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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
B. C. 234-149
THE GREAT ROMAN CONSERVATIVE
Marcus Portius Cato, surnamed the Censor, from the severity with which he discharged the duties of that office, and known also as Priscus, the Ancient, and Major, the Elder, to distinguish him from his great-grandson, who died at Utica, is one of the most strongly-marked characters in Roman history. A countryman and a Plebeian, brought up to habits of strict frugality and naturally of a severe conservative temperament, Cato prided himself in maintaining, at a time when his country was fast giving way to the allurements of Eastern luxury and vice, the simplicity and stern probity of the Italian of the olden times. His long life was spent in an ineffectual effort to stay the tide of innovation, and especially of political corruption which had set in unavoidably as soon as Rome began to enlarge the field of her activity and extend the range of her experience.
Cato was born at Tusculum, B. C. 234. From his father he inherited a small farm in the Sabine country, and here the years of his youth were passed. He soon left his farm, however, to give his services to his country, in the war with Hannibal. At the age of seventeen he joined the army of Fabius Maximus, while it was besieging Capua. Five years later he fought under the same commander at the siege of Tarentum. It is said that after the capture of this town he formed the acquaintance of the Pythagorean Nearchus, by whom he was instructed in the principles and mysteries of that system of philosophy.
After the close of the war Cato returned to his Sabine farm. Of his life here during the next few years we are afforded some interesting glimpses. One of his neighbors was Manius Curius Dentatus, who had frequently triumphed over the Sabines and Samnites and had finally driven Pyrrhus out of Italy. This old Roman Commander was now living in a humble cottage on a small farm, and Cato, who paid him frequent visits, was deeply impressed by his unostentatious life and his frugal management of his little estate. He made his illustrious neighbor his adviser and model. He reduced his own expenses, retrenched all superfluity, and devoted himself with ardor to the economical management of his little farm. In the morning he went to the neighboring towns to plead and defend i he causes of those who applied to him for assistance. Then he returned to his fields, where, with a plain cloak over his shoulders in winter and almost naked in summer, he worked with his servants till they had completed their tasks, after which all sat down to the table together, partaking of the same frugal fare and drinking the same wine.
Another neighbor of Cato was L. Valerius Flaccus, a powerful member of the Patrician order. Flaccus became interested in the sturdy young farmer and advocate, and recognizing his exceptional abilties, persuaded him to remove to Rome, promising him his influence and patronage. Accordingly, Cato left his Sabine farm, and took up his residence in the capital. Here he devoted himself to the practice of law, and, though without any advantages save his native talent and the generous aid of Flaccus, he quickly won for himself, by his conspicuous probity and high standard of morality, as well as by fluency and force as a speaker, a place of distinction in the forum.
Cato's forensic success introduced him into public life. In due course of time he filled all the high offices in the gift of the State. As Quaestor he accompanied Scipio Africanus to Africa, and was present at the battle of Zama. Five years later, after having filled the office of AEdile, he was elected Praetor, and the province of Sardinia fell to him by lot. His integrity and justice in the discharge of this office brought him into favorable contrast with those who had preceded him, and added to his rising reputation.
In B. C. 195, at the age of thirty-nine, Cato was elected Consul, his colleague in office being his friend, Valerius Flaccus. His first act as Consul was eminently Catonianan opposition, though an ineffectual one, to the repeal of the Oppian Law. This law, enacted during the time of public distress consequent on the invasion of Italy by Hannibal, forbade any woman to have in her dress over a half-ounce of gold, or to wear a garment of different colors, or to ride in a carriage drawn by two horses in the city or in any town, or within a mile of it, except upon the occasion of a public sacrifice. After his unsuccessful attempt to keep in restraint the Roman ladies, Cato set out for Spain, to quell an insurrection which had broken out in that province. With newly-raised troops, which he soon converted into an efficient army, he quickly reduced the Spanish insurgents to submission. His success in this campaign secured for him the honor of a triumph on his return to Rome, though some of his acts, while in Spain, can hardly win the approval of a modern historian. Two years after he had laid aside the consular dignity he rendered distinguished military service in Greece, as lieutenant of the Consul Acilius, in the war with Antiochus, which resulted in freeing Greece from the control of the East and uniting her fortunes with those of Rome.
Cato now returned to Rome with a high reputation as a soldier, as well as a lawyer, and entered with all the zeal of his energetic nature on the great work upon which his fame mainly rests the self-imposed task of regulating the morals of his countrymen. Rome had now fairly entered upon her career as the despoiler of nations, and a love of luxuries and all the vices which attend rapacity and avarice were breaking in upon her with irresistible force. The enormous wealth which some of the Romans had acquired suddenly and without much labor, produced the same effects among them that wealth usually produces upon persons who unexpectedly become rich, without previous experience in the use of money. Accordingly, the pleasures which the Romans now sought, and in which they attempted to imitate their Greek neighbors, were of a coarse and vulgar kind. The simplicity and frugality of the ancient Roman mode of life were abandoned, and they gave themselves up to disgusting gluttony and debauchery. A slave who was a good cook now fetched a higher price than any other slave. Splendid residences began to be erected, and luxuries of every description found their way into Rome, supplanting the simplicity of former times. Cato was among the first to perceive the danger of this change of tastes and habits and to denounce it. For several years he made it his special business to scrutinize the conduct and character of all candidates for public honors, and to oppose with all the strength of his powerful invective the advancement of those whom he deemed unworthy. He questioned the pretended battles of Minucius Thermus, and defeated his efforts to secure a triumph. He denounced the peculations of Acilius Glabio, the conqueror of Antiochus, and he declaimed against Fulvius Nobilior for meanly flattering his soldiers and for carrying about with him in his campaigns a "frivolous verse-writer," such an Ennius.
Cato was particularly inimical to the Scipios, because of their fondness for Greek manners, and the Greek way of living. It was through his influence, if not upon his direct accusation, that the great Scipio Africanus was summoned to appear before the Senate to answer the charge of having embezzled a part of the money which had been paid by King Antiochus. It so happened that the day on which he was called upon to do this was the anniversary of the battle of Zama. Scipio summoned the people to the Capitol, to offer thanks to Jupiter, and said that the day was ill-suited to litigation. The multitude joyfully accompanied him, and so significant was the demonstration that his accusers were deterred from continuing their attack. But though the charge was dropped, there is reason to think that it was generally believed to be well-founded. Scipio soon after left Rome and retired to his villa at Liturnum.
To Cato everything that bore upon it a Greek stamp and was therefore un-Roman, became for that very reason, an object of peculiar detestation. It was not alone the Greek frivolity and immorality which he hated the fondness for showy dress, or the detestable Bacchanalian rites, which were discovered about this time secretly to have become widely prevalent in Rome but Greek culture and Greek philosophy also came in for a share of his unsparing condemnation, He procured the expulsion from Rome of the Greek Carneades, because of the enthusiasm for philosophical speculation, which his teaching had aroused among the Roman youth. And so little was he himself attracted by the charms of Greek literature that, according to Cicero, he learned the Greek language only in his old age.
In B. C. 184, Cato was elected Censor, not, however, without strenuous opposition on the part of those who had only too good reason to dread the severity which was certain to mark his administration of this important office. He himself in the bitter canvass which preceded the election, did not hesitate to taunt his opponents with a fear of his justice. All of the better-minded people rallied to his support and his success was triumphant. Moreover, at his own desire, his old friend Valerius Flaccus was given him as a colleague.
The Censorship of Cato proved to be all that it was expected to be. He began by expelling from the Senate for various reasons, seven members, one of them, L. Quintius Flamininus, a man of consular rank. The case of Flamininus was a notable one, and it illustrates forcibly the need in Rome at this time of a man in authority of the fearless integrity of Cato. It was notorious that this powerful patrician, while in command of an army in Gaul, had slain with his own hand, in a drunken frolic, a Gallic prisoner, merely to gratify the whim of a wanton minion, and yet no notice had been taken of the foul deed, until Cato put this mark of degradation upon its perpetrators. Another Senator, Manilius, was expelled for the more characteristically Catonian reason that he had saluted his wife at what the stern Censor deemed an improper time. Others of his measures as Censor were of a purely sumptuary character, relating to expenses of the table and to dress and ornament, particularly of the women. He and his colleague also thoroughly revised the corrupt system of giving contracts. On the whole, the reforms of Cato were unquestionably salutary, and so highly were his services appreciated by the people that they honored him with a statue in the Temple of Health, bearing an inscription testifying to his faithful discharge of the duties of his office.
Cato's warfare upon the rich and powerful brought him no end of trouble. While he was continually prosecuting others or aiding in their prosecution, he was himself the object of accusation. He was made to stand trial no less than fifty times, but in every case he was acquitted. The last accusation was brought against him in his eighty-sixth year. He complained feelingly in his speech on that occasion that he was obliged to plead his cause before men of an age different from that in which he had himself lived.
The last public service of Cato was as ambassador to Carthage, to arbitrate a dispute between the Carthaginians and King Massinissa. He was deeply impressed with the prosperous condition in which he found Carthage, and he conceived a dread of her future rivalry with Rome. Here was a growing power which must be clipped, at all hazards. After his return to Rome he was wont to conclude every speech which he made, no matter what the subject, with the well-known words, "Praeterea censeo Carthaginem defendant esse" "Furthermore, I think that Carthage should be destroyed."
Cato died in the year following his embassy to Carthage, at the age of eighty-five, according to the usual accounts, or 90, according to the statement of Livy.
Livy has left us an estimate of the character of this remarkable man, which seems to be so just that it may be quoted entire : "So great were the powers of this man's mind, that he seemed able to attain to any situation he aimed at. No one qualification for the management of business, either public or private, was wanting to him. He was equally skilled in ordinary matters and in those of state. Some have been advanced to the highest honors by their knowledge of the law, others by their eloquence, some by military renown; but this man's genius was so versatile, and so well adapted to all things, that in what-ever he was engaged, it might be said that nature formed him for that alone. In war he was the most courageous, distinguishing himself highly in many remarkable battles; and when he arrived at the highest posts, was likewise the most consummate commander. Then, in peace, if information were wanted in a case of law, he was the wisest counselor; if a cause were to be pleaded, the most eloquent advocate. . . . Enmities in abundance gave him plenty of employment; nor was it easy to tell whether the nobility labored harder to keep him down, or he to oppress the nobility. His temper, no doubt, was austere, his language bitter and unboundedly free; but he was never ruled by passion; his integrity was inflexible, and he looked with contempt on popularity and riches."
Although frugal of the public revenues and severe in his condemnation of ill-gotten riches, Cato appears not to have been indifferent to wealth nor to have neglected the ordinary means of acquiring it. Indeed, if Plutarch speaks truly, some of the means resorted to by Cato to increase his resources would in these days be considered anything but honorable. He bought slaves, like hounds or foals, when they were young, in order to sell them when they were grown up and had been instructed in various accomplishments which added to their money value. In transactions of this sort it would be gross injustice to judge Cato by the standard of a time in which slavery has come to be looked upon with abhorrence in every civilized community. But we cannot be so lenient when we come to judge him for his treatment of slaves who had ceased to be serviceable. His advice as to the disposition to be made of such and, presumably, his own practice shows a heartlessness such as we associate with a brute rather than a human being. He classes the old servant and the sick servant with old and worn-out implements, and his advice to the farmer is to sell them.
Cato is usually presented to us as a type of the old Sabine-Samnite character. Yet it is hard to believe, after reading all that is related of him, that he truly represented the Italian race, even in its primitive period. One is more inclined to think that his acerbity was in a great measure the result of constant brooding on what he conceived to be the effeminacy of his own times that he out-Romaned even the old Roman. In his own family he appears to have been stern and unlovable in the extreme, utterly without affection as a husband, treating his wives he was twice married no better than his slaves, while pride alone led him to take some interest in his sons. Toward the end of his life he is said to have unbended a little to have been fond of indulging in a cheerful glass, and inviting some of his neighbors daily to sup with him. The conversation on these occasions turned, not upon rural affairs, as we might suppose would be the case, but upon the praises of the old Roman heroes.
It is impossible not to conceive a certain admiration for the dogged tenacity with which this hard headed old Roman Plebeian clung to the traditions of the past, and refused to see anything good in the great movement which was going on around him, but it is the admiration which we always accord to force of character, even when we are out of sympathy with its controlling motive. The movement needed to be guided, no doubt; to stop it was impossible. Had Cato restricted his opposition to what was bad, and encouraged what was good, he would have taken a far higher stand as a statesman than it is possible now to accord him. What he attempted to do was to stop all progress all betterment of condition, social or political. He made, and he probably saw, no distinction between refinement and luxury, between tasteful elegance and that tawdry ostentation with which coarseness, become suddenly possessed of the means, loves to bedeck itself. His stern warfare upon vice deserves of us only the highest praise; but as for the rest, his one idea was to bring his countrymen deluded, as he thought back to a time which every clear-headed man, even in his own day, must have seen to be dead beyond resurrection.
Cato was a voluminous writer, but, unfortunately, only a few of his works have come down to us, and these in a fragmentary shape. He left one hundred and fifty orations and a work on military discipline, both of which were extant in Cicero's time. He wrote a book on medicine a sort of family receipt book, containing numerous simple remedies, such as were in use in the household in his day. The most interesting of his writings, however, are his work on Agriculture (De Re Rustica), and that on Antiquities (De Originibus), of which latter only some stray fragments have been preserved. The former of these works, in its present state, is merely the loose, unconnected journal of a plain farmer, consisting of the simplest rules of agriculture, and some receipts for making various kinds of bread and wine. Though divided into chapters, it is, in its present form, entirely without orderly arrangement, and gives the impression that its author never took the trouble to reduce his precepts to any sort of method, but simply jotted them down as they occurred to him.
In the "Origins," which he wrote in the vigor of his old age, completing it just before his death, Cato set down the results of his inquiries into the early history of the various Italian States. The work dealt with the antiquities and the language of the Roman people. It is said to have been undertaken with the avowed purpose of counteracting the influence of the Greek tastes introduced into Italy by the Scipios. Its first book, as we are informed by Cornelius Nepos, contained the exploits of the Kings of Rome. The second and third books treated of the origins of the different States of Italy. The fourth and fifth books comprehended the history of the first and second Punic wars, and the two remaining books treated of other Roman wars, down to the time when Servius Galba overthrew the Lusitanians. The work is said to have exhibited great industry and learning, and had it come down to us would have been of inestimable value to the mod-ern historian of the Latin race.