Cato the Censor

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111205839-Cato_C.jpg Cato the Censor (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman administrator and orator{$I[g]Roman Republic;Cato the Censor} Through his public example, the offices he served, and his writings, Cato advocated an ideal of a powerful, prosperous state populated with self-reliant, active citizens.

Early Life

Marcus Porcius Cato (KAY-toh) was born in Tusculum, about fifteen miles outside Rome. Little is known about his family except that his father, Marcus, and great-grandfather Cato were well-respected soldiers. The name Cato, meaning “accomplished,” was given to a novus homo (new man) who came to public attention by his own achievements rather than by connection to a distinguished family. Young Cato spent his youth on an estate in the Sabine territory, where he learned farming, viticulture, and other agricultural skills.

When Cato was seventeen, the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy and defeated several Roman armies, inflicting huge losses. More than fifty thousand Romans died at the Battle of Cannae in 216 b.c.e. Cato enlisted soon after Cannae and served with distinction for more than a decade. He fought in major battles in Sicily and Italy, including the siege of Syracuse and the defeat of Hasdrubal (Hannibal’s brother) at Metaurus in 207. By the time Hannibal fled Italy and Carthage surrendered, around 201, Cato’s personality and career had been shaped. He had proved heroic and fearless in combat. He carried an implacable hatred for Carthage. He displayed leadership, being elected a military tribune responsible for the soldiers’ welfare in and out of battle.

Cato now entered public life and held a series of elective offices. In 204 he became quaestor, the official charged with watching over public expenditures. In this capacity he accompanied the army of Scipio Africanus in its attack on Carthaginian soil. In 199 Cato became a plebeian aedile, one who administered public buildings, streets, temples, and the marketplace. A year later, Cato was one of four praetors chosen; praetor was a more significant post that included the power to dispense justice and to command an army. Cato spent his praetorship as governor of Sardinia, where he gained a reputation for honest and frugal administration.

Important patrons as well as ordinary voters were attracted to Cato and readily supported his advancing career. The Greek historian Plutarch described Cato at this time as a man with a ruddy complexion, gray eyes, and unusual public speaking skills. Cato’s quick mind—his knack for striking analogies and turns of phrase—and fearless attitude made him a successful orator, valued as an ally and feared as an opponent.

Life’s Work

Cato’s election as consul in 195 began a period of forty-six years during which he exerted significant influence in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. Cato’s leadership coincided with a period of profound change in Roman manners at home and in Roman policies toward other world powers. By the time of Cato’s death, Rome had defeated its Imperial rivals, conquering Greece and Macedonia and destroying Carthage, burning the city to the ground. Military and political supremacy brought Rome economic supremacy, and great wealth poured into a country where simplicity and austerity were traditional. Wealth became the basis of a leisured culture that looked to Greece for social values—a culture more intellectual, aesthetic, and self-indulgent than traditional Rome. None of these changes occurred quickly or without dispute. Cato participated in the major controversies of the era, speculating on whether Rome could dominate other nations without exploiting them, whether Romans could maintain a work ethic amid unprecedented luxury, and whether Greek attitudes would supplant Roman ones.

Cato served as one of the two consuls appointed annually. Consuls were the senior Roman magistrates who executed the senate’s will in political and military affairs. Soon after he took office, Cato went to Spain to lead the effort to subdue several tribes in rebellion since 197. Drilling inexperienced troops rigorously, Cato prepared them so effectively that they routed a veteran Spanish force at Emporiae. Cato showed mercy to the survivors and successfully induced other rebel groups and cities to surrender. On his return to a triumph in Rome, Cato boasted that he had captured more towns than he had spent days in Spain. Soon afterward he married a senator’s daughter, a sign that a novus homo was now acceptable to the aristocracy.

Four years later, Cato went to Greece as military tribune with the army advancing against Antiochus, Rome’s chief threat in Greece and Hannibal’s protector. The army’s march was blocked at the pass of Thermopylae (where three centuries before, Spartan troops had held off invading Persians) until Cato led a cohort over rocks and crags to take the enemy rearguard by surprise. Cato claimed as much credit as Glabrio, the Roman commander, for the successful campaign. For years afterward, the two were political rivals.

In 189, Cato ran for the office of censor but was defeated. A censor ranked just below consul: He oversaw public morals, carried out the census, selected new members for the senate, expelled unfit senators, and conducted religious services....

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Cato the Censor

(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Cato played an important role at the battles at the Metaurus River and Thermopylae; he restored order in Roman Spain and was instrumental in Rome’s decision to destroy the rival city of Carthage.

Known for his stern, uncompromising attitude as Roman statesman, Cato the Censor brought the same discipline to the military sphere. He played an important role in the Battle of the Metaurus River in 207 b.c.e., which prevented Hannibal from receiving much needed Carthaginian reinforcements in Italy. In 204 b.c.e., Cato served as quaestor in Sicily and Africa to the future conqueror of Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, complaining of the lax military discipline in Scipio’s camp. In his consular year 195 b.c.e., Cato put down rebellious Iberian tribes and extended Roman territory in Spain, for which he celebrated a triumphal procession in Rome. In 191 b.c.e., in the Antiochene War, as military tribune, he played an important part in the defeat of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus III and his Aetolian allies at Thermopylae, along the main land route in antiquity from north to central and southern Greece. Cato reached the height of his influence after his severe censorship of 184 b.c.e. In his later years, he incessantly exhorted the Roman Senate to destroy its old nemesis Carthage. Scipio Africanus carried out his advice in the Second Punic War.

Further Reading:

Astin, A. E. Cato the Censor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Bagnall, Nigel. The Punic Wars. London: Hutchinson, 1990.

Errington, R. M. The Dawn of Empire: Rome’s Rise to World Power. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Harris, William V. War and Imperialism in Republican Rome. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Thiel, J. H. Studies in Ancient History. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1994.