The Cato chronicles, part I: young Cato

Cato the Younger, also known as Cato Uticensis, is the quintessential Stoic role model, arguably second only to Socrates among people who actually existed (the Stoics also referred to mythological role models, like Heracles), and Seneca famously cites him a number of times throughout his writings. Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni have published an entertaining biography of Cato, titled Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar. This is the first of a series of posts highlighting some of the most interesting bits from the book.

Goodman and Soni, of course, are not writing from a Stoic perspective, though they are more sympathetic to Stoicism than Frank McLynn, the author of a recent and hopelessly botched biography of Marcus Aurelius. Goodman and Soni are looking at Cato qua historical figure, not as the Sage idealized by Seneca, but even so, we will see that they find much to admire in Cato, in part as a result of his commitment to Stoicism.

The book opens with what is very likely an apocryphal story, recounted by Plutarch. It’s a story that is meant to convey a truth about the future man, as well as to impart a moral lesson. It is the year 91 BCE, and Cato is a four-year old child, already an orphan. A family friend, Pompaedius Silo, is visiting the house, and Cato upsets him so much that he grabs the boy by his ankles and dangles him outside of a window, threatening to let him go unless Cato agreed that the land reforms proposed by Silo’s party were good for Rome (I guess the Romans thought it meaningful to talk politics with small children!). Cato, allegedly, just stared at his captor without budging, until Silo gave up, pulled him back and said: “How lucky for Italy that he is a boy; if he were a man, I don’t think we could get a single vote.” That ought to give you a measure of the kid’s character! As the authors put it: “The story shows Cato grabbed by an overwhelming force, facing death, and evincing utter calm in the face of it.”

The relevant political background is complex. Land reform had been attempted before in the Roman Republic, and had led to the gruesome deaths of Rome’s most famous radicals, the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Gaius. The Gracchi were representatives of the plebe, and were making very reasonable demands about the redistribution of land away from the hands of few powerful aristocrats, demands that — it has been argued — if met would have forestalled, if not avoided, the decline of the Republic and its descent (or ascent, depending on your point of view) into empire. But said aristocrats were powerful enough to stop attempts at reform, both legally and, when needed, by blooding the streets of Rome — after which they had the galls of building a new Temple of Concord to “celebrate” the reunification of the people of Rome.

Temple of Concordia in Rome

The strife lasted for a decade, and resulted in the solidifying of two political factions: the populares (men of the people), and the optimates (literally, the best people, i.e., the aristocracy). Cato became a life-long member of the optimates, which eventually put him on a collision course with Julius Caesar, who sought the support of the populares. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Interestingly, Cato’s own uncle and legal guardian, Marcus Livius Drusus, was a supporter of the reforms, which is presumably why he had invited Silo into his house. But the rest of the Senate opposed Drusus, managed to reverse some legislation he had been able to pass, he was soon killed in his own house by an unknown man.

Shortly thereafter, the Republic became engulfed in a civil war between two generals, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius. Sulla eventually won out and named himself dictator for life. (The title of Dictator was conferred by the Senate to an extraordinary individual in times of extreme peril, and was supposed to be relinquished after the danger had passed. I guess Sulla forgot that detail, or perhaps was convinced that Rome was in permanent danger, and would therefore need him for the rest of his life.)

Sulla had little respect for either law or tradition, embarking in a killing spree of his political opponents and, moreover, in a systematic campaign of confiscation of their properties to enrich himself and his cronies.

Interestingly, Sulla was indirectly responsible, of all things, for the spread of philosophy to Rome. Since Athens had sided with the king of Pontus, Mithridates, against Rome, Sulla laid siege to the ancient Greek city, entered it, and burned it. This resulted in the diaspora of a large number of philosophers, including the Stoics, who relocated in various places, chiefly Alexandria, Rhodes, and, of course, Rome.

This background is crucial to understand Cato’s whole life, since, as Goodman and Soni put it, “Cato and his half brother often sat by Sulla’s side [because they were aristocrats, often invited by Sulla], eyewitnesses to the arbitrary power of a man fond of making the Senate listen to his harangues and the cries of the executed at the same time.”

While Sulla did squash any attempt at land reform — and should therefore be counted among the ranks of the optimates — he did so without regard to Roman law, a fact that he fully realized, to the point that he actually introduced legislation aimed at avoiding another meteroric rise like his own to ever happen again in the future, apparently thinking of his autocratic government as having the objective of ending all future autoractic governments. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and Sulla’s actions — on the contrary — provided an excellent precedent for those of Julius Caesar, which did lead straight to the establishment of the empire under Caesar’s adoptive son, Octavian.

But back to Cato, here are Goodman and Soni again: “as a teenager watching the imposition of Sulla’s platform by fiat, Cato was shocked by the blood it required — shocked not just secondhand but daily and in person, as he reclined with the dictator on his couch. Here was Cato’s early education in politics: his guardian’s assassination, and Sulla’s government by murder. This boyhood in civil war would produce a man with an almost neurotic attachment to rules, to precedent, to propriety — to everything that was not Sulla.”

Let me conclude this first round of the Cato chronicles with a second episode from his youth, again possibly apocryphal (though more likely to be true than the first one), and again representative of both the man and the myth.

Going back home with his tutor from one of Sulla’s horrific sessions, Cato asked why nobody got rid of the dictator. The tutor told him that “men fear him more than they hate him.” To which Cato promptly responded “Give me a sword, so I might kill him and set my country free of slavery.” From that day on, his tutor checked if Cato was hiding a dagger every time they left the house.


4 thoughts on “The Cato chronicles, part I: young Cato

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    The story about Cato as a 4 yr old seems to run counter to Stoicism both ancient and modern. The action wasn’t a result of well considered reasons and wasn’t a result of training as a protopkon. He is a stoic by birth rather than according to nature which seems to make the story anti Stoic!


  2. Nanocyborgasm

    And yet Cato nevertheless sided with the optimates, the same faction that was responsible for Sulla’s dictatorship, proving that, even in ancient times, most people’s political affiliation is based more on emotion than reason. And that was only proven scientifically recently.


  3. Massimo Post author


    I don’t think the story about 4-yr old Cato is anti-Stoic, as much as pre-Stoic. It simply shows he had a character from early on that pre-adapted him to become a Stoic. This is, anecdotally, not rare at all.


    I’m somewhat skeptical of the hype surrounding Haidt-type studies in moral psychology, I think they have a tendency to claim too much.

    That said, of course we are the product of our time and culture, including the Stoics. But I’ll turn it around and suggest that one of the things I like about Stoicism is that I can see and respect the practice of virtue even by people who maintain different political opinions from my own.

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