Cato’s Early Life

Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 BCE), better known as Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor, was a Roman stateman, orator, and, to many, considered the first prominent writer of Latin prose.

Cato was born in 234 BCE in Tusculum, Italy. He was born into the general citizen class, or Plebeian. He spent much of his time as a young man on his inherited family estate farming and learning business in the Sabine country.

Cato also fought as an officer in the Second Punic Wars, where he earned distinction at the Battle of Metaurus in 207 BCE.

It was in the Punic Wars that Cato’s dislike for Carthage was first seen. Later in his career, he gave a number of speeches, which were said to have included the phrase “Carthago delenda est”, or “Carthage must be destroyed.”

The historian Plutarch wrote in his book ‘Lives’, that “he gained, in early life, a good habit of body by working with his own hands, and living temperately, and serving in the war …”

Plutarch also wrote that Cato was both a good husband, having married twice, and a good father. While his eldest son sadly passed away in 152 BCE, his younger son would become grandfather to Cato the Younger (95–46 BCE), a known follower of Stoicism.

Finding a Mentor

Despite his lower class, his way with words, his knowledge of legal matters, his moral convictions, his simple way of life, and traditional Roman principles all caught the attention of a patrician (a member of Roman society with high social rank), Lucius Valerius Flaccus, around 220 BCE.

Flaccus, who owned lands around Cato’s farm and was a young man from a family with a great deal of influence, would turn out to be Cato’s greatest ally.

Flaccus brought Cato to Rome and supported him in starting a career in politics.

Cato’s Rise to Politics:

Cato The Elder rose quickly with the support of Flaccus, quickly hopping from one position to the next. He was elected as follows:

  • Quaestor (205), where he served at the Battle of Zama (202 BCE)

  • Aedile (199)

  • Praetor, assigned to Sardinia in 198 BCE

  • Consul alongside his mentor Lucius Valerius Flaccus (195)

As consul, Cato eradicated a rebellion in Spain, oversaw the Province of Nearer Spain, and worked towards helping Rome profit from the region’s gold and silver mines.

In 191 BCE, Cato served again in the military under Manius Acilius Glabrio and again earned distinction at Thermopylae during a war against the Seleucid king Antiochus III.

In 184 BCE, he was elected censor (one of two seats), a role that included supervision of senatorial rolls and moral conduct.

The power held by a censor was unparalleled among magistrates. The only person able to reverse or challenge their decision was a censor who succeeded them.

Cato’s Death:

In the years between his censorship in 184 BCE and his death in 149 BCE, Cato held no position in any public office.

He did, however, continue to make himself known in the Senate and continue to display his Roman values by rejecting new ideas and laws that did not reflect his traditional stance on what it meant to be a Roman.

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The Writings of Cato the Elder:

First and foremost, it’s important to note that Cato was known as a statesman and orator, or public speaker, but he was also a well-known writer, even though much of his work hasn’t survived the passage of time to this day.

The examples of his writing we do have give us a fascinating peek into both his mind and the times he lived in.

Arguably, his most famous piece is “De Agri Cultura” (On Agriculture).

Now, you might wonder, “Agriculture? Seriously?” But bear with me. This isn’t just a dry manual about sowing seeds. It’s a mix of practical advice, moral teachings, and a little superstition.

Through this work, Cato touches on the importance of hard work, discipline, and frugality, themes that were close to his heart and close to the hearts of a lot of Romans who were looking to preserve these qualities in their culture.

He wasn’t just teaching people how to farm but also imparting lessons on leading a virtuous life. You could say it’s a blend of a farmer’s manual and self-help.

Cato also wrote extensively on a variety of topics. From speeches to historical accounts, Cato touched on matters of statecraft, morality, and the history of Rome.

His “Origines”, for example, delved into the early history of Rome and other Italian cities. Despite us only having fragments of this work, it’s evident that Cato was keen on emphasizing the greatness of Rome, its traditions, and its people.

One more thing worth noting about Cato’s writings is his distinctive style.

He wasn’t one for flowery prose or elaborate rhetoric. He was straightforward, to the point, and sometimes even blunt. This no-nonsense approach was very much in line with his personality and his beliefs. It’s also what helped him resonate with the people of Rome while he was in political office.

Cato the Elder’s writings are a mirror of his life and values.

They reveal a man deeply rooted in tradition, unyielding in his convictions, and ever-eager to impart wisdom to the generations that came after him.

Whether he was talking about the right way to prune a vine or discussing the moral decay of Rome, Cato’s voice is a compelling blend of practicality and principle.

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Why was Cato the Elder important?

So, why should we care about some Roman statesman who lived over two millennia ago?

Firstly, Cato was a fiercely independent thinker, and he embodied the Roman virtue of “gravitas”. In this Roman context, “gravitas” is a term that represents their seriousness, dignity, and sense of purpose.

It’s about having a weightiness of character—a deep-rooted commitment to duty, responsibility, and moral integrity.

Cato lived in a time when Rome was going through a massive transformation. From the battle-hardened fields of war to the marble-clad corridors of power, Rome was morphing from a modest republic to a sprawling empire. And Cato, with his unwavering sense of duty and moral integrity, often stood as a voice of caution during these rapid changes.

The man was also a huge advocate for simplicity and frugality, as we’ve seen in his early farming life.

Rome, at the time, was beginning to see a rise in the attraction of wealth and luxury. Cato, on the other hand, championed the idea of simple living.

He believed that the strength of Rome lay not in its gold or silk but in the character of its people.

So, he often found himself in opposition to the ostentatious elites, urging his fellow Romans to remember their roots.

What’s particularly intriguing about Cato is how he used his position of power to push for reform.

As a censor, a role that gave him considerable influence over public morality and finances, he sought to clamp down on what he saw as moral decay.

He wanted to make Rome great by returning it to its old values of discipline and virtue.

But, like any influential figure, he wasn’t without his critics.

While many lauded his commitment to traditional values, others found him rigid and excessively moralistic.

And that’s what makes him so captivating—he was a man of deep conviction, operating in a time where Rome was becoming more materialistic and vain, and he wasn’t afraid to stand alone for what he believed in.

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