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Cato the Younger

Page history last edited by Nicole Barnes 13 years ago



Much of what we know of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis comes from Plutarch’s portrayal of his life; he is one of the 50 people portrayed in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (also known as Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans and Plutarch’s Lives).[1] Cato’s distinction as “the Younger” differentiates him and his great-grandfather, who was, according to Plutarch, “a man whose virtue gained him the greatest reputation and influence among the Romans,”[2] and Cato the Younger followed in familial footsteps.[3] Born in Rome, Cato the Younger was orphaned at a young ago and raised with his siblings by his mother’s brother, a political leader. Plutarch remarks that as a child he was “sluggish of comprehension and slow, but what he comprehended he held fast in his memory.”[4] His serious, steadfast demeanor gave Cato a reputation for being stubborn and not easily persuaded, and Plutarch credits this reputation as the impetus for Cato’s remarkable ability at persuasion.


Political Career

Cato began his professional life as a priest of Apollo, following Stoic philosophy.[5] Cato’s moral compass stems from his Stoic background; he was widely regarded as an honest and incorruptible political force.[6] Cato spent some time in the military before choosing a political career. He was appointed to the military around 67 B.C., and left the army to “apply himself to public affairs.”[7] He spent a year touring Roman territories in Africa to prepare himself for a political life. Cato was elected quaestor of the Roman Republic (a financial official), Governor of Cyprus, and praetor (army commander) of the Roman Republic.


Battle with Caesar

Cato was a firm supporter of the Roman Republic throughout his life, and is best known for his contentions with Julius Caesar, 5 years his elder.[8] Cato and Caesar first butted heads in the Senate over a trial of conspirators against the Roman Republic. Cicero as counsel proposed executing the traitors, and Cato made Cicero’s case before the Senate. Caesar stood opposed to Cato’s speech, arguing that no man should be put to death without a trial. Cato was the victor, persuading the Senate to execute the Catiline conspirators. Cato’s speech in prosecution of the conspirators on December 5 is his only surviving speech, and Plutarch thanks Cicero and his clerks for this fact. The speech was widely credited as proof of Cato’s persuasive skill.[9]


Cato was from the first opposed to Caesar, disliking what he saw as a corruptible nature greedy for power, and attempted to implicate Caesar in the Catiline plot.[10] Cato’s continued opposition to Caesar and his allies ignited the First Triumvirate, Caesar and Pompey’s first power grab, and Cato opposed all movements to redistribute land and give the Triumvirate more power. Caesar imprisoned Cato for a short time due to his opposition, but quickly thought better of it, ultimately offering Cato a special command in Cyprus. Cato accepted, aware of the fact that Caesar’s move removed Cato from power. Cato returned to Rome in 56 B.C. and two years later back ed Pompey’s ascension to power as a counter to Caesar.[11]


Caesar and Cato’s feud came to a head when Cato successfully convinced the Senate to “formally relieve” Caesar of his expired command, forcing him to return to Rome as a civilian. Caesar attempted to negotiate with Cato and Pompey, but while Pompey was willing to accept a compromise, Cato was not. Caesar entered voluntary exile, implicitly declaring war on the Senate and sparking the Roman Civil War that led to the fall of Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. This civil war ended badly for Cato, with Caesar defeating Pompey’s senatorial party in the Battle of Pharsalus. Cato refused to admit defeat and continued to fight Caesar’s troops from Utica; while he did not fight, he commanded the forces. Caesar defeated Cato’s forces, refusing to accept surrender.[12]



Cato refused to acknowledge Caesar’s power or admit to a government headed by Caesar, and he decided to commit suicide by falling on his own sword. In this fall, Cato pierced his abdomen, disemboweling himself yet failing to cause severe damage to any internal organs. He did not die immediately, and in thrashing around Cato alerted his servants to his situation. The servants called for a doctor, who replaced the organs and sewed Cato’s wound. Infuriated, Cato proceeded to tear open the wound and died soon thereafter.[13]



Cato was married twice and had two children. His son, Marcus Porcius Cato, swore to follow in his father’s footsteps, assisting Brutus in the assassination of Caesar. Cato’s daughter, Portia, was married twice; her second husband, and half-cousin, was Marcus Calpurnius Brutus.[14] Cato’s family thus contributed to both the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and is remembered historically for this reason. His academic legacy, however, reaches beyond this battle with Caesar; Cato’s friendship with Cicero and his assistance as a persuasive political force are thought to be an influence on Cicero’s understanding of oratory and rhetoric.[15] Quintilian's Institutions of Oratory references several Cato speeches as examples of exceptional oratory, including a reference to his speech against Caesar in Book 8 of the work. These examples may not have survived outside of Quintilian, but Cato's skill at oratory and influence on rhetoric lives on in his influence over these two men whose works are major contributions to the rhetorical tradition.



Badian, E. "M. Porcius Cato and the Annexation and Early Administration of Cyprus", Journal of Roman Studies, 55 (1965): 110-121.

Bellemore, J., "Cato the Younger in the East in 66 BC", Historia, 44.3 (1995): 376-9.

Crowell, Laura. “Cato the Younger as a Stoic Orator.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 37.2 (Apr 1951) p 253-261.

Fehrle, R. Cato Uticensis, Darmstadt, 1983.

Goar, R. The Legend of Cato Uticensis from the First Century BC to the Fifth Century AD, Bruxelles, 1987.

Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. Heroes: A History of Hero Worship, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 2004.

Marin, P. Blood in the Forum: The Struggle for the Roman Republic, London: Hambledon Continuum, (April) 2009.

Plutarch. Parallel Lives.

Seigneur de Montaigne, Michaelm and Peter Coste. "Of Cato the Younger." 1685.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1971.



[1] Plutarch’s Parallel Lives juxtaposes twenty-three Roman and Greek lives to discuss virtues and failings of famous citizens. Cato the Younger is volume 8 of Parallel Lives and his Greek counterpart is Phocion. For a text of Plutarch’s discussion of Cato the younger see: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cato_Minor*.html.              

[2] Cato the Elder is Volume II of Parallel Lives

[3] Plutarch justifies Cato the Younger’s inclusion in Parallel Lives as an example of a virtuous, honorable politician. Most sources discussing Cato’s life concede that, while he was virtuous and honest, he had favorites, and his favorites were well taken care of when Cato’s advice, assistance, or favor was beneficial..

[4] Parallel Lives paragraph 3

[5] Stoics believe that emotions are “errors in judgment” and that people who are morally and intellectually superior are immune to these weaknesses. See Crowell for a discussion of the Stoic influence on his oratory.

[6] See Crowell. All discussion of Cato characterize him as honest and explore his resistance to bribes and political controversy. He is widely acknowledge to have lost several elections specifically because he refused to accept bribes or attack his opponents.

[7] Plutarch paragraph 12. “With the time of Cato’s military service came to an end, he was sent on his way, not with blessings, as is common, nor yet with praises, but with tears and insatiable embraces, the soldiers casting their mantles down  for him to walk upon, and kissing his hands, things which the Romans of that day rarely did, and only to a few of their imperators.”

[8] The distinction in ages is noteworthy in that several popular depictions of this adversarial relationship depict Cato as older than Caesar; when Christopher Walken portrayed Cato in the miniseries Julius Caesar, Caesar was a young man while Cato was height of his popularity and power. Cato’s depiction in Rome is also much older than his actual age at the time.

[9] For more on Cato’s speech, see Badian and Fehrle.

[10] See Plutarch

[11] See Plutarch, Bellemore, Marin

[12] The above comes from Plutarch’s discussion of Caesar and Cato’s battle

[13] Plutarch on Cato’s death

[14] Plutarch’s discussion of Cato’s family

[15] See Badian, Ferhle, Taylor


I'm including some popular culture references to Cato to demonstrate his importance to the story of the Roman empire. The second link is a lecture that discusses Cato's role in Roman history.


A portrayal of the battle between Caesar and Cato parodying Star Wars


Carl Richard, professor of History at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, discusses Roman Heroes and Villains


History with a Twist of Lime presents their take on Caesar's Gallic War




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