Dat no Brat Pitt
As we start February 2023 I've decided to continue with a post about the ancients. Today's post concerns a Roman gentleman whom I will refer to as 'Cato the Elder' (b234 BC - d149 BC). There is a Cato, called 'Cato the Younger'. However, he is not as interesting or compelling as the older Cato. As far as I'm aware, there is no recorded instance of 'Cato the Juvenile' or a 'Cato Approaching Middle-Age'.
Above we have a Roman bronze bust of Cato (I will no longer refer to Cato, as the Elder; simple Cato will suffice- with one exception). The rendition represents a realistic style characteristic of Rome art, of the period. As can be discerned, the 'portrait' is not particularly flattering to the man, in the looks department. I'm sure my dedicated readers are aware of the book, 'The Picture of Dorian Grey', by Oscar Wilde. Anyway, if the principle of the novel is sound, then we can see that Cato did not live an exemplary life. And indeed, from the accounts we have, it appears that the creases and lines skillfully crafted upon the 'portrait' are well deserved. However, I am forced to add, that to later Romans, he was considered an exemplar of how a Roman should conduct himself, both privately and publically - go figure.
Marcus Porcius Cato is a rather remarkable and important fellow, of his time, but like poor Scipio Africanus, is mostly unknown, except to specialists. In mitigation, he did live 2,200 years ago. To understand Cato's nature and actions I need to add a little introductory material. This is necessary in order to place Cato in some form of coherent, historical context.
Cato came along at a time when Rome was undergoing intense social and economic change. He was a plebian by birth and, although considered a 'new man' by the sniffy patricians became widely respected amongst all classes, but not universally liked The First Punic War was the first contest between Rome and Carthage, and it was a bitterly fought struggle, with Rome as the ultimate victors (264 BC - 241 BC). The fruits of victory were profound. The acquisition of Sicily, after the war, brought great riches to Rome. Sicily, prior to the war, had been equally divided between the Greeks and Carthaginians. The land was highly cultivated and the cities along the east coast were sophisticated, wealthy and Hellenic. And also, let us note that Rome imposed a hefty and punitive war indemnity (pun intended) on the Carthaginians, consisting of much silver, among other things. All this wealth, flooded into the coffers of the minority elite and things began to change. This was not the only challenge the Romans had to deal with. After the war, the Romans became seriously acquainted with Greek culture and civilisation and were mightily impressed. They soon came to realise, that in comparison, they were uncultured oafs. The upper crust began to learn Greek and ape Greek mannerisms. Greek orators and philosophers flooded Rome and obtained an easy living under the patronage of rich patricians, like the Scipio family, who were utterly philhellenic. During this time, Cato can be seen as a reaction against opulence, and as he thought, the effeminate decadence of Greek influence. He considered close contact between the cultures enervating and detrimental to the Roman conception of stoic, hardy manliness- he had a point.
Cato was commended for living a simple bucolic life. Although admired, his lifestyle was unlikely to be emulated. Apparently, he was happy to work the fields alongside his slaves and partake of a simple repast. He was also a brave and famed soldier and led contingents of soldiers in the Second Punic War both in Spain and Italy. In 191 BC he became involved in the successful conclusion of the war against Antiochus III at Thermopylae. Cato was renowned for living a simple unadorned life and had great respect for old Roman virtues. At least as understood by Romans, of his time. By our standards, he would be considered boorish and brutal. His own household was ruled by a 'rod of iron'. His slaves were either working or sleeping and mercilessly beaten or executed for minor transgressions. When his slaves became too old for practical work they were sold.
From the above, we might conclude that Cato was an uneducated brute, but this is not the case. Indeed, he was a highly educated man. He was famous for his oratory which was simple and unembellished, with no verbal frippery. He wrote several books however, only one has survived in full. Only fragments of the others remain to this day. Like all Romans of note, he progressed in society, and the ranks, with a military career (military tribune) and it appears that Cato was a competent soldier. Cato's oratory, legal skills and behaviour became noted by a patrician, Lucius Valerius Flaccus, and Flaccus became Cato's mentor and supporter. The preferred way a man could proceed and excel in the Roman world was through the support of an elder, wealthy adherent. The patronage/client system in Roman affairs should not be underestimated. Under Flaccus' influence and guidance, Cato progressed through the required political ranks. In 205 BC he was elected quaestor; aedile in 109 BC and praetor in Sardinia (198 BC). In 195 BC he was elected to the highest office Rome could bestow, consul.
The great soldier and contemporary of Cato's, Scipio Africanus- he who finally defeated Hannibal, incurred the wrath of Cato mainly due to his philhellenic stance. Due to Cato's concerted attack, Scipio's political reputation was sullied and the great soldier, and statesman, became embittered and left Rome for good, dying soon after (d 183 BC).
In 184 BC, Cato was elected to the position of 'censor' together with his mentor and mate, Flaccus. This was an interesting position. In essence, these twin magistrates were arbitrators of Roman moral conduct. Good luck says, I! Cato was worried about the perceived degeneration of Roman vigour and moral fibre due to the pernicious infiltration and influence of Greek culture. He, therefore, introduced laws to prohibit/inhibit the ostentatious expression of wealth. In this venture, he ultimately failed.
In his later years, he was renowned for his expression of hate for Carthage. And his, 'Carthago est delenda' echoed throughout the forum. His plea was noted and in 146 BC Carthage was utterly destroyed. It was inevitable, there was only room for one great power thereabouts. Few folk know the historic importance of the destruction of Carthaginian power. It determined that Western Civilisation would subsequently be founded on the flint hard, and brutal, stoicism of Rome, rather than the lush, and exotic, Semitic Carthage.
Undoubtedly when Cato died in 149 BC he was out in the field ploughing the Sod.
What are we to make of this Cato?
I need to ask, would I have been enthralled to sit in a pub and have a few beers with 'Cato the Ferret', sorry, I mean 'Elder'? I would like to state: Mayhap we should not judge this gentleman, or Romans of the time, by our standards and mores. There was no equivalent of the 'Geneva Convention', in the ancient world, however, it does appear that the 'Civilised Nations' of the Mediterranean did comply (mostly) with the terms of treaties drawn up between nations, and these treaties were sanctioned by their various gods. It would have been impious to break such compacts. There were also a set of informal policies/rules, applied to war. For example, after a long siege, the inhabitants were likely to be slaughtered and survivors enslaved and the city thoroughly sacked. This gave an incentive for a city to capitulate early for the promise of leniency. The ancients, in general, followed dictums of war that modern man would find familiar/similar. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun where human nature is concerned. We moderns take the moral high ground at our peril. All that said, to our minds, and through the mists of time, the ancients appear unnecessarily cruel and wanton. To return to my question. I think my answer would be an emphatic, no. While no doubt the man was intelligent, erudite and cultured, in spite of the rustic pretence, I suspect Cato would have been an absolute, bore in social gatherings. There is only so much rusticism a man can take. Also, I'm not a great fan of posca- nuff said. Arse bucket.