Cato the Younger played an important role in the Fall of the Roman Republic. As the leader of the optimate or Republican party, he sought to preserve the Republic and its institutions. While he ultimately failed, Cato was widely revered in the Classical age, and became to many a symbol of traditional Roman values and beliefs.
The early life of Cato the Younger
Cato was called the Younger to distinguish him from his illustrious grandfather, Cato the Elder, who had been the leader of the Conservative party of Senators and the driving force behind the political fall of the Scipios and the Third Punic War.
A bust of Cato the Younger
After the death of his parents, the young Cato was brought up in the home of his uncle Marcus Livius Drusus, a future tribune. Cato received a typical education for a member of the nobility, and from a young age, he studied Stoic Philosophy. His personal and political life was much influenced by Stoicism, a Greek philosophy that stressed reason and self-mastery. Above all, Cato was committed to the Roman Republic.
From an early age, he was noted for is stubbornness and bravery. While only a boy, Cato openly called for the death of the dictator Sulla when he overthrew the Roman Republic.
Cato the Younger served as a soldier in the war against the slaves led by Spartacus in 72 BC. He also served as a military tribune in Macedonia where he became popular with the common soldiers because he led from the front and shared their hardships. While he was a rather austere figure, he travelled widely and was familiar with Greek culture. Cato was also a fine poet and his poetry, most of which is now lost, were rated very highly by ancient critics.
A coin with the portrait of Cato
Cato the Younger and Politics
Cato’s family was prominent in the senatorial elite, and it wasn’t long before the grandson of Cato the Elder became one of the leaders of the Conservative party. This was mainly because of his oratory skills; his speeches were very influential and were highly praised by Cicero. Moreover, he soon gained a reputation for honesty and for being incorruptible, which was most unusual at a time when Roman politicians were notoriously corrupt.
Rome was very unstable in 62 BC. Cato the Younger was among those who voted for the execution of the leaders of the Catilinarian conspiracy, who had sought to overthrow the Republic. This earned him the undying hatred of Julius Caesar, which was heartily reciprocated. Cato the Younger was an arch-conservative and thus opposed to the populist. He aimed to maintain the continuing domination of the old Senatorial elite and pushed back any attempts at reforms that benefitted the common people.
For instance, Cato the Younger resisted efforts by Caesar to pass legislation that would distribute land to the common people in Italy. He was also bitterly opposed to the plans of Pompey to resettle his veterans in Italy.
A bust of Julius Cesar
In fact, Cato the Younger’s hostility to the policies of the popular party helped to bring about the alliance between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, and earned him the role of implacable enemy of the First Triumvirate. In 58 BC, Cato the Younger was sent to Cyprus and successfully turned it into a Roman Province. However, his opposition to Caesar and his powerful allies made him many enemies and he was forced to retire from politics in 51 BC.
Civil War (49-45 BC)
Cato the Younger continued to write and study Stoic philosophy after his dismissal. However, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in defiance of the Senate, he came out of retirement. Cato knew that the Senate could not defeat Caesar and his veteran legions alone; they needed the support of Pompey. Cato was able to forge an alliance between the conservatives and the Pompeiians.
ca. 1st century B.C. — Bust of Pompey
While Cato the Younger was made the commander of the forces in Sicily, he could not hold the island. Later he joined Pompey in the Balkans, and was present at the great Battle of Pharsalus, in Northern Greece, where he witnessed the victory of Caesar. The Pompeiians and the Republicans fled all over the Mediterranean in the wake of this cataclysmic defeat.
Death of Cato the Younger
Cato the Younger fled to North Africa with a small force, where he and other Republicans managed to mobilize an army. However, in 46 BC, Caesar landed in North Africa and defeated the Republicans at the Battle of Thapsus. Cato the Younger, even after his defeat, refused to surrender to Caesar. He seized the city of Utica and defied the calls of the Caesareans to surrender. Despite the fact that it was apparent that further resistance was futile, Cato fought on. Only when the last of his forces had been evacuated to Spain by sea did he submit. Then, in accordance with his Stoic beliefs and Roman traditions, he committed suicide. Cato preferred death to dishonor.
The ruins of Utica
The legend of Cato the Younger
After Cato’s suicide, his ideas lived on and he continued to inspire Republicans, despite Caesar’s victory. In particular, he was a great influence on the assassins of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Indeed, Cato the Younger had been the guardian of Marcus Brutus, perhaps the best known of the assassins.
Cato was in many ways an unattractive figure; he was stubborn, intolerant and grim. However, he was also an honest man who was dedicated to the ideals of Republican Rome. His commitment to Stoicism was exemplary and he did much to popularize this philosophy in the Roman Empire. To many, he became a model of virtue and represented all that was best in Classical Civilization. Later writers, such as Cicero and Lucian, praised him in their work, while Dante celebrated his memory in the Divine Comedy.