Marcus Porcius Cato Essay - Critical Essays

Cato, Marcus Porcius


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.

Principal Works

Ad filium (educational tract[s])

De agricultura (handbook)

Carmen de moribus (aphorisms)

Origines (history)

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Principal English Translations

Cato the Censor. On Farming, (translated by Ernest Brehaut) 1993

On Agriculture (translated by William Davis Hooper) 1935

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Marcus Tullius Cicero (essay date 46 B.C.)

SOURCE: Marcus Tullius Cicero, "The Brutus: The Importance of Oratory," in On Government, translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Books, 1993, pp. 221-334.

[Cicero referred to Cato in many of his works, often making the earlier orator a character in ethical dialogues. In the excerpt below, Cicero praises Cato's skills as an orator.]

Cato's speeches are almost as numerous as those of the Athenian (to whom, however, I believe that some are wrongly attributed). I call Lysias Athenian because he was certainly born and died at Athens, although Timaeus,1 by a sort of Licinian and Mucian law,2 ascribes him to Syracuse instead. Between Lysias and Cato there...

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Livy (essay date c. 17)

SOURCE: Livy, "Book XXXVIII," in Livy, Vol. XI, translated by Evan T. Sage, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965, pp. 217-400.

[In the following excerpt Livy briefly summarizes Cato's reputation, commending him to the reader's highest admiration. Because the exact date of composition is not known, Livy's death date is used to date this essay].

[Among] all the patricians and plebeians of the most illustrious houses, Marcus Porcius Cato stood out most conspicuously. In this man there was such force of mind and character that in whatever station he had been born it seemed that he would have made his fortune for himself. No art of conducting either private or...

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Plutarch (essay date c. 120)

SOURCE: Plutarch, "Marcus Cato," in Plutarch's Lives, pp. 516-42.

[Plutarch's life of Cato has supplied the definitive biography, relied upon by centuries of scholars. Although certain details have been disputed, the comprehensiveness of the account furnishes a very full portrait of Cato's character. Plutarch's death is used to date this essay, since the exact composition date is not known.]

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,...

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Lorenzo Valla (essay date 1433)

SOURCE: Lorenzo Valla, "Book II" and "Book III," in On Pleasure (De voluptate), translated by A. Kent Hieatt and Maristella Lorch, Abaris Books, Inc., 1977, pp. 132-227, 228-327.

[Valla, an Italian intellectual, served as the Librarian of the Vatican. His De vero bono, or On Pleasure, takes the form of a letter in which the writer, who identifies himself as an Epicurean, refutes the arguments of a friend who advocates stoicism. Cato appears pears in this work as an example of the stoic personality; in the excerpts below, Valla criticizes Cato in order to promote Epicureanism.]

Here … [you] may meet my argument with authoritative instances (not...

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John Dunlop (essay date 1824)

SOURCE: John Dunlop, "Marcus Porcius Cato," in History of Roman Literature, From Its Earliest Period to the Augustan Age, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1824, pp. 13-31.

[In the following excerpt from his history of Rome, Dunlop emphasizes Cato's devotion and skill as a farmer. He also summarizes Cato's works, giving an extensive synopsis of the De agricultura, here called De Re Rustica.]

Marcus Porcius Cato, better known by the name of Cato the Censor, wrote the earliest book on husbandry which we possess in the Latin language. This distinguished citizen was born in the 519th year of Rome. Like other Romans of his day, he was brought up to the...

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Charles Thomas Cruttwell (essay date 1878)

SOURCE: Charles Thomas Cruttwell, "Chapter IX," in A History of Roman Literature: From the Caliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius, fourth edition, Charles Griffin and Company, 1878, pp. 87-103.

[Dubbing Cato "the perfect type of an old Roman, " Cruttwell proceeds, in the excerpt below, to attribute the character of genuinely Roman letters to Cato's style and values. Cruttwell also espouses the traditional view of Cato's motivation for writing: his hostility to Greek culture.]

The creator of Latin prose writing was CATO (234-149 B.C.). In almost every department he set the example, and his works, voluminous and varied, retained their reputation until the close...

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J. W. Mackail (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: J. W. Mackail, "Cato," in Latin Literature, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1895, pp. 31-2.

[In the following excerpt, Mackail praises Cato as "the founder" of Roman prose, while also describing his influence as "somewhat narrow and harsh. " He briefly summarizes each of the major works.]

In the history of the half-century following the war with Hannibal, Cato is certainly the most striking single figure. It is only as a man of letters that he has to be noticed here; and the character of a man of letters was, perhaps, the last in which he would have wished to be remembered or praised. Yet the cynical and indomitable old man, with his rough humour, his...

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William Davis Hooper (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: William Davis Hooper, in an introduction to Marcus Porcius Cato on Agriculture, Marcus Terentius Varro on Agriculture, translated by William Davis Hooper, Harvard University Press, 1935, pp. ix-xxii.

[In the introduction, excerpted below, to his translation of Cato's De agricultura, Hooper provides a synopsis of the work and a brief sketch of Cato's biography.]

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C., known also as the Orator, the Censor, Cato Major, or the Elder, to distinguish him from his great-grandson Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, was born of an old plebeian family at Tusculum, an ancient town of Latium, within ten miles of Rome. His youth was spent on...

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Moses Hadas (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Moses Hadas, "Pre-Ciceronian Prose," in A History of Latin Literature, Columbia University Press, 1952, pp. 58-68.

[In the following excerpt, Hadas stresses the importance of Cato's contribution to Roman historiography. In his discussion of Cato's career, however, Hadas attributes "more than a touch of demagoguery " to the orator's political and literary style.]

In history as well as oratory Cato is a pioneer. Various priestly and other chronicles must have been kept from the earliest organization of the state, but it was only when Rome entered the main stream of Mediterranean history in the Second Punic War that awareness of self and of other peoples provided...

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Tore Janson (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Tore Janson, "Agricultural Handbooks," in Latin Prose Prefaces: Studies in Literary Conventions, Almqvist & Wiksell, 1964, pp. 83-94.

[In the excerpt that follows, Janson examines the rhetorical structure of Cato 's preface to the De agricultura. Its sentence structure, Janson argues, reveals a social and economic purpose at odds with the professed moral purpose of the work.]

The entire preface to Cato's book on agriculture is devoted to a comparison between different ways of earning a living, with on the one hand agriculture and on the other trade and banking.1 The disposition of this brief preface requires some clarification.2...

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H. H. Scullard (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: H. H. Scullard, "Cato's Censorship," in Roman Politics: 220-150 B.C., Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1973, pp. 153-64.

[In the excerpt that follows, Scullard explains Cato's position in Roman politics, describing both his historical influence and the bureaucratic context in which a censor functioned.]

Cato's censorship is remarkable less for any positive reforms than for the spirit in which it was conducted and the impression which it made upon Roman tradition. Censors had more arbitrary and personal influence than other regular magistrates, because they did not have to account for their acts; since they were not appointed strictly to administer1 the...

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Alan E. Astin (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Alan E. Astin, "The De agricultura and Other Writings," in Cato the Censor, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1978, pp. 182-210.

[Astin's Cato the Censor is the first extensive biography of Cato since Plutarch 's Lives and the only indepth study to date in English. The chapter excerpted below summarizes all of the writings, provides an extensive discussion of De agricultura, and examines Cato's development and purpose as an author. Astin ultimately deems Cato's influence on Roman prose "a considerable imaginative achievement."]

1. Cato's writings

'His eloquence lives and flourishes, enshrined in writings of every...

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Gian Biagio Conte (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Gian Biagio Conte, "Cato," in Latin Literature: A History, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 85-91.

[Conte 's authoritative text on Latin literature, first published in Italian in 1987, provides a brief summary of Cato's life and work. He emphasizes the significance of the Origines, the De agricultura, and Cato's attitude to Greek culture, which Conte contends to have been less hostile than usually described.]


Marcus Porcius Cato was born in 234 at Tusculum, near what is today Frascati, to a plebeian family of prosperous farmers. He fought in the war against Hannibal, and in 214 he was military...

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Elaine Fantham (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Elaine Fantham, "Ennius and Cato, Two Early Writers," in Roman Literary Culture, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, p. 11.

[In the following excerpt, Fantham sketches Cato 's literary influence, presenting it in relation to the poet Ennius.]

Rome's earliest literary culture can be exemplified in the intersecting careers of two famous men, born within five years of each other, Q. Ennius (239-169) and M. Porcius Cato (234(?)-149). Between them they wrote in every known genre of Latin prose and verse, and their long lives—Ennius reached seventy and Cato either eighty-five or ninety—witnessed the full expansion of Roman imperial conquest and both public...

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Further Reading

Copley, Frank O. "Early Prose, Cato." In Latin Literature from the Beginnings to the Close of the Second Century A.D. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969, pp. 56-65.

Considers Cato's influence on Latin prose in the context of the development of Latin prose literature in general.

Grant, Michael. "Cato the Censor and After." In The Ancient Historians. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970, pp. 167-80.

Assesses Cato's contribution to Roman historiography, emphasizng in particular his reaction against Greek influences.

Grenier, Albert. "The New Spirit...

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