views updated


234 b.c.e.–149 b.c.e.



Cato was the author of the first surviving Latin prose work, and the first Roman historian to write a history of Rome in Latin. He was born at Tusculum near modern Frascati in the hills around Rome in 234 b.c.e., and spent his early years on a small farm in the country where he worked in the fields alongside the farm laborers. At seventeen, he joined the Roman army and served in the long war against the Carthaginian Hannibal which Rome did not win until 202 b.c.e. He settled in Rome about 208 b.c.e. and began his political career four years later, reaching the coveted post of consul in 195 b.c.e. He remained in many ways a small-town Italian, loyal to his native customs and shocked at the "philhellenism"—passion and imitation of everything Greek—that infected the circle centered around Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal, and his brother Lucius Scipio. The Scipionic circle admired Greek culture and wanted to introduce it into Rome. In Cato's eyes, the Greek way of life meant abandoning the frugality, self-discipline, and honesty that made up the Roman ideal. In 187 b.c.e. Cato managed to destroy Scipio Africanus' political career and won election as censor in 184 b.c.e. He continued to dominate Roman politics until his death three years before the final destruction of Carthage, which Cato advocated strenuously in his last years.

Cato's Writings.

What survives of Cato's writing is an essay On Agriculture which sets forth precepts for good farming. Cato was a man who feared the gods, but he was hard-fisted and unsentimental. For instance, he advised getting rid of old slaves who could no longer do their share of work. This is the oldest surviving Latin prose. Cato also wrote a history of Rome, the Origines, which he began writing about 172 b.c.e. It dealt not only with the early history of Rome but also with the origins of neighboring Italian towns—hence its title "Origins." Earlier Romans wrote histories of Rome, beginning with Fabius Pictor who wrote his history in Greek for Greek readers, but Cato was the first to write in Latin. He was also famous in his day as an orator. There is some irony to the fact that it was Cato who brought the epic poet Ennius to Rome where he became a prime mover in introducing Greek culture, and in fact, Cato in his old age, did start to study Greek himself.


A. Astin, Cato the Censor (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978).

Elizabeth Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (London, England: Duckworth, 1985).