Porcia Catonis (or Porcia “of Cato”), was the daughter of the renowned Roman Stoic philosopher Cato the Younger—an enemy of the dictator Julius Caesar—and his first wife, Atilia. She was known for her beauty and bold personality, as well as for her marriage (her second) to Marcus Junius Brutus, who famously took part in the assassination of Julius Caesar.
She was born between 73 BCE and 64 BCE and died by either suicide or illness around 42 BCE. Accounts of her possible suicide claim she killed herself by swallowing hot coals, but overall the circumstances of her death are still disputed.
Porcia of Cato was written about by Plutarch, a Greek essayist and biographer who later became a Roman citizen, and others, and has been portrayed many times in popular culture such as in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, in books like The Ides of March, and in TV and movies adapting Shakespeare’s work.
Much of her life was only documented in relation to Cato and Brutus, but within those accounts, we can gather that she was a daring and interesting woman that continues to fascinate historians and writers alike.
Marriage during Porcia’s time was quite a different arrangement than it is in modern days. Marriages were rarely for love but for more practical purposes, such as political gain or for children, and fathers were often the ones who married off the daughters or approved of their daughters’ marriages.
While Roman marriages were monogamous institutions, divorcing and remarrying were common occurrences, and men could and would ask for the hands of women even while either or both parties were still married. After divorce or death of a spouse, women were expected to remarry quickly, particularly those in the upper class.
Cato the Younger, who, beyond being a Stoic philosopher, was a prominent Roman public figure and senator, married Porcia to one of his political allies, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, while she was only a young teenager. It’s reported that Porcia and Bibulus had a son together, Lucius, but this has been disputed, as considering Lucius and Porcia’s ages, she was likely to have been to young to have birthed him. Lucius was more likely from Bibulus’s previous marriage.
While there’s not much mention of Porcia’s feelings toward Bibulus, he declared he was in love with her. So when Quintus Hortensius, an orator and man four times older than Porcia, wanted to become Cato’s ally and asked to marry Porcia, he refused. Hortensius argued, saying that it was selfish for Bibulus to keep Porcia and her childbearing to himself, and that Hortensius could always return Porcia to Bibulus after she was done giving him children. This was not a rare proposal in Rome at the time—women of childbearing age would often divorce and remarry in order to give multiple powerful men heirs, and sometimes would return to previous partners after they’d done so.
Bibulus still refused, and Cato supported Bibulus’s refusal, partially because he did not want Porcia to marry someone quadruple her age. But it seems Cato still wanted Hortensius’s allyship, because he divorced his second wife and allowed Hortensius to marry her instead. Cato later remarried his second wife after Hortensius died.
During Porcia’s marriage, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars raged. Cato despised Caesar, and opposed him in the Roman Senate. Caesar was defeated, but after the wars ended, he refused to return to Rome to face punishment. Cato disliked this, to say the least, and in 49 BCE he declared war—which became the Great Roman Civil War. Cato and Bibulus joined with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, a Roman General more well known as Pompey, to oppose Caesar.
In 48 BCE, after Pompey’s defeat, Bibulus died and Porcia was widowed. Her father, Cato the Younger, committed suicide after he was defeated in battle in 46 BCE.
Porcia’s second marriage was her most famous and part of why she was a noted historical figure. It was to Marcus Junius Brutus, her first cousin, who had fought against Caesar with Pompey, and was later one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.
After Bibulus died and Porcia was widowed, Brutus divorced his wife, Claudia Pulchra. While divorce and remarriage were common, they were often done after discussion with family and friends, with explanations as to why the marriage failed. However, Brutus divorced Claudia suddenly and without explaining his reasoning. The divorce was ill-received because there were no apparent problems, they’d been married a long while, and because Claudia was particularly well-regarded. In fact, Brutus’s own mother was against the divorce.
In spite of this, Brutus married Porcia, and the marriage had a similarly divisive reputation. Brutus’s mother envied Brutus’s love for Porcia, and supported his ex-wife over her, but many supporters of Pompey and Cato, like Cicero (a renowned Roman statesman and orator), approved of the union.
By all accounts, the marriage appeared to be a loving and loyal one. Porcia and Brutus had one son, who unfortunately passed away in 43 BCE. But what makes Porcia and Brutus’s marriage particularly interesting is how it was inextricably entangled with Brutus’s opposition to Caesar.
Involvement with the Assassination of Julius Caesar
While it’s unclear how much Porcia knew about the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar, there are stories surrounding her possible involvement or knowledge through Brutus. One story says that one night Brutus was clearly troubled while, unbeknownst to Porcia, he was plotting the assasination. Porcia, concerned, inquired what he was thinking about. He did not tell her.
Porcia reportedly suspected what was going on, but believed he would not tell her because he thought that, as a woman, she might—even if she didn’t want to—spill secrets if tortured. So, to prove herself, she clandestinely stabbed her thigh with a knife and left it untreated for at least a day. She endured symptoms such as a fever, chills, and pain. She worked through the pain, then went to Brutus to show her wound and her loyalty, saying:
“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence…Therefore fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”
Brutus, upon seeing the wound and hearing her struggles, was moved by Porcia’s dedication, and vowed not to keep any more secrets. He reportedly said he hoped to act more deserving of her as her husband, and had renewed vigor in his plot against Julius Caesar.
What happened next is uncertain. Brutus clearly intended to tell Porcia all about the upcoming assasination (if she wasn’t actually, in fact, one of the co-conspirators, as some stories say), but it’s possible he didn’t have an opportunity to do so before the mission was underway.
Brutus and the other assassins pursued Caesar. The day of the assassination, Porcia feared for Brutus’s safety, sending letters asking about him and suffered severe anxiety, even fainting. After murdering Caesar, Brutus and the others who took part traveled quickly to Athens. Porcia was asked to and agreed to remain in Rome. Both she and Brutus grieved the separation, but believed it was for the best as Brutus was now in a dangerous position.
Their marriage ended only in death (though we’ll go over the disputed details of that later), and seemed to be a strong one, with love from both sides. Brutus once said fondly of Portia: “Though the natural weakness of her body hinders her from doing what only the strength of men can perform, she has a mind as valiant and as active for the good of her country as the best of us.”
Porcia’s time and cause of death have been the subject of much debate. We do know she died while Brutus was away.
One of the possible times was during the first battle of Philippi. According to this version, Porcia had heard Brutus had died in battle, and she killed herself, but Brutus was in fact still alive. In another version, she had heard Brutus died after the second battle of Phillipi, which was true this time, and killed herself then.
The possible causes of her death vary, but the most popular story about her death is that, aggrieved by Brutus’s alleged or real passing after a battle, she killed herself by swallowing hot coals. Some agree she did commit suicide, but claim that she more likely did it by burning coal in a closed-off room, and ultimately succumbed to carbon monoxied poisoning.
But other historians argue that she likely actually passed away from illness, and that she died before Brutus did. Letters between Brutus and others points to Porcia’s death being before Brutus’s, and these letters suggest it was from sickness. In one letter, Brutus grieves Porcia’s death and blames others for not taking care of her well enough. But in an earlier letter, Brutus thanks people for taking care of Porcia while she was sick, which suggests she’d been sick for a while, and perhaps finally died from it while Brutus was gone. Some question if these letters are genuine, or if they are sufficient evidence one way or the other.
Although the exact nature and timing of Porcia’s death is debated, the story of her grieving Brutus and swallowing coal in order to kill herself is the most often portrayed in popular culture, likely due to its dramatic nature.
Key Lessons From Porcia Cato
Although sources report that Porcia of Cato loved philosophy (unsurprising considering she was raised by a prominent philosopher) which philosophy she adhered to has not been thoroughly documented. However, some of her actions suggest she at least learned the Stoic perspective, and do give us lessons to draw from today.
1. Practice Hardship
When Porcia plunged a knife into her thigh and suffered, she was showing Brutus—and herself—that she could withstand terrible circumstances in order to stand by a cause she believed in. Cato himself, despite being afforded luxuries, would practice hardship—he wore haggard clothing, ate meager food, and more, to show himself he could still thrive, even if his circumstances changed.
We’re not suggesting you wound yourself to demonstrate that you can withstand torture, but even practicing simple living, stripping yourself of luxury to remind yourself you can live a good life without all the conveniences you’ve built into your everyday circumstances, can aid you if Fortune takes away what it’s given you. Try camping with a tent and a sleeping bag, cook your own food, build a fire. You prefer to live in a house with central heating and a bed, but you can remind yourself you can manage with less.
2. Love Fearlessly
Porcia’s marriage to Brutus, to say the least, was difficult due to external factors. They immediately endured gossip surrounding their marriage, her mother-in-law favored Brutus’s ex wife, and her husband (and perhaps she herself) were fighting for a dangerous but worthy cause. You probably shouldn’t marry your first cousin or get involved with a high profile assassination, but the lesson here is that Porcia and Brutus weathered storms together because they loved and dedicated themselves to each other, despite what was thrown at them.
Overall, Porcia of Cato was a respected and fascinating woman in her time, and continues to intrigue historians and artists alike to this day.