Cato was born in 95 BC in Rome, the son of Marcus Porcius Cato and his wife, Livia. His parents died when he was young, and he was cared for by his maternal uncle, Marcus Livius Drusus, who also looked after Cato's sister, Porcia, a half-brother, Quintus Servilius Caepio, and two half-sisters, Servilia Major, and Servilia Minor. Cato was four when his uncle was assassinated in 91, an event which helped to spark the Social War.
Cato's stubbornness began in his early years. Sarpedon, his teacher, reports a very obedient and questioning child, although slow in being persuaded of things and sometimes very difficult to retrain. A story told by Plutarch tells of Quintus Poppaedius Silo, leader of the Marsi and involved in controversial business in the Roman Forum, who made a visit to his friend Marcus Livius and met the children of the house. In a playful mood, he asked the children's support for his cause. All of them nodded and smiled except Cato, who stared at the guest suspiciously. Silo demanded an answer from him and, seeing no response, took Cato and hung him by the feet out of the window. Even then, Cato would not say anything.
Plutarch recounts a few other stories as well. One night, as some children were playing a game in a side room of a house during a social event, they were having a mock trial with judges and accusers as well as a defendant. One of the children, supposedly a good-natured and pleasant child, was convicted by the mock accusers and was being carried out of the room when he cried out desperately for Cato. Cato became very angry at the other children and, saying nothing, grabbed the child away from the "guards" and carried him away from the others.
Plutarch also tells a story about Cato's peers' immense respect for him, even at a young age, during the Roman ritual military game, called "Troy," in which all aristocratic teenagers participated as a sort of "coming of age" ceremony, involving a mock battle with wooden weapons performed on horseback. When one of the adult organisers "appointed two leaders for them, the boys accepted one of them for his mother's sake (he was a son of Metella, Sulla's wife), but would not tolerate the other, who was a nephew of Pompey, named Sextus, and refused to rehearse under him or obey him. When Sulla asked them whom they would have, they all cried "Cato," and Sextus himself gave way and yielded the honour to a confessed superior."
Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman dictator, liked to talk with Cato and his brother Caepio, and often requested the child's presence even when the boy openly defied his opinions and policies in public. Sulla's daughter Cornelia Sulla was married to the boys' uncle Mamercus Aemilius Lepidus Livianus. According to Plutarch, at one point during the height of the civil strife, as respected Roman nobles were being led to execution from Sulla's villa, Cato, aged about 14, asked his tutor why no one had yet killed the dictator. Sarpedon's answer was thus: "They fear him, my child, more than they hate him." Cato replied to this, "Give me a sword, that I might free my country from slavery." After this, Sarpedon was careful not to leave the boy unattended around the capital, seeing how firm he was in his republican beliefs.
After receiving his inheritance, Cato moved from his uncle's house and began to study Stoic philosophy and politics. He began to live in a very modest way, as his great-grandfather Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder had famously done. Cato subjected himself to violent exercise, and learned to endure cold and rain with a minimum of clothes. He ate only what was necessary and drank the cheapest wine on the market. This was entirely for philosophical reasons; his inheritance would have permitted him to live comfortably. He remained in private life for a long time, rarely seen in public. But when he did appear in the forum, his speeches and rhetorical skills were most admired. Cato was known to drink wine generously.
Cato was first engaged to Aemilia Lepida, a patrician woman, but she was married instead to Quintus Caecilius Metellus Scipio, to whom she had been betrothed. Incensed, Cato threatened to sue for her hand, but his friends mollified him, and Cato was contented to compose Archilochian iambics against Scipio in consolation. Later, Cato was married to a woman called Atilia. By her, he had a son, Marcus Porcius Cato, and a daughter, Porcia, who would become the second wife of Marcus Junius Brutus. Cato later divorced Atilia for unseemly behavior.
In 72 BC, Cato volunteered to fight in the war against Spartacus, presumably to support his brother Caepio, who was serving as a military tribune in the consular army of Lucius Gellius Poplicola. Gellius is often remembered as an indifferent commander, but his army inflicted the greatest of any defeats on Spartacus before Crassus raised his six legions and ultimately defeated the slave uprising.
As a military tribune, Cato was sent to Macedon in 67 BC at the age of 28 and given command of a legion. He led his men from the front, sharing their work, food, and sleeping quarters. He was strict in discipline and punishment but was nonetheless loved by his legionaries. While Cato was in service in Macedon, he received the news that his beloved brother Caepio, from whom he was nearly inseparable, was dying in Thrace. He immediately set off to see him but was unable to arrive before his brother died. Cato was overwhelmed by grief and, for once in his life, he spared no expense to organize, as his brother had wished, lavish funeral ceremonies.
At the end of his military commission in Macedon, Cato went on a private journey through the Roman provinces of the Middle East.
On his return to Rome in 65 BC, Cato was elected to the position of quaestor. Like everything else in his life, Cato took unusual care to study the background necessary for the post, especially the laws relating to taxes. One of his first moves was to prosecute former quaestors for illegal appropriation of funds and dishonesty. Cato also prosecuted Sulla's informers, who had acted as head-hunters during Sulla's dictatorship, despite their political connections among Cato's own party and despite the power of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who had been known as the "teenage butcher" for his service under Sulla. Sulla's informers were accused first of illegal appropriation of treasury money, and then of homicide. At the end of the year, Cato stepped down from his quaestorship amid popular acclaim, but he never ceased to keep an eye on the treasury, always looking for irregularities.
As senator, Cato was scrupulous and determined. He never missed a session of the Senate and publicly criticized those who did so. From the beginning, he aligned himself with the Optimates, the conservative faction of the Senate. Many of the Optimates at this time had been Sulla's personal friends, whom Cato had despised since his youth, yet Cato attempted to make his name by returning his faction to its pure republican roots.
In 63 BC, he was elected tribune of the plebs for the following year, and assisted the consul, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in dealing with the Catiline conspiracy. Lucius Sergius Catilina, a noble patrician, led a rebellion against the state, raising an army in Etruria. Upon discovery of an associated plot against the persons of the consuls and other magistrates within Rome, Cicero arrested the conspirators, proposing to execute them without trial, an unconstitutional act. In the Senate's discussion on the subject, Gaius Julius Caesar agreed that the conspirators were guilty, but argued for distributing them among Italian cities "for safekeeping." In contrast, Cato argued that capital punishment was necessary to deter treason and that it was folly to await the ultimate test of the conspirators' guilt—the overthrow of the state—because the very proof of their guilt would make it impossible to enforce the laws. Convinced by Cato's argument, the Senate approved Cicero's proposal, and after the conspirators had been executed, the greater portion of Catilina's army quit the field, much as Cato had predicted.
Cato's political and personal differences with Caesar appear to date from this time. In a meeting of the Senate dedicated to the Catilina affair, Cato harshly reproached Caesar for reading personal messages while the senate was in session to discuss a matter of treason. Cato accused Caesar of involvement in the conspiracy and suggested that he was working on Catilina's behalf, which might explain Caesar's otherwise odd position—that the conspirators should receive no public hearing yet be shown clemency. Caesar offered it up to Cato to read. Cato took the paper from his hands and read it, discovering that it was a love letter from Caesar's mistress Servilia, Cato's half-sister.
After divorcing Atilia, Cato married Marcia, daughter of Lucius Marcius Philippus, who bore him two or three children. While Cato was married to Marcia, the renowned orator Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, who was Cato's admirer and friend, desired a connection to Cato's family and asked for the hand of Porcia, Cato's eldest daughter. Cato refused because the potential match made little sense: Porcia was already married to Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who was unwilling to let her go; and Hortensius, being nearly 60 years old, was almost 30 years Porcia's senior. Denied the hand of Porcia, Hortensius then suggested that he marry Cato's wife Marcia, on the grounds that she had already given Cato heirs. On the condition that Marcia's father consented to the match, Cato agreed to divorce Marcia, who then married Hortensius. Between Hortensius' death in 50 BC and Cato's leaving Italy with Pompey in 49 BC, Cato took Marcia and her children into his household again. Ancient sources differ on whether they were remarried.
After the Catilinian conspiracy, Cato turned all of his political skills to oppose the designs of Caesar and his triumvirate allies, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had among them held the reins of power in a finely balanced near-monopoly. Caesar gained influence over the Senate through Pompey and Crassus. Pompey gained influence over the legions of Rome through Crassus and Caesar. Crassus enjoyed the support of the tax-farmers and was able to gain a fortune by exploitation of the provinces controlled by Caesar and Pompey.
Cato's opposition took two forms. First, in 61 BC, Pompey returned from his Asian campaign with two ambitions: to celebrate a Triumph and to become consul for the second time. In order to achieve both goals, he asked the Senate to postpone consular elections until after his Triumph. Due to Pompey's enormous popularity, the Senate was willing to oblige Pompey at first, but Cato intervened and convinced the Senate to force Pompey to choose. In opposition to this action, Quintus Metellus Celer, Pompey's brother-in-law, attempted to repeal the act, but he was unsuccessful. Pompey did not run for the consulship that year, choosing instead to hold his third Triumph, one of the most magnificent ever seen in Rome.
The next year, in 60 BC, Cato attempted to obstruct the syndicate tax contractors seeking to collect taxes in the province of Asia. The syndicate's winning bid was far greater than the syndicate was able to recoup through the tax collection. Because the bid was paid in advance, the heavy losses prompted them to ask the Senate to renegotiate and thus refund a fraction of the bid. Crassus gave strong support to the plea, but Cato then promptly succeeded in vetoing it, regardless of the likelihood of a backlash from other equites with business interests the Roman government could affect.
When faced with the same request from Caesar, Cato used the device of filibuster, speaking continuously until nightfall, to prevent the Senate from voting on the issue of whether or not Caesar would be allowed to stand for consul in absentia. Thus Caesar was forced to choose between a Triumph or a run for the consulship. Caesar chose to forgo the Triumph and entered Rome in time to register as a candidate in the 59 BC election, which he won. Caesar's consular colleague was Marcus Bibulus, the husband of Cato's daughter Porcia.
When Caesar became consul, Cato opposed the agrarian laws that established farmlands for Pompey's veterans on public lands in Campania, from which the republic derived a quarter of its income. Caesar responded by having Cato dragged out by lictors while Cato was making a speech against him at the rostra. Many senators protested this extraordinary and unprecedented use of force by leaving the forum, one senator proclaiming he'd rather be in jail with Cato than in the Senate with Caesar. Caesar was forced to relent but countered by taking the vote directly to the people, bypassing the Senate. Bibulus and Cato attempted to oppose Caesar in the public votes but were harassed and publicly assaulted by Caesar's retainers. Eventually, Bibulus confined himself to his home and pronounced unfavorable omens in an attempt to lay the legal groundwork for the later repeal of Caesar’s consular acts.
Cato did not relent in his opposition to the triumvirs, unsuccessfully attempting to prevent Caesar's 5-year appointment as governor of Illyria and Cisalpine Gaul or the appointment of Crassus to an Eastern command.
Clodius, who worked closely with the triumvirate, desired to exile Cicero, and felt that Cato's presence would complicate his efforts. He, with the support of the triumvirs, proposed to send Cato to annex Cyprus. Plutarch recounts that Cato saw the commission as an attempt to be rid of him, and initially refused the assignment. When Clodius passed legislation conferring the commission on Cato "though ever so unwillingly," Cato accepted the position in compliance with the law. His official office while in Cyprus was Quaestor pro Praetore, an extraordinary Quaestorship with Praetorian powers.
Cato appeared to have two major goals in Cyprus. The first was to enact his foreign policy ideals, which, as expressed in a letter to Cicero, called for a policy of "mildness" and "uprightness" for governors of Roman-controlled territories. The second was to implement his reforms of the quaestorship on a larger scale. This second goal also provided Cato with an opportunity to burnish his Stoic credentials: the province was rich both in gold and opportunities for extortion. Thus, against common practice, Cato took none, and he prepared immaculate accounts for the senate, much as he had done earlier in his career as quaestor. According to Plutarch, Cato ultimately raised the enormous sum of 7,000 talents of silver for the Roman treasury. He thought about every unexpected event, even to tying ropes to the coffers with a big piece of cork on the other end, so they could be located in the event of a shipwreck. Unfortunately, luck played him a trick. Of his perfect accounting books, none survived: the one he had was burnt, the other was lost at sea with the freedman carrying it. Only Cato's untainted reputation saved him from charges of embezzlement.
The Senate of Rome recognized the effort made in Cyprus and offered him a reception in the city, an extraordinary praetorship, and other privileges, all of which he stubbornly refused as unlawful honours.
The triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus was broken in 54 BC at the same time as Cato's election as praetor. Judging their enemy in trouble, Cato and the Optimates faction of the Senate spent the coming years trying to force a break between Pompey and Caesar. It was a time of political turmoil, when popular figures like Publius Clodius tried to advance the cause of the common people of Rome, going so far as abandoning his patrician status to become a pleb. As a leading spokesman for the Optimate cause, Cato stood against them all in defense of the traditional privileges of the aristocracy.
The following year, in 52 BC, Cato unsuccessfully ran for the office of consul. In a time of rampant bribery and electoral fraud, he ran a scrupulously honest campaign and lost to his less conscientious opponents. Cato accepted the loss with equanimity, but refused to run a second time.
In 49 BC, Cato called for the Senate to formally relieve Caesar of his expired proconsular command and to order Caesar's return to Rome as a civilian and thus without proconsular legal immunity. Pompey had blocked all previous attempts at ordering Caesar back to Rome but had grown concerned with Caesar's growing political influence and popularity with the plebs. With the tacit support of Pompey, Cato successfully passed a resolution ending Caesar's proconsular command. Caesar made numerous attempts to negotiate, at one point even conceding to give up all but one of his provinces and legions. This concession satisfied Pompey, but Cato, along with the consul Lentulus, refused to back down. Faced with the alternatives of returning to Rome for the inevitable trial and retiring into voluntary exile, Caesar crossed into Italy with only one legion, implicitly declaring war on the Senate.
Caesar crossed the Rubicon accompanied by the XIII Legion to take power from the Senate in the same way that Sulla had done in the past. Formally declared an enemy of the state, Caesar pursued the Senatorial party, now led by Pompey, who abandoned the city to raise arms in Greece, with Cato among his companions. After first reducing Caesar's army at the battle of Dyrrhachium, where Cato commanded the port, the army led by Pompey was ultimately defeated by Caesar in the Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC). Cato and Metellus Scipio, however, did not concede defeat and escaped to the province of Africa with fifteen cohorts to continue resistance from Utica. Caesar pursued Cato and Metellus Scipio after installing the queen Cleopatra VII on the throne of Egypt, and in February 46 BC the outnumbered Caesarian legions defeated the army led by Metellus Scipio at the Battle of Thapsus. Acting against his usual strategy of clemency, Caesar did not accept surrender of Scipio's troops, but had them all slaughtered.
In Utica, Cato did not participate in the battle and, unwilling to live in a world led by Caesar and refusing even implicitly to grant Caesar the power to pardon him, he committed suicide in April 46 BC. According to Plutarch, Cato attempted to kill himself by stabbing himself with his own sword, but failed to do so due to an injured hand. Plutarch wrote:
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.
On hearing of his death in Utica, Plutarch wrote that Caesar commented, "Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life."
Starting with Pliny the Elder, later writers sometimes refer to Cato the Younger as "Cato Uticensis" ("the Utican"). In doing so they apply to him a type of cognomen that was normally awarded to generals who earned a triumph in a foreign war and brought a large territory under Roman influence (e.g. Scipio Africanus). Such names were honorific titles that the Senate only granted for the most spectacular victories. Reference to Cato as "Uticensis" is presumably meant to glorify him by portraying his suicide at Utica as a great victory over Caesar's tyranny.
Cato, who upheld the strong traditional Roman principles, was remembered particularly well. His suicide was seen as a symbol for those who followed the conservative, Optimate principles of the traditional Roman. Cato is remembered as a follower of Stoicism and was one of the most active defenders of the Republic. The Roman interpretation of Stoicism was somewhat at odds with the Greeks' interpretation. Although Greek Stoicism generally argued against participation in public affairs, the Romans were able to incorporate Stoic teachings into their civic framework. Cato's high moral standards and incorruptible virtue gained him several followers—of whom Marcus Favonius was the most well known—as well as praise even from his political enemies, such as Sallust—one of our sources for the anecdote about Caesar and Cato's sister. Sallust also wrote a comparison between Cato and Caesar. Caesar, Cato's long-time rival, was praised for his mercy, compassion, and generosity, while Cato, for his discipline, rigidity, and moral integrity. One should, however, consider which of these men Sallust found the more appealing. After Cato's death, both pro- and anti-Cato treatises appeared; among them Cicero wrote a panegyric, entitled Cato, to which Caesar, who never forgave him for all the obstructions, answered with his Anti-Cato. Caesar's pamphlet has not survived, but some of its contents may be inferred from Plutarch's "Life of Cato," which also repeats many of the stories that Caesar put forward in his Anti-Cato. Plutarch specifically mentions the accounts of Cato's close friend Munatius Rufus and that of the later Neronian senator Thrasea Paetus as references used for parts of his biography of Cato. Whilst Caesar proclaimed clemency towards all, he never forgave Cato. This stance was something that others in the anti-Caesarian camp would remember, including Cato's nephew and posthumous son-in-law Brutus.
Republicans under the Empire remembered him fondly, and the poet Virgil, writing under Augustus, made Cato a hero in his Aeneid. Whilst it was not particularly safe to praise Cato, Augustus did tolerate and appreciate Cato. Whilst one might argue that heaping posthumous praise on Cato highlights one's opposition to the new shape of Rome without directly challenging Augustus, it was actually later generations who were more able to embrace the role model of Cato without the fear of prosecution. Certainly under Nero, the resurgence of republican ambitions with Cato as their ideal, ended in death for such figures as Seneca and Lucan, but Cato continued nevertheless as a righteous ideal for generations to come.
Lucan, writing under Nero, also made Cato the hero of the later books of his epic, the Pharsalia. From the latter work originates the epigram, "Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni" ("The conquering cause pleased the gods, but the conquered cause pleased Cato," Lucan 1.128). Other Imperial authors, such as Horace, the Tiberian authors Velleius Paterculus and Valerius Maximus along with Lucan and Seneca in the 1st century AD, and later authors, such as Appian and Dio, celebrated the historical importance of Cato the Younger in their own writings.
In Dante's The Divine Comedy, Cato is portrayed as the guardian of the mount of purgatory. In Canto I, Dante writes of Cato:
I saw close by me a solitary old man, worthy, by
his appearance, of so much reverence that never
Long was his beard and mixed with white hair,
similar to the hairs of his head, which fell to his
The rays of the four holy lights so adorned his
face with brightness that I saw him as if the sun
He is one of the two pagans presented by Dante as saved souls encountered in Purgatorio, the other being Statius (Cantos XX-XXII). Cato appears in the Purgatorio not as a "saved" soul, but as one who will receive special compensation on the Day of Judgment. He is not "in" Purgatory, but on the shores of "The High Mount," or part of ante-purgatory. Statius, on the other hand, was baptised in a secretive ceremony and remained a "closet-Christian," for which lukewarmness he remained in ante-Purgatory for a prescribed time before he could enter Purgatory proper: As he made God wait, so God made him wait.
Cato was also lionized during the republican revolutions of the Enlightenment. Joseph Addison's play, Cato, a Tragedy, first staged on April 14, 1713, celebrated Cato as a martyr to the republican cause. The play was a popular and critical success: it was staged more than 20 times in London alone, and it was published across 26 editions before the end of the century. George Washington often quoted Addison's Cato and had it performed during the winter at Valley Forge, in spite of a Congressional ban on such performances. The death of Cato (La mort de Caton d'Utique) was also a popular theme in revolutionary France, being sculpted by Philippe-Laurent Roland (1782) and painted by Bouchet Louis André Gabriel, Bouillon Pierre, and Guérin Pierre Narcisse in 1797. The sculpture of Cato by Jean-Baptiste Roman and François Rude (1832) stands in the Musée du Louvre.95 BC: Birth in Rome
67 BC: Military tribune in Macedon
65 BC: Quaestor in Rome (some scholars date this to 64 BC)
63 BC: Catiline's conspiracy; Cato speaks for the death penalty
63 BC: Tribune of the Plebs; Cato passes corn dole
60 BC: Forces Caesar to choose between consulship and triumph
59 BC: Opposes Caesar's laws
58 BC: Governorship of Cyprus (leaves at the end of 58/returns March 56)
55 BC: unsuccessful 1st run for praetorship
54 BC: Praetor
51 BC: Runs (unsuccessfully) for Consul
49 BC: Caesar crosses the Rubicon and invades Italy; Cato goes with Pompey to Greece
48 BC: Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey defeated; Cato goes to Africa
46 BC: Scipio defeated in the Battle of Thapsus; Cato kills himself in Utica (April)
Engaged to Aemilia Lepida, but engagement called off
First wife, Atilia (divorced)
Porcia, married first to Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, then to Marcus Junius Brutus
Marcus Porcius Cato, later killed in the Second Battle of Philippi
Second (and third) wife, Marcia.
Novels: Cato is a major character in several novels of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series. He is portrayed as a stubborn alcoholic with strong moral values, though he is prepared to transgress these beliefs if it means the destruction of his mortal enemy, Caesar. Cato also appears in Thornton Wilder's highly fictionalized "fantasia" Ides of March, where Cato is described by Caesar as one of "four men whom I most respect in Rome" but who "regard me with mortal enmity." Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick refers to Cato in the first paragraph: "With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship." He also appears as a major character in Robert Harris' Imperium and Lustrum novels, appearing as a heroic guardian of republican virtues, foreseeing Caesar's aggregation of power as perilous for the long-term stability of Rome. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Clerval, in an attempt to comfort his friend dismayed over the recent news of his young brother William's murder, remarks to Frankenstein that, "even Cato wept over the dead body of his brother."
Plays: In 1712, Joseph Addison wrote his most famous work of fiction, a play entitled Cato, a Tragedy. Based on the last days of Cato the Younger, it deals with such themes as individual liberty vs. government tyranny, republicanism vs. monarchism, logic vs. emotion and Cato's personal struggle to cleave to his beliefs in the face of death. It had a great influence on George Washington, who arranged to have it performed at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778. Portuguese Romantic poet Almeida Garrett wrote a tragedy named Catão (Cato), featuring the lasts days of Cato's life and his struggle against Julius Caesar, a fight between virtue (Cato) and vice(Caesar), democracy (Cato) and tyranny (Caesar).
Poetry: Cato appears as a character in Dante's Purgatorio. He is in charge of the souls that arrive in Purgatory.
Television: In the television series Rome, Cato, played by actor Karl Johnson, is a significant character, although he is shown as quite older than his actual age (mid-forties) at the time. In the 2002 miniseries Julius Caesar, Cato as played by Christopher Walken is also depicted as much older than he was, since he is seen as a major figure in the Senate when Caesar is just a young man, although Caesar was five years older than Cato. Cato was also featured in the BBC docudrama Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.
Opera: In the 17th century several distinguished composers set to music the Metastasio libretto, Catone in Utica, among them, Leonardo Leo, Leonardo Vinci, J.C. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Handel, Paisiello, Jommelli, Johann Adolf Hasse and Piccinni, in two versions.
Cato's Letters were written in the early 18th century on the topic of republicanism, using Cato as a pseudonym. The libertarian Cato Institute think tank was named after the letters.