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Our Young Folks' Plutarch by  Rosalie Kaufman


 

 

MARCUS CATO

THE Romans always called those who distinguished themselves, but received no honors through their ancestors, new men, and this was the name they gave to Cato, though he used to say that he was new only with regard to offices, but in so far as the services and virtues of his ancestors were concerned, he was very ancient.

Originally, his name was Marcus Priscus, but it was afterwards changed to Cato on account of his wisdom; for catos  is a Latin word, meaning wise. Marcus Cato was a strong, healthy youth, with a florid complexion and gray eyes. He was brought up in camps and accustomed to a life of discipline and temperance, which fitted him for his later duties. Eloquence seemed to him such a necessary accomplishment that he studied hard to become a good orator, and the people of the neighboring villages would send for him to plead their causes because he did it so willingly and so well. Perhaps another reason for employing him was that he would never [310] accept a fee. He was glad of the opportunity of exercising his talent, but he was all the while longing for military glory.

His first campaign was made when he was only seventeen years of age. Hannibal was then laying Italy in ruins, and not many years later it was Cato's pride to show the number of scars that marked his breast. He always marched on foot, followed only by one servant, who carried his provisions, even after he had risen to a high office, and he was so kind and considerate that when not on military duty he would wait on himself, and even prepare his own food. He never drank anything but water, except when his strength and spirits were exhausted, then he would take a little wine.

Cato had a farm, on which he lived when not engaged in war, and while there his habits were as frugal and economical as possible. The estate adjoining his farm belonged to a nobleman named Valerius Flaccus, a man of influence and great wealth. He often heard his servants speak of the laborious life his neighbor led; how he went early in the morning to the various towns in the vicinity to argue cases of law, and then returned to his own farm and worked hard with his domestics all day, afterwards sitting down with them and sharing their coarse food. They told, too, of many instances of kindness and consideration, as well as of the witty and sensible sayings of Cato. Valerius always wanted to know superior people, and liked to encourage those who were striving to do right, so he sent Cato an invitation to dine. The two men saw each other frequently after that, and Valerius discovered many excellent traits in Cato that only needed a chance for development; he therefore persuaded him to go to Rome and apply himself to affairs of state.

The young man soon gained friends and admirers, and Valerius helped him to rise to several high positions, until he became his colleague as consul and censor. All the young men of Rome tried to become public speakers because they had such an admiration for Cato, whom they called the Roman Demosthenes. From what is said of him by several historians, it is probable that he was quite as eloquent as the Greek orator. But few of Cato's admirers were willing to work as hard as he did in tilling his fields, or to live as plainly and dress as poorly. He always said that he did so in order [311] that he might be the better prepared for hard service when his country needed him, and even when he was an old, gray-haired man he continued robust and healthy to the last. He inherited a beautiful piece of Babylonian tapestry, but sold it because, as the walls of his house were neither plastered nor whitewashed, he could not use it. In short, he thought that a man should own nothing that he could do without, and that it was better to have fields where food could be raised than a flower-garden that needed care. Only useful things had value in his eyes, but he carried this idea to an excess that made him cruel, for when a domestic grew old in his service he turned him off instead of taking care of him. When he was consul, he left his war-horse in Spain to save the public the expense of his freight, but it is a question whether it was a virtue to abandon an animal that had carried him safe through the war.

Perhaps a good idea of the character of Cato may be got from some of his sayings, which we will repeat. One day the Romans were very unreasonable in their demand for corn, and he attempted to argue with them. He began his address thus: "It is a difficult task, my fellow-citizens, to speak to the belly, because it has no ears." He was so displeased with the extravagant habits of the Romans that he said, "It is a hard matter to save a city from ruin where a fish is sold for more than an ox." On another occasion he declared that the Roman people were like sheep, that could not be made to stir alone, but would follow their leader in a body. The men to whom no one would listen could lead a crowd with the greatest ease. Wishing to encourage virtue, he said, in one of his speeches, "If it is by virtue and temperance that you are become great, do not change for the worse; but if intemperance and vice have made you great, change for the better; for you are already quite great enough." He found fault because the same persons were often chosen as consuls, and said, "Either you think the consulate worth little, or few worthy of the office." When the Romans sent three ambassadors to the king of Bithynia, one with the gout, one with a recently-healed fracture of the skull, and the third not much better than a fool, Cato said, "They have sent an embassy which has neither feet, head, nor heart."

One of his sayings was, "Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise; for the wise avoid the errors of fools, while [312] fools do not profit by the example of the wise." He once made this jest about a fat man: "Of what service to his country can such a body be, which is nothing but belly?" He also said that in all his life he only repented of three things: the first was that he had trusted a woman with a secret; the second, that he had gone by sea when he might have gone by land; and the third, that he had passed one day without doing any important business.

To a wicked old man he said, "Old age has deformities enough of its own; do not add to it the deformity of vice." A tribune who had the reputation of a poisoner wanted to have a bad law passed, and worked very hard for it; whereupon Cato said to him, "Young man, I do not know which is more dangerous, to drink what you mix, or to confirm what you would make a law."

During his consulship with his friend Valerius Flaccus, he was sent in command of the army to fight the Spaniards, and while he was subduing their cities a great army took him by surprise, and he was in danger of being driven out of the country with dishonor. He sent to the Celtiberians for aid, and they demanded an enormous sum of money for their services. The Roman officers thought it shameful that they should be obliged to purchase assistance, but Cato said, "It makes no difference; for if we conquer, we shall pay them at the enemy's expense; and if we are conquered, there will be nobody either to pay or to make the demand." He gained the battle, and after that was successful everywhere. He often boasted that he conquered more cities in Spain than he had stayed there days. So much was he dreaded, that when he wrote letters to the commanders of several fortified towns ordering them to tear down their walls and towers, they immediately obeyed.

On his return home Cato was honored with a triumph, but he by no means felt that his work was done; on the contrary, he publicly offered his services to his friends and his country whenever they should be required, and continued to plead cases of law for those who sought him.

It was not long before he was called into action, for Antiochus the Great, King of Syria, marched into Greece with an army, creating no little commotion there, and the Roman forces were sent over to fight him. Antiochus blocked up the narrow pass of Thermopylæ, and added walls and intrenchments to those that already [313] existed there. The Romans were at a loss how to approach, until Cato remembered that the Persians had made their way round the mountains and come upon Leonidas from behind when he defended the pass with three hundred Spartans. Under his direction, therefore, the troops began to ascend the mountain, but the guide, who was one of the prisoners, lost his way and wandered about among such dangerous precipices that the soldiers were in despair.

Cato saw the danger, and ordered his forces to halt, while he, with one Lucius Manlius, a dexterous climber, went forward in the middle of a dark night and scrambled among wild olive-trees and steep rocks until they found a path that seemed to lead down to the enemy's camp. There they set up marks to guide them on their return, and went to fetch the army. But when they had all reached the place and begun to march farther, the path suddenly failed, and they found themselves on the verge of a steep precipice. At last day dawned, and the Grecian camp with the advanced guard could be seen at the foot of the precipice. Cato halted and sent for the Firmians, saying that he wished to speak with them in private. The Firmians belonged to a Roman colony, and had proved themselves the bravest and truest of soldiers in time of danger. When they presented themselves, Cato said, "I want to take one of the enemy alive, so that we may learn who compose the advance-guard, what is their number, and what preparations have been made to fight us. But the business requires the speed and ferocity of lions rushing among a herd of beasts."

The Firmians required no second bidding, but promptly rushed down the mountain, surprised the guard and put them to flight, and brought back one of their number to Cato, as he had ordered. The prisoner, upon being questioned, said that the main body of the army was encamped in the pass with the king, but that six hundred selected Ætolians guarded the heights. Of such a small number, even though they were selected, Cato felt little fear, so he had the trumpets sounded, and started forward, sword in hand, shouting to his army to follow. When the Ætolians saw him advancing they fled to the main body, and created the wildest confusion among the forces.

At the same time Manius Glabrio, the Roman consul, attacked Antiochus from below, and entered the pass with his whole army. [314] Antiochus was struck in the mouth with a stone, which knocked out several of his teeth, and caused such intense pain that he was forced to turn his horse and retire. His soldiers then lost heart, and pushed back through the narrow defiles, trampling each other down as the Romans crowded upon them, until all perished.

Cato gives an account of this exploit in his writings, and praises himself very much for it. He says, "All those who witnessed the action were ready to declare that Cato owed less to the people of Rome than the people of Rome owed to Cato; the consul, Manius, coming hot from the fight, took me in his arms and embraced me for a long time; he then cried out with joy that neither he nor all the people together could ever sufficiently reward Cato."

Immediately after the battle the consul sent Cato to carry the news of the glorious result to Rome. He arrived there in five days, and was the first to report the victory. Great rejoicings followed; the whole city was filled with sacrifices, and the Romans were made happy by the belief that they had power to conquer every sea and every land.

Cato was not prominent on the battlefield again after the victory he won over Antiochus, but he interested himself in politics, and made it his special duty to accuse criminals and have them arrested. One day he met a young man who had brought an enemy of his dead father to disgrace. Taking him by the hand, Cato congratulated him, and said, "You have done well; lambs and goats are not the proper sacrifices to offer to our dead parents: the tears and sufferings of their enemies are better."

He was constantly accusing one person or another, and of course the tables were often turned on him, his enemies never losing the slightest chance of bringing him to justice. He was brought up before the court at least fifty times for various offences. The last trial took place when he was eighty-six years old, and on that occasion he was heard to say, "It is hard that I, who have lived with men of one generation, should be obliged to make my defence to those of another."

Ten years after his consulship, Cato stood for the office of censor, the very highest one in the republic. A censor had a great deal of power, and there were never more than two at a time. If one died during his term of office his place was not filled, because it was [315] considered an evil omen for a censor to die; but the other one had to resign, and then two new ones were chosen. The office was held for eighteen months, and the duties were numerous. They consisted in taking the census, and this gave the name to the office originally, superintending the public morals, and inquiring into the life and manners of each citizen. The censors also had charge of the public money. They had the right to reprove or punish a person for not marrying, for breaking a promise of marriage, for any sort of dissipation or bad conduct, for extravagance in his household, or for failing to promptly educate his children; for the Romans did not think it proper for any one to follow his own free will without control. A censor could even punish a magistrate; he had power to expel a senator who led a vicious life, or to deprive a knight of his horse, and oblige him to go about on foot. In short, the Roman censors held themselves responsible for the public morals, and although they could not deprive a man of life or property as the courts of law could, they controlled his standing in society, and removed him either to a more honorable or less honorable tribe. They gave out contracts for all the public buildings besides, and saw that they were honestly filled.

So, when Cato stood as a candidate for this very high position, he met with much opposition, because some feared, others envied him. There were seven candidates besides, who promised to be very mild in their censorship, hoping thus to gain votes. Cato took a different course. He stood up in the rostrum and declared his determination, in case he should be elected, to punish every instance of vice, for he said that reform was greatly needed, and entreated the people not to choose the mildest, but the severest physician. "I am of that sort," he added, "and Valerius Flaccus is another; with him for my colleague, and him only, I could do good service to the country by putting an end to the growing luxury of the times."

The Romans showed themselves worthy of great leaders, for they chose the man who had promised to be a severe censor rather than those who would be likely to flatter them and overlook their faults. Cato and Flaccus were unanimously elected.

Cato's first action as censor was to expel many of the senators, and to place Valerius Flaccus at the head of that body. He next [316] made an attack on luxuries, and ordered all things not absolutely necessary to comfort to be taxed so high that scarcely anybody could afford to indulge in them. This was all very well, but he made himself hateful to many by causing water-pipes to be cut, so that water might not be carried into private gardens and houses, and by having all buildings thrown down which jutted out into the public street. He lowered the price of public works so much that at last a party headed by Titus Flamininus complained of him to the senate, and had all the bargains and contracts he had made for the repairing and building of temples annulled, because the work at such prices could not be well done, and there was no advantage to the state in having bad jobs. They went further, and had him fined; but, in spite of some unpopular actions, the people must have been well pleased with their censor, for they erected a statue of him in the temple of the goddess of Health, and inscribed upon it, "In honor of Cato, the Censor, who by his wise discipline and good laws reclaimed the Roman commonwealth when it was sinking into vice."

In private life Cato was a good father and husband, and although he held so important a position in the state, the care of his family was never neglected. He chose his wife because she was well-born, for he said that women of good families were more ashamed of an unworthy action, and more likely to be obedient to their husbands, than those of mean birth. It was his opinion that a man who beat his wife or children laid sacrilegious hands on the most sacred objects in the world. A good husband he considered worthy of more praise than a great senator, and he admired Socrates, the renowned philosopher, for nothing so much as for having lived contentedly with a wife who was a scold, and children who were half-witted.

As soon as his son was old enough to study, Cato taught him himself. He had a slave named Chilo, who was an excellent teacher, but he did not choose that his son should undergo the humiliation of being punished by a slave if he happened to be backward in his studies. He taught the boy to wrestle, to throw a dart, to ride, to box, to endure heat and cold, and to swim the most rapid rivers. He also wrote histories of the ancient Romans for the boy's instruction, so that he was not obliged to stir from his father's house [317] for knowledge. But he was not strong, and could not bear the severe discipline to which other young Romans were subjected; still he became an excellent soldier, and distinguished himself on the battlefield.

Cato had a peculiar method of managing his slaves, which he purchased among the captives taken in war. He always chose the youngest, because, like colts or puppies, they could be trained as he pleased. None of them were ever allowed to enter another man's house, unless sent on an errand by Cato or his wife. It was a rule with Cato that his slaves must either be busy or asleep, and he preferred those that slept much, because he thought they made better workmen if they had plenty of rest.

When he was a young soldier, he never found fault with the food that was placed upon his table, because he thought it undignified to quarrel with a servant on account of his stomach; but later in life, when he gave entertainments, he became exacting, and if any of the slaves waited carelessly or spoiled the food, he would beat them as soon as the meal was over. He managed to raise quarrels among his servants, because he feared some bad results if they were too united, probably an injury to himself or his family. If one of his slaves was guilty of a crime, he was accorded a formal trial, and then put to death in the presence of his fellow-servants.

Although Cato was very rich, he lost no opportunity to increase his wealth, even unjustly. He often said that the man who was truly godlike and fit to be registered in the lists of glory was he whose accounts at the end of his life should prove that he had more than doubled what he had received from his ancestors.

Still, Cato was always an enemy to too much luxury, and constantly preached against it. Perhaps he was right in that, but he was certainly wrong when he thought it a disadvantage to become learned. The Greeks were far in advance of the Romans at that period in their studies, and when the two learned men, Carneades and Diogenes, arrived in Rome as ambassadors, and by their eloquence excited an interest in philosophy, Cato was alarmed lest the young men of his country should grow to prefer eloquence to fighting. He said very emphatically, "When the Romans come to study and understand Grecian literature, they will lose the empire of the world." But he was wrong, for Rome was never greater [318] than when learning had reached a high pitch. She fell in consequence of irreligion and wickedness.

Cato's dislike of doctors was so great that he never employed one. Whenever any member of his family was ill, he prescribed herbs, with duck, pigeon, or hare. To be sure, he acknowledged that such diet made them dream, and that ought to have been proof enough that it was not proper, but Cato could not believe that anybody knew anything better than he did. Both his wife and son died under his medical treatment, but he himself happened to be strong, and so lived to a good old age in spite of his obstinacy.

His chief amusements were writing books and tilling the soil, and in a work on country affairs he gives, among other things, rules for making cake and preserving fruit; for it was his desire to appear acquainted even with such unimportant matters. To the very end of his life he kept himself busy with public affairs, and his last act in behalf of the state was the destruction of Carthage. It is true that he died before that end was reached, but it was he who urged on the war that led to the downfall of Hannibal, and on his death-bed he prophesied that Scipio was the person who would bring the third and last war against the Carthaginians to an end.

Scipio was at that time a very young man, and held only the office of tribune in the army, but Cato had witnessed extraordinary proofs of his conduct and courage, and his prophecy proved to be correct.


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