Excerpt from Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni.
Preface: The Dream
General Washington paused and studied his boot prints in the newly thawed mud. He took a deep breath of spring air, closed his eyes, and released the breath. He was pensive; it had been a year of long marches and small success, and winter’s toll on his troops had been heavy.
Food was scarce at Valley Forge. The men had to make do with a tasteless, tough, fire-baked combination of flour and water. Hundreds of horses were dead, some from sheer exhaustion, and others wasted away with hunger. The shelters the men had built could hardly handle the freezing and melting snows of the Pennsylvania winter. The entire camp seemed to be soaked and full of men yellow with jaundice, feverish with typhoid, or doubled over from diarrhea.
At the end of that bitter winter, before an audience packed into a converted bakery at the Valley Forge camp, soldiers dressed in togas mounted a rickety stage and began reciting blank verse. Washington did not have many means of inspiration at his disposal, but he did have drama. And the play he chose to stage for his officer corps was the story of a Roman senator named Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger.
For much of the captive, bone-tired audience, the story was a familiar one. Washington, along with a good part of the world’s English speakers, counted Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy as a personal favorite. By the time the play made its debut at Valley Forge, it had already been staged 234 times in England alone. With twenty-six different editions in print, it had become a mandatory text for every well-read man of the day. On the front lines of his first war, a twenty-six-year-old Washington wrote that he would rather be home, acting a part in Cato himself.
Washington’s peers studied and memorized the tragedy. They quoted it, consciously and unconsciously, in public statements and in private correspondence. When Benjamin Franklin opened his private diary, he was greeted with lines from the play that he had chosen as a motto. When John Adams wrote love letters to his wife, Abigail, he quoted Cato. When Patrick Henry dared King George to give him liberty or death, he was cribbing from Cato. And when Nathan Hale regretted that he had only one life to give for his country—seconds before the British army hanged him for high treason—he was poaching words straight from Cato.
George Washington, John Adams, and Samuel Adams were all honored in their time as “the American Cato”—and in revolutionary America, there was little higher praise. When Washington wrote to a pre-turncoat Benedict Arnold and said, “It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more—you have deserved it,” he too lifted the words from Addison’s Cato.
How did the legend of a Roman who walked the halls of his Senate eighteen hundred years before America was born speak so powerfully through the ages? And why did Washington, in the darkest moment of his career, choose Cato to lift the spirits of his army?
Who was Cato?
For Washington and the entire revolutionary generation, Cato was Liberty—the last man standing when Rome’s Republic fell. For centuries of philosophers and theologians, Cato was the Good Suicide—the most principled, most persuasive exception to the rule against self-slaughter. For Julius Caesar, the dictator who famously pardoned every opponent, Cato was the only man he could never forgive.
Through two millennia, Cato the Younger was mimicked, studied, despised, feared, revered. In his own day, he was a soldier and an aristocrat, a senator and a Stoic. The last in a family line of prominent statesmen, Cato spent a lifetime in the public eye as the standard-bearer of Rome’s optimates, traditionalists who saw themselves as the defenders of Rome’s ancient constitution, the preservers of the centuries-old system of government that propelled Rome’s growth from muddy city to mighty empire.
Cato’s world was the Roman Republic, a state at the apex of its power, able to make foreign kings tremble with a single decree, and rotting from the inside out. Cato’s arena was the Senate, an awesome assemblage of gray-haired eminences, the symbol of Rome’s republican heritage, and a body crippled by personality politics, rigged elections, ritualized bribery, and sex scandals. Public life in the late Republic resembled a soap opera, and if we didn’t find in that fact a sharp enough reflection of our own time, we could surely find familiarity in the grave challenges that threatened Rome and its Senate. They included homegrown terrorism, a debt crisis, the management of multiple foreign wars, the fraying of conventional social bonds and mores, and a yawning gap between rich and poor.
For our time, the question that Cato most urgently poses is this: What happens when a public man, in the face of all that, treats compromise like a dirty word? Cato made a career out of purity, out of his refusal to give an inch in the face of pressure to compromise and deal. His was a powerful and lasting political type: the man who achieves and wields power by disdaining power, the politician above politics. It was an approach designed to elicit one of two things from his enemies: either total surrender or (in Cato’s eyes) a kind of moral capitulation. This strategy of all-or-nothing ended in crushing defeat. No one did more than Cato to rage against his Republic’s fall. Yet few did more, in the last accounting, to bring that fall to pass.
At the same time, Cato’s behavior also established an enduring way of being a man in public, a style still seen in operation today. Playing up an idealized past, obstructing in the name of principle, drawing power from utter inflexibility—Cato could credibly claim to be an originator of such strategies. The history of the filibuster, for instance, essentially starts with Cato. If we notice some resemblance between Cato and present-day politicians, it might be because the patterns set by Cato’s life inspire our expectations of our leaders, and perhaps even their expectations of themselves. If this is so, then we have a great deal to learn from returning to the source.
History remembers Cato the Younger as Julius Caesar’s most formidable, infuriating enemy—at times the leader of the opposition, at times an opposition party unto himself, but always Caesar’s equal in eloquence, in conviction, and in force of character, a man equally capable of a full-volume dawn-to-dusk speech before Rome’s Senate and of a thirty-day trek through North Africa’s sands, on foot.
Cato’s struggle against Caesar, and against his Republic’s collapse, played out across the benches of the Senate House and the battlefields of a civil war. But it was their final confrontation that turned Cato into a legend. Facing Caesar’s total victory, Cato committed suicide in the North African town of Utica, choosing to take his own life rather than live a single day under Caesar’s rule. His stand against tyranny and his famous suicide made Cato the icon of civic duty. They also made him the pagan saint of lost causes.
Yet for all that, Cato’s name has faded in our time in a way that Caesar’s has not. Perhaps that is the cost of his political defeat; perhaps his virtues are out of style. More likely, Cato is forgotten because he left behind very little that was concrete. He reached the heights of Roman politics, but he didn’t pen epics celebrating his own accomplishments, as Cicero did. He was a brave, self-sacrificing, successful military commander, but he didn’t send home gripping third-person histories of his exploits, as Caesar did. His name was proverbial in his own time, but he didn’t engrave that name on monuments. He studied and practiced philosophy with focused intensity, turning himself into the model of the unflinching Stoic ideal, but he preferred that his philosophy be lived, not written. In fact, the only writing of Cato’s that survives is a single, short letter.
Cato was certainly a self-promoter, but the only form of promotion he valued was example, the conspicuous conduct of his life—righteous in his friends’ eyes, self-righteous in his enemies’. Cato’s Rome teemed with imported wealth; Cato chose to wear the simple, outmoded clothing of Rome’s mythical founders and to go barefoot in sun and cold. Powerful men gifted themselves villas and vineyards; Cato preferred a life of monkish frugality. Roman politics was well-oiled with bribes, strategic marriages, and under-the-table favors; Cato’s vote famously had no price. These gestures were all, in their own way, a deliberate message to his fellow citizens, a warning that they had gone fatally soft. It is the kind of message that is remembered but rarely heeded.
It is also the kind of message stark enough to wipe out the memory of much that made Cato so complex and so human. He suffered from a volcanic temper. He indulged in all-night drinking bouts. He made the career-endangering choice to become the public face of Stoicism, a school widely regarded in his day as subversive and un-Roman. He collapsed in weepy, uncontrolled, un-Stoic grief at the death of his half brother. His strange and scandalous marital history remained the stuff of slander long after his death.
As far as we know, those human details didn’t change the opinion that Washington and his contemporaries held of Cato the Younger. For them, Cato was the ideal man—the model of personal rectitude and public sacrifice. What is so remarkable about Washington’s play at Valley Forge is not simply the display of high culture in a disgusting, diarrheal army camp—it is how the play ends. In the last act, Cato’s army is crushed. His friends abandon him. The tyrant’s forces are at the gates. And seeing all this plainly, Cato retires to his room (tastefully off stage) and, calmly and fatally, stabs himself in the guts. It was a play of defeat, and Washington did not stage it for an effete audience of connoisseurs. He chose it for a moment of peril, to inspire a weary army of blunt, hardened, armed men. And, by all accounts, it worked.
We profit from studying Cato because he is part of the American inheritance. Whether or not we acknowledge it, he helps illuminate the founders’ understanding of liberty. But we can learn just as much from Cato the man and Cato the politician as from Cato the myth. How he lived, how he practiced politics, and how he died all raise powerful, timeless questions—and he can still give us answers, both when he is inspiring and when he is insufferable, in his moments of triumph and in his desolate end.
Above all, his life speaks to a dream as old as politics. In the dream, in whose mold politicians keep casting themselves to this day, we are on the point of disaster—of flux, venality, imminent collapse. And then, at hope’s lowest ebb, there appears on the scene a remarkable man. He is a born leader, a man who effortlessly attracts power without a hint of force. He is in politics yet somehow not of politics. He is a man of action and a spellbinding orator, but he is also deeper; in quieter moments, he gives the impression of barely restraining the urge to retire and become a philosopher. He is the man brought into being by the crisis, and he is its solution, the mirror image of the greed and self-seeking that surround him.
Cato’s life is the story of how, at the improbable height of crisis, the dream came true. And it is also the story of how the dream failed.