Marcus Porcius Cato, (95 BC - 46 BC), who is often known as "Cato the Younger", to distinguish him from his famous great grandfather Cato the Elder, was a Roman statesman in the late Republic. He was renowned for finishing whatever he started and for hating flattery. He embraced every Roman virtue, and he was especially appreciated for his sense of justice and his even temperament. Cato believed that the traditional values that had made Rome great had been destroyed, and that, because of that, Rome was suffering from moral degeneracy. Cato is one of the major models for the political philosophy of Republicanism, and decisively shaped the republican ideas of the American Founding Fathers about the necessity of every citizen displaying civic virtue.
He lived and acted in accord with Stoic philosophy, being unmoved by passion and firm in everything. That moral superiority annoyed his colleagues who felt compromises, bribes and deals were necessary for the practical conduct of affairs. Cicero noted, "He speaks as if he were in Plato's commonwealth, " his fellow politician Cicero complained, "not as f he were dealing with the dregs of Romulus" (the Roman electorate).
In 67-66 BC Cato was the Roman military tribune, a high-ranking officer, in Macedonia. Back in Rome he was quaestor, a treasury officer, in 64 BC. In 63 BC came the famous conspiracy of Catiline against the Roman government, a conspiracy which stopped thanks to the courage and energy of the consul Cicero. In the Senate debate on the fate of the senators involved in the conspiracy, Julius Caesar argued against their execution. Cato's uncompromising advocacy of severity carried the day, and they were executed. In another case Cato tried to unseat Murena, a consul notorious for bribery; Cicero, believing that the situation needed Murena as consul, managed to block.
Cato is probably most famous as a staunch opponent of Julius Caesar, who he believed would overthrow the Republic and set himself up as a tyrant. Long an enemy of Caesar, Cato joined Pompey the Great's forces in the civil war; and after Pompey's defeat and death in 48 BC, Cato led a remnant of the Pompeians to North Africa. His forces were decisively defeated at Battle of Thapsus, and Cato, retreating to nearby Utica, committed suicide rather than fall into Caesar's hands.
Image and memory
Caesar complained that he had been denied the opportunity to pardon Cato. Cicero wrote an essay which made Cato a symbol of the lost republican cause. 18 centuries after his death Cato became a hero of Enlightenment political theorists in Europe and the American colonies. He became the model of civic virtue for David Hume and many of the American Founding Fathers, along with Brutus, Cassius and Cicero. Thus George Washington admired Cato so greatly that he had Joseph Addison's 1712 play about Cato performed in Valley Forge to boost the troops' morale. Cato's speeches (as reported in the 1713 play by Joseph Addison) were echoed by Patrick Henry, Give me liberty or give me death!," by the cry of Nathan Hale before his execution as an American spy, "I regret I have but one life to lose for my country,"
Cato inspired English political journalists John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon to publish anonymously Cato's Letters (1720–23). These were 144 short essays that expounded on republicanism and which greatly influenced the American Founding Fathers.
The Cato Institute is a prominent American libertarian think tank was founded in 1977 in honor of Cato's Letters by Trenchard and Gordon.
Cato the Younger plays an important role in Dante's Divine Comedy, where he appears as the guardian of Purgatory despite his status as a suicide.
- Addison, Joseph. Cato: A Tragedy (1713), highly influential play that displayed Cato's republican virtues. online edition
- Litto, Fredric M. "Addison's Cato in the Colonies," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 431–449 in JSTOR
- Richard, Carl J. Greeks and Romans bearing gifts: how the ancients inspired the Founding Fathers (2008) 203 pp. excerpt and text search