Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church

Cato, Brutus, and Porcia

"From his earliest years," so runs the character that has come down to us of Cato, "he was resolute to obstinacy. Flattery met with a rough repulse, and threats with resistance. He never laughed, and his smile was of the slightest. Not easily provoked, his anger, once roused, was implacable. He learnt but slowly, but never forgot a thing once acquired; he was obedient to his teachers, but wanted to know the reason of everything." The stories of his boyhood bear out this character. Here is one of them. His tutor took him to Sulla's house. It was in the evil days of the Proscription, and there were signs of the bloody work that was going on. "Why does no one kill this man?" he asked his teacher. "Because, my son, they fear him more than they hate him," was the answer. "Why then," was the rejoinder, "have you not given me a sword that I may set my country free?" The tutor, as it may be supposed, carried him off in haste.

Like most young Romans he began life as a soldier, and won golden opinions not only by his courage, which indeed was common enough in a nation that conquered the world, but by his temperance and diligent performance of duty. His time of service ended, he set out on his travels, accepting an invitation from the tributary king of Galatia, who happened to be an old friend of the family, to visit him. We get an interesting little picture of a Roman of the upper class on a tour. "At dawn he would send on a baker and a cook to the place which he intended to visit. These would enter the town in a most unpretending fashion, and if their master did not happen to have a friend or acquaintance in the place, would betake themselves to an inn, and there prepare for their master's accommodation without troubling any one. It was only when there was no inn that they went to the magistrates and asked for entertainment; and they were always content with what was assigned. Often they met with but scanty welcome and attention, not enforcing their demands with the customary threats, so that Cato on his arrival found nothing prepared. Nor did their master create a more favourable impression, sitting as he did quietly on his luggage, and seeming to accept the situation. Sometimes, however, he would send for the town authorities and say, "You had best give up these mean ways, my inhospitable friends; you won't find that all your visitors are Catos." Once at least he found himself, as he thought, magnificently received. Approaching Antioch, he found the road lined on either side with troops of spectators. The men stood in one company, the boys in another. Everybody was in holiday dress. Some—these were the magistrates and priests—wore white robes and garlands of flowers. Cato, supposing that all these preparations were intended for himself, was annoyed that his servants had not prevented them. But he was soon undeceived. An old man ran out from the crowd, and without so much as greeting the new comer, cried, "Where did you leave Demetrius? When will he come? "Demetrius was Pompey's freedman, and had some of his master's greatness reflected on him. Cato could only turn away muttering, "Wretched place!"

Porcia, and Cato the Younger


Returning to Rome he went through the usual course of honours, always discharging his duties with the utmost zeal and integrity, and probably, as long as he filled a subordinate place, with great success. It was when statesmanship was wanted that he began to fail.

In the affair of the conspiracy of Catiline Cato stood firmly by Cicero, supporting the proposition to put the conspirators to death in a powerful speech, the only speech of all that he made that was preserved. This preservation was due to the forethought of Cicero, who put the fastest writers whom he could find to relieve each other in taking down the oration. This, it is interesting to be told, was the beginning of shorthand.

Cato, like Cicero, loved and believed in the republic; but he was much more uncompromising, more honest perhaps we may say, but certainly less discreet in putting his principles into action. He set himself to oppose the accumulation of power in the hands of Pompey and Cæsar; but he lacked both dignity and prudence, and he accomplished nothing. When, for instance, Cæsar, returning from Spain, petitioned the Senate for permission to become a candidate for consulship without entering the city—to enter the city would have been to abandon his hopes for a triumph—Cato condescended to use the arts of obstruction in opposing him. He spoke till sunset against the proposition, and it failed by sheer lapse of time. Yet the opposition was fruitless. Cæsar of course abandoned the empty honour, and secured the reality, all the more certainly because people felt that he had been hardly used. And so he continued to act, always seeking to do right, but always choosing the very worst way of doing it; anxious to serve his country, but always contriving to injure it. Even in that which, we may say, best became him in his life, in the leaving of it (if we accept for the moment the Roman view of the morality of suicide), he was not doing his best for Rome. Had he been willing to live (for Cæsar was ready to spare him, as he was always ready to spare enemies who could not harm him) there was yet good for him to do; in his hasty impatience of what he disapproved, he preferred to deprive his country of its most honest citizen.

We must not omit a picture so characteristic of Roman life as the story of his last hours. The last army of the republic had been destroyed at Thapsus, and Cæsar was undisputed master of the world. Cato vainly endeavoured to stir up the people of Utica, a town near Carthage, in which he had taken up his quarters; when they refused, he resolved to put an end to his life. A kinsman of Cæsar, who was preparing to intercede with the conqueror for the lives of the vanquished leaders, begged Cato's help in revising his speech. "For you," he said, "I should think it no shame to clasp his hands and fall at his knees." "Were I willing to take my life at his hands," replied Cato, "I should go alone to ask it. But I refuse to live by the favour of a tyrant. Still, as there are three hundred others for whom you are to intercede, let us see what can be done with the speech." This business finished, he took an affectionate leave of his friend, commending to his good offices his son and his friends. On his son he laid a strict injunction not to meddle with public life. Such a part as was worthy of the name of Cato no man could take again; to take any other would be shameful. Then followed the bath, and after the bath, dinner, to which he had invited a number of friends, the magistrates of the town. He sat at the meal, instead of reclining. This had been his custom ever since the fated day of Pharsalia. After dinner, over the wine, there was much learned talk, and this not other than cheerful in tone. But when the conversation happened to turn on one of the favourite maxims of the Stoics, "Only the good man is free; the bad are slaves," Cato expressed himself with an energy and even a fierceness that made the company suspect some terrible resolve. The melancholy silence that ensued warned the speaker that he had betrayed himself, and he hastened to remove the suspicion by talking on other topics. After dinner he took his customary walk, gave the necessary orders to the officers on guard, and then sought his chamber. Here he took up the Phædo the famous dialogue in which Socrates, on the day when he is to drink the poison, discusses the immortality of the soul. He had almost finished the book, when, chancing to turn his eyes upwards, he perceived that his sword had been removed. His son had removed it while he sat at dinner. He called a slave and asked, "Who has taken my sword?" As the man said nothing, he resumed his book; but in the course of a few minutes, finding that search was not being made, he asked for the sword again. Another interval followed; and still it was not forthcoming. His anger was now roused. He vehemently reproached the slaves, and even struck one of them with his fist, which he injured by the blow. "My son and my slaves," he said, "are betraying me to the enemy." He would listen to no entreaties. "Am I a madman," he said, "that I am stripped of my arms? Are you going to bind my hands and give me up to Cæsar? As for the sword I can do without it; I need but hold my breath or dash my head against the wall. It is idle to think that you can keep a man of my years alive against his will." It was felt to be impossible to persist in the face of this determination, and a young slave-boy brought back the sword. Cato felt the weapon, and finding that the blade was straight and the edge perfect, said, "Now I am my own master." He then read the Phædo again from beginning to end, and afterwards fell into so profound a sleep that persons standing outside the chamber heard his breathing. About midnight he sent for his physician and one of his freedmen. The freedman was commissioned to enquire whether his friends had set sail. The physician he asked to bind up his wounded hand, a request which his attendants, heard with delight, as it seemed to indicate a resolve to live. He again sent to enquire about his friends and expressed his regret at the rough weather which they seemed likely to have. The birds were now beginning to twitter at the approach of dawn, and he fell into a short sleep. The freedman now returned with news that the harbour was quiet. When he found himself again alone, he stabbed himself with the sword, but the blow, dealt as it was by the wounded hand, was not fatal. He fell fainting on the couch, knocking down a counting board which stood near, and groaning. His son with others rushed into the chamber, and the physician, finding that the wound was not mortal, proceeded to bind it up. Cato, recovering his consciousness, thrust the attendants aside, and tearing open the wound, expired.

Marcus Brutus.


If the end of Cato's life was its noblest part, it is still more true that the fame of Brutus rests on one memorable deed. He was known, indeed, as a young man of promise, with whose education special pains had been taken, and who had a genuine love for letters and learning. He was free, it would seem, from some of the vices of his age, but he had serious faults. Indeed the one transaction of his earlier life with which we happen to be well acquainted is very little to his credit. And this, again, is so characteristic of one side of Roman life that it should be told in some detail.

Brutus had married the daughter of a certain Appius Claudius, a kinsman of the notorious Clodius, and had accompanied his father-in-law to his province, Cilicia. He took the opportunity of increasing his means by lending money to the provincials. Lending money, it must be remembered, was not thought a discreditable occupation even for the very noblest. To lend money upon interest was, indeed, the only way of making an investment, besides the buying of land, that was available to the Roman capitalist. But Brutus was more than a money-lender, he was an usurer; that is, he sought to extract an extravagantly high rate of interest from his debtors. And this greed brought him into collision with Cicero.

A certain Scaptius had been agent for Brutus in lending money to the town of Salamis in Cyprus. Under the government of Claudius, Scaptius had had everything his own way. He had been appointed to a command in the town, had some cavalry at his disposal, and extorted from the inhabitants what terms he pleased, shutting up, it is told us, the Senate in their council-room till five of them perished of hunger. Cicero heard of this monstrous deed as he was on his way to his province; he peremptorily refused the request of Scaptius for a renewal of his command, saying that he had resolved not to grant such posts to any person engaged in trading or money-lending. Still, for Brutus' sake—and it was not for some time that it came out that Brutus was the principal—he would take care that the money should be paid. This the town was ready to do; but then came in the question of interest. An edict had been published that this should never exceed twelve percent, or one percent monthly, that being the customary way of payment. But Scaptius pleaded his bond, which provided for four percent monthly, and pleaded also a special edict that regulations restraining interest were not to apply to Salamis. The town protested that they could not pay if such terms were exacted—terms which would double the principal. They could not, they said, have met even the smaller claim, if it had not been for the liberality of the governor, who had declined the customary presents. Brutus was much vexed. "Even when he asks me a favour," writes Cicero to Atticus, "there is always something arrogant and churlish: still he moves laughter more than anger."

When the civil war broke out between Cæsar and Pompey, it was expected that Brutus would attach himself to the former. Pompey, who had put his father to death, he had no reason to love. But if he was unscrupulous in some things, in politics he had principles which he would not abandon, the strongest of these, perhaps, being that the side of which Cato approved was the side of the right. Pompey received his new adherent with astonishment and delight, rising from his chair to greet him. He spent most of his time in camp in study, being engrossed on the very eve of the battle in making an epitome of Polybius, the Greek historian of the Second Punic War. He passed through the disastrous day of Pharsalia unhurt, Cæsar having given special orders that his life was to be spared. After the battle, the conqueror not only pardoned him but treated him with the greatest kindness, a kindness for which, for a time at least, he seems not to have been ungrateful. But there were influences at work which he could not resist. There was his friendship with Cassius, who had a passionate hatred against usurpers, the remembrance of how Cato had died sooner then submit himself to Cæsar, and, not least, the association of his name, which he was not permitted to forget. The statue of the old patriot who had driven out the Tarquins was covered with such inscriptions as, "Brutus, would thou wert alive!" and Brutus' own chair of office—he was prætor at the time—was found covered with papers on which were scribbled, "Brutus, thou sleepest," or, "A true Brutus art thou," and the like. How he slew Cæsar I have told already; how he killed himself in despair after the second battle of Philippi may be read elsewhere.

Porcia, the daughter of Cato, was left a widow in 48 B.C., and married three years afterwards her cousin Brutus, who divorced his first wife Claudia in order to marry her. She inherited both the literary tastes and the opinions of her father, and she thought herself aggrieved when her husband seemed unwilling to confide his plans to her. Plutarch thus tells her story, his authority seeming to be a little biography which one of her sons by her first husband afterwards wrote of his stepfather. "She wounded herself in the thigh with a knife such as barbers use for cutting the nails. The wound was deep, the loss of blood great, and the pain and fever that followed acute. Her husband was in the greatest distress, when his wife thus addressed him: 'Brutus, it was a daughter of Cato who became your wife, not merely to share your bed and board, but to be the partner of your adversity and your prosperity. You  give me no cause to complain, but what proof can I give you of my affection if I may not bear with you your secret troubles. Women, I know, are weak creatures, ill fitted to keep secrets. Yet a good training and honest company may do much, and this, as Cato's daughter and wife to Brutus, I have had.' She then showed him the wound, and told him that she had inflicted it upon herself to prove her courage and constancy." For all this resolution she had something of a woman's weakness. When her husband had left the house on the day fixed for the assassination, she could not conceal her agitation. She eagerly enquired of all who entered how Brutus fared, and at last fainted in the hall of her house. In the midst of the business of the senate-house Brutus heard that his wife was dying.

Porcia was not with her husband during the campaigns that ended at Philippi, but remained in Rome. She is said to have killed herself by swallowing the live coals from a brazier, when her friends kept from her all the means of self-destruction. This story is scarcely credible; possibly it means that she suffocated herself with the fumes of charcoal. That she should commit suicide suited all the traditions of her life.