David's Bookclub

12.20.12

Who Was the Real Cato?

What on earth filled the minds of those brilliant men we call the Framers?

To a surprising degree, it was ideas and phrases from a play, Joseph Addison's Cato. "Give me liberty or give me death." "I only regret I have but one life to give for my country." These and other famous pieces of revolutionary rhetoric repeat lines from the play more or less verbatim. General Washington had the play performed for the troops at Valley Forge. Cato's third-hand influence ramifies into our own time: there's even a think tank in Washington named after him.

Who was he, and why did he have such an influence upon the founding generation? That is the question answered in Rome's Last Citizen, an impressive study by two disconcertingly young men: Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni. I first read the book in galleys some months ago; the finished edition carries a blurb from me on the back cover. Soni, I should mention, is a friend of mine and a Huffington Post colleague of my wife's.

Marcus Porcius Cato was one of two famous Roman Catos. His great-grandfather was the Cato of "Carthago delenda est," the driver of the third Carthaginian war. The younger Cato was the last and most inveterate of the enemies of Julius Caesar, who killed himself at Utica in North Africa after the final defeat of the anti-Caesarist forces in 46 BC.

Cato's death was a gruesome self-disembowlment, horribly painful and grimly determined. The death carried an all-the-more-powerful message because Julius Caesar was famously merciful to defeated enemies. Cato was not hurrying out of the world to escape an even more painful ending, but to avoid the humiliation of pardon.

This display of republican commitment impressed the founders, but even more so did Cato's lifelong vindication of the Roman constitution. Some modern scholars are doubtful whether Rome really ever did have any such thing we'd recognize as a constitution (as opposed to a series of inherited institutions and folkways invoked for propaganda effect by the powerful, but as easily reinvented and remolded when circumstances changed). But Cato thought Rome did, and Cato's admirers absorbed that belief and based their own new society upon it.

What Soni and Goodman wish to do, however, is liberate Cato from the marble statuary, and show him - not only as he would be remembered - but also as he was.

Cato stood out from his colleagues in the late Republican senatorial class by his unwillingness to use office to gain personal wealth. The Roman elite was rapacious on a pan-Mediterranean scale. The "noblest Roman of them all," Marcus Junius Brutus, made a fortune lending money at excruciating rates of interest to cities and towns that fell short on their taxes. To be assigned the governorship of a province was to be granted the opportunity to gain a fortune in a very short period of time. Cato almost uniquely refused the opportunity.

When you hear that story, you may feel that you see continuity between at least some Roman idea of public virtue and our own. Now hear this next strange story.

Cato had a daughter by his second wife, Marcia. Cato was approached by a wealthy admirer of his, who asked for the daughter as a wife. Cato rebuffed the proposal, on the seemingly sufficient grounds that the daughter was already married. The suitor was undaunted. The daughter had provided her husband with heirs already. He argued, according to the sources quoted by Soni and Goodman: "according to the law of nature it was honorable and good for the state that a woman in the prime of youth and beauty should neither quench her productive power and lie idle, nor yet, by bearing more offspring than enough, burden and impoverish a husband who does not want them. Moreover, community in heirs among worthy men would make virtue abundant and widely diffused in their families, and the state would be closely cemented together by family alliances." (pp. 171-172) To sweeten the deal, the suitor proposed to return Cato's daughter to her previous husband after she had borne the suitor an heir.

When Cato still refused, the suitor then asked Cato for Cato's own wife. This time, Cato agreed. The wife was handed over - literally: Cato gave her away at the altar. She bore children to her new husband. The husband died, leaving his fortune to his wife - who ultimately returned to Cato, making him at last a rich man.

The Roman upper class was accustomed to easy divorce and remarriage, but this story startled even them. Some malicious tongues suggested that Cato had prostituted his wife, for when she returned to him she brought her large inheritance from the suitor with her. Soni and Goodman attribute the complicated story to the shared Stoic philosophy of Cato and the suitor.

The Stoics sought to rid themselves of all feelings that might cause pain, including jealously. As Soni and Goodman tell it, the suitor was offering Cato a supreme test of his philosophy: an opportunity to suppress ordinary feelings in pursuit of a higher ideal of service and virtue.

Yet this extreme display of self-mastery, assuming that is what it was, did not rule out other forms of self-indulgence. The Roman idea of self-denial differed very strikingly from our own. As a Stoic, Cato refused the luxurious clothing worn by other members of the elite. He went barefoot in winter and summer, and wore outlandish clothes that represented his conception of the costume of Roman garb from the early days of the republic. As a commander of troops, Cato ate the same rations as his men, slept on the ground, and walked rather than ride on horseback. At the same time, Cato's consumption of wine was notorious, and his political judgment was distorted by anger, resentment, and vendetta. Forms of self-discipline that today would seem essential, he (and his many admirers) apparently saw as wholly or partly dispensable.

Odd, no?

What is so indispensable about Soni's and Goodman's Cato is the sympathy and imagination with which it both brings Cato closer to us and then farther away, helping us to understand not only this Roman of 2100 years ago, but also the American republicans of 1776.

Cato championed Roman libertas - the ideology of a domineering, land-owning oligarchy, an ideology related only (as Soni and Goodman appropriately warn) by a trick of the evolution of language to our own idea of liberty. In between, of course, that ideology inspired another slave-holding oligarchy: the one that led the American revolution, framed the U.S. Constitution, and dominated the government of the early republic. A freedom based upon the unfreedom of others - this was Roman freedom, and this was early American freedom too. It's not only the revolutionaries who were victimized by a trick of language, but also those modern Americans whose over-reverence for the founders blinds them to the very different meanings many of the founders attached to their eloquent phrasings.

The full story of Cato is the story of his example and the many uses to which it was put - by Cato himself and by the long line of successors who felt its force and turned it to ends of their own. There is no sense in asking whether Cato would have endorsed the revolutions made, in part, in his name. He was made to endorse them; the dead are other people's property.

That's a profound thought, powerfully expressed - and an apt conclusion to a book that, in writing about ancient Rome, also writes about our modern selves.