Marcus Porcius Cato Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Marcus Porcius Cato 234 B.C.–149 B.C.

(Also known as Cato the Censor, Cato Major, and Cato the Elder. Roman statesman, orator, and author of nonfiction prose.)

A roman soldier, estate-owner, and statesman, Cato has for many centuries exemplified the values of the Roman republic: honesty, fortitude, asceticism, determination, and simplicity. As a censor—an elected official who monitored the moral conduct of the ruling class—he became known for fulfilling his duties with incorruptible rigor. Cato also excelled at the oration required by his work; his style not only won many cases but also garnered praise from later writers, including Cicero and Livy. His writing constituted a second career, which he began after he reached the status of censor. Despite lacking formal trainng in, composition, Cato developed a genuinely national prose literature for Rome. Where Greek ideals had previously set the standard for writing, Cato produced the first works of prose in Latin, including the landmark history, the Origines.


Cato was born in 234 B.C. into a family of Sabine landowners—prosperous, non-aristocratic farmers who belonged to the Roman middle class. Cato grew up on a farm in Tusculum, not more than ten miles from Rome, and received a practical education that prepared him to run an estate and to serve as a citizen and a soldier. He fought in the war against Hannibal and served as military tribune in Sicily when he was only twenty years old. By 191 B.C. he was filling the same post, along with an aristocratic mentor named Lucius Valerius Flaccus, at some of the most important cities in Greece, including Athens. By this time, however, his military career had taken second place to his political career, also sponsored by Valerius Flaccus. Cato's first political position was as a quaestor, or financial administrator, in Sicily and Africa. By 199 B.C. he became plebeian aedile, an administrator of public works. He assumed a specifically judicial role as a minor magistrate or praetor of Sardinia in 198 B.C. In 195 B.C., he reached the summit of his judicial career, becoming one of Rome's two censors, or chief magistrates; he again shared the honor with Valerius Flaccus. Cato pursued his new position with zeal, developing the political capacity for which he became known: to check the excesses of the aristocracy in order to advance the prosperity of the republic.

Cato's judicial career was quite active from this point forward; he was often the primary prosecutor in cases involving the powerful circle of aristocrats led by Africanus Maior Scipios. He was known as a defender of Roman virtue and tradition, which he saw embodied in the public life of Rome, rather than in the individual achievements of its noble families. In his promotion of Roman values he also became a vocal critic of Greek culture, which he saw as individualistic, indulgent, and morally degenerate. Many of the influential speeches for which he was celebrated addressed these topics; in 155 B.C., for example, he was responsible for securing the expulsion from Rome of Greek philosophers who had come as ambassadors.

Cato pursued farming alongside his military and political careers, building a plantation that quickly eclipsed the small holding his father had owned. His devotion to hard work, frugality, and stern management facilitated the economic success of his estate. Writing constituted something of a sideline for him; he probably began only after achieving the status of censor. Critics have speculated that his writing might have grown out of domestic need—educational manuals for his son, farm management manuals for the running of his estate—or out of boredom, pursued in depth once his civic duties tapered off late in life. Whatever the motivation, all of his writings bear strong evidence of his practical nature and his efforts to check the influence of Greek culture in Rome.

Major Works

Many sayings attributed to Cato survive, preserved by his later admirers, and one of the most invoked of these is his advice regarding composition: rem tene, verba sequentur, or "have the contents clear, and the words will come of themselves." This rejection of deliberate art in writing—a specifically Greek value—manifests itself clearly in his major works, all of which are known for their simplicity and directness. He is probably most celebrated for the Origines, since this was the first history of Rome and Italy composed in Latin prose. This work occupies seven books, the first several of which describe the nation's origins and the last three of which are devoted to recent history. Cato unabashedly used the work as a vehicle for his political agenda, dotting it throughout with his speeches. It also portrays the Rome he believed in, one built by the people rather than by individual heroes and aristocratic families.

Cato's other two significant written works were practical manuals. De agricultura addresses farm management, while Ad filium was designed for his son's education. The first has enjoyed considerable critical attention, largely because it is the only work of Cato's that has survived in a complete form. Although scholars have discerned evidence of Cato's political perspective in the volume, it is on the surface a purely instructional work, providing advice specifically for the non-aristocratic landowner. Ranging from guidelines for labor management to recipes, the writings reflect Cato's values, specifically his commitment to hard work, leadership, ambition, and unsentimental virtue. The Ad filium apparently addressed a broader range of topics in a similar fashion, providing information on rhetoric and medicine, among other concerns, for the sake of his son's education. Critics disagree about whether it was one volume or a set of volumes, maybe constituting the first Roman encyclopedia.

Unlike his written works, Cato's orations were the product of his skill and training. Scholars estimate that there were 150 of his speeches in print after his death—a number they determine mostly from the evidence of Cicero, who made an effort to find copies of these speeches in his own day, recording some of them and many of their titles in his own works. The speeches fulfilled immediate purposes—usually military or judicial—but were carefully styled for persuasive effect. Cato was noted for the function of humor as a primary element in his speeches, and he was also known for his aphorisms, which were apparently collected in a few volumes, including Apophthegmata and Carmen de moribus.

Textual History

Little of Cato's work has survived in any form. Scholars rely on references in the works of other writers and the manuscript fragments that occasionally surface. Without Cicero, whose portrayals of Cato were based on sources that vanished sometime around the fourth century, very little would be known of Cato's speeches. The Origines, one of the primary works of Latin historiography, remains only in a few fragments. Only De agricultura survives in a complete manuscript, although critics cannot be certain how true it is to Cato's original; centuries of readers scribbled commentary in manuscript margins, and the manuscripts that followed may have been revised accordingly.

Critical Reception

Cato's earliest commentators, including Cicero, Livy, and Gellius, praised his style, gleaned primarily from his speeches. While Cato's untainted reputation as a Roman citizen has persisted through the centuries, the estimation of his writing has not enjoyed such unequivocal estimation. Modern scholars have tended to note the obvious absence of compositional training in his education, commenting on the lack of art and even coherence in his written works. J. W. Mackail charges the Origines with an "absence of method," and John Dunlop refers to the "total want of arrangement." Late twentieth-century critics, however, have begun to discern organizing strategies—albeit not immediately apparent—in, for example, De agricultura.

Cato's value to modern scholars has been mostly as an innovator of Latin prose literature. Their opinions about why he took this step, however, are varied. Two issues dominate discussion of Cato's work: audience and motivation. Regarding audience, critics are divided about how public Cato meant his works to be, some arguing that the Origines and De agricultura, like Ad filium, are simple notes written for use in his own home, while others maintain that he desired publication. The disagreement regarding motivation rests on the sincerity of Cato's hatred for Hellenism. Most critics have perceived him as driven by the threat of Greek influence, for which he wanted to create a wholly native alternative. The Origines and Adfilium constitute the usual material for this argument, since both compete with Greek traditions—one in historiography and the other in education—on which Romans depended. This argument relies on a long-standing assumption that Cato was unremittingly hostile to Greek culture. Later in the twentieth century, however, some critics began to soften that view, pointing to the Greek echoes in Cato's work, including the Origines and De agricultura. Michael Grant contends that "Cato, while anti-Hellenic, was also a Hellenist." According to this perspective, Cato's anti-Greek stance was a pose determined by his desire to see a specifically Roman culture come to fruition, with his own Latin prose as a significant contribution.