Cato the Younger

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95-46 B.C.), known as Cato the Younger, was a Roman political figure whose opposition to Pompey and Caesar helped hasten the collapse of the Roman Republic.

Orphaned when a child and raised in the house of his uncle M. Livius Drusus, the reformer, Cato early cultivated habits of austerity and made a great show of political and moral probity. After serving as military tribune in Macedonia (67-66 B.C.), he toured Asia to prepare himself for public life. As quaestor, or minister of finance, Cato was notable for his punishment of corrupt treasury clerks and the strict rectitude of his accounts. But he was not free of favoritism. As tribune elect in 63, he prosecuted for electoral bribery one of the men who defeated Catiline for the consulship, exempting the other because he was a relative.

Cato's fiery speech on December 5 led the Senate to vote for the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators who had been caught in Rome after an unsuccessful attempt at seizing control of the state. As tribune in 62, Cato blocked attempts by Metellus Nepos and Julius Caesar to recall Pompey to deal with Catiline and his army in Etruria.

When Pompey returned from the East, Cato led the senatorial opposition against him. He also outraged Crassus and the equestrians by refusing to allow reconsideration of the tax contract for Asia. The result was the formation of the First Triumvirate by Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar to attain their political ends. During Caesar's consulship in 59 Cato bitterly opposed the triumvirate's bills for the redistribution of land and the grant of an extraordinary command to Caesar. So violent were Cato's tactics that Caesar at one point had him imprisoned only to think better of it later. In the following year the triumvirs rid themselves of Cato by offering him a special command in Cyprus. Though Cato was aware he was being removed from the center of power, his exaggerated sense of duty made it impossible for him to refuse.

When he returned to Rome in 56 B.C., he attempted to block the election of Pompey and Crassus to their second consulship. They therefore prevented Cato's election to the praetorship, for which he had to wait until 54. To check the rioting and anarchy which developed in 53 and 52, Cato supported the proposal of the senatorial leaders to make Pompey sole consul. Thereafter he continued to back Pompey but only as a counterforce to the growing power of Caesar. Because Cato refused to cultivate the great politicians, he failed to win the consulship for 51.

In the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, Cato chose Pompey and was given command in Sicily, which he evacuated after the arrival of the Caesarian forces in order to avoid bloodshed. He garrisoned Dyrrachium for Pompey during the Battle of Pharsalus and after Pompey's defeat joined the Pompeian refugees in Africa. There he refused military command because he had not held the consulship but took charge of the city of Utica (whence he derived his surname) and organized its defenses. When Caesar crushed the Pompeians in the Battle of Thapsus in 46 and approached the city, Cato committed suicide.

After his death Cato became a symbol of republicanism in the continuing struggle against Caesar, Antony, and Octavian. But during his lifetime his conservatism and obstructionism served only to strengthen the forces he opposed.


Further Reading on Cato the Younger

The chief ancient sources for Cato are the speeches and letters of Cicero and the biography in Plutarch's Lives. There is no full-length study of Cato in English. For details see S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, and M. P. Charlesworth, eds., Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 9 (1932), and H.H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (1959; 2d ed. 1963).