The Cato chronicles, part IV: the clash with Cicero

Cato (left) and Cicero (right)

We have so far examined stories about Cato the Younger’s childhood, his very conscious embracing of Stoicism, as well as his first assignment as military commander and his rather un-Stoic reaction to the death of his half-brother. Another of the pivotal episodes of his life was his clash with the eminent orator and philosopher Cicero, during the famous Catiline conspiracy. We will therefore look at those events to refine our understanding of the man who became a Stoic role model. As usual, I will follow Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s treatment in Rome’s Last Citizen.

First, the historical setting. We are in the year 63 BCE, and Senator Lucius Sergius Catilina is organizing a conspiracy to overthrow his colleagues and implement radical land reforms that would have redistributed much of the wealth in the Republic, away from the few aristocrats who held it, and toward, among others, a number of disgruntled veterans of recent wars. It was the usual, long established opposition between the populares (the plebe) and the optimates (the aristocracy), that we have seen at the beginning of this series, with Cato firmly aligned with the latter faction. (We need not attribute noble sentiments to Catilina, by the way, who was a bankrupt aristocrat in search of redemption and of a new shot at public life.) By this time, Catilina — whose attempts at getting elected consul had been thwarted by (possibly unfounded, possibly not) charges of corruption — had had enough and had reached the conclusion that only violent means would achieve the objective.

Cicero, a rising political star who did truly come from non-aristocratic background, saw the writing on the wall and mounted a series of preemptive strikes against Catilina, including running for the office of Consul that year, in order to forestall the impending disaster. The aristocracy supported Cicero not because they particularly liked him, as he was, in effect, an outsider, but because they were desperate to avoid the Catiline revolution.

In the same year, Cato ran for the post of People’s Tribune, which was rather odd, given his allegiance to the optimates. It was, however, legal, as Cato’s family itself technically did not belong to the Roman aristrocracy. Cato and Cicero at first joined forces against what they saw as a mortal threat to the very existence of the Republic.

Cicero had been warning his fellow citizens for a while about Catilina, but his warnings had largely been unheeded, and in fact people began to suspect that the threat was made up, or exaggerated, by Cicero himself, in order to further his career. However, one of Cicero’s allies, the military commander and stupendously rich man Marcus Licinius Crassus, was able to provide hard evidence of the conspiracy in the form of a letter describing detailed plans to murder a number of Senators opposed to the reforms.

Cato was present at the emergency meeting of the Senate called by Cicero, at the end of which the orator was given extraordinary powers to swiftly end the conspiracy. When, shortly thereafter, Cicero publicly confronted Catilina, the latter responded by (illegally) declaring himself Consul and then promptly fleeing the city to join his army, camped not very far.

Here is where things get complicated as well as interesting, because they help us draw a sharp distinction between the two friends-soon-to-be-rivals, Cicero and Cato. during the previous summer, the consular election had been won by Lucius Lucinius Murena, a former legionary commander, and Decimus Junius Silanus, Cato’s brother-in-law. Both had achieved their goal by way of (not at all uncommon) massive bribes.

Cicero had pushed a new law — with the important and very vocal support of Cato — that raised the penalty for bribery to ten years of exile. Murena, who was scheduled to take over as consul in a few months, was swiftly brought up for charges of corruption (though, interestingly, not so Silanus). Cicero, somewhat unexpectedly, offered to defend Murena, while Cato was set to deliver the closing argument against him, following which Cicero would get time for a rebuttal before the outcome of the trial was going to be decided.

Now, why on earth did Cicero agree to defend a man who was patently guilty, especially given that Cicero himself had worked hard to pass the anti-corruption law? Here is where we see the stark difference between Cicero and Cato emerging clearly.

Goodman and Soni explain: “[Cicero’s] calculation was brutally simple. He needed two new, unsullied consuls to hold firm against Catiline. The conviction and exile of one of them would mean political chaos at the worst possible time. And so Murena was to be acquitted.” By contrast, they claim that Cato was “trapped” by his idealism, as he simply could not avoid prosecuting a corrupted politician, given his own public stance (and coherent private practice) on the matter.

Let’s pause for a second here, since this theme of Cato being trapped by his own ideals is a recurrent one in Goodman and Soni’s book, and provides their explanation for Cato’s ultimate tragic failure against Julius Caesar, to which we will get in the next installment of this series. The contrast between Cicero and Cato should indeed give us plenty of food for thought at many levels. They were both philosophically minded, though one primarily a lawyer, the other a soldier and politician. They espoused different philosophies — skeptical Platonism in Cicero’s case, Stoicism in Cato’s, though Cicero was very sympathetic to Stoicism. And they both indubitably cared for the future of the Roman Republic, though in different ways and perhaps with different priorities.

As a result, they found themselves locked into a strange relationship of both friendship and rivalry throughout the best part of their lives: on the one hand, Cicero displayed political savvy and an ability to compromise in order to achieve his objectives, though at times his willingness to adjust to the situation on the ground bordered on hypocrisy or opportunism. On the other hand, Cato was the light of virtue and integrity that inspired his followers, and that was much admired by Cicero, even though it was that very same sense of honor that led him to fail to build the sort of political coalition that might have turned the fortunes of the Republic and avoided descent into empire.

And now to the very public clash between the two titans. Cato took the stage to present his case against Murena, and although we do not have a direct transcript of his speech, parts of it survive through Cicero’s quotations of him in his rebuttal:

“Shall you seek to obtain supreme power, supreme authority, and the helm of the Republic, by encouraging men’s sensual appetites, by soothing their minds, by tendering luxuries to them? Are you asking employment as a pimp from a band of delicate youths, or the sovereignty of the world from the Roman people?”

This is Cato in his most moralizing mood, which he could carry off because of his immense reputation for integrity. And yet, Cicero turned the table on his rival-friend by gently but firmly mocking both his moral stance and, more broadly, his Stoic philosophy.

Goodman an Soni: “‘There once was a man of the greatest genius,’ Cicero began, ‘called Zeno. The imitators of his example are called Stoics.’ What came next was a three-minute tour of every ridiculous, paradoxical, or overthought piece of Stoic doctrine — a tour that was only possible because Cato’s school was still esoteric enough to be a curiosity.”

Please remember that Cicero himself actually wrote a book defending the so-called Stoic paradoxes, but on this occasion he needed to set aside philosophical nuance and score a vital political point. As Goodman and Soni correctly explain, Cicero got away with it for a couple of reasons: first, because most people in attendance were not sufficiently familiar with Stoic principles to see that he was distorting and trivializing them; second, because the Stoics had indeed always been fond of uttering prima facie bizarre sentences in order to gain an opening with their interlocutors and proceed to explain what they meant in depth — it was a pedagogic tool. Cicero, of course, did no such clarification follow-up during his oration.

Instead, he launched into a mock dialogue with himself to make plain the absurdity of the Stoic position (the italics represent imaginary-Cato’s lines):

Do any suppliants, miserable and unhappy men, come to us?

You will be a wicked and infamous man if you do anything under the influence of mercy.

Does anyone confess that he has done wrong, and beg pardon for his error?

To pardon is a crime of the deepest dye.

But it is a trifling offence!

All offences are equal!.…

You’re not influenced by the facts, but your own opinion.

A wise man never has mere opinions!… I said in the Senate that I would prosecute.

Oh, but you said that when you were angry.


According to Goodman and Soni, “it was one of Cicero’s most memorable and dexterous performances. But even more remarkably, he was politic enough to beat Cato without humiliating him.”

Indeed, Cato took the defeat in stride. His only comment after the proceedings were over, and Murena was acquitted, was “What a witty Consul we have!”

Moreover, Cato’s magnaniminity manifested itself shortly thereafter, when he defended Cicero’s harsh policy against the conspirators, defeating in debate a young, ambitious politician named Gaius Julius Caesar. As a result, the conspirators were executed, and Cato marched at the head of a crowd shouting “Cicero, Father of the Fatherland!”

Despite the recent humiliation handed to him by Cicero, Cato had delivered to the orator the highest point of the latter’s life, not because it was politically expedient, but because — in Cato’s mind — it was the right thing to do.

The defeated Caesar, however, learned his lesson well, and prepared for the next confrontation by allying himself even more forcefully with the populares, preparing the ground for his ascent to the dictatorship, which eventually led to the final unraveling of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire.


3 thoughts on “The Cato chronicles, part IV: the clash with Cicero

  1. SocraticGadfly

    High school Latin now, not Greek and parsing phronesis.

    I read selections from the Cataline orations, and have read full biographies of Cicero.

    Per your allusion near the start, then to move later down, it’s arguable that Cicero was politically opportunistic as much as politically savvy, depending on how much or how little of his anti-Catalinian claims were true.


  2. Paul Braterman

    (Disclosure; I only know of this period through popular and secondary sources) Massimo, you gloss over the fact that Cicero’s policy involved the execution of Catiline’s co-conspirators without due process, thereby setting (or reviving?) a dreadful precedent, and that Cato approved of this.

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  3. Massimo Post author

    Paul, you are right. I didn’t bring attention to that issue because there were so many other things to discuss in this post (the corresponding chapter in the book is long and chockful of events with plenty of twists and turns).

    Yes, that was one case in which Cato bent his principles in favor of what he must have thought was crucial to do in order to save the Republic, particular in order to oppose Caesar. That makes him a bit more complicated than the rather two-dimensional portrait that Goodman and Soni present in the book, and it also makes sense of his later (reluctance) alliance with Pompey.

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