Born into the tumultuous final days of the Roman Republic, Cato made a name for himself as an honest, humble, and dedicated politician. Cato fought against the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Though Cato was on the losing side, his character and conduct became legendary, especially amongst the Founding Fathers.
The Dalai Lama once wrote that “Ethics is as crucial to a politician as it is to a religious practitioner. Dangerous consequences will follow when politicians and rulers forget moral principles.” This nugget of wisdom has been proven repeatedly by the extensive list of people in power throughout history who quickly forget any form of limitations on their power once they had secured their position in politics. Another great thinker on politics, Montesquieu, wrote that “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it and carry his authority as far as it will go.” Politicians ought to have moral principles, but political authority tempts them to abandon moral principles for power, prestige, and wealth.
Naturally skeptical of power, amongst libertarians and classical liberals, there are very few politicians throughout history worth gushing over. Today, I want to discuss one of the few political figures who remained steadfastly firm to his moral principles resisting the temptation to abuse his authority and continually fighting against tyranny. I am, of course, talking about Cato the Younger, the Roman statesman from the first century BC who fought desperately to defend the Roman Republic against the tyranny of Julius Caesar.
Cato the Younger was born in 95BC when the Roman Republic was beginning to crumble due to factional infighting and the increasing power of military strongmen whose forces became increasingly loyal to their generals as opposed to Rome. This led to various powerful men, with effectively their own private armies at their backs, jostling for control over the increasingly corrupt and broken system of government.
Rome was unique because it was a republic. Instead of being one of the three classical political forms of democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy, Rome was a mixture of all three forms to preserve and mitigate the respective virtues and shortcomings of each system. The Roman government was balanced in such a manner that no one man could ever hold too much power. Even the highest office of the state had another consul counterpart to keep them in line. But Rome was not a free society by any stretch. Slavery was a major part of everyday life, women were completely excluded from politics, and the vast majority of people lived in desperate poverty. But even still, Rome pioneered many vital ideas and institutions that today are deemed an essential part of any competent government, including constitutionalism, term limits, the rule of law, checks and balances on power, and habeas corpus. Again Rome was not perfect, but over time, Romans developed a system of government that was remarkably stable and competent, leading to their eventual domination of the Mediterranean world after the defeat of Rome’s arch‐enemy Carthage in 146BC.
Cato was orphaned at a very young age and was looked after by his uncle Marcus Livius Drusus who also took care of his half‐brother Gnaeus Servilius Caepio. Without much family left, Cato grew to love his brother more than anyone in the world. When Cato was a child, he was asked who he loved most. Cato replied, “my brother.” When asked who he loved the most after his brother, Cato yet again replied, “my brother.” When he was asked again, who do you love most after your brother Cato yet again said, “my brother.”
The Greek biographer Plutarch has two great stories of the youthful Cato that give us a glimpse into the kind of man he would become. While Cato was still a child, Rome’s Italian allies were advocating that they ought to be made Roman citizens. One prominent leader of the Italian allies, Pompaedius Silo, visited Cato’s uncle. One day Pompaedius asked young Cato and Caepio if he would join their cause. Caepio smiled, but Cato stared fiercely at Pompaedius without saying a word. Outraged by his silence and tacit rejection of his cause, an enraged Pompaedius lifted young Cato and held him dangling from outside a window, shaking him and shouting in an attempt to scare the child into submission. Cato, a mere child, being bellowed at by an adult shaking over a straight drop, didn’t make a single noise the entire time and instead simply stared in silence. According to Plutarch, Cato was seemingly never really a child but from birth mini‐stoic.
Another story from Plutarch shows that from a young age, Cato had a strong aversion to tyranny and a love for republican freedom. Unfortunately, he spent his formative years living under the reign of Sulla, one of the most ruthless tyrants Rome had ever seen. Sulla constantly drafted proscriptions, lists of men who were to be slain for a hefty reward. Sulla even used the system of proscriptions to kill men who had committed no crimes but were very wealthy, allowing him to expropriate their wealth.
Surprisingly, Cato’s uncle was friendly with Sulla. Because of this, Cato and Caepio were often invited to visit and converse with Sulla while accompanied by their tutor Sarpedon. Plutarch explains that Sulla’s home resembled a dungeon more than a home, with shrieks of the tortured echoing through the halls. Witnessing these horrors, the young Cato firmly asked his tutor why nobody had killed Sulla yet. Sarpedon replied that it was because people feared him more than they hated him. Enraged by the tyrant Sulla, Cato asked: “Why, then didst thou not give me a sword, that I might slay him and set my country free from slavery?” After this, Sarpedon kept a close eye on Cato in case he ever acted upon his patriotic urges.
As Cato grew older and began to live independently from his uncle, he began to study and dedicate himself to stoic principles. Today the word stoic describes someone who masks or suppresses their emotions, but in Cato’s day, Stoicism was a fully‐fledged philosophical system. Though highly complex, the best way to summarize Stoicism is that a true stoic only strives for virtue. External pursuits like wealth, status, and pleasure are not inherently evil by any means, but they are subordinate to acting with virtue. Advocates of Stoicism argued that to be happy, one had to follow the rules laid down by nature, which is guided by a sort of divine reason one could call fate. The stoic person ought to be indifferent to things that are outside of one’s control. Though Stoicism was popular amongst elites in Rome, Cato did not merely talk about Stoicism. He lived and practiced it every single day.
Though he could live very comfortably from his inheritance, Cato loathed any form of luxury or frivolity. He much preferred the frugal traditions of past Romans by “laboring with his own hands, eating a simple dinner, lighting no fire to cook his breakfast, wearing a plain dress, living in a mean house, and neither coveting superfluities nor courting their possessors.” In keeping with this frugality, Cato walked everywhere on foot, a rarity for a wealthy Roman who could be transported by horse or carried on a litter. Cato ate and drank the cheapest food seeing no reason to indulge in the finer things in life. But everyone has their weakness, even Cato, and his was wine which he was known to drink in large quantities when discussing philosophical matters until the wee hours of the morning. But even in his flaws, Cato shows his frugality because “he drank the same wine as his workmen.” Compared to his aristocratic contemporaries, who were increasingly wealthy and debauched, Cato stood for a traditional Roman simplicity from a long‐gone era.
In his early years of manhood Cato spent most of his time in private and only occasionally ventured into the public sphere. However, he was admired as a forceful and persuasive orator. By 72BC, Cato’s brother became a military tribune in an army led by a consul named Publicola dispatched to suppress the slave revolts of Spartacus. The ever‐loving brother Cato volunteered and joined the army to be at his brother’s side. This was hardly a campaign of glory. Publicola’s army was routed twice by the enigmatic Spartacus. But even in defeat, Cato showed his character. Senior officers took note of Cato and even tried to give him rewards for his unbending service. Cato being Cato, rejected everything offered to him, saying that symbols of honor and bravery had not been earned.
By 67BC, Cato ran for the position of military tribune, a low‐ranking position. At the time, a new law had been passed that prohibited candidates from using slaves called nomenclatores. These slaves specialized in remembering names and would often whisper who someone was to their master. But this law was impossible to enforce, so everyone ignored it, everyone but Cato, of course. Though many other candidates resented Cato for making them look bad, he was successfully elected as military tribune. Cato was given command of a legion and was sent on a campaign to Macedonia.
Despite his elevated status as a military tribune above the average army grunt, Cato took part in soldiers’ daily work, eating the same rations, sleeping in the same conditions, and Cato even kept up his habit of walking as opposed to using a horse. While taking a break from the campaign, Cato traveled to the city of Pergamon, where he met the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus who shared his intense devotion to one’s principles.
While on Campaign, Cato received terrible news, his beloved brother who was on route to Cato, had fallen extremely ill. By the time Cato had reached him, it was already too late. Caepio, Cato’s closest relative, had died. For a brief time, Cato abandoned his stoic principles and fell into deep grief, losing any control over his emotions. It was a rare moment in life when Cato showed weakness but also the depth of his love for the only family he had.
By the end of his time as a military tribune, Cato toured through Asia, a common practice for wealthy Romans. However, as always, Cato was different. Unlike his fellow Romans, he made no demands for lavish hospitality and traveled by foot, as usual, looking more like the average Joe than an elite Roman. Among the Romans, the east was famed for an abundance of wealth and luxury, all of which Cato took an active effort to avoid.
By 65BC, Cato returned to Rome where his reputation for austerity had begun to spread amongst the ranks of Romans. Cato was eligible to stand for the position of quaestor, the first stop on what was called the cursus honourm; basically, the political ladder one ought to climb to reach the top of Roman politics. Quaestors served a wide variety of functions, but generally, they were in charge of supervising the state treasury and undertaking audits.
Cato did not immediately stand for election. He spent some time researching laws relevant to the position and asked former quaestors about the position to make sure he understood the position’s scope and power. Cato is seemingly the only example we have of a Roman politician intensely researching a post before actually winning said position. Many quesators did not pour much effort into their work and pawned off much of their work to professional clerks to navigate the increasingly complex and often confusing laws of finance in Rome. Because of this, corruption was widespread and deeply embedded. While in office, Cato pushed back against clerks he saw as corrupt and prosecuted the most egregious cases. Cato rigorously pursued any men who received money for killing fellow citizens under the dictator Sulla’s proscriptions. Throughout his tenure, Cato made honesty his only policy being wholly transparent and refusing any form of bribery which was ludicrously common in Rome at this time. Though he made no friends through special favors, despite the demure status of his position Cato earned a great deal of popularity amongst the people for his honesty and fairness.
Cato also distinguished himself as a senator. The Roman Senate was not elected but instead appointed. It was traditional that after serving in office, a former magistrate was automatically appointed to the Senate. The Roman Senate had a great deal of authority and prestige as it was one of the most cherished Roman institutions. Unlike many modern representatives, Cato attended every single senate meeting, no matter how glorious or mundane. Plutarch wrote that “He used to be the first to reach the Senate and the last to leave it; and often, while the other senators were slowly assembling, he would sit and read quietly, holding his toga in front of the book. He never left the city when the Senate was in session.”
After his successful quaestorship, Cato was eligible to stand again for political office as tribune of the plebs. Cato had worked tirelessly, and now he intended to retreat to his country estate and use his newfound free time to study philosophical questions. But after seeing the lackluster candidate Nepos throw his hat in the ring for election, Cato feared what he would do if left unchecked and returned to political life.
Cato became a key player during what is known as the Catlinarian Conspiracy. Lucius Sergius Catiline was a Roman aristocrat whose wealth had begun to decline rapidly. Worse yet, he ran for election as consul, taking out loans, hoping to repay them using the wealth he would extract from his time in office. But Cataline lost the election to the famous Cicero. Defeated and deeply in debt, Cataline had little to lose. Alongside other disgruntled senators, he began planning a plot to overthrow the Roman Senate and implement a policy of debt cancellation and the redistribution of land. But Cicero uncovered Cataline’s plot and presented his evidence to his fellow senators. Cicero arrested all involved with the conspiracy and advocated before the Senate to execute them without trial, a dangerous break from precedent.
The then‐rising star Julius Caesar argued for mercy, wanting to avoid killing Roman citizens without a trial. Cato emerged as a strong advocate for killing the conspirators; he believed that executions were an appropriate response to treason and that if the conspirators were executed, their nearby army would disband without any leaders. The thwarting of this conspiracy is usually deemed the crowning achievement of Cicero, but Cato played a crucial role in tipping the balance of the Senate towards executing the conspirators.
The Catilnarian conspiracy revealed how fragile Rome was and how violent revolution was increasingly likely. By now, the well‐connected Julius Caesar had allied with the renowned general Pompey and Marcus Crassus, who was thought to be the wealthiest man in Rome. Together the trio became the first triumvirate working towards carving up sections of Rome as their own personal domain. From this point on, Cato dedicated all of his efforts towards obstructing this conspiratorial triumvirate’s plans at every turn.
By now, Cato was one of the leading members of the Senate. His moral authority swayed many around him to vote against the interests of the triumvirate. Cicero was successfully exiled thanks to the political maneuvering of his arch‐rival Clodius. Allied with the members of the triumvirate, Clodius believed that both Cicero and Cato ought to be far removed from Rome where Cato could constantly force deadlocks. To get rid of Cato, Clodius and the triumvirate proposed he be sent to govern Cyprus far away from Rome’s politics. Cato had no interest in leaving Rome and refused the position, but the triumvirate passed legislation that forced Cato to take up the position.
Cato was reluctant to travel to Cyprus, but while present, he distinguished himself as always. Usually, a position like this in the eastern world was perfect for magistrates to make huge amounts of money by abusing their power through extortion and embezzlement. It was typical for magistrates to at least skim some off the top, but not Cato, who didn’t take a single penny. Using his skills from his days as a questor, Cato amassed a huge sum of money to return to Rome. When finally returning to Rome, disaster struck, Cato’s financial records were lost at sea, and the only copy was destroyed in a fire. But Cato’s reputation for honesty meant that no senator dared to charge him for embezzlement. Cato didn’t need proof that he didn’t steal. His staunch character was proof enough. Upon his return to Rome, Cato was met with crowds and honors, both of which he rejected.
In 53BC, Marcus Crassus, the third member of the triumvirate, died while on campaign in the middle east. With no one left to mediate, Julius Caesar and Pompey began to stare each other down as rivals. Cato became the leading man of the Senate who opposed the machinations of both Pompey and Caesar. But Pompey began to side with the Senate, and increasingly it was the state of Rome versus Caesar.
Back when the triumvirate was still together, Crassus and Pompey helped Caesar become the governor of large swathes of what was then called Gaul in modern‐day France. Normally proconsuls or governors served for one year, during which they were immune from prosecution. Caesar had the rules bent in his favor; his term was five years long, meaning for five years, no one could bring him to court. Without permission from the Senate, Caesar invaded Gaul and Britannia. Though illegal, his campaign was popular and a massive success financially because of the vast number of slaves he captured. If Caesar returned to Rome and was out of office, he would lose his immunity and be prosecuted by the Senate for starting a war without their consent. Knowing if he returned to Rome, he could lose everything, Caesar deliberated before famously crossing the Rubicon river into Rome, beyond the point of no return, with his army to overthrow the Roman Senate.
Pompey, now leading the senatorial faction, decided to abandon Rome to raise an army in Greece to counter Caesar’s forces. Cato, siding with the Senate was dispatched to Sicily but was quickly forced to sea by four legions sent by Caesar, greatly outnumbering Cato’s forces. Cato played a relatively minor role in the ensuing four‐year‐long civil war where Pompey did the bulk of the commanding for the senatorial faction. After four years of bloody civil war, the senatorial forces commanded by Pompey were annihilated by Caesar’s forces at the battle of Pharsalus in 48BC. Fortunately, Cato was in charge of forces elsewhere at Dyrrhachium. Pompey fled to Egypt but was killed before he ever reached land.
Without a military leader like Pompey or an army capable of defeating Caesar, the senatorial factions leading members like Cicero and Brutus surrendered. But not Cato. Alongside a fellow senatorial commander named Metellus Scipio, Cato escaped to Africa and established operations at Utica. Caesar quickly descended on Utica, and in the battle of Thapsus, the majority of the remaining senatorial forces were defeated.
Cato, who had remained in Utica, was left to ponder his fate. Surrendering wouldn’t be so bad. Caesar practiced a great deal of clemency and pardoned the majority of his enemies. Cato surrendering meant that he could at least live out the rest of his life in Rome, though his capacity for public office would be limited. After doing everything he could to prepare Utica’s defense, Cato had dinner with his friends and son. While chatting over wine, the conversation turned to the paradoxes of the stoics. Cato proudly claimed, “that only the good man is free and that all bad men are slaves.” A life without virtue for Cato would be a life not worth living, and Cato thought there could be no virtue under the tyranny of Caesar. After reading twice over Plato’s dialogue On the Soul, Cato called one of his servants to bring him a sword. When his servants refused, Cato flew into an uncharacteristic rage, striking one of his slaves, something stoics explicitly advised against. When his comrades and son came into his chambers, they all wept, urging Cato not to kill himself. Cato emphatically stated, “I must be master of the course which I decide to take.” Cato stabbed himself in the gut, but his weakened hand meant the wound was grievous but not yet fatal. Concerned friends rushed into the room with a doctor who sewed up his wound. But when Cato awoke, he tore out his stitches and died by tearing out his bowels. Cato died and quickly afterwards Caesar became the sole ruler of Rome, and we all know how that turned out.
Cato, a bit like Cicero, in my previous episode, had a tragic ending to his life. However, Cato might have died, but his strict character and example persisted. Cato became a martyr for the tragic cause of Republican liberty for over a thousand years.
After his death, fellow senator and defender of the republic Cicero praised Cato, writing that he “had been endowed by nature with an austerity beyond belief.” Cicero believed that Cato committed suicide because life under Caesar jeopardized the pursuit of virtue, so according to Cicero, “it was for him to die rather than to look upon the face of a tyrant.” A generation later, the Roman poet Lucan distinguished himself as one of Cato’s greatest admirers, saying of the civil war, “if the victor had the gods on his side, the vanquished had Cato.” Though Cato had a positive reputation amongst his fellow Romans, commentators were quick to point out that Cato’s stubbornness and dogmatic approach often clashed with dealing pragmatically and effectively enacting change.
During the middle ages, monarchy was the preferred form of government, and the distinctly pagan Cato, while virtuous in life, carried a sullied legacy because of the sinful connotations of suicide. The renowned Italian poet Dante Alighieri rekindled admiration of Cato in his work the Divine Comedy. Cato’s paganism barred him from a place in paradise, so Dante depicted Cato as the custodian of purgatory and praised him for dying for liberty. Notably, Cato was not in the section of Hell specifically for suicides.
The high point of Cato’s reputation was during the 18th‐century and was ushered in by Joseph Addison’s famous play Cato A Tragedy. The play is set in Utica and revolves around the final days of Cato climactically ending with his suicide. I doubt the play would have too many fans today, the dialogue is stiff, the subject matter quite niche, and at times, Cato is portrayed as the perfect person, so much so that it almost reads a bit like 18th‐century fan fiction. However, we are not the intended audience. When the play first premiered in 1713, it was an instant success, being staged twenty times in just London and over three hundred times in the rest of England. By the end of the century, there were a whopping 26 English editions of Cato a Tragedy. Though Addison was a firm Whig, the play appealed to both Tories and Whigs. Both parties could at the very least agree Cato was a model worth emulating. And Addison was popular and influential, so much so that David Hume believed in the future, everyone would be reading Addison while John Locke would fade into obscurity.
After Addison died in 1719, Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard took up the mantle of praising Cato publishing their anonymously published letters under the pen name Cato, with the letters collectively referred to today as Cato’s Letters. Though the letters deal with a huge variety of topics, the character of Cato was often used as a standard to follow. Today the Cato Institute derives its name from Cato’s Letters by Trenchard and Gordon.
Both Addison’s Cato a Tragedy and Trenchard’s and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters became massively popular in colonial America. Cato a Tragedy was first performed in 1735 in South Carolina and quickly became the most popular play in America. Until Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman, Cato a Tragedy held the record for longest‐running play. When the Continental army was at their lowest point encamped in the miserable Valley Forge, the sick, hungry, and exhausted troops crowded into a small building to watch Cato a Tragedy. It is a true testament to Cato’s lasting appeal that his story was chosen to rouse the spirits of the desperate troops. Cato was consistently elevated by the Founders as a model of public and private virtue. Patrick Henry’s famous quote, “give me liberty or give me death,” was inspired by Addison’s Cato, who exclaimed that “It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.” Cato’s appeal was not even just for men. Abigail Adams signed her letters to John Adams as Portia, the daughter of Cato. Similarly, Mercy Otis Warren often signed herself as Marcia, a reference to Cato’s virtuous mother. The austere standards of Cato loomed in the minds of 18th‐century Americans.
Though not as enthusiastic as their American counterparts, Europeans also held Cato in high regard. David Hume praised Cato as a “philosophical patriot.” Montesquieu, though originally critical of Cato, came to be a great admirer of Cato’s character. Among the French, Jean Jacques Rosseau sang the highest praise of Cato, writing, “If you are a philosopher live like Socrates, if you are only a statesman live like Cato.”
Cato is the ultimate contradiction of the maxim that history is written by the victors.Though he failed to defend his beloved republic, the vanquished Cato was only elevated higher than the victorious Caesar, in reputation and standing.
Cato was human and imperfect. He only stood for the liberty of a very small section of society, the wealthy, well‐to‐do Roman men. But, while accepting his shortcomings Cato reached an almost legendary status and became an enduring exemplar of devotion to liberty and antipathy to tyranny. Cato inspired and informed the writings of many important liberal thinkers such as Voltaire, Hume, and Montesqieeu. Across the pond, Cato was an honorary American, he represented everything a statesman ought to be. Though extreme in his stubbornness, Cato is a worthy model of principled leadership politicians ought to learn from. Though it has been two thousand years since Cato’s death, through his example Cato helped inspire the establishment of stable constitutional republics we take for granted today.