, talented, and successful; and the plans of his battles were arranged with expert skill. He managed to set tribe against tribe, benefited himself of native deceitfulness, and took native mercenaries into his pay.

The details of the campaign, as related by Livy, and illustrated by the incidental anecdotes of Plutarch, are full of horror and they make clear that Cato reduced Hispania Citerior to subjection with great speed and little mercy. We read of multitudes who, after they had been stripped of all their arms, put themselves to death because of the dishonour; of extensive massacres of surrendered victims, and the frequent execution of harsh plunders. The phrase bellum se ipsum alet - the war feeds itself - was coined by Cato during this period. His proceedings in Hispania were not at discrepancy with the received idea of the fine old Roman soldier, or with his own firm and over-assertive temper. He claimed to have destroyed more towns in Hispania than he had spent days in that country.

After he reduced the area between the River Iberus and the Pyrenees to a resentful (and temporary) obedience, Cato turned his attention to administrative reforms, and increased the revenues of the province by improvements in the working of the iron and silver mines.

For his achievements in Hispania, the senate decreed a thanksgiving ceremony of three days. In the course of the year, 194 BC, he returned to Rome, and was rewarded with the honor of a Roman triumph, at which he exhibited an extraordinary quantity of captured brass, silver, and gold, both coin and ingots. Cato distributed the monetary prize to his soldiery, and was more liberal than might have been expected from his vigorous parsimony.

The return of Cato seems to have accelerated the enmity of Scipio Africanus, who was Consul, 194 BC and is said to have desired the command of the province in which Cato was harvesting notoriety. There is some disagreement between Nepos (or the pseudo-Nepos), and Plutarch, in their accounts of this topic. Nepos claims that Scipio failed to obtain the province, and, offended by the rejection, remained after his consulship, in a private capacity at Rome. Plutarch claims that Scipio, who was disgusted by Cato’s severity, was appointed to succeed him, but could not convince the senate to censure Cato’s administration, and so passed his consulship in inactivity. Plutarch was probably mistaken, judging by the statement in Livy, that in 194 BC, Sextus Digitius was appointed to the province of Hispania Citerior. The notion that Scipio was appointed successor to Cato in Hispania may have arisen from a double confusion of name and place, due to the fact that Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica was chosen, 194 BC, to the province of Hispania Ulterior.

However true this account, Cato used his eloquence, produced detailed financial accounts to successfully defend against criticism of his consulship; the known fragments of the speeches (or one speech under different names), made after his return, attest the strength and boldness of his arguments.

Plutarch affirms that, after his Consulship, Cato accompanied Tiberius Sempronius Longus as legatus to Thrace, but this seems incorrect, because although Scipio Africanus believed that one Consul should have Macedonia, Sempronius was soon in Cisalpine Gaul, and in 193 BC Cato was in Rome dedicating a small temple to Victoria Virgo.

In 191 BC, he was appointed military tribune (some affirm legate), under the Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio, who was dispatched to Greece to oppose the invasion of Antiochus III the Great, King of the Seleucid Empire. In the decisive Battle of Thermopylae (191 BC), which led to the downfall of Antiochus, Cato behaved with his usual valor, and enjoyed good fortune. By a daring and difficult advance, he surprised and removed a body of the enemy’s Aetolian auxiliaries, who were posted upon the Callidromus, the highest peak of the range of Mount Oeta. He then began a sudden descent from the hills above the royal camp, and the panic caused by this unexpected movement promptly turned the day in favor of the Romans, and signaled the end of the Seleucid invasion of Greece. After the action, the General hugged Cato with the greatest warmness, and attributed to him the whole credit of the victory. This fact rests on the authority of Cato himself, who, like Cicero, often indulged in the habit, offensive to modern taste, of sounding his own praises. After an interval spent in the pursuit of Antiochus and the pacification of Greece, Cato was sent to Rome by the Consul Glabrio to announce the successful outcome of the campaign, and he performed his journey with such celerity that he had started his report in the senate before the arrival of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus, the later conqueror of Antiochus, who had been sent off from Greece a few days before him.

During the campaign in Greece under Glabrio, Plutarch’s account (albeit rejected by historian Wilhelm Drumann) suggests that before the Battle of Thermopylae, Cato was chosen to prevent Corinth, Patrae, and Aegium, from siding with Antiochus. During this period, Cato visited Athens where, in trying to prevent the Athenians from listening to the propositions of the Seleucid king, Cato addressed them in a Latin speech, which required an interpreter to be understood by the audience. Whether this was out of necessity, or merely a choice by Cato remains unclear, however, as the assertion that he might very well have already known Greek at the time can be made from anecdotal evidence. For example, Plutarch said that while at Tarentum in his youth he had developed a close friendship with Nearchus, who was himself a Greek philosopher. Similarly, Aurelius Victor stated he had received instruction in Greek from Ennius while praetor in Sardinia. Nevertheless, because his speech was an affair of state, it is probable that he complied with the Roman norms of the day in using the Latin language, which was observed as a diplomatic mark of Roman dignity.

His reputation as a soldier was now established; henceforth he preferred to serve the state at home, scrutinizing the conduct of the candidates for public honours and of generals in the field. If he was not personally engaged in the prosecution of the Scipiones (Africanus and Asiaticus) for corruption, it was his spirit that animated the attack upon them. Even Scipio Africanus, who refused to reply to the charge, saying only, “Romans, this is the day on which I conquered Hannibal,” and was absolved by acclamation, found it necessary to retire, self-banished, to his villa at Liternum. Cato’s enmity dated from the African campaign when he quarrelled with Scipio for his lavish distribution of the spoil amongst the troops, and his general luxury and extravagance.

Cato was also opposed to the spread of Hellenic culture, which he believed threatened to destroy the rugged simplicity of the conventional Roman type. It was in the discharge of the censorship that this determination was most strongly exhibited, and hence that he derived the title (the Censor) 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 on moral grounds or from their want of the prescribed means. The expulsion of L. Quinctius Flamininus for wanton cruelty was an example of his rigid justice.

His regulations against luxury were very stringent. He imposed a heavy tax upon dress and personal adornment, especially of women, and upon young slaves purchased as favourites. In 181 BC he supported the lex Orchia (according to others, he first opposed its introduction, and subsequently its repeal), which prescribed a limit to the number of guests at an entertainment, and in 169 BC the lex Voconia, one of the provisions of which was intended to check the accumulation of an undue proportion of wealth in the hands of women.

Amongst other things he repaired the aqueducts, cleansed the sewers, and prevented private persons drawing off public water for their own use. The Aqua Appia was the first aqueduct of Rome. It was constructed in 312 BC by Appius Claudius Caecus, the same Roman censor who also built the important Via Appia. Unauthorised plumbing into Rome’s aqueducts was always a problem, as Frontinus records much later. Cato also ordered the demolition of houses which encroached on the public way, and built the first basilica in the Forum near the Curia (Livy, History, 39.44; Plutarch, Marcus Cato, 19). He raised the amount paid by the publicani for the right of farming the taxes, and at the same time diminished the contract prices for the construction of public works.

From the date of his Censorship (184 BC) to his death in 149 BC, Cato held no public office, but continued to distinguish himself in the senate as the persistent opponent of the new ideas. He was struck with horror, along with many other Romans of the graver stamp, at the licence of the Bacchanalian mysteries, which he attributed to the influence of Greek manners; and he vehemently urged the dismissal of the philosophers (Carneades, Diogenes, and Critolaus), who came as ambassadors from Athens, on account of the dangerous nature of the views expressed by them.

He had a horror of physicians, who were chiefly Greeks. He procured the release of Polybius, the historian, and his fellow prisoners, contemptuously asking whether the Senate had nothing more important to do than discuss whether a few Greeks should die at Rome or in their own land. It was not till his eightieth year that he made his first acquaintance with Greek literature, though some think after examining his writings that he may have had a knowledge of Greek works for much of his life.

In his last years, he was known for strenuously urging his countrymen to the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage. In 157 BC, he was one of the deputies sent to Carthage to arbitrate between the Carthaginians and Massinissa, king of Numidia. The mission was unsuccessful and the commissioners returned home, but Cato was so struck by Carthage’s growing prosperity that he was convinced that the security of Rome depended on its annihilation. From that time, he began concluding his speeches—on any topic whatsoever—with the cry “Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed” (Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam). Other times, “Carthage must be destroyed” was put more compactly as Carthago delenda est or delenda est Carthago. Cicero’s dialogue Cato the Elder on Old Age also depicted Cato’s antipathy to Carthage.

To Cato the individual life was a continual discipline, 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. By strict economy of time he accomplished an immense amount of work; 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 warmer interest in his sons, Marcus Porcius Cato Licinianus and Marcus Porcius Cato Salonianus.

To the Romans themselves there was little in this behavior which seemed worthy of censure; it was respected rather as a traditional example of the old Roman manners. In the remarkable passage (xxxix. 40) in which Livy describes the character of Cato, there is no word of blame for the rigid discipline of his household.

Plutarch wrote that Cato’s appearance was characterized by reddish hair and keen grey eyes.


Forde, Nels W. (1975). Cato the Censor. New York: Twayne.

Scullard, H. H. (1973). Roman Politics, 220-150 BC (2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smith, R. E. (1940). “Cato Censorius”. Greece and Rome 9

Tullius Cicero, Marcus (44 BC), Cato Maior de Senectute [Cato the Elder on Old Age], Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, № 28, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, published 1988, vi, 18

Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder

Livy, History of Rome

Aurelius Victor, On famous Roman men, 47.

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