Cato the Elder

M. Porcius Cato or Cato the Censor

Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor
Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Brief History:

M. Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor) was an austere leader of the Roman Republic known for coming into conflict with his contemporary, the more flamboyant Scipio Africanus, winner of the Second Punic War.

Cato (the Younger) is the name of one of Julius Caesar's staunchest opponents. Cato the Elder is his ancestor.

Cato the Elder served in the military, especially in Greece and Spain.

He boasted that he conquered more Spanish cities than he spent days in the country. He entered the cursus honorum as a new man (novus homo) who attained the top positions of consul and censor.

Cato the Elder despised luxury, especially of the Greek variety his enemy Scipio favored. Cato also disapproved of Scipio's leniency towards the Carthaginians at the conclusion of the Second Punic War.

Cato the Elder was responsible for the saying that Carthage must be destroyed, which was made in connection with the Third Punic War.

2nd Century B.C. Roman Politician, General, and Writer

Cato the Elder was a 2nd Century B.C. Roman politician, general, and writer noted for his austere way of life and rigid principles. Cato’s family originally came from Tusculum, but he spent the early part of his career on a family estate in Sabine territory. He first saw military action at the age of 17, when Hannibal invaded Italy (217).

Cato gained a local reputation as an orator in the law courts and for his frugal lifestyle. This brought him to the attention of L. Valerius Flaccus, who encouraged him to seek public office in Rome. He served as military tribune under the consuls Q. Fabius and M. Claudius in Sicily (204), and as quaestor under Scipio Africanus (203).

Cato had allied himself politically with Fabius Maximus Cunctator and was thus a political opponent of Scipio Africanus. Outraged by Scipio’s extravagance on the way to Africa, which he viewed as a corrupting influence on the Roman soldiers, Cato returned to Rome and, in tandem with Fabius Maximus, had Scipio recalled. Scipio managed to defend his conduct of operations, however, and sailed back to Africa to continue with the war against Carthage.

After serving as aedile of the plebs, Cato was praetor in 198 and appointed governor of Sardinia, which he ruled fairly but strictly. The local people were relieved at not having to support a large entourage as had been the case under previous governors, but dreaded the possibility of having to answer for any misdeeds.

Cato was elected consul for 195 with L. Valerius Flaccus. During his consulship, two tribunes of the plebs proposed repealing the Lex Opinia, which had been passed twenty years before in the most desperate days of the Second Punic War and which placed certain restrictions on women’s spending and displays of wealth. Cato was very much against the repeal of the law, but failed in his attempts to keep it on the books. Cato’s province was Nearer Spain (Hispania Citerior).

He boasted that he captured more towns than he spent days in the province. On his return to Rome, he was awarded a triumph.

Cato then served as legate under Tiberius Sempronius and as military tribune in Greece under Manius Acilius Glabrio (193) in the war against Antiochus III Epiphanes. Cato led a detachment of Firmani in a surprise dawn attack on the rear of Antiochus’ position at Thermopylae, and was mainly responsible for the rout of Antiochus’ army. Cato was sent back to Rome with the news of the victory.

Cato continued his attacks on Scipio Africanus, assisting in the prosecution of Scipio and, after Scipio’s death, his brother L. Scipio Asiaticus in 187. In 185, Cato announced his candidacy for the censorship in 184. Because of Cato’s known rigour, seven candidates were persuaded to stand against him, but Cato and Valerius Flaccus won the election.

Among those Cato expelled from the Senate for disreputable behaviour were Lucius Quinctius Flamininus (consul 190) and Manilius. There are different stories about what Flamininus had done, but they all involve him a man being killed at a banquet (by Flamininus himself or on his order) to please a lover who had missed the gladiatorial games in Rome because of Flamininus’ abrupt departure for the front. Manilius had kissed his wife in broad daylight in front of his daughter. Lucius Scipio’s public horse was taken away from him. Cato also increased taxes on luxury items and cracked down on those who had diverted part of the public water supply into their own houses and those whose houses encroached on public land. He also tried to reduce the prices charged to the state by contractors for public works programmes, and to increase the prices paid to the state by tax farmers.

Cato regarded the Hellenizing of Rome as pernicious and when a delegation of philosophers was sent from Athens in 155, Cato argued in the Senate for their business to be despatched as quickly as possible so that the delegation could return to educating Greek boys and Roman youths could return to their traditional ways. His final political achievement was the destruction of Carthage. After having served as one of the mediators between Carthage and the Numidian King Masinissa, Cato was impressed by how much Carthage had recovered from its defeat in the Second Punic War, and thereafter finished all his political speeches with the famous words Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed).

Eventually his policy prevailed and the Third Punic War was started.

Cato said that it was more important to be a good husband than an influential senator. His first wife was called Licinia, by whom he had a son. Cato undertook his son’s education himself rather than entrust it to a slave. This son married Aemilius Paullus’ daughter. After Licinia died, Cato had a prostitute come regularly to his house, but after his son found out he married the daughter of a former clerk of his. From this wife, Cato had another son, Salonius, who was the great-grandfather of Cato the Younger, the opponent of Julius Caesar.

Cato suggested that old slaves should be sold rather than allowed to become an expense for their owner. He didn’t mind slaves sleeping when they had the chance as he believed this made them more docile. He also used to stir up trouble between slaves to prevent them from banding together. He lent money to his house slaves for them to buy boys to train and sell after a year. Sometimes he decided to keep the new slaves himself, but was scrupulous about crediting the price they would have fetched to the trainer’s account.

Cato wrote "Origines," a history of Rome and the Italian states, but this work is lost. Another of his works, "De Agricultura," does still exist. He died aged 85 in 149. He appears as a character in Cicero’s "De Senectute" (On Old Age), and his biography by Plutarch is paired with that of Aristides the Just.

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Gill, N.S. "Cato the Elder." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2015, Gill, N.S. (2015, December 1). Cato the Elder. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Cato the Elder." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).