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CATO THE ELDER
[a.k.a. Cato the Censor]

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column arcus Porcius Cato was a Roman statesman, orator, writer, and defender of conservative Roman Republican ideas who lived between 234 and 149 BC. He was born into a wealthy family of Roman landholders during the early Republican period on a farm in the city of Tusculum, southeast of present–day Rome. His early farm upbringing resulted in a lifelong interest in agriculture and the writing of his De Agri Cultura in 160 BC which is the oldest Latin literary encyclopedia in existence today. His conservative views of traditional Roman Republican culture and the importance of the development of Latin literature and its survival as a written language resulted in his fear and dislike of the increasing Greek influence on the Romans. Cato helped insure the survival of Latin by being the first to write an encyclopedic history of Rome in Latin called Origines, of which only small fragments survive.

Cato was born Marcus Porcius Priscus but, due to his abilities as a skillful orator, he became known as Marcus Porcius Cato. The Romans called an experienced or skillful man Catus. The Latin word catus means sharp intellect.

Cato was also known as Cato the Censor for his monitoring of the behavior of public officials and his desire to extricate any Greek influence or capitalist ideas and to return to conservative Roman conduct and morality.

As censor, he attempted to preserve old Roman ancestral custom, mos maiorum. He supported, in 181 BC, the law against luxury, lex Orchia, and in 169 BC, the law that limited a woman’s financial freedom, lex Voconia. He is also known as Cato the Censor due to his austere scrutinization of Senate officials in 184 BC and the removal of those who he considered too liberal or open to new foreign ideas, and those who were extravagant or who he felt lived luxurious, immoral lives.

“The common people, however, liked Cato’s censorship. When they set up a statue in his honour, the inscription in it did not refer to his military triumphs, but simply to the fact that this was Cato the Censor, who, by his discipline and temperance, kept the Roman state from sinking into vice.” (p.100, Plutarch : Ten Famous Lives)

C ato fought in the Second Punic War in Spain. It was here where the Carthaginians were driven out by Publius Scipio Africanus in 206 BC, and Hannibal’s army was destroyed in 202 BC. Three important terms of peace were that the Carthaginians cede Spain to Rome, that they were forbidden from waging war without the permission of Rome, and that they were allowed to keep their original territory in Africa.

Masinissa, who provided essential military assistance to Scipio Africanis in fighting Hannibal’s army at Zama, continued to attack Carthaginian territory in Africa, unchecked by the Roman Senate, land that was supposed to be protected by the peace terms of the Second Punic War. This led to Carthage declaring war on Masinissa, violating the peace treaty with Rome and giving justification for Rome’s invasion of Carthage.

Earlier, Cato was sent on a diplomatic mission to Africa to negotiate peace terms between the Carthaginians and Numidian tribesmen. While visiting Carthage he became disgusted at the wasteful indulgence and luxury, the wealth and power of the merchants and their thriving international trade, and he believed that Carthage posed a threat to Rome. Cato concluded every speech that he gave with the phrase, ‘Delenda est Carthago’ meaning ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. Cato was instrumental in leading to Rome’s attack on Carthage, that led to the beginning of the Third Punic War that began in 149 BC, the year of Cato’s death, and ended in 146 BC with Carthage being burnt to the ground and salt being plowed into its soil.

C ato served as a quaestor under Scipio Africanus in 204 BC. A quaestor was a Roman official either in charge of public funds such as a state treasurer or army paymaster, or a public judge or prosecutor in a criminal trial. He served as an aedile in 199 BC. An aedile was a Roman official who was the superintendent of public works, monitored the public grain supply, was responsible for policing the city and maintaining order, and was held accountable for providing for the public games. He was an advocate of public works and supported the construction of the Basilica Porcia—that was the first basilica in Rome. He served as praetor in 198 BC in Sardinia where he used his legal authority to suppress usury, the practice of lending money at an exorbitant rate of interest. A praetor was an ancient Roman magistrate ranking below a consul, but the word came to mean a defender of a traditional established culture or social order: a conservative. This was an excellent description of Cato since he was closed to new ideas and liberal attitudes. Cato served as consul in 195 BC, with his influential friend L. Valerius Flaccus. A consul was either one of two chief Roman magistrates of the Republic or a powerful honorary official of the Empire who advised the emperor. As consul, he won the honor of a triumph for his suppressing of an insurrection in his province of Spain.

The Scipio family, possessing tremendous power as victorious generals in battle and influential public officials, were open to new liberal ideas and Greek cultural influence thereby undermining traditional Roman standards of morality. Cato successfully attacked L. Scipio and his son Scipio Africanus and was able to diminish their political influence so that in 184 BC, he was elected to the censorship with his friend L. Valerius Flaccus. He was known as Cato the Censor for his oratories concerning the immorality of luxurious living and his activities in extricating those Senate officials whom he believed were leading extravagant lives or were not displaying classical Roman public behavior and so were unfit to serve public office. One such example was a senator who publicly kissed his wife in the presence of his daughter and was thus removed from his official position. In classical Rome a censor was one of two magistrates who acted as tax assessors, census takers, and inspectors of morals and conduct.

Cato lived modestly on a simple farm, ate with his servants, acted moderately and did not believe in overworking his slaves, though they were sold when they became old or ill and were no longer wanted. He walked to plead cases in the court by day and walked home at night to practice oratory, which he felt was a way that one could become a good pleader, or lawyer—one practiced in the art of rhetoric. He attempted to eliminate all luxury in his life and maintained his frugal Spartan ways until his death. He was a strict father, harsh husband, and inflexible political official who enforced his own austere sense of morality on the Roman Republic, particularly in the administration of justice. As Rome became more open to new ideas and Greek influence and learning, which is what eventually led to the success and development of the great Roman Empire, Cato became more critical of the Greek scholars and philosophers whom he saw as rebellious men, i.e., those who were attempting to undermine ancient customs and the best interests of classical Rome. Cato became fearful of the corrupting Greek influence on Rome and stated, “That country (i.e. Greece) will present us with her literature, and corrupt everything—even more so, if she sends her physicians here. They have sworn to kill off every non-Greek with medicine!” (p.305, Literary History of Rome/Silver Age, Duff). He was wary of the influence of the new Greek philosophy on Roman culture and attempted to avoid Greek-Italian interaction. In 155 BC, he publicly spoke out against visiting Athenian philosophers and in 167 BC, he opposed the declaration of war on Rhodes and he supported the granting of independence to Macedonia. Continued...

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