Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Cato the Elder

Marcus Porcius Cato (234 - 149 BC), Roman statesman, surnamed "The Censor," Sapiens, Priscus, or Major (the Elder), to distinguish him from Cato the Younger (his great-grandson), was born at Tusculum.

He came of an ancient plebeian family, noted for some military services, but not ennobled by the discharge of the higher civil offices. He was bred, after the manner of his Latin forefathers, to agriculture, to which he devoted himself when not engaged in military service. But, having attracted the notice of L. Valerius Flaccus, he was brought to Rome, and became successively quaestor (204), aedile (199), praetor (198), and consul (195) with his old patron.

During his term of office he vainly opposed the repeal of the lex Oppia, passed during the Second Punic War to restrict luxury and extravagance on the part of women. Meanwhile he served in Africa, and took part in the crowning campaign of Zama. He held a command in Sardinia, where he first showed his strict public morality, and again in Spain, which he reduced to subjection with great cruelty, and gained thereby the honour of a triumph (194).

In the year 191 BC he acted as military tribune in the war against Antiochus of Syria, and played an important part in the a battle at Thermopylae, which finally delivered Greece from the encroachments of Syria.

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 Scipios (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 Litemnum. 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 had, however, a more serious task to perform in opposing the spread of the new Hellenic culture which threatened to destroy the rugged simplicity of the conventional Roman type. He conceived it to be his special mission to resist this invasion. 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 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 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, prevented private persons drawing off public water for their own use, ordered the demolition of houses which encroached on the public way, and built the first basilica in the forum near the curia. He raised the amount paid by the publican 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) to his death in 149, 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 fatal 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.

Almost his last public act was to urge his countrymen to the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage. In 157 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 the evidences of Carthaginian prosperity that he was convinced that the security of Rome depended on the annihilation of Carthage. From this time, in season and out of season, he kept repeating the cry: "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam."(Moreover, I advise that Carthago should be destroyed)

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.

To the Romans themselves there was little in this behaviour 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.

Cato perhaps deserves even more notice as a literary man than as a statesman or a soldier. He was the first Latin prose writer of any importance, and the first author of a history of Rome in Latin. His treatise on agriculture (De Agricultura or De Re Rustica) is the only work by him that has been preserved; it is not agreed whether the work we possess is the original or a later revision. It contains a miscellaneous collection of rules of good husbandry, conveying much curious information on the domestic habits of the Romans of his age. His most important work, Origines, in seven books, related the history of Rome from its earliest foundations to his own day. It was so called from the second and third books, which described the rise of the different Italian towns.

His speeches, of which as many as 150 were collected, were principally directed against the young free-thinking and loose-principled nobles of the day. He also wrote a set of maxims for the use of his son (Praecepta ad Filium), and some rules for everyday life in verse (Carmen de Monibus). The collection of proverbs in hexameter verse, extant under the name of Cato, probably belongs to the 4th century.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.