The Cato chronicles, part V: death

Cato’s death, by J-P Laurens

This mini-series on Cato the Younger, one of the quintessential Stoic role models, began with a look at episodes from his childhood, and continued with his embracing of Stoicism as a young man, his first time as a military commander, the contemporaneous death of his half-brother, and the epic clash with his friend and rival, Cicero. I am going to bring the series to an end with two more entries — like the other ones inspired by the reading of Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s Rome’s Last Citizen. In this episode of the Cato chronicles we’ll look at his legendary death, and in the next and last installment to his afterlife, so to speak, i.e., his legacy through history and all the way to modern times.

We last saw Cato debating against Cicero (and losing, with magnanimity) in a high profile case of bribery brought against the Consul elect Lucius Lucinius Murena. That was in 63 BCE, at the height of the Catiline conspiracy. We now jump to his last stand against Julius Caesar, in the northern African city of Utica (hence his alternate name, Cato Uticensis), in 47 BCE. How did he get there?

It’s a long and fascinating story, well told in chapters 7-12 of Goodman and Soni’s book. But those intervening events are more interesting historically than philosophically, and this, after all, is a philosophy blog. We are concerned here with the biographical details that shed light on Cato’s character and his practice of the Stoic virtues. So, suffice it to say that in 50 BCE Julius Caesar, after a very successful campaign in Gaul, was ordered to disband his army and return to Rome to stand trial for corruption, instigated by Cato’s political faction, the optimates. Following a stalemate and failed negotiations, Caesar crossed the river Rubicon with one legion — an act that amounted to open treason against the Republic — uttering the famous words alea iacta est, the die is cast.

General Pompey, who had issue the order to Caesar, fled Rome, together with many Senators, including Cato (who was very unhappy about it, having become a highly reluctant ally of Pompey, whom he judged to be the lesser of two evils when compared to Caesar). Caesar pursued Pompey in the east, in Illyria, but in 48 BCE his forces were almost annihilated at the battle of Dyrrhachium. On that occasion, Pompey made the fatal strategic mistake of not pursuing the fleeing Caesarian legions, and paid a hefty price at their next engagement, later that same year at Pharsalus, where he was soundly defeated and put on the run. Pompey asked King Ptolemy XII of Egypt for asylum, but was betrayed and slain as soon as he set foot off his boat. Caesar was horrified by this outcome, and proceeded to depose Ptolemy in favor of his sister, Cleopatra VII, who eventually became his lover.

Caesar turns away when offered Pompey’s head

Meanwhile — and here is where Cato rejoins the storyline — the remaining Republican forces regrouped in northern Africa, heading for the provincial capital of Utica, with Cato at the head. An army of about 10,000 men marched for 500 miles in the desert. It took them about 30 days to get to Utica, and Lucan tells us in verse how Cato bore himself during that ordeal:

Bearing his javelin, as one of them
Before the troops he marched: no panting slave
With bending neck, no litter bore his form.
He bade them not, but showed them how to toil.
Spare in his sleep, the last to sip the spring
When at some rivulet to quench their thirst
The eager ranks pressed onward, he alone
Until the humblest follower might drink
Stood motionless.

But when Cato’s army arrived in Utica, they found their allies in complete disarray. Rather than organizing a resistance that, with luck, could hold off Caesar for years, they squabbled about who had the highest rank and should command the effort. The contenders were Publius Attius Varus, who had been a commander in the region; Metellus Scipio, an ex-Consul; and Juba, the King of Numidia.

Cato’s arrival immediately changed the situation, given that he was now the most famous and prestigious member of the resistance. As Goodman and Soli tells it: “Without a word, Cato simply picked up his chair, walked around the king and the ex-consul, and placed his chair on the other side — which gave Metellus Scipio pride of place in the center.”

Cato decided to support Scipio because the latter was the highest ranking officer, and Cato saw himself as fighting to uphold the law that he had seen far too many times being trampled by ambitious men, from Sulla in his youth to Caesar just a few years before.

Here, however, is another case where Goodman and Soli criticize Cato, possibly with some good reason. Despite the fact that Scipio was indeed the highest ranking of the group, he was manifestly less competent than Cato himself, which arguably was the main cause for the eventual disaster that followed. Was Cato risking too much in the name of the purity of his ideals? This is how Plutarch comments on the episode: “He refused to break the laws in whose support they were waging war [against] one who broke them.”

He may have passed on the opportunity to take complete charge of the situation, but Cato nonetheless played an important role in the last days of the resistance. At one point, for instance, Scipio and Juba became suspicious of the inhabitants of Utica, thinking that they wanted to betray them and open the city’s doors to Caesar’s army. As a preemptive measure, they wanted to raze the city and kill its people. Cato was the voice of opposition here, and carried the day, thus sparing the lives of many.

Indeed, Cato was working so hard that even the Caesarian account of things gave him credit: “Cato, who commanded in Utica, was daily enlisting freedmen, Africans, slaves, and all that were of age to bear arms, and sending them without intermission to Scipio’s camp.”

The first engagement between Caesar’s and the Republican forces ended in almost complete defeat for the dictator, whose army suffered great losses, and which was saved at the last minute from encirclement and utter destruction. Scipio, energized by the victory, wanted to engage again Caesar in open battle, but Cato — who had seen and studied his opponent for years — counseled against it. Scipio wrote to Cato that he was a coward and on 6 April 46 BCE gave battle to Caesar anyway. As Goodman and Soli put it, “by afternoon, it was an even fight; by evening, a disaster [for the Republican forces].”

In the wake of the defeat, things looked grim in Utica. Three hundred resident Roman merchants and moneylenders swore to defend the city and Cato with their lives. But eventually they took back their pledge, committing only to fight for Cato’s own life in the unlikely case that Caesar would not concede clemency. Just like their ancestors two generations before, in that case referring to Cato the Elder, they excused themselves with the standard phrase: “we are not Catos.”

Cato, however, wasn’t done yet being Cato. In the chaotic aftermath of the defeat, the Republican cavalry left in Utica began to loot the city, pillaging and killing the locals. Cato intervened again on behalf of the population, and since he was unable to persuade the soldiers with his words, he simply bribed them to go away. He then kept alert despite fatigue and stress, supervising the preparation of the ships in order to allow as many people to flee before the arrival of Caesar, even buying out of his pocket passage for those who were too poor to afford it.

In the end, he was left with his family and two philosophers friends, Apollonides the Stoic, and Demetrius the Aristotelian. Now Cato had to decide what to do with himself, as it was clear that Caesar would have pardoned him, not just out of respect, but also to establish his dictatorship on a higher moral ground than that offered by the arbitrary slaughterhouse that Rome had seen under Sulla. After a last dinner and philosophical conversation with Apollonides and Demetrius, he retired in his room, intent on reading Plato’s Phaedo, which recounts the last hours of Socrates’ life, spent in philosophical conversation with his friends.

Once he finished reading, he picked up his dagger — for which he had vociferously called earlier that evening, to overcome the recalcitrance of his attendant and family, who had surmised what was going to happen — and attempted to stab himself to death. He failed, due to an injury to his hand. Plutarch tells us what happened next:

“Cato did not immediately die of the wound; but struggling, fell off the bed, and throwing down a little mathematical table that stood by, made such a noise that the servants, hearing it, cried out. And immediately his son and all his friends came into the chamber, where, seeing him lie weltering in his own blood, great part of his bowels out of his body, but himself still alive and able to look at them, they all stood in horror. The physician went to him, and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired.”

According to Plutarch, upon hearing the news, Caesar remarked: “Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”

3 thoughts on “The Cato chronicles, part V: death

  1. A Gentleman's Rapier

    Many thanks for this series. I just finished reading Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series, and he killed Cato off earlier (and admits that it was to make the story move along in his author’s notes). But reading his unflattering portrayal of Cato, and knowing Cato’s reputation amongst Stoics, I was wondering how the real Cato fit into it. Then you put this series up. And added another book to my long list of things to read.

    Many thanks,

    Liked by 1 person

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