Marcus Porcius Cato

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Caton d'Utique lisant le Phédon avant de se donner la mort (Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide). Marble, 1840. The work was started by Romand in 1832 and carried on by Rude after Romand's death in 1835.

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticencis (95 B.C.E.–46 B.C.E.), known as Cato the Younger to distinguish him from his great-grandfather Cato the Elder, was a politician and statesman in the late Roman Republic and a follower of the philosophy of Stoicism. Cato lost his parents when he was very young and was raised in the home of his maternal uncle. When he received his inheritance, he began to study politics and Stoicism, which he practiced by living modestly, subjecting himself to vigorous exercise and to extreme cold. When Cato was sent to Macedon as a military tribune in 67 B.C.E., he shared the sleeping quarters, food and work of his soldiers.

He is remembered for his legendary stubbornness and tenacity, especially in his lengthy opposition to Gaius Julius Caesar, as well as for his immunity to bribes and his distaste for political corruption. When he was made quaestor in 65 B.C.E., he prosecuted former quaestors for dishonesty and illegal appropriation of funds. As governor of Cyprus, Cato refused all bribes and collected a large sum in taxes for the Roman Empire. Cato never relented in his opposition to the First Triumvirate, and when it collapsed, he sided with Pompey against Julius Caesar and fled to Utica in Tunisia. After the Battle of Thapsus in 46 B.C.E., Cato committed suicide rather than submit to Caesar’s rule.

Early life

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticencis was born in 95 B.C.E. in Rome, the son of Marcus Porcius Cato and his wife Livia Drusa. Cato lost both of his parents very early and went to live in the house of his maternal uncle Marcus Livius Drusus, who also cared for Quintus Servilius Caepio and Servilia from Livia's first marriage, as well as Porcia (Cato's sister), and Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus (Livius' adopted son). Drusus was assassinated when Cato was four years old.

Cato's legendary stubbornness began in his early years. Sarpedon, his tutor, reported a child who was very obedient and questioning, although slow to be persuaded of things and sometimes difficult. Plutarch tells about Quintus Popaedius Silo, leader of the Marsi, who made a visit to his friend Marcus Livius and met the children of the house while he was involved in a highly controversial business in the Roman Forum. In a playful mood, he asked the children's support for his cause. All of them nodded and smiled except Cato, who stared at the guest with most suspicious looks. Silo demanded an answer from him and seeing no response took Cato and hung him by the feet out of the window. Even then, Cato would not say anything. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman dictator, was a friend of the family and liked to talk with Cato and his inseparable effeminate half-brother Caepio, and appreciated his company even when the teenager defied his opinions in public.

Political Beginnings

After receiving his inheritance, Cato moved from his uncle's house and began to study Stoic philosophy and politics. He lived very modestly, as his great-grandfather Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder had done. Cato subjected himself to violent exercise, and learned to endure cold and rain with a minimum of clothes. He ate only what was necessary and drank the cheapest wine available. This was entirely for philosophical reasons, since his inheritance would have permitted him to live comfortably. He remained in private life for a long time, rarely seen in public. When he did appear in the forum, his speeches and rhetorical skills were much admired.

Although Cato was promised Aemilia Lepida, a patrician woman, she married Quintus Caecilius Metellus Scipio instead. He threatened to sue them both in the courts, but his friends convinced him to step aside and marry a woman called Atilia. They had a son, Marcus Porcius Cato, and a daughter, Porcia, who later became the second wife of Marcus Junius Brutus.

Cato was sent to Macedon as a military tribune in 67 B.C.E. at the age of 28, and given command of a legion. He led his men from the front, sharing their work, food and sleeping quarters. He was strict in discipline and punishment but was nonetheless loved by his legionaries. While Cato was in service in Macedon, he received the news that his beloved half-brother was dying in Thrace. He immediately set off to visit him, and arrived in time to watch Caepio die. Cato was overwhelmed by grief and, for once, he spared no expense to organize a lavish funeral for his brother. Caepio left his fortune to be divided between his daughter Servilia and Cato.

At the end of his military commission in Macedon, Cato went on a private journey through the Roman provinces of the Middle East.

Cato and the Optimates

On his return to Rome in 65 B.C.E., Cato was elected to the position of quaestor. As with every other aspect of his life, he took great care to study the background necessary for the post, especially the laws relating to taxes. One of his first moves was to prosecute former quaestors for dishonesty and illegal appropriation of funds. Cato also prosecuted Sulla's informers, who had acted as head-hunters during Sulla's dictatorship, despite their political connections among Cato's own party and despite the power of Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, who had been known as the "teenage butcher" for his service under Sulla. The informers of Sulla were accused first of illegal appropriation of treasury money, and then of homicide. At the end of the year, Cato stepped down from his quaestorship but never ceased to keep an eye on the Treasury, always looking for irregularities.

As senator, Cato was scrupulous and determined. He never missed a session of the Senate and publicly criticized those who did so. From the beginning, he aligned himself with the Optimates, the conservative faction of the Senate. Among the Optimates, Cato was considered a young upstart. Many of the Optimates had been personal friends of Sulla, whom Cato had despised since his youth, and Cato attempted to establish his reputation by returning his faction to its pure republican roots.

Propaganda cup of Cato, for his election campaign for Tribune of the Plebs of 62 B.C.E. (left cup). These cups, filled with food or drink, were distributed in the streets to the people, and bore an inscription supporting the candidate to the election.

In 63 B.C.E., Cato was elected tribune of the plebs and assisted the consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in dealing with the Catiline conspiracy. Lucius Sergius Catilina, a noble patrician, was leading a rebellion inside Rome, with the intent of becoming king. Cicero and Cato crushed the rebellion, prosecuted all the men involved and sentenced them to death (a very unusual punishment for a Roman citizen). In the public discussion on the subject, Julius Caesar agreed that the conspirators were guilty, argued against a public trial for them, yet advocated a sentence of life exile for the conspirators while their comrades were still in arms.

In a meeting of the Senate dedicated to the Catilina affair, Cato harshly reproached Caesar for reading personal messages while the senate was in session to discuss a matter of treason. Cato accused Caesar of involvement in the conspiracy and suggested that he was working on Catilina's behalf, because of Caesar's odd stance that the conspirators should receive no public hearing yet be shown clemency. Caesar replied that it was only a love letter. Not believing Caesar’s excuse, Cato took the paper from his hands and read it. Unfortunately, Caesar was right: it was indeed a love letter from his mistress Servilia, Cato's sister. This quickly turned into a personal scandal. Servilia was divorced from her husband, and the Roman senators started to protect the women of their households from Caesar.

Cato divorced Atilia for adultery, and married Marcia, the daughter of Lucius Marcius Philippus. A few years later, however, his friend Quintus Hortensius, an old man known for his rhetorical skills, asked for the hand of Cato's daughter from his previous marriage. At that time, Porcia was married to Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who was unwilling to let her go. Instead Cato took the surprising step of divorcing Marcia and giving her to Hortensius. After Hortensius' death, Cato married Marcia for a second time, taking possession of part of Hortensius' inheritance.

Cato Against the Triumvirate

After the Catilina conspiracy, Cato used all his political skills to oppose the designs of Caesar and his triumvirate allies (Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus), who among themselves dominated the Roman state. Through Caesar, Pompey and Crassus had access to the popular assembly. Through Pompey, Crassus and Caesar had access to the legions of Rome. Through Crassus, Caesar and Pompey had the support of the tax-farmers and a fortune gained at the expense of the provinces.

Cato's opposition took two forms. In 61 B.C.E., Pompey returned from his Asian campaign with two ambitions: to celebrate a Roman Triumph, and to become consul for the second time. In order to achieve both his ends, he asked the Senate to postpone consular elections until after his Triumph. Due to Pompey's enormous popularity, the Senate was willing to oblige him until Cato intervened and convinced the Senate to force Pompey to choose. The result was Pompey's third Triumph, one of the most magnificent ever seen in Rome. Cato applied the same law in the following year to Caesar, who was returning from his governorship of Hispania Ulterior, but Caesar chose to waive his right to the Triumph and run for the consulship, which he won.

When Caesar became consul, Cato opposed every law he suggested, especially the agrarian laws that established farmlands for Pompey's veterans on public lands. Caesar responded by having Cato arrested while Cato was making a speech against him at the rostra. So many senators protested this extraordinary and unprecedented use of force by threatening to go to prison with Cato, that Caesar finally relented. Cato was also closely allied to Caesar's consular college, his son-in-law Marcus Bibulus. Throughout most of the term, Bibulus remained at home unsuccessfully attempting to undermine Caesar’s consular acts by making announcements about the unfavorable omens. Cato never relented in his opposition to the triumvirs, and unsuccessfully attempted to prevent Caesar's five-year appointment as governor of Illyria and Cisalpine Gaul.

Cato in Cyprus

Caesar and his triumvirate allies decided to silence Cato's opposition by sending him out of Rome, and offered him the governorship of the new province of Cyprus. Cato accused them of trying to exile him, but eventually chose the honor of being governor above being praetor.

Cato appeared to have two major aims in Cyprus. The first, expressed in a letter to Cicero, was to enact his foreign policy of benevolence and justice to Roman-controlled territories. The second was to implement his reforms of the quaestorship on a larger scale. The new province was rich both in gold and in opportunities for extortion. Against common practice, Cato took none, and prepared immaculate accounts for the senate, much as he had done earlier in his career as quaestor. According to Plutarch, Cato ultimately raised the enormous sum of 7,000 talents of silver for the Roman treasury. He tried to anticipate every unexpected event, even to tying ropes to the coffers with a big piece of cork on the other end, so they could be located in the event of a shipwreck. Unfortunately, none of his perfect books of accounts survived; the one in his possession was burnt, the other was lost at sea with the freedman carrying it. Only Cato's untainted reputation saved him from charges of extortion.

The Senate of Rome recognized the effort made in Cyprus and offered him a reception in the city, an extraordinary praetorship, and other privileges, all of which he stubbornly refused as unlawful rewards.

Cato in the Civil War

The First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus was broken in 54 B.C.E. at the same time that Cato was elected praetor. Judging their enemy to be in trouble, Cato and the optimates faction of the Senate spent the coming years trying to force the recall of Caesar from Gaul, from where Caesar had illegally crossed into Germania. It was a time of political turmoil, during which patrician demagogues like Publius Clodius tried to make their political careers by winning public support and resorting to violence. Cato fought them all, and he ended as Pompey's ally and political advisor.

In 49 B.C.E., Caesar crossed the Rubicon, accompanied by his thirteenth legion, to run for a second consulship while maintaining a military force to protect him from prosecution. Formally declared an enemy of the State, Caesar pursued the senatorial party, with Cato among them, as they abandoned the city to raise arms in Greece under Pompey’s leadership. After first reducing Caesar's army at the battle of Dyrrahecium (where Cato commanded the port), the army led by Pompey was ultimately defeated by Caesar in the battle of Pharsalus (48 B.C.E.). Cato and Metellus Scipio, however, did not concede defeat and escaped to the province of Africa to continue resistance from Utica, Tunisia. Because of his presence in Utica and his command of the port there, Cato is sometimes referred to as Cato Uticensis (from Utica). There Cato collected 13 legions of troops of miscellaneous character, who made raids upon Sicily, Sardinia, and the coasts of Italy. Caesar's officers, if captured, were put to death without mercy. After installing the queen Cleopatra VII on the throne of Egypt, Caesar pursued Cato and Metellus Scipio, and in February of 46 B.C.E., he defeated the army led by Metellus Scipio at the Battle of Thapsus.

Cato was in Utica and did not participate in the battle, but, unwilling to live in an empire dominated by Caesar and refusing even implicitly to grant Caesar the power to pardon him, he committed suicide. According to Plutarch, Cato attempted to commit suicide by stabbing himself with his own sword, but failed due to an injured hand. One of Cato's slaves found him on the ground and called for a physician to stitch up and bandage Cato's wounds. Cato waited until they left him and then tore off the bandages and the stitches with his fingers and pulled out his own intestines, completing his suicide attempt.

Reputation of Cato

Cato is remembered as a Stoic philosopher and one of the most active paladins of the Roman Republic. His high moral standards and incorruptible virtue won the praise even of his political enemies, such as Sallust. After Cato's death, Cicero wrote a manifest eulogizing Cato's qualities, to which Caesar (who never forgave him for his opposition) answered with his Anticato speech. Cicero's pamphlet has not survived, but its contents might be inferred from Plutarch's “Life of Cato,” which also repeats many of the stories that Caesar recounted in his Anticato.

Republicans under the Empire remembered him fondly, and the poet Virgil, writing under Augustus, made Cato a hero in his Aeneid. Lucan, writing under Nero, also made Cato the hero of Book IX of his unfinished epic, the Pharsalia. From the latter work originates the epigram, "Victrix causa diis placuit sed victa Catoni" ("The conquering cause pleased the gods, but the conquered cause pleased Cato"). This phrase is also inscribed at the base of the memorial to the Confederate soldiers outside Arlington cemetery.

In Dante's The Divine Comedy, Cato is portrayed as the guardian of the seaward approach to the island of purgatory. In Canto I, Dante writes of Cato:

I saw close by me a solitary old man, worthy, by
his appearance, of so much reverence that never
son owed father more.
Long was his beard and mixed with white hair,
similar to the hairs of his head, which fell to his
breast in two strands.
The rays of the four holy lights so adorned his
face with brightness that I saw him as if the sun
had been before him.

Cato's life is immortalized in Joseph Addison's play, “Cato, A Tragedy,” which George Washington often quoted and had performed during the winter at Valley Forge, in spite of a Congressional ban on such performances.

Cato's descendants and marriages

  • First wife, Atilia (divorced for adultery)
    • Porcia, married first to Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, then to Marcus Junius Brutus
    • Marcus Porcius Cato, later killed in the Second Battle of Philippi
  • Second (and third) wife, Marcia.


  • 95 B.C.E. – Birth in Rome
  • 67 B.C.E. – Military tribune in Macedon
  • 65 B.C.E. – Quaestor in Rome
  • 63 B.C.E. – Tribune of the Plebs, Catilina's conspiracy
  • 60 B.C.E. – Forces Caesar to choose between consulship and triumph
  • 59 B.C.E. – Opposes Caesar's laws
  • 58 B.C.E. – Governorship of Cyprus
  • 54 B.C.E. – Praetor
  • 49 B.C.E. – Caesar crosses the Rubicon and invades Italy; Cato goes with Pompey to Greece
  • 48 B.C.E. – Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey defeated; Cato goes to Africa
  • 46 B.C.E.
    • Defeated in the Battle of Thapsus
    • Commits suicide

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Conant, Joseph Michael. The Younger Cato: A Critical Life with Special Reference to Plutarch's Biography. New York: Conant, 1953.
  • Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. Heroes: A History of Hero Worship. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. ISBN 1400043999.
  • Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1955.
  • Plutarch. Cato the Younger. LACTOR, no. 14. [Harrow]: London Association of Classical Teachers, 1984. ISBN 0903625180 ISBN 9780903625180
  • Taylor, Lily Ross. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1971. ISBN 0520012577.
  • Wardman, Alan. Plutarch's Lives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. ISBN 0520026632 ISBN 9780520026636

External links

All links retrieved November 5, 2022.


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