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Tales of the Romans : The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould


 

 

THE MAN WHO SELDOM LAUGHED

A ROMAN soldier held a boy in his arms at a window, threatening to drop him into the road below.

"Will you speak to your uncle for me?"

"No," replied the boy, "I will not."

[135] "Not if I say I will let go unless you promise?"

"No."

The soldier set the boy down in safety inside the chamber, and said:

"This child is the glory of Italy."

He had been visiting the boy Cato's uncle, in order to ask his support. Many people in the Roman Empire who lived out of Rome wished to be made citizens, with a vote in the elections. The officer was acting as their spokesman. Half in fun, half in earnest, he had begged Cato to plead with his uncle on behalf of the would-be citizens.

You see what a fearless spirit the boy had.

When he was fourteen years old he happened to visit the house of Sulla, the Red General. He saw men carried out dead. They had been slain by the general's order, because they belonged to a different party in the State. Young Cato's anger was roused. He turned to his teacher, and cried:

"Why do you not give me a sword, that I may kill him, and rid my country of the tyrant?"

So fierce was Cato's voice that a friend of Sulla took alarm, and watched the lad closely lest he should attack the Red General.

Cato, 95 to 46 B.C., belonged to a patrician family—that is, he was of noble birth; and he had a fairly large estate. But he did not care to spend his money [136] wastefully. He was a stern, strict man—one of the order called Stoics (Sto'-icks). Seldom did he laugh; seldom did he smile. Rich persons wore purple; and Cato, as if to show his scorn for their vanity, dressed in black. No matter whether the day was hot or cold, he would go without any head-covering; and he always walked barefoot. While his servants travelled on horseback, Cato trudged like a poor man. A friend in need was he, for he was no miser. He would lend money without expecting the payment of any interest. A friend also was he to the soldiers who fought under his command. Once when a war was ended and Cato was about to return home, the warriors who had served in his regiment spread their garments on the road for him to walk on, and kissed his hand as he passed, for he had won their love by his just treatment. Whenever he had set them a hard task, he had taken a part in the business himself.

Cato was elected a quęstor, or treasurer—that is, one of the keepers of the public money; and he was as careful of the city's money as if it was his own. If he found any man owed money to the city, he would bid him pay.

"But, sir," such persons would say, "this money was due as far back as twenty or thirty years ago. Surely you can take it as a thing forgotten now."

[137] "No," replied Cato; "the money is owing to the treasury of Rome, and it must be paid."

On the other hand, if he found the city owed money to any man, he would see that the debt was paid, even though it had been left unthought of for many years. And so attentive was he to his work, that he was the first officer to arrive at the treasury in the morning and the last to leave at night. He did his business with all his heart and strength.

So true was he to his word that the Romans could readily trust whatever he said. At last a joke would pass among the people, and if one man told another a very wild story, the neighbor would shake his head and say:

"Well, gossip, I would not believe such a thing even if it were told me by Cato himself."

He did not believe in spending wealth too freely, even on men who gave delight in music or in acting in the theatres. Some rich folk would give a clever musician a crown of gold. But if Cato heard a beautiful piece of music played, he would call the performer to him, and offer him a crown of leaves from the tree known as the wild olive. If a man acted well on the stage, he would send him not jewels or vessels of gold and silver, but a parcel of beet-root, or lettuce, or radishes, or parsley, or cucumbers! I suppose he thought it was well to show his pleasure by a gift, but not [138] to make such gifts as would render the musicians and actors greedy or vain. And perhaps he meant to hint to them that, after all, if a man did finely in his art, such as singing or reciting, he should be content with the honor in which he was held by the people, without wanting a present of money. For then it might be thought that he did his part skilfully, not because he loved his work, but because he loved the pay. Now, anybody could pluck leaves from a wayside tree and weave a crown of wild olive; but to win it as a prize in the public performance might make the artist justly proud, for he would be thinking more of the honor than of the reward.

Even for honors Cato did not greatly care. He had offered himself once to the Romans as consul, but he was defeated in the election. Many men who had failed to get the votes of the people would have gone home feeling very unhappy. But Cato went to the bath, rubbed himself in oil after the manner of the Romans, and had a hearty game at ball!

You have heard of the great war between Julius Cęsar and Pompey. In this struggle Cato took the side of Pompey and the patricians. When it was plain that Cęsar was master of Italy, Cato felt deep sorrow. He thought ruin was coming on the land, though he was mistaken. But still, he honestly thought Cęsar was doing no good [139] to Rome and the Roman people; and, to prove his grief in the sight of all men, he would neither cut his hair nor shave his beard, nor wear a garland of flowers at a banquet or on a holiday. All his life long he had seldom laughed; now he was more gloomy than ever. Perhaps you think him foolish. But you must remember he was not gloomy on his own account. His heart was troubled for the sake of his country.

Pompey died on the shore of Africa, and his head was shown to Cęsar. Pompey's friend, Cato, also died in Africa. He had collected Roman soldiers and African allies about him, and he had made up his mind to fight Cęsar, and never to yield. His last stand was made at Utica (U-tik-a), a city near Carthage. He brought into this city large stores of corn; he mended its broken walls; he set up towers for watching and for defence; he had ditches dug round; he drilled the young men in the use of weapons, and in soldiers' exercises.

Meanwhile Cęsar came nearer the city. One midnight a horseman dashed into Utica, his horse all steaming, and brought the news that King Juba, the African, was beaten; that soon Cęsar would be at the gates.

Cato would not fly. He ordered that ships should be got ready in the harbor for such as chose to depart, and food was placed on board. From the shore he watched the rowers take the [140] vessels out to sea, and the galleys retire into the faint distance, and he was left in Utica.

In the evening he read very deeply. The book he studied was written by the wise Greek, Plato. His sword used to hang over his couch where he lay. It had been removed by his son, who had a fear lest Cato should slay himself. On Cato discovering that the sword was gone, he asked one of his slaves the reason, and, not being satisfied with the answer, struck the slave such a blow on the mouth that he injured his own hand. I am sorry to have to tell you this incident, for it shows that Cato, with all his courage and faithfulness, was hard of heart toward his servants.

At length he regained the sword.

Through the night he sometimes read and sometimes slept a little; and as the birds began to sing at dawn he drew the sword from its sheath, stabbed himself in the breast, and soon afterward died.

I have already told you of another Cato. This one who died at Utica is called Cato the Younger.


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