The Cato chronicles, part III: commander, and brother

Let us continue this mini-series on Cato the Younger, one of Stoicism’s role models, to get a better appreciation of the man behind the myth. Following the progression of the very good Rome’s Last Citizen, by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, we have examined Cato’s youth and the environment in which he grew up, as well as his turn to Stoicism. We now consider two crucial episodes that took place when he was in his late ’20s: his first military command, and the death of his half-brother Caepio.

Cato launched his political career at age 28, submitting his name for the office of military tribune, a classic stepping stone toward the Senate. He distinguished himself already on the campaign trail, refusing to go around canvassing for votes with the aid of a “nomenclator,” a person in charge of reminding him who the people he was talking to were, helping him pretend that he knew them better than he actually did. This was not Cato’s style, however. No subterfuges or tricks: he would approach potential voters on his own, and if he didn’t know them he would frankly admit it and engage them anyway. It worked, he was elected for the year 67 BCE, and given a command in Macedonia, as part of Roman operations against an old foe, Mithridates.

Cato joined a fully professional army, whose soldiers were difficult to impress, particularly when they expected a city slicker who was going to spend a year with them just so that he could build credentials for his next move in his political career. But Cato’s soldiers were in for a surprise. To begin with, and to set the right tone, as Goodman and Soni put it, “He approached camp not on horseback, as expected, but on foot. This was not one of the social climbers whom they had come to expect as commander.” Moreover, they soon discovered that “his style of leadership was a remarkably liberal one for the time. Rather than reach for the lash at first resort, Cato made a point of reasoning with his men.”

As Goodman and Soli reminds us, Stoicism fits well (to this day, see here and here, for a famous example) with the military life, since it emphasizes the virtue of being “indifferent” to material conditions and concentrate instead on one’s excellence of character and practice of the virtues. Cato was effective with his troops because he wasn’t just talking about Stoicism, he was an obvious example of actual practice, and his men loved him for it: “On the day of his departure ceremony, as the tribune left on foot, soldiers threw down their cloaks for him to walk on. They reportedly wept and kissed his hands.”

At one point Cato took a furlough from the army and spent some time in Pergamon, the ancient city in Asia Minor famous for the production of parchment (pergamena in Italian, which makes the connection obvious), and for housing one of the most complete libraries of antiquity. There lived the famous Stoic Athenodorus, presiding over what is reported to be more than 200,000 scrolls, which included the writings of the original Greek Stoics, from Zeno on, several of which had not yet appeared in Rome, and that Cato could now consult to his leisure. What a deep shame that pretty much the entire library is lost to the sands of time.

Cato and Athenodorus became friends, and when the latter was threatened because of allegedly editing some of the Stoic texts, Cato offered him protection. Athenodorus eventually sailed back to Rome with Cato, and died there several years later.

The theater at Pergamon, photo by the Author

Shortly after coming back to his legion, Cato received a letter telling him that his half-brother, Caepio — who was also serving in the same theater of operations — was seriously ill. The two were very close to each other: “Once, when Cato was a boy in Rome, someone had asked him whom he loved the most. ‘My brother.’ Second most? ‘My brother.’ Third most? ‘My brother.'” When Caepio died, Cato reacted in the most un-Stoic way imaginable: “He embraced [his brother’s body], sobbed over it, ordered the best incense and the best clothes burned with it on a high pyre, ordered a massive marble likeness of Caepio set up in the market of the provincial Thracian town in which he had never before set foot — lavishing on the dead the luxury he railed against for the living.”

Needless to say, this episode haunted Cato for the rest of his life, in the eyes of his critics, an example of the uselessness of his much vaunted philosophy. This was probably uncharitable, as we have already seen, and we will continue to see in the next installments of this series, that Cato did live, and die, largely in accordance with his philosophy. He wasn’t faking it, he was the genuine article.

But even Stoic role models are human, and never quite reach the stage of a Sage. Cato loved his brother deeply, and he went to pieces when he suddenly died. This doesn’t make him less of a Stoic practitioner, as practitioners are students who strive too improve, they aren’t perfect masters of the art. How, then, should Cato have reacted to the news, according to Stoic philosophy? Following something like this famous advice from Epictetus (who, of course, wouldn’t be born for another couple of centuries):

“You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” (Discourses III, 24)

This is, of course, a hard concept to get across to non-Stoics without immediately being accused of being a cold sociopath or something along those lines. But a major point of Stoic philosophy is to help people see reality for what it is, and in the process aid them in overcoming destructive emotions and nurturing positive ones. Love for one’s brother is a positive thing, desperation at his death and waste of resources to honor him are destructive of the spirit as well as in a material sense.

So the fact that Cato did not live up, on that occasion, to his philosophy cannot credibly be used to level a charge of hypocrisy against him. But does the episode shed some cold light on the limits of the philosophy itself, which perhaps requires superhuman efforts, even damaging ones, of its practitioners? That is both a philosophical and an empirical question. Empirically, we know of plenty of people who have been helped by the adoption of a Stoic stance, which in some cases they even credit for saving their life (see the links above about James Stockdale’s ordeal in Vietnam). Philosophically, the same sort of objection could be deployed against any demanding philosophy or religion, for instance Buddhism and Christianity. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate those approaches to human existence, as their practitioners can turn the table around and argue that of course it is difficult to make progress, that’s part of the point of practicing to begin with. Just like only Buddha achieved enlightenment, and only Jesus is worthy of worship, so perhaps Socrates was the rare example of an actual Sage. Or, more likely, these are all ideal role models we can use as inspiration, without beating ourselves too much if we somehow fall short of them.

3 thoughts on “The Cato chronicles, part III: commander, and brother

  1. katymarblog

    Thanks for this insight into Cato’s life. I especially liked the attention to his humaness and the point at which he “failed” to practice what he knew. I can relate. Perhaps given enough time he could have come to a more stoic place about his brother’s death.


  2. Robin Luethe

    Here I find a serious error in Stoic philosophy. When struck by grief one mourns, neither denying the depth of the loss, nor exaggerating that because of loss life is now over. We are but humans, made of the clay, and evolved with certain attachments and emotions. I do not doubt that had Cato been in the midst of battle he would have delayed his mourning – that is what soldiers do, they soldier on, but they do not forget.

    ps – thanks to Douglass res Buddhism. I ordered one book from the library and read most of it, and bought the Bronkhorst one, which I found very helpful. I only mention it here because for some reason I do not seem to be able to do more than one comment on a topic.


  3. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure that what we see here is an “error” in Stoic philosophy, as much as it is a departure from common assumptions about proper reactions to events. I do think that Cato failed in the case of his brother, not because he was grieving — which as you say is natural and pretty much unavoidable — but because of the exaggerated outward manifestation of that grief, which, among other things, led to spending money for a public statue of no use to anyone, first of all Cato’s brother.


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