Cato

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A number of individuals with the name Cato are known to historians of the Roman Republic, but the two most famous, both renowned for their unwavering commitment to austere moral principles, share the name Marcus Porcius Cato.

  • Marcus Porcius Cato Censorius (i.e., the Censor) (234-149 BCE), often referred to as Cato the Elder, fought in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) (i.e., the second of the great wars which the Romans fought against the Carthaginians) and had a long political career, serving as a consul in 195 and as a censor in 184. His political activities were largely motivated by his conviction that the influence of Greek culture on Roman life must be resisted and the Roman upper classes persuaded, or compelled, to return to the simpler, less luxurious ways of earlier centuries. (As censor he was well placed to act on this conviction since the primary function of the office was to safeguard public morality.) In his later years he was concerned at the threat posed by a resurgent Carthage and insistently urged that the city be razed to the ground, always ending his speeches, whatever their subject, with the sentence Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam ('But for all that I think Carthage must be destroyed'). Cato was admired as an orator and was the author of works on Roman history (Origines, written between c168 and 149) and on agriculture (De agri cultura, written c 160 BCE).
  • Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (of Utica) (95-46 BCE), often referred to as Cato the Younger, was a great grandson of Cato the Elder. Like his great grandfather, Cato the Younger was also renowned for his moral integrity, though unlike his ancestor he was sympathetic to some aspects of Greek culture and was a committed Stoic. Both as a Stoic and for other reasons, he was a staunch defender of the institutions of Republican Rome, and throughout his political career was implacably opposed to Julius Caesar, whose ambition and unprecedented acquisition of power threatened those institutions. In the Civil War which began in 49, he therefore sided with Pompey against Caesar, and in 46, after the latter's decisive victory at Thapsus (Ras Dimas), decided to commit suicide rather than surrender to, and be pardoned by, Caesar. He was at the time governor of the city of Utica (near Bizerte in modern Tunisia) - hence his agnomen Uticensis - and the Greek philosopher and biographer, Plutarch (46-after 120 CE), recounts in detail how, after rereading Plato's Phaedo, which seeks to prove the immortality of the soul, Cato calmly called for his sword and stabbed himself to death (Life of Cato the Younger, chs. 66-70). After his death Cato was regarded as a hero by his fellow republicans, and over the centuries has often been revered as an iconic figure by defenders of republicanism or champions of individual liberty against the power of the state. (For Cato's Letters, the Cato Institute, etc., see Cato's legacy.)

Other, less well-known members of the Porcius Cato family include Gaius Porcius Cato (consul in 114), grandson of Cato the Elder and father of Cato the Younger; Lucius Porcius Cato (consul 89); and Gaius Porcius Cato (tribune 56).