The Suicide of Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger (95–46 BCE in Latin, Cato Uticensis and also known as Marcus Porcius Cato) was a pivotal figure in Rome during the first century BCE. A defender of the Roman Republic, he forcefully opposed Julius Caesar and was known as the highly moral, incorruptible, inflexible supporter of the Optimates. When it became clear at the Battle at Thapsus that Julius Caesar would be the political leader of Rome, Cato chose the philosophically accepted way out, suicide.

The period that followed the Republic—which was on its last legs despite Cato's best efforts to prop it up—was the Empire, specifically the early part known as the Principate. Under its fifth emperor, Nero, the Silver Age writer, and philosopher Seneca had, even more, trouble ending his life, but Cato's suicide took great fortitude. Read how Plutarch describes Cato's final hours at Utica, in the company of his loved ones and favorite work of philosophy. There he died in April, in 46 BCE.

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An Un-Socratic Suicide

The death of Cato, c. 1640. Artist: Assereto, Gioacchino (1600-1649)
Heritage Images / Getty Images

The description of Cato's suicide is painful and prolonged. Cato prepares for his death in the proper manner: a bath followed by dinner with friends. After that, everything goes wrong. He reads Plato's "Phaedo," which is contrary to the Stoic philosophy that a text is a dubious route to knowledge. He looks up and discovers that his sword is no longer hanging on the wall, and he calls out to have it brought to him, and when they don't bring it quickly enough he pummels one of the servants—a true philosopher doesn't punish those who are enslaved.

His son and friends arrive and he argues with them—am I a madman? he shouts—and after they finally provide the sword he goes back to reading. At midnight, he wakes and stabs himself in the stomach, but not enough to kill himself. Instead, he falls out of bed, knocking over an abacus. His son and the doctor rush in and the doctor begins to sew him up, but Cato pulls out the stitches and finally, finally dies. 

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What Did Plutarch Have in Mind?

The oddness of the Cato's suicide has been noted by several scholars who compare Plutarch's description of the man as the quintessential Stoic in contrast to Plutarch's bloody and tortuous death.

If the Stoic life of a philosopher is to be in harmony with his logos, then Cato's suicide is not a philosopher's death. Although Cato has prepared himself and is reading a quiet text by Plato, he loses his cool in his final hours, succumbing to emotional outbursts and violence. 

Plutarch described Cato as an inflexible, imperturbable and altogether steadfast, but prone to childish pastimes. He was harsh and hostile to those who tried to flatter or frighten him, and he seldom laughed or smiled. He was slow to anger but then implacable, inexorable.

He was a paradox, who strove to become self-sufficient but desperately sought to affirm his identity by cultivating the love and respect of his half-brother, and the citizens of Rome. And he was a stoic whose death was not as calm and collected as a Stoic would hope.

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Plutarch's Suicide of Cato the Younger

From "The Parallel Lives," by Plutarch; published in Vol. VIII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1919.

"68 Thus the supper came to an end, and after walking about with his friends as he usually did after supper, he gave the officers of the watch the proper orders, and then retired to his chamber, but not until he had embraced his son and each of his friends with more than his wonted kindness, and thus awakened anew their suspicions of what was to come. 2 After entering his chamber and lying down, he took up Plato's dialogue 'On the Soul,' and when he had gone through the greater part of the treatise, he looked up above his head, and not seeing his sword hanging there (for his son had taken it away while Cato was still at supper), called a servant and asked him who had taken the weapon. The servant made no answer, and Cato returned to his book; and a little while after, as if in no haste or hurry, but merely looking for his sword, he bade the servant fetch it. 3 But as there was some delay, and no one brought the weapon, he finished reading his book, and this time called his servants one by one and in louder tones demanded his sword. One of them he smote on the mouth with his fist, and bruised his own hand, angrily crying now in loud tones that his son and his servants were betraying him into the hands of the enemy without arms. At last his son ran in weeping, together with his friends, and after embracing him, betook himself to lamentations and entreaties. 4 But Cato, rising to his feet, took on a solemn look, and said: "When and where, without my knowledge, have I been adjudged a madman, that no one instructs or tries to convert me in matters wherein I am thought to have made bad decisions, but I am prevented from using my own judgement, and have my arms taken from me? Why, generous boy, dost thou not also tie thy father's hands behind his back, that Caesar may find me unable to defend myself when he comes? 5 Surely, to kill myself I have no need of a sword, when I have only to hold my breath a little while, or dash my head against the wall, and death will come.'"
"69 As Cato said these words the young man went out sobbing, and all the rest also, except Demetrius and Apollonides. These alone remained, and with these Cato began to talk, now in gentler tones. 'I suppose,' said he, 'that ye also have decided to detain in life by force a man as old as I am, and to sit by him in silence and keep watch of him: or are ye come with the plea that it is neither shameful nor dreadful for Cato, when he has no other way of salvation, to await salvation at the hands of his enemy? 2 Why, then, do ye not speak persuasively and convert me to this doctrine, that we may cast away those good old opinions and arguments which have been part of our very lives, be made wiser through Caesar's efforts, and therefore be more grateful to him? And yet I, certainly, have come to no resolve about myself; but when I have come to a resolve, I must be master of the course which I decide to take. 3 And I shall come to a resolve with your aid, as I might say, since I shall reach it with the aid of those doctrines which ye also adopt as philosophers. So go away with good courage, and bid my son not to try force with his father when he cannot persuade him.'"
"70 Without making any reply to this, but bursting into tears, Demetrius and Apollonides slowly withdrew. Then the sword was sent in, carried by a little child, and Cato took it, drew it from his sheath, and examined it. And when he saw that its point was keen and its edge still sharp, he said: 'Now I am my own master.' Then he laid down the sword and resumed his book, and he is said to have read it through twice. 2 Afterwards he fell into so deep a sleep that those outside the chamber heard him. But about midnight he called two of his freedmen, Cleanthes the physician, and Butas, who was his chief agent in public matters. Butas he sent down to the sea, to find out whether all had set sail successfully, and bring him word; while to the physician he gave his hand to bandage, since it was inflamed by the blow that he had given the slave. 3 This made everybody more cheerful, since they thought he had a mind to live. In a little while Butas came with tidings that all had set sail except Crassus, who was detained by some business or other, and he too was on the point of embarking; Butas reported also that a heavy storm and a high wind prevailed at sea. On hearing this, Cato groaned with pity for those in peril on the sea, and sent Butas down again, to find out whether anyone had been driven back by the storm and wanted any necessaries, and to report to him."
"4 And now the birds were already beginning to sing, when he fell asleep again for a little while. And when Butas came and told him that harbours were very quiet, he ordered him to close the door, throwing himself down upon his couch as if he were going to rest there for what still remained of the night. 5 But when Butas had gone out, Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. 6 They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died."


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Gill, N.S. "The Suicide of Cato the Younger." ThoughtCo, Jan. 4, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, January 4). The Suicide of Cato the Younger. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Suicide of Cato the Younger." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).