Cato the Younger: Ambition in the Service of Principle

Lawrence W. Reed

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


In the estimations of many historians, two men hold the honor as the most notable defenders of the Roman Republic. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one. Marcus Porcius Cato, or “Cato the Younger,” was the other.

Since there was a “younger,” there must have been an “elder,” too. Cato the Elder was the great grandfather of the younger. Both men, separated by more than a century, were influential in public office. Think of the elder as the social conservative, concerned in his day with preserving the customs and traditions of Rome. The younger was one of history’s early libertarians, interested more in personal and political liberties because he believed that if they were lost, nothing else mattered. It is this second one to whom I refer in the balance of this essay as simply “Cato.”

Cato the Younger was one of history’s early libertarians.

 

By the time of Cato’s birth in 95 BC, the Roman Republic was long in the tooth. Founded four centuries earlier, it had risen from obscurity to political and economic dominance in the Mediterranean. Rome was easily the world’s wealthiest and most powerful society. It wasn’t a libertarian paradise — slavery was a part of its makeup, as it was even more brutal everywhere else — but Rome had taken liberty to a zenith the world had never seen before and wouldn’t see again for a long time after it finally fell. The constitution of the republic embodied term limits; separation of powers; checks and balances; due process; habeas corpus; the rule of law; individual rights; and elected, representative legislative bodies, including the famous Senate. All of this was hanging by a thread in the first century BC.

Cato was just five years of age when Rome went to war with its former allies in the Italian peninsula — the so-called “Social War.” Though the conflict lasted just two years, its deleterious effects were huge. The decades to follow would be marked by the rise of factions and conflict and local armies loyal to their commanders instead of the larger society. A “welfare-warfare” state was putting down deep roots as Cato grew up. The limited government, personal responsibility and extensive civil society so critical to the republic’s previous success were in an agonizing, century-long process of collapse. Even many of those who recognized the decay around them nonetheless drank the Kool-Aid, succumbing to the temptations of power or subsidies or both.

Before the age of 30, Cato had become a supremely disciplined individual, a devotee of Stoicism in every respect. He commanded a legion in Macedon and won immense loyalty and respect from the soldiers for the example he set, living and laboring no differently from day to day than he required of his men. He first won election to public office (to the post of quaestor, supervising financial and budgetary matters for the state) in 65 BC and quickly earned a reputation as scrupulously meticulous and uncompromisingly honest. He went out of his way to hold previous quaestors accountable for their dishonesty and misappropriation of funds, which he himself uncovered.

Later he served in the Roman Senate, where he never missed a session and criticized other senators who did. Through his superb oratory in public and deft maneuverings in private, he worked tirelessly to restore fealty to the ideals of the fading Republic.

Since the days of the Gracchus brothers (Gaius and Tiberius) in the previous century, more and more Romans were voting for a living to replace or supplement having to work for one. Politicians were buying elections with expensive promises to distribute free or subsidized grain. Cato saw the debilitating effect such cynical demagoguery was exacting from the public’s character and opposed it at first. The one time he compromised on this issue was when he supported an expansion of the dole as the only way to prevent a demagogue named Julius Caesar from coming to power. It was a tactic he hoped would be temporary, but it ultimately failed, becoming the only blot on an otherwise virtuous and principled public career.

It was Cato’s fierce and relentless opposition to Julius Caesar that made him most remarkable. He saw in the ambitious, power-hungry general a mortal threat to the republic and tried to block his every move. He filibustered for hours on end to prevent a vote on Caesar’s bid to attain Rome’s highest office, the consulship. Caesar eventually got the job, but while in office, Cato vexed him more than any other senator. Caesar even ordered Cato dragged from the Senate in the middle of one of his orations, whereupon another senator declared, according to historian Cassius Dio, that he “would rather be in jail with Cato than in the Senate with Caesar.”

Cato saw the ambitious, power-hungry Julius Caesar as a mortal threat to the Republic. 

 

In Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Caesar’s Mortal Enemy, authors Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni underscore Cato’s implacable resistance:

It had been an unprecedented year of obstruction and deadlock, all spearheaded by Cato. Never before had a senator brought forth such a range of legislation to the same dead halt in a matter of months. The tax contracts, the postwar plans for the East, the land reform, Caesar’s triumph (a costly public spectacle), Caesar’s bid for a strong consulship and a provincial command — Cato had not stood against them alone, but he was the common thread between each filibuster and each “no.”

Cato stood in the way of Caesar’s ambitious agenda but couldn’t prevent his postconsulship appointment as a provincial governor. In that post, Caesar mustered his forces for an assault on the very republic he had governed as a consul. In 49 BC, he famously crossed the Rubicon River and headed for Rome to seize power.

As a sign of strength and magnanimity, Caesar might have pardoned his old foe. Some contemporaries and present-day historians believe that was, in fact, Caesar’s intent and would have been a politically smart thing to do. Quoting again from Goodman and Soni:

But Cato would not give Caesar the gift of his silence; he had scripted his own scene. He would not recognize a tyrant’s legitimacy by accepting his power to save. As Cato saw it, Caesar broke the law even in offering pardons, because he offered them on no authority but his own. To accept forgiveness would be conceding Caesar’s right to forgive, and Cato would not concede that.

So in April 46 BC in Utica, using his own sword to do the deed, Cato committed suicide rather than live under the thumb of the man whose power lust was about to extinguish the old republic. While Cato lived, write Goodman and Soni, “every Roman who feared that the traditional virtues were guttering out, who saw the state’s crisis as a moral crisis — as the product of terrifyingly modern avarice or ambition — looked, in time, to Cato.”

With Cicero’s death three years later under the orders of Caesar’s successor, Marc Antony, the Republic died and the dictatorship of the empire commenced.

More than 17 centuries later, in April 1713, Joseph Addison’s play Cato: A Tragedy debuted in London. Depicting the ancient Roman as a hero of republican liberty, it resonated for decades thereafter in both Britain and America. George Washington ordered it performed for his bedraggled troops at Valley Forge during the awful winter of 1777–78. Congress had forbidden it, thinking its sad conclusion would dispirit the troops, but Washington knew that Cato’s resistance to tyranny would inspire them. And thankfully, it did.

“Few leaders have ever put ambition so squarely in the service of principle,” write Goodman and Soni. “These were the qualities that set Cato apart from his fellows — and that made posterity take notice.”

Putting ambition in the service of principle instead of one’s own glory or power or wealth: now that’s a virtue to which every man and woman in public office — in any walk of life, for that matter — should aspire today.

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Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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