1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cato, Marcus Porcius (philosopher)
CATO, MARCUS PORCIUS (95–46 B.C.), Roman philosopher, called Uticensis to distinguish him from his great-grandfather, “the Censor.” On the death of his parents he was brought up in the house of his uncle, M. Livius Drusus. After fighting with distinction in the ranks against Spartacus (72 B.C.), he became a military tribune (67), and served a campaign in Macedonia, but he never had any enthusiasm for the military profession. On his return he became quaestor, and showed so much zeal and integrity in the management of the public accounts that he obtained a provincial appointment in Asia, where he strengthened his reputation. Though filled with disgust at the corruption of the public men with whom he came in contact, he saw much to admire in the discipline which Lucullus had enforced in his own eastern command, and he supported his claims to a triumph, while he opposed the inordinate pretensions of Pompey. When the favour of the nobles gained him the tribuneship, he exerted himself unsuccessfully to convict L. Licinius Murena (2), one of their chief men, of bribery. Cicero, who defended Murena, was glad to have Cato’s aid when he urged the execution of the Catilinarian conspirators. Cato’s vote on this matter drew upon him the bitter resentment of Julius Caesar, who did his utmost to save them.
Cato had now become a great power in the state. Though possessed of little wealth and no family influence, his unflinching resolution in the cause of the ancient free state rendered him a valuable instrument in the hands of the nobles. He vainly opposed Caesar’s candidature for the consulship in 59, and his attempt, in conjunction with Bibulus, to prevent the passing of Caesar’s proposed agrarian law for distributing lands amongst the Asiatic veterans, proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, although his efforts were ineffectual, he was still an obstacle of sufficient importance for the triumvirs to desire to get rid of him. At the instigation of Caesar he was sent to Cyprus (58) with a mission to depose its king, Ptolemy (brother of Ptolemy Auletes), and annex the island. On his return two years later he continued to struggle against the combined powers of the triumvirs in the city, and became involved in scenes of violence and riot. He succeeded in obtaining the praetorship in 54, and strenuously exerted himself in the hopeless and thankless task of suppressing bribery, in which all parties were equally interested. He failed to attain the consulship, and had made up his mind to retire from the arena of civic ambition when the civil war broke out in 49. Feeling that the sole chance for the free state lay in conceding an actual supremacy to Pompey, whom he had formerly vigorously opposed, he did not scruple to support the unjust measures of the nobles against Caesar. At the outset of the war he was entrusted with the defence of Sicily, but finding it impossible to resist the superior forces of C. Scribonius Curio, who had landed on the island, he joined Pompey at Dyrrhachium. When his chief followed Caesar to Thessaly he was left behind in charge of the camp, and thus was not present at the battle of Pharsalus. After the battle, when Pompey abandoned his party, he separated himself from the main body of the republicans, and conducted a small remnant of their forces into Africa. After his famous march through the Libyan deserts, he shut himself up in Utica, and even after the decisive defeat at Thapsus (46), in spite of the wishes of his followers, he determined to keep the gates closed till he had sent off his adherents by sea. While the embarkation was in progress he continued calm and dignified; when the last of the transports had left the port he cheerfully dismissed his attendants, and soon afterwards stabbed himself.
He had been reading, we are told, in his last moments Plato’s dialogue on the immortality of the soul, but his own philosophy had taught him to act upon a narrow sense of immediate duty without regard to the future. He conceived that he was placed in the world to play an active part, and when disabled from carrying out his principles, to retire gravely from it. He had lived for the free state, and it now seemed his duty to perish with it. In politics he was a typical doctrinaire, abhorring compromise and obstinately blind to the fact that his national ideal was a hopeless anachronism. From the circumstances of his life and of his death, he has come to be regarded as one of the most distinguished of Roman philosophers, but he composed no works, and bequeathed to posterity no other instruction than that of his example. The only composition by him which we possess is a letter to Cicero (Ad Fam. xv. 5), a polite refusal of the orator’s request that he would endeavour to procure him the honour of a triumph. The school of the Stoics, which took a leading part in the history of Rome under the earlier emperors, looked to him as its saint and patron. It continued to wage war against the empire, hardly less openly than Cato himself had done, for two centuries, till at last it became actually seated on the imperial throne in the person of Marcus Aurelius. Immediately after his death Cato’s character became the subject of discussion; Cicero’s panegyric Cato was answered by Caesar in his Anticato. Brutus, dissatisfied with Cicero’s work, produced another on the same subject; in Lucan Cato is represented as a model of virtue and disinterestedness.
See Life by Plutarch, and compare Addison’s tragedy. Modern biographies by H. Wartmann (Zürich, 1859), and F. D. Gerlach (Basel, 1866); C. W. Oman, Seven Roman Statesmen of the Later Republic, Cato . . . (1902); Mommsen, Hist. of Rome (Eng. trans.), bk. v. ch. v.; article in Smith’s Dictionary of Classical Biography; Gaston Boissier, Cicero and his Friends (Eng. trans., 1897), esp. pp. 277 foll.; Warde Fowler, Social Life at Rome (1909).