Plutarch's Life of Marcus Cato
Text by Thomas North
Marcus Cato the Censor (234 B.C.-149 B.C.)
Reading for Lesson One
Marcus Cato, we are told, was born at Tusculum, though (till he betook himself to civil and military affairs) he lived and was bred up in the country of the Sabines, where his father's estate lay. His ancestors seeming almost entirely unknown, he himself praises his father Marcus as a worthy man and a brave soldier; and his great-grandfather, too, as one who had often obtained military prizes, and who, having lost five horses under him, received, on the account of his valour, the value of the same restored to him again in money of the common treasure, because he had shown himself trusty and valiant for the commonwealth. Now it being the custom among the Romans to call those who, having no repute by birth, made themselves eminent by their own exertions, "new men" or "upstarts," they called even Cato himself so. And for his part, he did confess it, that he was of the first of the house that ever had honour, and office of state; but by reason of the noble acts and good service of his ancestors, he maintained he was very "ancient."
His third name originally was not Cato, but Priscus, though afterwards he had the surname of Cato, by reason of his abilities; for the Romans call a skillful or experienced man Catus [omission]. He gained, in early life, a good habit of body by working with his own hands, and living temperately, and serving in war; and seemed to have an equal proportion both of health and strength. And he exerted and practiced his eloquence through all the neighbourhood and little villages, thinking it as requisite as a second body, and an all but necessary organ to one who looks forward to something above a mere humble and inactive life. He would never refuse to be counsel for those who needed him, and was, indeed, early reckoned a good lawyer, and, ere long, a capable orator.
After he was thus well known, they that were familiar with him began to perceive a grave manner and behaviour in his life, and a certain noble mind in him, worthy to be employed in matters of state and great importance, and to be called into the commonwealth. For he did not only refuse to take fees for his pleading, and following the causes he maintained: but, furthermore, made no reckoning of the estimation he won by that manner and practice, as though that was not the only mark he shot at. But his desire reached further, rather to win himself fame by service in the wars, and by valiant fighting with his enemy, than with such a quiet and pleasing manner of life. Insomuch as when he was yet but a youth, he had many cuts upon his breast, which he had received in diverse battles and encounters against the enemies. For he himself writeth that he was but seventeen years old when he made his first campaign; in the time when Hannibal, in the height of his success, was burning and pillaging all Italy.
When he came to fight, he would strike boldly, without flinching, stand firm to his ground, fix a bold countenance upon his enemies, and with a harsh threatening voice accost them, justly thinking himself, and telling others, that such a rugged kind of behaviour sometimes terrifies the enemy more than the sword itself. When he went on any journey, he ever marched afoot, and carried his armour upon his back, whilst one servant only followed, to carry the provision for his table; with whom he is said never to have been angry or hasty whilst he made ready his dinner or supper, but would, for the most part, when he was free from military duty, assist and help him himself to dress it. When he was with the army, he used to drink only water; unless, perhaps, when extremely thirsty, he might mingle it with a little vinegar; but if he saw he were weak, he would then drink a little wine.
The little country house of Manius Curius Dentatus, who had been thrice carried in triumph, happened to be near his farm; so that often going thither, and contemplating the small compass of the place, and plainness of the dwelling, Cato formed an idea of the mind of the person, who, being one of the greatest of the Romans, and having subdued the most warlike nations (nay, had driven Pyrrhus out of Italy), now, after three triumphs, was contented to dig in so small a piece of ground, and live in such a cottage. Here it was that the ambassadors of the Samnites, finding Dentatus boiling turnips in the chimney corner, offered him a present of gold; but he sent them away with this saying: that he, who was content with such a supper, had no need of gold; and that he thought it more honourable to conquer those who possessed the gold, than to possess the gold itself. Cato, remembering these things to himself, went home again, and began to think upon his house, of his living, of his family and servants, and also of his expenses; and to cut all superfluous charges; and to labour with his own hands more than ever he had done before.
Furthermore, when Fabius Maximus took the city of Tarentum again, Cato served under him, being very young; and there he fell into familiar acquaintance with Nearchus, a Pythagorian philosopher, in whom he took marvellous delight to hear him talk of philosophy. Nearchus held the same opinion of pleasure that Plato did, by calling it the sweet poison and chiefest bait to allure men to ill; and saying that the body was the first plague unto the soul, and that her only health, remedy, and purgation stood upon rules of reason, good examples and contemplations, that drive sinful thoughts and carnal pleasures of the body, far off from her. Cato moreover gave himself much to sobriety and temperance, and framed himself to be contented with little.
They say he fell in his very old age to the study of the Greek tongue, and to read Greek books, and that he profited somewhat by Thucydides, but much more by Demosthenes, to frame his matter, and also to be eloquent. His writings, however, are considerably embellished with Greek sayings and stories; nay, many of these, translated word for word, are placed with his own apophthegms and sentences.
Reading for Lesson Two
There was a man of the highest rank, and very influential among the Romans, called Valerius Flaccus, who was singularly skillful in discerning excellence yet in the bud, and also much disposed to nourish and advance it. He, it seems, had lands bordering on Cato's; nor could he but admire when he understood from his servants the manner of his (Cato's) living, how he laboured with his own hands, went on foot, early in the morning, to the courts of the little villages, to assist those who wanted his counsels; how, returning home again, when it was winter, he would throw a loose coat on his shoulders; and how, it being summer, he would go out, naked to the waist, to work in his ground among his servants and other workmen; and would besides, sit and eat of the same bread, and drink of the same wine. When they spoke, also, of Cato's other good qualities, his fair dealing and moderation, and mentioning also some of his wise sayings, Valerius Flaccus ordered that he should be invited to supper; and thus becoming personally assured of his fine temper and his superior character, which, like a plant, seemed only to require culture and a better situation, he urged and persuaded him to apply himself to state affairs at Rome.
Thither, therefore, he went, and by his pleading soon gained many friends and admirers; but, Valerius chiefly assisting his promotion, he was first of all chosen tribune of the soldiers (or, colonel of a thousand footmen), and afterwards was made quaestor: and so went forwards, and grew to so great credit and authority, as he became Valerius Flaccus' companion in the chiefest offices of state, being chosen consul with him, and then censor. But among all the ancient senators, he most attached himself to Fabius Maximus; not so much for the honour of his person, and the greatness of his power, as that he might have before him his habit and manner of life, as the best examples to follow; and so he did not hesitate to oppose Scipio the Great (#1), who, being then but a young man, seemed to set himself against the power of Fabius, and to be envied by him.
For being sent together with Scipio as treasurer, when he saw him, according to his natural custom, make great expenses, and distribute among the soldiers without sparing, he freely told him that the expense in itself was not the greatest thing to be considered, but that he taught them to spend their superfluous money (all necessaries provided for) in vain toys and trifles, to serve their pleasure. Scipio made him answer he would have no treasurer should control him in that sort, nor that should look so narrowly to his expenses: for his intent was to go to the wars with full sails, as it were; and that he would make the state privy to all his doings, but not to the money he spent.
Cato hearing this answer, returned with speed out of Sicily unto Rome, crying out with Fabius Maximus, in open Senate, of Scipio's lavishing unspeakable sums, and childishly loitering away his time in wrestling matches and comedies, as if he were not to make war, but holiday; and thus succeeded in getting some of the tribunes of the people sent to call him back to Rome, in case the accusations should prove true. But Scipio demonstrating, as it were, to them, by his preparations, the coming victory; and, being found merely to be living pleasantly with his friends, when there was nothing else to do; but in no respect because of that easiness and liberality at all the more negligent in things of consequence and moment; without impediment, set sail toward the war.
Cato grew more and more powerful by his eloquence, so that he was commonly called "the Roman Demosthenes"; but his manner of life was yet more famous, and talked of. For oratorical skill was, as an accomplishment, commonly studied and sought after by all young men; but he was very rare who would cultivate the old habits of bodily labour; or prefer a light supper, and a breakfast which never saw the fire; or be in love with poor clothes and a homely lodging; or could set his ambition rather on doing without luxuries than on possessing them.
For now, the state, unable to keep its purity by reason of its greatness, and having so many affairs, and people from all parts under its government, was fain to admit many mixed customs and new examples of living.
With reason, therefore, everybody admired Cato [omission] when they beheld him unconquered by either labours or by pleasures; and that not only when he was young and desirous of honour, but also when old and grey-headed, after a consulship and triumph; like some famous victor in the games, persevering in his exercise and maintaining his character to the very last. For he writeth himself that there never came a gown on his back that cost him above a hundred pence; and that his workmen always drank no worse wine, when he was consul and general of the army, than he did himself; and that the meat or fish which was bought in the meat-market for his dinner was also not expensive; and yet he said it was all for the sake of the commonwealth, that so his body might be the hardier for the war.
Reading for Lesson Three
Cato had a piece of embroidered Babylonian tapestry left to him; but he sold it, because none of his farmhouses were so much as plastered. Nor did he ever buy a slave for above fifteen hundred drachmas; as he did not seek for fine-made men, and goodly personages, but able sturdy workmen, horse-keepers and cow-herds; and these he thought ought to be sold again, when they grew old, and no useless servants fed in the house. In short, he reckoned nothing a good bargain which was superfluous; but whatever it was, though sold for a farthing, he would think it a high price if you had no need of it. He preferred the purchase of lands for sowing and feeding, rather than of fine orchards or gardens. Some say he did thus for very misery and covetousness; others took it that he lived so sparingly as to move others, by his example, to cut off all superfluity and waste. Nevertheless, to sell slaves in that sort, or to turn them out of doors when you have had the service of all their youth, and that they are grown old, as you use brute beasts that have served whilst they may for age: methinks that must needs proceed of too severe and greedy nature, that hath no longer regard or consideration of humanity, than whilst one is able to do another good.
For we see, gentleness goeth further than justice. For nature teacheth us to use justice only unto men, but gentleness sometimes is shewed unto brute beasts: and that cometh from the very fountain and spring of all courtesy and humanity, which should never dry up in any man living. It is doubtless the part of a kind-natured man to keep even worn-out horses and dogs, and not only take care of them when they are foals and whelps, but also when they are grown old [omission for length].
The graves of Cimon's horses, which thrice won the Olympian races, are yet to be seen close by his own monument. Old Xanthippus, too, entombed his dogs (which swam after his galley to Salamis, when the people fled from Athens) on the top of a cliff, which they call "The Dog's Tomb" to this day. Nor are we to use living creatures like old shoes or dishes, and throw them away when they are worn out or broken with service [omission]. And as for me, I could never find in my heart to sell my draught ox that had plowed my land a long time, because he could plow no longer for age; and much less my slave, to sell him, for a little money, out of the country where he had dwelt a long time, to pluck him from his old trade of life wherewith he was best acquainted, and then specially, when he shall be as unprofitable for the buyer as also for the seller. But Cato, on the other side, gloried that he left his horse in Spain he had served on in the wars during his consulship, because he would not put the commonwealth to the charge of bringing of him home by sea into Italy.
Now a question might be made of this, and probable reason of either side, whether this was due to the greatness or the pettiness of his spirit; but otherwise to say truly, he was a man of a wonderful abstinence. For when he was general of the army, he never took allowance other than three bushels of wheat a month for himself and his whole family, and but a bushel and half of barley a day to keep his baggage-cattle. And when he entered upon the government of Sardinia, where his predecessors had been used to require tents, beddings, and clothes upon the public account, and to charge the state heavily with the cost of provisions and entertainments for a great train of servants and friends, the difference he showed in his economy was something incredible. For when he went to visit the cities, he came afoot to them, and did not put them to a penny charge for himself; and had only one officer, that waited on him, and carried his gown and a cup with him, to offer up wine to the goddess in his sacrifices.
But though he came thus simply to the Sardinian subjects, and eased them of their former charges; yet he showed himself severe and bitter to them in matters concerning public justice, and spared no man in any commandment or service for the state and commonwealth; so that the Roman government never seemed more terrible, nor yet more mild, than under his administration.
Reading for Lesson Four
For his grace both in speaking and writing did rightly show himself: because it was pleasant, and yet grave: sweet and fearful; merry and severe; sententious and yet vehement; like Socrates, in the descriptions of Plato, who seemed outwardly to those around him to be but a simple, talkative, blunt fellow, whilst at the bottom he was full
of grave sentences, goodly examples, and wise persuasions, that he could make men water their plants that heard him, and lead them as he would by the ear. And therefore, I know not what has persuaded some to say that Cato's style was chiefly like that of Lysias. However, let us leave those to judge of these things who profess most to distinguish between the several kinds of oratorical style; whilst we write down some of his memorable sayings, being of the opinion that a man's character appears much more by his words than, as some think it does, by his looks.
Being once desirous to dissuade the people of Rome, who proposed to make a free distribution of corn unto every citizen, to no purpose: he began to make an oration with this preface:
It is a hard thing (my Lords of Rome) to bring the belly by persuasion to reason, that hath no ears.
Reproving, also, their sumptuous habits, he said it was hard to preserve a city where a fish sold for more than an ox.
He said also that the Romans were like a flock of sheep.
For (sayeth he) as every wether when he is alone, doth not obey the shepherd, but when they are all together they one follow another for love of the foremost: even so are you, for when you are together, you are all contented to be led by the noses by such whose counsel not a man alone of you would use in any private cause of your own.
Discoursing of the power of women, he said, "Other men command their wives; but we command all men, and our wives command us." (But this last is borrowed of Themistocles' pleasant sayings. For his son making him do many things by means of his mother, he told his wife one day, "The Athenians command all Greece, I command the Athenians, you command me, and your son ruleth you.")
Another saying of Cato's was that the Roman people did not only fix the value of such and such purple dyes, but also of such and such habits of life: "For," said he, "as dyers most of all dye such colours as they see to be most agreeable, so the young men learn, and zealously affect, what is most popular with you."
He continually advised the Romans that if their power and greatness came by their virtue and temperance, they should take heed not to change for the worse; and if they came to that greatness by vice and violence, that then they should change for the better; for by that means they were grown indeed quite great enough.
[omission for length]
Pointing at one who had sold the land which his father had left him, and which lay near the seaside, he pretended to express his wonder at his being stronger even than the sea itself; for what it washed away with a great deal of labour, he drank away all at a clap.
They say his enemies did malice him, because he used commonly to rise before day, and did forget his own business to follow matters of state. And he affirmed that he had rather lose the reward of his well- doing, than not to be punished for doing of evil; and that he would bear with all other people who were offending ignorantly, but not with himself.
[omission for length and content]
He said also that wise men did learn and profit more by fools than fools did by wise men. "For wise men," said he, "do see the faults fools commit, and can wisely avoid them; but fools never study to follow the example of wise men's doings."
These be his wise sayings we find written of him, whereby we may the more easily conjecture his manners and nature.
Reading for Lesson Five
When he was chosen consul with his friend Valerius Flaccus, the government of Nearer Spain fell to his lot. Here, as he was engaged in reducing some of the tribes by force, and bringing over others by good words, a large army of barbarians fell upon him, so that there was danger of being disgracefully forced out again. He therefore called upon his neighbours, the Celtiberians, for help; and on their demanding two hundred talents for their assistance, everybody else thought it intolerable that even the Romans should promise barbarians a reward for their aid. But Cato said there was no discredit or harm in it; for, if they overcame, they would pay them out of the enemy's purse, and not out of their own; but if they were overcome, there would be nobody left either to demand the reward or to pay it. However, he won that battle, and, after that, all his other affairs succeeded splendidly.
The historian Polybius says that, by Cato's command, the walls of all the cities on this side of the River Baetis were in one day's time demolished; and yet there were a great many of them full of brave and warlike men. Cato himself says that he took more cities than he stayed days in Spain. Neither it this a mere vain boast, if it be true that is written that there were four hundred cities of them.
Now, though the soldiers under him had gotten much in this journey, and were rich, yet he caused a pound weight of silver to be given to every soldier, saying he liked it better that many should return home with silver in their purses, than a few of them with gold only. But for himself, he affirmed that of all the spoil gotten of the enemies, nothing came to him, saving that which he took in meat and drink. "And yet," sayeth he, "I speak it not to reprove them that grow rich by such spoils, but because I had rather compete in valour with the best, than in wealth with the richest, or with the most covetous in love of money."
Scipio the Great (#1), being his enemy, and desiring, whilst he was carrying all things so successfully, to obstruct him, and take the affairs of Spain into his own hands, succeeded in getting himself appointed his successor in the government; and, making all possible haste, put an end to Cato's authority. But Cato, taking with him a convoy of five cohorts of foot soldiers and five hundred horsemen to attend him home, overthrew by the way the Lacetani. He found six hundred traitors also that were fled from the Romans' camp to their enemies, and did put to death every mother's child of them.
Scipio, storming at that, said Cato did him wrong. But Cato, to mock him finely, said that
"Rome would become great indeed, if the most honourable and great men would not yield up the first place of valour to mean-born men, and upstarts as he himself was; and, on the other side, when mean-born men would contend in virtue with those that were of noblest race, and far above them in calling."
The Senate having voted to change nothing of what had been established by Cato, the government of Spain passed away under Scipio to no manner of purpose, in idleness and doing nothing; and so diminished his credit much more than Cato's.
Reading for Lesson Six
Furthermore, Cato after he had been consul, and had granted to him the honour to triumph, did not do as many others, that seek not after virtue, but only for worldly honour and dignity. Who, when they have been called to the highest offices of state, as to be consuls, and have also granted them the honour to triumph, pass the rest of their life in pleasure and idleness, and quit all public affairs. But he, like those who are just entered upon public life for the first time, and thirst after gaining honour and glory in some new office, strained himself, as if he were but just setting out; for he would come to the Forum, and plead causes for his friends or other citizens that required his counsel; and go with his friends also into the wars.
As, he went with Tiberius Sempronius the consul, and was one of his lieutenants at the conquest of the country of Thrace, and unto the provinces adjoining to the Danube River upon those marches.
After that, he was in Greece also, as tribune under Manius Acilius Glabrio, against King Antiochus the Great, who made the Romans as much afraid of him as ever they were of Hannibal. For, when Antiochus had conquered all the regions and provinces of Asia (namely, that which Seleucus I Nicator had possessed); and having brought into obedience many warlike nations of the barbarians, he longed to fall upon the Romans, whom he knew to be the only worthy men, and best able to fight with him. So across he came with his forces, pretending, as a specious cause of the war, that it was to free the Greeks; who had indeed no need of it, they having been but newly delivered from the power of King Philip and the Macedonians, and made independent, with the free use of their own laws, by the goodness of the Romans themselves; so that all Greece was in commotion and excitement, having been corrupted by the hopes of royal aid which the popular leaders in their cities put them into.
Manius, therefore, sent ambassadors to the different cities; and Titus Flamininus (as is written in the account of him) suppressed and quieted most of the attempts of the "innovators," without any trouble. Cato brought over the Corinthians, those of Patras and Aegium, and spent a good deal of time at Athens. (Some say they find an oration of his written in the Greek tongue, which he made before the Athenians, in commendation of their ancestors: wherein he said that he took great pleasure to see Athens, for the beauty and stateliness of the city. But this is false; for he spoke to the Athenians by an interpreter, though he was able to have spoken himself; but he wished to observe the usage of his own country, and laughed at those who admired nothing but what was in Greek.)
Now Antiochus, having occupied with his army the narrow passages about Thermopylae, and added palisades and walls to the natural fortifications of the place, sat down there, thinking he had done enough to divert the war; and the Romans, indeed, seemed wholly to despair of forcing the passage; but Cato, calling to mind the compass and circuit which the Persians had formerly made to come at the place, went forth in the night, taking along with him part of the army.
But as they climbed up the mountain, their guide, that was one of the prisoners taken in the country, lost his way, and made them wander up and down in marvellous steep rocks and crooked ways, so that the soldiers were filled with fear and despondency. Cato, perceiving the danger, commanded all the rest to halt, and stay where they were; whilst he himself, taking along with him one Lucius Manlius, a most expert man at climbing mountains, went forward with a great deal of labour and danger, in the dark night, and without the least moonlight, among the wild olive-trees and steep craggy rocks, there being nothing but precipices and darkness before their eyes; till they struck into a little pass which they thought might lead down into the enemy's camp. There they put up marks upon some conspicuous peaks which surmount the hill called Callidromon; and, returning again, they led the army along with them to the said marks, till they got into their little path again, and there once made a halt; but when they began to go further, the path deserted them at a precipice, where they were in another strait and fear; nor did they perceive that they were all this while near the enemy.
[The story continues in the next lesson.]
Reading for Lesson Seven
The day began to break a little, and one of them that marched foremost thought he heard a noise, and that he saw the Greeks' camp at the foot of the rocks, and certain soldiers that kept watch there. Whereupon Cato made them stay, and commanded the troops from Firmum only, without the rest, to stick by him, as he had always found them faithful and ready. And when they came up and formed around him in close order, he thus spoke to them:
"I desire (he said) to take one of the enemy alive, that so I may understand what men these are who guard the passage: what number they be, what order they keep, how they are camped and armed, and after what sort they determine to fight with us. But this feat (he continued) must be an act of a great deal of quickness and boldness, such as that of lions, when they dart upon some timorous animal."
He had no sooner spoken these words, but the Firmanian soldiers began to run down the mountain, just as they were, upon the guard; and so setting upon them, they being out of order, made them fly, and took one armed man prisoner. When they had him, they straight brought him unto Cato, who quickly learned from him that the rest of the forces lay in the narrow passage about the king; that those who kept the tops of the rocks were six hundred choice Aetolians. Cato, therefore, despising the smallness of their number and carelessness, forthwith drawing his sword, fell upon them with a great noise of trumpets and shouting. But when the Aetolians saw them coming down the rocks towards them, they began to flee for life to the main body, which was then filled full of fear, trouble, and all disorder.
In the meantime, whilst Manius was forcing the works below, and pouring the thickest of his forces into the narrow passages, Antiochus was hit in the mouth with a stone, so that his teeth being beaten out by it, he felt such excessive pain that he was forced to turn away with his horse; nor did any part of his army stand the shock of the Romans. Yet, though there seemed no reasonable hope of flight, where all paths were so difficult, and where there were deep marshes and steep rocks, which looked as if they were ready to receive those who should stumble, the fugitives, crowding and pressing together in the narrow passages, destroyed even one another in their terror of the swords and blows of the enemy.
Cato (as it plainly appears) was never oversparing of his own praises, and seldom shunned boasting of any exploit; which quality, indeed, he seems to have thought the natural accompaniment of great actions; and with these particular exploits he was highly puffed up; he says that those who saw him that day pursuing and slaying the enemies were ready to assert that Cato was not bound to the Romans, but the Romans bound unto Cato. And then Manius the consul himself, being in a great heat with the fury of the battle, embraced Cato a great while, that was also hot with chasing of the enemy: and spoke aloud with great joy before them all, that neither he, nor the people of Rome could recompense Cato for his valiant service that day.
After this battle, Cato was sent to Rome, to be the messenger himself to report the news of the victory; and so, with a favourable wind, he sailed to Brundusium, and in one day got from thence to Tarentum; and having travelled four days more, upon the fifth, counting from the time of his landing, he arrived at Rome, and so brought the first news of the victory himself; and filled the whole city with joy and sacrifices, and made the Romans so proud, that ever after they thought themselves able men to conquer the world both by sea and land. And these be all the martial deeds and noble acts Cato did.
In civil policy, he was of opinion that one chief duty consisted in accusing and indicting criminals. He himself prosecuted many, and he would also assist others who prosecuted them; nay, would even procure such, as he did the Petilii against Scipio (#1); but not being able to destroy him, by reason of the nobleness of his family, and the real greatness of his mind, which enabled him to trample all calumnies under foot, Cato at last would meddle no more with him; yet, joining with the accusers against Scipio's brother Lucius, he succeeded in obtaining a sentence against him, which condemned him to the payment of a large sum of money to the state; and being insolvent, and in danger of being thrown into jail, he was, by the interposition of the tribunes of the people, with much ado dismissed.
It is also said of Cato, that when he met a certain youth, who had caused the disgrace of one of his father's enemies, walking in the Forum, he shook him by the hand, telling him that this was what we ought to sacrifice to our dead parents--not lambs and goats, but the tears and condemnations of their adversaries.
But neither did he himself escape with impunity in his management of affairs; for if he gave his enemies but the least hold, he was still in danger, and exposed to be brought to justice. He is reported to have escaped at least fifty indictments; and one above the rest, which was the last, when he was eight-six years old; about which time he uttered the well-known saying, that it was hard for him who had lived with one generation of men, to plead now before another. Neither did he make this the least of his lawsuits; for, four years after, when he was ninety years old, he accused Servilius Galba; so that his life and actions extended, we may say, as Nestor's did, over three ordinary ages of man.
For, having had many contests, as we have related, with Scipio the Great (#1), about affairs of state, he continued them down to Scipio the younger (#3), who was the adopted grandson of the former, and the son of Aemilius Paulus who overthrew Perseus and the Macedonians.
Reading for Lesson Eight
Ten years after his consulship, Cato stood for the office of censor, which was indeed the summit of all honour, and in a manner the highest step in civil affairs; for besides all other power, it had also that of an inquisition into every one's life and manners.
For the Romans thought that no marriage, or rearing of children, nay, no feast or drinking-bout, ought to be permitted according to every one's appetite or fancy, without being examined and inquired into; being indeed of opinion that a man's character was much sooner perceived in things of this sort than in what is done publicly and in open day. And, judging that men's natural dispositions do appear more in such things than in all other things that are openly done at noondays, and in the sight of the world: they used to choose two censors, that were two surveyors of manners, to see that every man behaved himself virtuously, and that they gave not themselves to pleasure, nor to break the laws and customs of the commonwealth.
These officers were called censors; and always, of custom, one of them was a patrician, and the other a commoner. These two had power and authority to disgrade a knight by taking away his horse, or expel out of the Senate anyone who lived intemperately and out of order. It was also their business to take an estimate of what everyone was worth, and to put down in registers everybody's birth and quality; besides many other prerogatives.
And therefore, the chief nobility opposed his pretensions to it. Jealousy prompted the patricians, who thought that it would be a stain to everybody's nobility if men of no original honour (the "upstarts") should rise to the highest dignity and power; while others, conscious of their own evil practices, and of the violation of the laws and customs of their country, were afraid of the austerity of the man; which, in an office of such great power, was likely to prove most uncompromising and severe. So, when they had consulted together about it, they did set up seven competitors against him, who flattered the people with many fair words and promises, as though they had need of magistrates to use them gently, and to do things to please them.
Cato, on the contrary, promising no such mildness, but plainly threatening those that had lived naughtily and wickedly, he cried out that they must reform their city, and persuaded the people not to choose the gentlest, but the sharpest physicians, and that himself was such a one as they needed; and among the patricians, Valerius Flaccus was another, in whose company he hoped (they two being chosen censors) to do great good unto the commonwealth, by burning and cutting off (like the Hydra's heads) all vanity and voluptuous pleasures. He added too, that he saw all the rest endeavouring after the office with ill intent, because they were afraid of those who would exercise it justly, as they ought. And so truly great and so worthy of great men to be its leaders were, it would seem, the Roman people, that they did not fear the severity and grim countenance of Cato, but rejecting those smooth promisers who were ready to do all things to ingratiate themselves, they took him, together with Flaccus; obeying his recommendations not as though he were a candidate, but as if he had the actual power of commanding and governing already.
The first thing he did, after he was installed in his censorship, was that he named Lucius Valerius Flaccus, his friend and fellow censor with him, chief of the Senate. He expelled, among many others, Lucius Quintius, who had been consul seven years before, and (which was greater honour to him than the consulship) brother to that Titus Flamininus who overthrew King Philip.
[The reasons behind the expulsion of Lucius are omitted for mature content.]
Manilius, also, who, according to the public expectation, would have been next consul, he threw out of the senate, only because he kissed his wife too lovingly in the daytime, and in front of his daughter. Cato said that, as for himself, his wife never came into his arms except when there was great thunder; so he jested that it was happy with him when Jupiter thundered.
His treatment of Lucius the brother of Scipio Africanus (#1), and one who had been honoured with a triumph, occasioned some ill will; for he took his horse from him, and was thought to do it with a design of putting an affront on Scipio (#1), now dead. But he gave most general annoyance by retrenching people's luxury; for though (most of the youth being thereby already corrupted), it seemed almost impossible to take it away with an open hand and directly; yet going, as it were, obliquely around, he caused all dress carriages, women's ornaments, and household furniture whose price exceeded one thousand five hundred drachmas, to be rated at ten times as much as they were worth; intending by thus making the assessments greater, to increase the taxes paid upon them [omission for length]. He hoped that those who were grieved with this tax, and saw others pay less subsidy (that were as much worth as themselves, by living without such toys) might be tired out of their prodigality.
And thus, on the one side, not only were those disgusted at Cato who bore the taxes for the sake of their luxury; but those, too, who, on the other side, laid by their luxury for fear of the taxes. For people in general reckon that an order not to display their riches is equivalent to the taking away of their riches, because riches are seen much more in superfluous than in necessary things. Indeed, this was what excited the wonder of Aristo, the philosopher; that we account those who possess superfluous things more happy than those who abound with what is necessary and useful.
But when one of his friends asked Scopas, the rich Thessalian, to give him some article of no great utility, saying that it was not a thing that he had any great need or use for himself, "In truth," replied he, "It is just these useless and unnecessary things that make my wealth and happiness." So, this covetous desire we have to be rich cometh of no necessary desire in nature, but is bred in us by a false opinion from the common sort.
Reading for Lesson Nine
Now Cato, caring least of all for the exclamations they made against him, grew to be more strict and severe. For he cut off the pipes which private men had made to convey water into their houses and gardens, robbing the city of the water that came from their common conduit heads; and he did pluck down also men's porches which jutted out into the common streets. He beat down also the price in contracts for public works, but raised the taxes on private businesses; and by these proceedings he drew a great deal of hatred upon himself.
Those who were of Titus Flamininus' party cancelled, in the Senate, all the bargains and contracts made by him for the repairing and carrying on of the sacred and public buildings, as unadvantageous to the commonwealth. They incited also the boldest of the tribunes of the people to accuse him, and to fine him two talents. They likewise much opposed him in building the courthouse or basilica, which he caused to be erected at the common charge, just by the senate-house, in the Forum, and called the Basilica Porcia, or "the palace Porcius built."
Howbeit it seemed the people of Rome did greatly like and commend his government in the censorship. For they set up a statue of him in the temple of the goddess of Health, whereunder they wrote not his victories nor triumph, but only engraved this inscription:
For the honour of Marcus Cato the Censor: because he reformed the discipline of the commonwealth of Rome. . . by his wise precepts, good manners, and holy institutions.
Before this honour was done to himself, he used to laugh at those who loved such kinds of things, saying that they did not see that they were taking pride in the workmanship of brass-founders and painters; whereas the citizens bore about his best likeness in their hearts, meaning the memory of his life and doings. And when any seemed to wonder that he should have never a statue, while many ordinary persons had one, "I would," said he, "much rather be asked why I have not one, than why I have one."
In the end, he would have no honest man abide to be praised, unless his praise turned to the benefit of the commonwealth: and yet was he one of them that would most praise himself. So that if any had done a fault, or stepped awry, and that men had gone about to reprove them: he would say, "They were not to be blamed, for they were no Catos that did offend." And such as counterfeited to follow any of his doings, and came short of his manner, he called them "left-handed Catos." He would say that in most dangerous times the Senate used to cast their eyes upon him as passengers on the sea do look upon the master of the ship in a storm; and that many times when he was absent, the Senate would put over matters of importance, until he might come among them. These things are indeed also testified of him by others; for he had a great authority in the city, alike for his life, his eloquence, and his great experience.
Besides this commendation, they praised him for a good father to his children, a good husband to his wife, and an extraordinary economist; and he did not manage his affairs of this kind carelessly, and as things to be lightly passed on [omission]. After Cato's wife had brought him a son, he could not have so earnest business in hand, unless it were some public matter, but he would let all alone, to go home to his house about the time his wife did unswaddle the young boy to wash and shift him.
[It is unclear whether the child referred to above is Cato's first son, Licinianus, or Salonianus, the son of his second wife, born when Cato was eighty years old. However, the son described in the rest of the passage, whose education received such personal attention from Cato, is definitely Licinianus.]
When his son was come to age of discretion, and that he was able to learn anything, Cato himself did teach him, notwithstanding he had a slave in his house called Chilo (a very honest man, and a good grammarian) who did also teach many others; but as he said himself, he did not like that a slave should rebuke his son, nor pulled him, it may be, by the ears when found tardy in his lesson; nor would he have him owe to a servant the obligation of so great a thing as his learning. Wherefore he himself taught him his grammar, the law, and to exercise his body; and not only to throw a dart, to play at the sword, to ride a horse, and to handle all sorts of weapons, but also to fight with fists, to abide cold and heat, and to swim over a swift-running river.
He said, moreover, that he wrote goodly histories in great letters with his own hand, because his son might learn in his father's house virtues of good men in times past, so that he, taking example of their doings, should frame his life to excel them. He said also that he took as great heed of speaking any uncomely words before his son, as he would have done if he had been before the vestal nuns.
[omission for length and content]
When he grew up, this Cato (the elder son) married Tertia, one of Paulus Aemilius' daughters; and so he was matched in this noble house, not only for his own virtue's sake, but for respect of his father's dignity and authority: whereby the great care, pains, and study that Cato the father took in bringing up his son in virtue and learning was honourably rewarded in the happy bestowing of his son.
Reading for Lesson Ten
Cato purchased a great many slaves out of the captives taken in war, but chiefly bought up the young ones, who were capable to be, as it were, broken and taught like whelps and colts. None of these ever entered another man's house, except when sent either by Cato himself or his wife. If any one of them were asked what Cato did, they answered merely that they did not know. And when they were within, either they must needs be occupied about something, or else they must sleep; for indeed Cato loved those most who used to lie down often to sleep, accounting them more docile than those who were wakeful, and more fit for anything when they were refreshed with a little slumber [omission for content].
At the first when he was but a poor soldier, he would not be difficult in anything which related to his eating, but looked upon it as a pitiful thing to quarrel with a servant for the belly's sake. But afterwards, when he grew richer, and made any feasts for his friends and colleagues in office: as soon a supper was over, he used to beat those that had not waited as they should have done at table, or had forgotten anything he would have had done. He would ever craftily make one of them fall out with another: for he could not abide they should be friends, being ever jealous of that. If any of them had done a fault that deserved death, he would declare his offence before them all: and then if they condemned him to die, he would put him to death before them all.
Howbeit in his latter time he grew greedy, and gave up his tillage, saying it was rather pleasant than profitable. Therefore, because he would lay out his money on safe and solid things, he purchased ponds, hot baths, grounds full of fuller's earth, remunerative lands, pastures, and woods; from all which he drew large returns; nor could Jupiter himself, he used to say, do him much damage.
[omission for length and content]
Cato was now grown old, when Carneades the Academic and Diogenes the Stoic came as deputies from Athens to Rome, praying for release from a penalty of five hundred talents laid on the Athenians [omission for length]. All the most studious youth immediately waited on these philosophers, and frequently, with admiration, heard them speak. But the gracefulness of Carneades' oratory, whose ability was really greatest, and his reputation equal to it, gathered large and favourable audiences, and ere long filled, like a wind, all the city with the sound of it. So that it soon began to be told that a Greek, famous even to admiration, winning and carrying all before him, had impressed so strange a love upon the young men, that, quitting all their pleasures and pastimes, they ran mad, as it were, after philosophy; which indeed much pleased the Romans in general; nor could they but with much pleasure see the youth receive so welcome the Greek literature, and frequent the company of learned men.
But Cato, even from the beginning that young men began to study the Greek tongue, and that it grew in estimation in Rome, did dislike of it: fearing lest the youth of Rome that were desirous of learning and eloquence, would utterly give over the honour and glory of arms. And when the fame of the philosophers increased in the city, and Gaius Acilius, a person of distinction, at his own request, became their interpreter to the Senate at their first audience, Cato resolved, under some specious pretense, to have all philosophers cleared out of the city; and, coming in the Senate, blamed the magistrates for letting these deputies stay so long a time without being despatched, though they were persons that could easily persuade the people to what they pleased; that therefore in all haste something should be determined about their petition, that so they might go home again in their own schools, and declaim to the Greek children, and leave the Roman youth to be obedient, as hitherto, to their own laws and governors.
Yet he did this not out of any anger, as some think, to Carneades; but because he wholly despised philosophy, and out of a kind of pride scoffed at the Greek studies and literature; as, for example, he would say that Socrates was a prating, seditious fellow, who did his best to tyrannize over his country, to undermine the ancient customs, and to entice and withdraw the citizens to opinions contrary to the laws. Ridiculing the school of Isocrates, he would add that his scholars grew old men before they had done learning with him, as if they were to use their art and plead causes in the next world.
And to frighten his son from anything that was Greek, in a more vehement tone than became one of his age, he pronounced, as it were, with the voice of an oracle, that the Romans would certainly be destroyed when they began once to be infected with Greek literature. And yet time hath proved his vain words false and untrue, for the city of Rome did never flourish so much, nor the Roman Empire was ever so great, as at that time, when learning and the Greek tongue most flourished.
Reading for Lesson Eleven
Cato did not only hate the philosophers of Greece, but he did dislike their physicians also; for having, it seems, heard how Hippocrates, when the king of Persia sent for him with offers of a fee of several talents, said that he would never assist barbarians who were enemies to the Greeks, he affirmed that this was now become a common oath taken by all physicians, and enjoined his elder son to have a care and avoid them; for that he himself had written a little book of prescriptions for curing those who were sick in his family; he never enjoined fasting to any one, but ordered them either vegetables, or the meat of a duck, pigeon, or hare. "For such meats," said he, "are good for the sick, and light of digestion, saving that they make them dream a little too much." He boasted also how with this manner of physic, he did always keep himself in health, and his family from sickness.
Yet for all that, I take it, he did not all that he bragged of: for he buried both his wife, and his elder son also. But he himself, being of a strong, robust constitution, held out longer; so that he would often, even in his old days, address himself to women; and when he was past a lover's age, married a young woman [omission for content].
Cato had a son, Cato Salonianus, by his second wife, whom he named after her. Soon afterwards, his elder son Licinianus died, of whom Cato often makes mention in his books as having been a good man. He is said, however, to have borne the loss moderately and like a philosopher, and was nothing the more remiss in attending to affairs of state [omission]. But as there was one that told Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, as it is written, that he could not die more honourably than to be buried in the tyranny: even so did Cato think that he could not wax more honestly old than in serving of the commonwealth, unto his dying day. So, at vacant times, when Cato was desirous a little to recreate and refresh himself, he passed his time away in making of books, and looking upon his husbandry in the country. This is the cause why he wrote so many kinds of books and stories. But his tillage and husbandry in the country, he did tend and follow all in his youth, for his profit. For he said he had but two sorts of revenue, tillage, and sparing; but in age, whatsoever he did in the country, it was all for pleasure, and to learn something ever of nature. For he hath written a book of the country life, and of tillage, in the which he showeth how to make tarts and cakes, and how to keep fruits. His suppers at his country-house used also to be plentiful; he daily invited his friends and neighbours about him, and passed the time merrily with them; so that his company was not only agreeable to those of the same age, but even to younger men; for he had had experience in many things, and had been concerned in much, both by word and deed, that was worth the hearing. He looked upon a good table as the best place for making friends; where the commendations of brave and good citizens were usually introduced, and little said of base and unworthy ones; as Cato would not give leave in his company to have anything, either good or ill, said about them.
Reading for Lesson Twelve
Now it is thought the last notable act and service Cato did in the commonwealth was the overthrow of Carthage. Indeed, Scipio (#3) did by his valour give it the last blow; but the war, chiefly by the counsel and advice of Cato, was undertaken on the following occasion. Cato was sent into Africa to understand the cause and controversy that was between the Carthaginians and Masinissa, king of Numidia, which were at great wars together. Masinissa, it seems, had been a friend from the beginning; and they, too, since they were conquered by Scipio (#1), were of the Roman confederacy, having been shorn of their power by loss of territory and a heavy tax.
Now when he was come into that country, he found not the city of Carthage in misery, beggary, and out of heart, as the Romans supposed; but well manned, full of riches and all sorts of arms and ammunition; he conceived that it was not a time for the Romans to adjust affairs between them and Masinissa; but rather that they themselves would fall into danger, unless they should find means to check this rapid new growth of Rome's ancient irreconcilable enemy.
Therefore, returning quickly to Rome, he acquainted the Senate that the former defeats and blows given to the Carthaginians had not so much diminished their power and strength, as it had abated their imprudence and folly; that they were not become weaker, but more experienced in war, and did only skirmish with the Numidians to exercise themselves the better to cope with the Romans; that the peace and league they had made was but a kind of suspension of war which awaited a fairer opportunity to break out again.
They say moreover, that besides the persuasions he used, he brought with him, of purpose, African figs in his long sleeves, which he shook out amongst them in the Senate. When the Senators marvelled to see so goodly fair green figs, he said, "The country that beareth them is not above three days' sailing from Rome."
Nay, he never after this gave his opinion without adding this sentence: "Also, Carthage, methinks, ought utterly to be destroyed." But Publius Scipio Nasica (#4) would always declare his opinion to the contrary, in these words, "It seems requisite to me that Carthage should still stand." He saw, in my opinion, that the Romans through their pride and insolence were full of absurdities, and carried themselves very high, by reason of their happy success and victories, and were so lofty minded that the Senate could hardly rule them; and that by reason of their great authority, they imagined they might bring their city to what height they would. Therefore, he spoke it, that the fear of Carthage might always continue as a bridle, to rein in the insolence of the people of Rome, who knew well enough that the Carthaginians were too weak to overcome the Romans, and too great to be despised by them. On the other side, it seemed a perilous thing to Cato, that a city which had been always great, and was now grown sober and wise, by reason of its former calamities, should still lie, as it were, in wait for the follies and dangerous excesses of the over-powerful Roman people; so that he thought it the wisest course to have all outward dangers removed, when they had as many inward ones among themselves. Thus Cato, they say, stirred up the third and last war against the Carthaginians; but no sooner was the said war begun than he died, prophesying of the person that should put an end to it who was then only a young man; but, being tribune in the army, he in several fights gave proof of his courage and conduct. The news of which being brought to Cato's ears at Rome, he spoke as they say, these two verses of Homer:
This only man right wise, reputed is to be,
all other seem but shadows set, by such wise men as he.
Which prophecy, Scipio (#3) soon after confirmed true by his doings.
Cato left behind him only a son he had by his second wife, who was called (as we said before) Cato Salonianus, by reason of his mother; and a grandson by his eldest son, who died. Cato Salonianus died when he was praetor; but his son was afterwards consul; and he was grandfather of Cato the Younger, who, for virtue and renown, was one of the most eminent personages of his time.
AmblesideOnline Plutarch Readings:
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey, Pt 1 Pompey, Pt 2 Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus
Aemilius Agis Alcibiades Alexander Aristides Brutus Julius Caesar Camillus Cato Cicero Coriolanus Crassus Demetrius Demosthenes Dion Fabius Gracchus Nicias Pericles Philopoemen Phocion Pompey, Pt 1 Pompey, Pt 2 Publicola Pyrrhus Solon Themistocles Timoleon Titus Flamininus