Cato v Caesar

  • Themes: Rome

The pursuit of individual glory dominated the politics of the late Roman Republic.

Luca Giordano's The Death of Cato, painted circa 1684
Luca Giordano's The Death of Cato, painted circa 1684. Credit: Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo

Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed The Roman Republic, by Josiah Osgood. Oxford University Press, 352pp, £25

Sailing to Rhodes for a study break in 75 BC, the twenty-five year old Julius Caesar, then an up-and-coming politician and military commander, fell into the hands of Cilician pirates off the Aegean island of Pharmacusa. The pirates took him prisoner along with a doctor and two slaves, and demanded a ransom of twenty talents, equivalent to more than half a ton of silver and a huge sum under any circumstances. Caesar was said to have mocked the outlaws, telling them that he was worth at least a fifty-talent ransom, which they duly demanded. While his companions were away in Rome for five weeks raising the money, Caesar allegedly befriended his captors, reciting poetry to them, participating in games and sports, and generally earning their affection and respect. He warned them, however, that once he was free he would hunt them down and have them executed. He kept his word. On being released at the port of Miletus, he raised a small private fleet and sailed back to Pharmacusa, where he found the hapless pirates, threw them in chains, and retrieved the ransom money. After taking the captives to Pergamon to be incarcerated, he travelled to petition the Roman governor of Asia to have them crucified. When for reasons that are unclear the governor refused, Caesar returned to Pergamon, where he instructed that the prisoners be killed and personally put them to the sword.

This story encapsulates elements of Caesar’s character that were to be in evidence throughout his life: a man of action, charismatic and fearless, with a sense of his own supreme importance, unhesitating ruthlessness in his own cause, and a carelessness of law and convention. He had many models for such behaviour, not least the tough and innovative general Gaius Marius, a self-made man and husband of his aunt Julia, who had won famous victories for Rome fighting the Numidian king Jugurtha and marauding Teutonic tribesmen. Marius had in due course come into confict with his own former military subordinate Sulla, and the civil war that ensued was to end, after Marius’s death in 86 BC, with Sulla’s dictatorship.

Sulla went on to create his so called ‘proscriptions’, lists of opponents who were executed and their property confiscated. As the son-in-law of Marius’s former associate Cinna, Caesar, then in his late teens, was in danger. Well-placed relatives who had Sulla’s ear interceded to keep him safe. The dictator is said to have presciently warned those who pleaded on Caesar’s behalf: ‘Be on your guard against this badly-belted boy. In Caesar there is more than one Marius.’

While every schoolchild has heard of Julius Caesar, few will be equally familiar with Marcus Porcius Cato, a Roman five years Caesar’s junior and a man of a very different stripe. In Josiah Osgood’s Uncommon Wrath, Cato is set up as Caesar’s antagonist and opponent in the struggle for the soul, if not the dominion, of Rome. Cato was to kill himself in true Stoic fashion after he failed to reverse Caesar’s ascendancy at the battle of Utica, while Caesar was eventually to be killed by supporters of the Roman Republic horrified at his usurpation of power as dictator. Neither act was to save Rome from becoming a Principate ruled by Caesar’s adopted son Octavius and his imperial successors. While Caesar and Cato were strikingly contrasted in character, it may be something of an over­statement to suggest that, their political feuding notwithstanding, they repres­ented opposing forces that between them were to destroy the fabric of the Roman Republic.

One might wonder, however, why Caesar’s military successes and bloody death should attract far greater historical record and commemoration than Cato’s disciplined life and worthy principles. The answer lies partly in the contrast between the exciting and swashbuckling episodes that marked Caesar’s life (such as the story, no doubt embellished by Caesar himself, of his encounter with the pirates), and the less colourful characteristics and episodes for which Cato was remembered. Osgood describes the latter’s austere life-style as a young man:

He rejected fancy foods. He drank sparingly (notoriously, this was later to change). At any hour of the day, he would walk the streets rather than take a carriage. While others embraced a new fashion for a particularly vivid shade of purple on the tunis under their togas, Cato rejected it for a duller shade. More startlingly, he would even go out in public barefoot and without a tunic at all. Like Caesar. Cato drew attention to himself through dress, but while Caesar wanted to appear stylish, Cato’s look was that of a Roman from hundreds of years before, the sort you would only see in the ancient statues littering the city. The tough men of old didn’t need soft undergarments, nor did Cato.

With his stern self-discipline and fiery moralising, Cato self-consciously followed in the footsteps of his famous great-grandfather Cato ‘the Elder’, a tough, incorruptible general and a sharp-tongued speaker who had famously called for the destruction of Rome’s deadly enemy Carthage by concluding all his speeches with the words Ceterum censeo delendam esse Carthaginem, ‘Finally, my judgment is that Carthage must be destroyed’.

Stoic self-abnegation could have serious limitations, however, in a world where a high level of visibility was required if one wished to make a name for oneself. Plutarch relates how, on a visit to Antioch in Asia Minor, Cato was annoyed to see crowds of soldiers, officials, priests and children lining the roadside, and he ordered his companions to dismount and walk with him to demonstrate their humility. His annoyance turned to amused chagrin when a man approached and brusquely asked ‘Where’s Demetrius, then?’ Demetrius was a freedman of the general Pompey who had become his most influential courtier; and the turnout was intended for him, a former slave, not for the noble Cato. The story offers a stark contrast to Caesar’s unswerving desire for recognition, which is encapsulated by Plutarch:

As Caesar was crossing the Alps, he passed a humble village almost devoid of residents and in reduced condition. His companions said, laughing, ‘Even here people strive for office and struggle to win, and leaders wage vendettas against their foes.’ Caesar said to them in all seriousness ‘I would rather be the first man here than the second man at Rome’.  Similarly we are told that he was at leisure in Spain, reading about Alexander the Great, when he fell to thinking for a long time with tears in his eyes. His friends wondered why he was weeping. ‘Don’t you think I’m entitled to be sad,’ he said, ‘when at my age Alexander was already ruler of so many, while I have as yet achieved nothing of great note?’ 

Caesar’s subsequent exploits earned him the recognition and admir­ation that he might have sought, even if he could never achieve the claim to moral status that, to his evident displeasure, Cato was to derive from what the poet Horace was to call his ‘shocking death’. Most of the figures who throng the pages of this vividly told history – generals like Pompey, Lucullus, and Crassus, desperadoes like Clodius and Catiline – were more inclined to adopt Caesar’s approach.

One man, perhaps, was able to see with particular clarity the faults and foibles, as well as the strengths and advantages, of both parties and their contrasting approaches to life. That was the orator Cicero, whose urgings and actions in relation to the conspiracy of Catiline of 62 BC form a chapter of this wide-ranging book. The irony remains that it was Cato’s successful advocacy of the death penalty for the Catilinarian conspirators so feared by Cicero, against Caesar’s advocacy for a lesser sentence, that was fatally to weaken Cicero’s own subsequent political career and moral standing. The lesson seems to be that morality in political life is a plaything of power; the end of the Roman Republic was due not to a failure of the kind of moral leadership that Cato sought to wield, but to the relentless pursuit of individual success and glory, of the kind that had brought Rome to greatness and was to continue both to sustain and divide it through the centuries of brilliance and violence that followed Caesar’s death.


Armand D'Angour