Friday, November 04, 2005


Was it a conspiracy of fate that Republican Rome in her dying throes produced such men of eminence the likes of whom the world has seldom seen, leave alone seen holding the centre stage? Like some ethereal apparition they appeared in brilliant effulgence and then faded away heralding a period of universal gloom.

When the civil wars of Marius and Sulla were over, when the banks of the Tiber were breathing the draughts of relief once again, there emerged men of exceptional caliber to guide the destiny of Rome. The names of Julius Caesar, Cicero and Pompey the Magnus reverberate today with awe and splendour across the long corridor of time. What was it in the Roman psyche, in the Roman ethos and in the Roman upbringing that gave us these men of indomitable spirit and lustrous mind which lesser mortals throughout the ages have tried to emulate and only a few have succeeded?

Cato the Younger, named after his great grand father, Cato the Elder, was no exception. He has gone down in history for his stubbornness and incorruptibility. There were many exceptional facets to his character and his whole life upheld the ennobling qualities that Providence bestows upon her favourite. He was born in Rome in 95 BCE, of Patrician parents and was orphaned at an early age. His maternal uncle brought him up along with his siblings. Even at an early age he showed his mettle when he refused to be bullied by elder students, his teacher or by any political big-wig.

On coming of age Cato left his uncle’s house to live independently and studied philosophy and moral and political questions. In his day he was the greatest practitioner of Stoic Philosophy. He tempered his body to withstand the extremes of heat and cold and could do with a minimum of food and clothing. He used to avoid the luxury of riding a horse and often traversed long distances on foot when his compatriots and juniors sat on the saddle.

Cato saw military service in Macedon where he commanded a legion. He shared with his soldiers their work, food and living quarters. He was a frontline leader of his men and was strict in discipline and punishment. He enjoyed the undiluted love of his legionaries. Later on he visited the Roman colonies in Asia and conversed with the famed Philosophers, especially the revered teachers of the Stoic school.

On his return to Rome he was elected a quaestor which entailed supervision of the treasury. Cato made a thorough study of the taxes and kept a close watch on functioning of the tax collectors. He did not hesitate to punish those guilty of embezzlement and extortion.

Afterwards he became a senator and he never missed a single session of the house. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave after the day’s business was over. Cato publicly rebuked them who shirked their senatorial responsibilities.

The women in his life

His relations with women were to say the least, strange, if not downright confusing. He was initially betrothed to Aemelia Lepida who was earlier engaged to Cornelius Caepio. This suitor had declined to marry her and Cato was free to make his proposal which he did as per custom. Matters were progressing amicably and the marriage was destined to take place in the not too distant future when Cornelius reappeared on the scene, proposed to Aemelia and ultimately married her. Cato was infuriated and insisted on dragging the pair to court for breach of faith but was prevented by his friends. A distraught Cato gave vent to his ire by penning some vitriolic poems.

Cato later on married Atilia. She bore him a son and a daughter, the famous Porcia who was to have the legendary Brutus as her second husband. At the height of the Cataline conspiracy when Rome was engulfed in tumults and chaos everywhere, when her very existence as a sovereign republic was precarious and the conspiracy was being passionately discussed threadbare in the Senate, there happened an unseemly incident that forever riveted the hatred of Cato for Julius Caesar. A letter was brought in the Senate to Julius Caesar which Julius read. Cato lambasted Caesar for ignoring the affairs of the state and indulging in frivolous pursuits. He further alleged that Caesar was in league with the conspirators and was indulging in clandestine activities. Caesar handed over the letter to Cato to read aloud which was a love letter from Cato’s sister to Caesar. Cato was humiliated and disgusted. For Caesar had a notorious reputation of sleeping with and debauching his political opponent’s wives. Later on Cato divorced his wife Atilia for adultery with the same Julius Caesar.

He then married Marcia Phillipa and was happy in her company. Cato had an admirer, Quintus Hortensius, matured in years, a renowned orator and a man of great virtue. Quintus desired to have an alliance with Cato by marriage and proposed to marry Cato’s daughter Porcia. "For," said he, "though this in the opinion of men may seem strange, yet in nature it is honest, and profitable for the public that a woman in the prime of her youth should not lie useless, and lose the fruit of her womb, nor, on the other side, should burden and impoverish one man, by bringing him too many children. Also by this communication of families among worthy men, virtue would increase, and be diffused through their posterity; and the commonwealth would be united and cemented by their alliances." Cato answered, that he loved Hortensius very well, and much approved of uniting their houses, but he thought it strange to speak of marrying his daughter, when she was already given to another. Then Hortensius, turning the discourse, did not hesitate to speak openly and ask for Cato's own wife, for she was young and fruitful, and he had already children enough. Neither can it be thought that Hortensius did this, as imagining Cato did not care for Marcia; for, it is said, she was then with child. Cato, perceiving his earnest desire, did not deny his request, but said that Philippus, the father of Marcia, ought also to be consulted. Philippus, therefore, being sent for, came; and finding they were well agreed, gave his daughter Marcia to Hortensius in the presence of Cato, who himself also assisted at the marriage. This caused a massive scandal in Rome but Cato, the stoic, remained unperturbed. Modern feminists may scream ‘murder’ that in this rather peculiar affair Marcia was never consulted but such was the genius of those times that Marcia dutifully consented to her husband’s and father’s requests.
Stranger it may seem that after the death of Hortensius, during the consternation at Rome on account of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Cato remarried Marcia.
En passant it may be relevant to mention that the great Octavius on being made Augustus Caesar and Emperor divorced his wife Scribonia and hastily married Livia who was then big with her husband’s child, after first compelling her husband to divorce her.

The Cataline conspiracy

Now we come to the Cataline conspiracy. Cataline a noble youth of Rome led a dissolute life and had dissipated his patrimony quite early. He planned to take over the Senate and the administration by force with the help of his associates and colleagues, brothers in profligacy all; in short a revolution. However this conspiracy was detected and Cataline fled from Rome fearing retribution. Two of his co-conspirators were arrested and their fate was being deliberated in the Senate. Cicero and Julius Caesar spoke in favour of exile and their speeches bear testimony to their clarity of thought and nobleness of spirit. Cato spoke last and a truncated portion of his speech is being presented to have a glimpse of the capacity of a brilliant mind.

"My feelings, Conscript Fathers, are extremely different, when I contemplate our circumstances and dangers, and when I revolve in my mind the sentiments of some who have spoken before me. Those speakers, as it seems to me, have considered only how to punish the traitors who have raised war against their country, their parents, their altars, and their homes but the state of affairs warns us rather to secure ourselves against them, than to take counsel as to what sentence we should pass upon them. Other crimes you may punish after they have been committed; but as to this, unless you prevent its commission, you will, when it has once taken effect, in vain appeal to justice .When the city is taken, no power is left to the vanquished. But, in the name of the immortal gods, I call upon you, who have always valued your mansions and villas, your statues and pictures, at a higher price than the welfare of your country; if you wish to preserve those possessions, of whatever kind they are, to which you are attached; if you wish to secure quiet for the enjoyment of your pleasures, arouse yourselves, and act in defense of your country. We are not now debating on the revenues, or on injuries done to our allies, but our liberty and our life are at stake.

Often, Conscript Fathers, have I spoken at great length in this assembly; often have I complained of the luxury and avarice of our citizens, and, by that very means, have incurred the displeasure of many. I, who never excused to myself, or to my own conscience, the commission of any fault, could not easily pardon the misconduct, or indulge the licentiousness, of others. But though you little regarded my remonstrances, yet the republic remained secure; its own strength was proof against your remissness. The question, however, at present under discussion, is not whether we live in a good or a bad state of morals; nor how great, or how splendid, the empire of the Roman people is; but whether these things around us, of whatever value they are, are to continue our own, or to fall, with ourselves, into the hands of the enemy.

In such a case, does any one talk to me of gentleness and compassion? For some time past, it is true, we have lost the real name of things; for to lavish the property of others is called generosity, and audacity in wickedness is called heroism; and hence the state is reduced to the brink of ruin. But let those, who thus misname things, be liberal, since such is the practice, out of the property of our allies; let them be merciful to the robbers of the treasury; but let them not lavish our blood, and, while they spare a few criminals, bring destruction on all the guiltless.

Do not suppose that our ancestors, from so small a commencement, raised the republic to greatness merely by force of arms. If such had been the case, we should enjoy it in a most excellent condition; for of allies and citizens, as well as arms and horses, we have a much greater abundance than they had. But there were other things which made them great, but which among us have no existence; such as industry at home, equitable government abroad, and minds impartial in council, uninfluenced by any immoral or improper feeling. Instead of such virtues, we have luxury and avarice; public distress, and private superfluity; we extol wealth, and yield to indolence; no distinction is made between good men and bad; and ambition usurps the honors due to virtue. Nor is this wonderful; since you study each his individual interest, and since at home you are slaves to pleasure, and here to money or favour; and hence it happens that an attack is made on the defenseless state.

But on these subjects I shall say no more. Certain citizens, of the highest rank, have conspired to ruin their country; they are engaging the Gauls, the bitterest foes of the Roman name, to join in a war against us; the leader of the enemy is ready to make a descent upon us; and do you hesitate; even in such circumstances, how to treat armed incendiaries arrested within your walls? I advise you to have mercy upon them, they are young men who have been led astray by ambition; send them away, even with arms in their hands. But such mercy, and such clemency, if they turn those arms against you, will end in misery to yourselves. The case is, assuredly, dangerous, but you do not fear it; yes, you fear it greatly, but you hesitate how to act, through weakness and want of spirit, waiting one for another, and trusting to the immortal gods, who have so often preserved your country in the greatest dangers. But the protection of the gods is not obtained by vows and effeminate supplications; it is by vigilance, activity, and a prudent measure, that general welfare is secured. When you are once resigned to sloth and indolence, it is in vain that you implore the gods; for they are then indignant and threaten vengeance.

In the days of our forefathers, Titus Manlius Torquatus, during a war with the Gauls, ordered his own son to be put to death, because he had fought with an enemy contrary to orders. That noble youth suffered for excess of bravery; and do you hesitate what sentence to pass on the most inhuman of traitors? Perhaps their former life is at variance with their present crime.

In conclusion, Conscript Fathers, if there were time to amend an error, I might easily suffer you, since you disregard words, to be corrected by experience of consequences. But we are beset by dangers on all sides; Catiline, with his army, is ready to devour us while there are other enemies within the walls and in the heart of the city; nor can any measures be taken, or any plans arranged, without their knowledge. The more necessary is it, therefore, to act with promptitude. What I advise, then, is this: that since the state, by a treasonable combination of abandoned citizens, has been brought into the greatest peril; and since the conspirators have been convicted on the evidence of Titus Volturcius, and the deputies of the Allobroges, and on their own confession, of having concerted massacres, conflagrations, and other horrible and cruel outrages, against their fellow-citizens and their country, punishment be inflicted, according to the usage of our ancestors, on the prisoners who have confessed their guilt, as on men convicted of capital crimes."

Ultimately Cato’s view held sway and the conspirators were summarily executed.

The death of Cato

It goes without saying that Cato led one of the most exceptional of lives. His death or rather the manner of his death surpasses all that he did in his life. Rome was then facing civil strife [49 BCE-46BCE]. Julius Caesar was demanding his pound of flesh which the Senate was reluctant to give. Cato, who harboured a visceral loathing for Caesar, since the Cataline affair, was most vociferous in condemning the excesses and rapacity of Caesar. But when the dye was cast and Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his legions, the hapless city was all turmoil; those inside rushing out and those outside rushing in. The Senate’s sole defender Pompey the Great was old in years and his best was behind him. Caesar led Pompey a merry dance all the way and at the decisive battle at Pharsalus, Macedonia, defeated him round and square. A fleeing Pompey sought refuge in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was slain by the Ptolemies. Cato had accompanied the Senatorial army to Pharsalus and after the rout Cato settled in Utica, Africa [near present day Tunisia]. Caesar with single minded determination landed in Africa and decimated the remnant of the Senatorial army at Thapsus.

Cato on hearing the news was unwilling to live in a world ruled by Caesar. It was not for him to seek clemency from any one, least of all from Caesar, and live the rest of his life in peace. Cato committed suicide by falling on his own sword and disemboweling himself.

Thus ended the life of Cato: a man uncompromising in his beliefs, who stood alone and unrepentant in the face of formidable adversity and who was the foremost champion of liberty.

Seneca, the philosopher and tutor to Caesar Nero, wrote: but lo’ here is a spectacle worthy of the regard of God as he contemplates his works; lo here is a contest worthy of God- a brave man matched against ill fortune. I do not know, I say, what nobler sight the Lord of heaven could find on earth, should he wish to turn his attention there, than the spectacle of Cato, after his cause had already been shattered more than once, nevertheless standing erect among the ruins of the commonwealth.”

The summing up

That Cato was the foremost stoic of his day is needless to mention. Zeno of Citium was the first to establish the Stoic School of Philosophy at the ‘Stoa Poikilos’ in Athens at about 308 BCE. However the concept of Stoicism was first adumbrated by the great Socrates and trickled down to the later generation through his student Antisthenes the Cynic.

Stoicism has now come to mean indifference to pain but initially Stoicism taught freedom from passion by following ‘reason’. The Stoics knew that human flesh is heir to passion and hence unavoidable; but they sought to avoid emotional troubles by the practice of logic, reflection and concentration.

The very kernel of this philosophy was to be free of suffering through ‘Apathy’ as the word apathy was then understood i.e. objectivity or clear judgement. To the Stoic, ‘Reason’ not only encompassed logic but was a votary of that celestial wisdom which the Greeks called logos. The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic Philosophy are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

The peculiar marital arrangement of Cato which caused a lot of confusion and scurrility at Rome has never failed to raise indignation in the later ages. To get a proper understanding of the institution of marriage in ancient Rome one must seek refuge in the sterling essay of Professor Ferrero ‘Women of the Caesars’ [1911]

‘The individualistic conception of matrimony and of the family attained by our civilization was alien to the Roman mind, which conceived of these from an essentially political and social point of view. The purpose of marriage was, so to speak, exterior to the pair. As untouched by any spark of the metaphysical spirit as he was unyielding--at least in action--to every suggestion of the philosophic; preoccupied only in enlarging and consolidating the state of which he was master, the Roman aristocrat never regarded matrimony and the family, just as he never regarded religion and law, as other than instruments for political domination, as means for increasing and establishing the power of every great family, and by family affiliations to strengthen the association of the aristocracy, already bound together by political interest.’

Elsewhere he writes ‘More important still were the woman's dower and her personal fortune The Romans not only considered it perfectly honourable, sagacious, and praiseworthy for a member of the political aristocracy to marry a rich woman for her wealth, the better to maintain the lustre of his rank, or the more easily to fulfil his particular political and social duties, but they also believed there could be no better luck or greater honours for a rich woman than for this reason to marry a prominent man. They exacted only that she be of respectable habits, and even in this regard it appears that, during certain tumultuous periods, they sometimes shut one eye.’

Cato was the last obstacle to Julius Caesar toward absolute dictatorship. The death of Cato has been panegyrised by innumerable authors and poets. Reckon it will be in the fitness of things to mention the name of Joseph Addison, the English politician and litterateur, who wrote the play “Cato- a tragedy’ [1713].

Here are some nuggets from the play:-

‘Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius; we’ll deserve it’

‘A Roman soul is bent on higher views:
To civilize the rude, unpolished world,
And lay it under the restraint of laws;
To make man mild, and sociable to man;
To cultivate the wild, licentious savage
With wisdom, discipline, and liberal arts
The embellishments of life; virtues like these
Make human nature shine, reform the soul,
And break our fierce barbarians into men.’

‘To strike thee dumb, turn up thy eyes to Cato!
There may’st thou see to what a godlike height
The Roman virtues lift up mortal man.
While good, and just, and anxious for his friends,
He’s still severely bent against himself;
Renouncing sleep, and rest, and food, and ease,
He strives with thirst and hunger, toil and heat;
And when his fortune sets before him all
The pomps and pleasures that his soul can wish,
His rigid virtue will accept of none.’

‘Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths,
Than wound my honour.’

George Washington was highly enamoured of this play and had it played to his troops in America during the American war of Independence. Furthermore he often paraphrased some quotations from this play while writing his letters.


Project Gutenberg
Sallust The Cataline Conspiracy
Plutarch The Life of Cato
Ferrero The Women of the Caesars
Addison Cato- A Tragedy

No comments: