Cato the Elder

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.), known as Cato the Elder and Cato the Censor, was a Roman soldier, statesman, orator, and author. His stern morality in office as well as in his private life became proverbial.

Cato called "the Elder" to distinguish him from his equally famous greatgrandson, Cato the Younger, was born in Tusculum in the Sabine mountains. After growing up in the sturdy discipline of farm life, Cato, from the age of 17, participated in the Second Punic War, distinguished himself in various battles, and served as military tribune in Sicily. After gaining considerable fame for his oratorical ability in court, he was the first of his family to run for public office. Elected quaestor in 204 B.C., he was assigned to the proconsul Publius Cornelius Scipio (Africanus Major) during the war in Africa. On his return he met the poet Quintus Ennius in Sardinia and brought him to Rome.

In 199 Cato became plebeian aedile, and in the following year praetor in Sardinia, where he proceeded sternly against moneylenders. He won the consulship in 195 together with his patrician friend and supporter Lucius Valerius Flaccus. Before his departure for the province of Spain he opposed the repeal of the Appian Law against feminine luxury. As proconsul, in the following year he successfully quelled the rebellion of the Spanish tribes, settled Roman administration, and concerned himself with the Roman profit from the Spanish iron and silver mines. Returning to Rome later in 194, he celebrated a triumph.

In the war against the Syrian king Antiochus III, Cato served once more as military tribune under Manlius Acilius Glabrio, consul of 191 B.C. During his travels in Greece, Cato acquired his anti-Hellenic attitude. After brilliant operations at Thermopylae he was sent to Rome to report the victory, and soon afterward he began a series of accusations directed against the progressive and pro-Hellenic wing of the Senate, which centered on Scipio Africanus. His indefatigable attacks upon what he considered the demoralizing effects of foreign influences and his attempt to steer back to the "good old Roman ways" led to his becoming censor in 184.

Having reached the culmination of his career at the age of 50, Cato gave full scope to his doctrines of social regeneration. As censor, he introduced taxes on luxuries and revised rigorously the enrollment of the Senate and the equestrian order. On the other hand, he spent lavishly on public works such as the sewerage system and built the first Roman market hall, the Basilica Porcia, next to the Senate house. Through the sternness of his censorship he made so many enemies that he had to defend himself in court to the end of his life in at least 44 trials. He pursued a vigorous anti-Carthaginian policy after he returned from an embassy to Carthage, where he witnessed to his great dismay the economic recovery of Rome's former enemy. He died in 149 B.C. at the age of 85, 3 years before the final destruction of Carthage.

As an author, though following in his Origines (Foundation Stories) the Hellenistic foundation stories of Italian cities, Cato was the first Roman historian to write in Latin, thereby inspiring national historiography in Rome. He did not hesitate to include his own speeches (of which Cicero knew more than 150), and fragments of 80 are still preserved. Not a detractor of his own praises, he refused to include the names of other generals in his work. His didactic prose work De agricultura (On Farming) provides a mine of information on the changing conditions from small land-holdings to capitalistic farming in Campania. It is also an invaluable source book for ancient customs, social conditions, superstitions, prayer formulas, and archaic Latin prose.

Cato was undoubtedly one of the most colorful characters of the Roman Republic, and his name became synonymous with the strict old Roman morality for generations to come.

Further Reading

The major ancient sources for the life of Cato the Elder are Livy's Books 31-45, "Cato Major" in Plutarch's Lives, "Cato" in The Lives of Cornelius Nepos, and Cicero's "On Old Age." The definitive modern biography is in German, D. Kienast, Cato der Zensor (1954). For general historical background see H.H. Scullard, Roman Politics, 220-150 B.C. (1951). □

views updated

Cato the Elder (kā´tō) or Cato the Censor, Lat. Cato Major or Cato Censorius, 234–149 BC, Roman statesman and moralist, whose full name was Marcus Porcius Cato. He fought in the Second Punic War and later served as quaestor (204), aedile (199), praetor (198), consul (195), and censor (184). He was renowned for his devotion to the old Roman ideals—simplicity of life, honesty, and unflinching courage. He inveighed against extravagance and new customs, but his policy was not aimed at repression but rather at reform and the rebuilding of Roman life. He sought to restrict seats in the senate to the worthy and undertook much building, including the repair of the city sewers. He was sent on an official visit to Carthage in his old age. Upon his return he expressed stern disapproval of Carthaginian ways and told the senate to destroy Carthage. He thus helped to bring on the Third Punic War, in which Carthage was destroyed. Probably his detestation of luxury and cultivated ways inspired the deep hatred that he had for the Scipio family. He himself deliberately affected a rustic appearance and rustic manners. However, he complacently accepted class division and treated his servants harshly. He wrote many works, most of which are now lost. Probably the most influential was his history of early Rome. His De agri cultura or De re rustica, translated as On Farming, is a practical treatise that offers valuable information on agricultural methods and country life in his day.

See A. E. Astin, Cato the Censor (1978).

views updated

Cato (the Elder), Marcus Porcius (234–149 bc) Roman leader. As censor, from 184 bc, he worked to restore the old ideals of Rome – courage, honesty and simple living. His constant urging in the Senate that Carthage should be destroyed helped initiate the Third Punic War.