Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

Cato The Stern

A young fellow, seventeen years old, fought in the front ranks of the Roman army in the wars with Hannibal. His hair was red, his gray eyes flashed, his shout was a roar. Not a man in the host bore himself more boldly than young Cato.

After a battle he would retire to his tent; there he would help his slave prepare the supper of plain food. For drink he seldom had anything but water. If he was tired, he would have a dash of vinegar in the cup. Scarcely ever did he taste wine.

Cato became owner of an estate and a farm-house. Near his own dwelling stood an old cottage, which the country-folk would point to, saying:

"This cottage once belonged to the consul who supped on turnips."

Yes, and this was the story. Manius Curius, the consul, was peeling turnips for his supper one evening as he sat in the chimney-corner A group of men entered in a quiet manner, as if not wishing to be heard by passers-by. They were messengers from the Samnite people, who were at war with Rome, and they brought Manius a large gift of gold in order to gain the favor of so valiant a foe.

"No," he said, "a man who can be satisfied with such a supper as this has no need of gold; and I think it more glorious to conquer the Samnites than to take their gold." The messengers went away looking foolish.

So Cato would look at the ancient cottage and say to himself:

"I should like to live as Manius lived, in a very simple style; and I should like to be a famous man in Rome, as he was."

His clothes were coarse. He worked with his slaves, ate the same kind of bread as they did, and drank the same kind of drink. Not only could he work; he could talk in a witty, sensible way, and when a neighbor went to law before a judge Cato would often speak on his behalf, so that, after a while, he went to act as a pleader, or speaker, in the law courts of Rome. People would repeat his shrewd sayings, such as:

"Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise; for the wise avoid the errors of fools, while fools do not profit by the examples of the wise."

And another:

"I do not like a soldier who moves his hands in marching and his feet in fighting, and who snores louder in bed than he shouts in battle."

Cato was chosen consul, and took command of an army in Spain, where he conquered four hundred cities. Also he waged war with the wild tribes on the banks of the river Danube. Also he fought the King of Syria, who had invaded Greece. In that country the mountains are many. The King of Syria occupied a pass among the hills, and had made his position strong by throwing up walls and mounds. Cato resolved to surprise the king's camp by night, and set out with a strong band of men, with one of his prisoners acting as guide. This guide missed the way. Cato and his companions wandered amid rocks and thickets. He ordered his men to wait while he and a friend climbed the rocky cliff, catching hold of wild olive-trees to help themselves up by; and presently they found a good path. They went down, called the soldiers to follow, and soon all were on the top of the hill. Then they came to a dead stop. A steep precipice fell away below their feet. A gray light began to glimmer in the eastern sky. Day was dawning. A hum of voices was heard below. Cato saw the king's camp some distance off, and the voices came from an advance-guard. Some of the Romans crept down the cliff and drove the guard off, all except one man, whom they brought to their captain. In answer to Cato's questions, he said the entrance to the pass was kept by only six hundred of the Syrian soldiers.

Sword in hand, Cato led the way, his trumpeters sounding the charge. The rest of the army broke into the camp at another point. A stone was flung which broke the king's teeth. The Syrian army hurried along a narrow road, one side of which was hemmed in by rocks, the other by muddy swamps, and many perished.

Cato was chosen censor by the citizens of Rome. It was his duty to watch the daily actions and manners of the people; and very strictly did he perform this duty. He made a list of the people who were extra rich in furniture and clothes, and he made them pay taxes at a higher rate than those less wealthy. When he found certain greedy citizens who watered their gardens with water which was only intended for public fountains, he cut the pipes. He offended the thieves, but he saved the public money. He disliked all vain show. He loved the ways of the Spartans, of which I have told you in the stories of the Greeks. He would allow no cruelty to pass unpunished, and he used to say that a man who beat his wife and children was cruel to the most sacred things in the world.

Cato would not let his son be taught by a slave, as other Roman fathers often did. He taught the boy himself, and gave him lessons in throwing a dart, riding, boxing, and swimming. Also, he taught him to write Latin in large, bold letters; and the boy wrote and learned tales of the old Roman heroes, such as I have related to you in these pages.

His wealth increased; he had more land, more slaves. So thrifty was he with his money that he saved enough to buy fish-ponds, hot baths, yards for fulling (or cleaning) cloth, and pasture, all of which he let for rents. He even lent money to his slaves, who bought boys in the slave-markets, and trained them to do various kinds of work and sold them at a profit to Cato. This will seem a wicked thing to you, but the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, and other ancient nations kept slaves, and thought it no crime to do so; and in many cases the slaves were well treated.

As he was stern to the Roman citizens and to slaves, so he was stern to Rome's enemies. In his time Rome was still at war with Carthage, the famous city on the coast of Africa. Cato hated this city, and would finish his speeches in the forum by saying, "And Carthage must be destroyed," no matter what else he was talking about. Thus he might say:

"It is a good thing, O Romans, to teach our sons healthy exercises, to be hardy, to be thrifty, and to serve their fatherland even unto death. And Carthage must be destroyed!"

Or perhaps:

"He who takes what belongs to the public is a thief, even though he is a man of noble birth and dwells in a villa. And Carthage must be destroyed!"

And Carthage was indeed destroyed 146 B.C., but not till after Cato's death, which occurred 149 B.C.

I am sorry to tell you that, when any slave of his was old and useless, he would sell him. The writer Plutarch (Ploo-tark), in whose book I find the tales I tell you, was a kind-hearted man, and he made some wise remarks about justice to servants, and even animals that serve us; and I will copy his words out for you:

A good man will take care of his horses and dogs, not only while they are young, but when old and past service. Thus the people of Athens, when they had finished building a temple, set at liberty the beasts of burden that had been chiefly employed in that work, suffering them to pasture at large, free from any further service. It is said that one of them afterward came of its own accord to work, and, putting himself at the head of the laboring cattle, marched before them to the citadel. This pleased the people, and they made a decree that it should be kept at the public expense as long as it lived. The graves of Kimori's mares, with which he thrice won races at the Olympic games, are still to be seen near his own tomb. Many men have shown particular marks of regard in burying the dogs which they had cherished and been fond of. Among the rest was the dog who swam by the side of a galley at the battle of Salamis, and was afterward buried by his master upon a headland by the sea, the place being called "The Dog's Grave" to this day. We certainly ought not to treat living creatures like shoes or household goods which, when worn out with use, we throw away. And, if it were only to learn kindness to mankind, we should practise mercy to other creatures. For my own part, I would not sell even an old ox that had toiled for me. Much less would I send away, for the sake of a little money, a man grown old in my service, from his usual place and food. To him, poor man! it would be as bad as exile, since he could be of no more use to the buyer than he was to the seller. But Cato, as if he took a pride in these things, tells us that, when consul, he left his war-horse in Spain, to save the public the expense of carrying him.

You will agree with me, girls and boys, that the spirit of Plutarch was nobler than the spirit of Cato. You will be interested to hear that Plutarch was very proud of his little daughter's goodness of temper. "When she was very young," he says, "and had fed at the nurse's breast, she would often ask the nurse to feed also the other children, and the babies and dolls whom she looked upon as her servants."

Alas! Plutarch's little daughter died while she was still young.