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.
We have recently seen how Cato the Younger, one of the classical Stoic role models (especially for Seneca), grew up in a milieu of turmoil and civil war, directly witnessing the atrocities and disregard for the law perpetrated by general Sulla, the victor of a bloody civil war that had divided the Republic. We have also seen the stories that are told about Cato’s youth, during which he certainly displayed some proto-Stoic virtues, especially courage and a sense of justice (though limited by his own time and place: “freeing my country from slavery,” for him, meant that the aristocracy would regain control and overthrow the tyrant, not that actual slaves would be freed.)
We now consider a later period of the early life of Cato, which culminates into his very conscious embracing of Stoic philosophy, a pivotal decision that will mark him — for better of for worse — for the rest of his life. As throughout this series, I am commenting on the engaging biography of Cato written by Rob Goodman and Jimmi Soni: Rome’s Last Citizen.
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.