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 on Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder

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).