Text #9683

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

The executions took place on December 5th. On December 10th, a newly elected tribune denounced Cicero as a tyrant for driving an innocent Catilina into exile while Pompey’s brother-in-law, Nepos, also a new tribune, condemned him for executing citizens without trial. He then posted a bill to recall Pompey to “restore order to Italy.” He made it explicit that Pompey would ensure that no more citizens were executed extrajudicially.

Cato took over the position as semi-official mouthpiece and agent for the seven tyrants, the ruling clique within the senate, shoving Cicero into the background even before his term was over. In an effort to eliminate the people’s support for Nepos and Caesar, he posted a bill to increase the number of recipients of subsidized grain distribution. Apparently, he forgot that he objected to such maneuvers by others, calling them “subversive efforts to gain popularity” and “bankrupting the treasury” with social welfare. The urban poor (who would get grain) were thus mollified and no longer willing to risk their subsidies by supporting the rural poor.

As a comment, throughout Caesar’s history as politician, he was regularly accused of doing this or that solely for the reason of “gaining popularity”. The fact that, even after he had achieved total power in Rome, he continued to be himself as he had always been, demonstrates that he wasn’t just doing things cynically. What I notice particularly about Cato is that he continuously projected his own inner landscape onto Caesar, and it was an ugly thing to see. In another passage, Sallust compares Cæsar with Cato:

Their birth, age, and eloquence were nearly on an equality; their greatness of mind similar, as was also their reputation, tho attained by different means. Cæsar grew eminent by generosity and munificence; Cato by the integrity of his life. Cæsar was esteemed for his humanity and benevolence; austereness had given dignity to Cato. Cæsar acquired renown by giving, relieving and pardoning; Cato by bestowing nothing. In Cæsar, there was a refuge for the unfortunate; in Cato, destruction for the bad. In Cæsar, his easiness of temper was admired; in Cato, his firmness. Cæsar, in fine, had applied himself to a life of energy and activity; intent upon the interests of his friends, he was neglectful of his own; he refused nothing to others that was worthy of acceptance, while for himself he desired great power, the command of an army and a new war in which his talents might be displayed. But Cato’s ambition was that of temperance, discretion, and, above all, of austerity; he did not contend in splendor with the rich or in faction with the seditious, but with the brave in fortitude, with the modest in simplicity, with the temperate in abstinence; he was more desirous to be, than to appear, virtuous; and thus, the less he courted popularity, the more it pursued him.

Notice the strange way Sallust has twisted this comparison so that, despite the fact that he can’t say anything really nice about Cato, he still manages to make the meanness and stinginess seem virtuous.

Notice also how, despite all the good things Sallust says about Caesar, he manages to slip in that all-encompassing condemnation: “while for himself he desired great power.” It is a certainty that Caesar desired power, but the metaview of the conditions of the time suggest that he did not, in any way, desire this power for himself. Examining his life and his actions makes it clear that he felt an enormous response-ability to the challenges of the time and he sought power for one reason alone: so that he could mend the republic and set it back on the right track.

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