Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman
Cato belonged to a very distinguished family in Rome, the first member who made himself famous being his great-grandfather, Cato the Censor, whose life we have given.
Cato the Younger was left an orphan at a very early age, and his uncle, Livius Drusus, took care of him as well as of his brother, Cæpio, and his sister Porcia. He was not quick or particularly bright as a child, but he never forgot what he learned, probably because it gave him so much trouble to study his lessons. He was remarkable for excellent judgment and firmness, quite rare in so young a person, and he was fortunate in having Sarpedon for his instructor; for he was a well-bred, agreeable man, who preferred to govern by reason and kindness rather than harsh treatment.
Cato was so popular among the Roman boys that when Sylla gave the exhibition known as Troy, which was a tournament among the sons of noblemen, they accepted his son for captain of one side, but for the other captain they would have nobody but Cato, though several others were proposed.
Sylla, who had been a friend to the father of Cato, often sent for the two sons to visit him, and would talk familiarly to them, though he seldom did so to others. Sarpedon always accompanied the boys to Sylla's house, and liked to take them there, because he thought it would be to their advantage to gain favor with so prominent a person.
When Cato was about fourteen years of age, affairs at Rome were so disturbed that the house of Sylla, who was dictator, looked more like a place of execution than anything else, so many people being daily tortured and put to death there. Seeing the heads of several illustrious persons carried out, one time young Cato asked his teacher, "Why does not somebody kill this dictator?" "Because they fear him more than they hate him," was the answer. "Why, then, do you not give me a sword," asked the boy, "that I may kill him, and deliver my country from slavery?" Sarpedon was so struck by his pupil's stern, angry countenance as he uttered this speech that he watched him very closely after that, lest he should be guilty of some rash act.
He was asked one day whom he loved most. "My brother," he replied. "Whom do you love next?" was asked. "My brother," said Cato. "Whom do you love third?" Again Cato answered, "My brother," and so he would have repeated had he been questioned a hundred times more; for he loved nobody in the world as he did Cæpio, and the affection increased with years.
When Cato became a man he was made a priest of Apollo, and then he took his share of his father's estate and went to live in a house of his own. He had plenty of money, but he chose to live in the simplest possible manner and to devote himself to study. He took the most violent exercise to strengthen his body, and went bareheaded in all sorts of weather. His journeys were made on foot, even though his companions rode on horseback, because he preferred to accustom himself to hardships.
He first distinguished himself in the Servile war, which took its name from the slave Spartacus, who was the ringleader; and Gellius, who was prætor, wanted to reward him, but he refused, saying, "I have done nothing that deserves such notice."
He was then appointed military tribune to Macedonia, and when he reached the army the general gave him the command of only one legion. He at once set to work to discipline his soldiers, and succeeded so well that they became a terror to their enemies. They were devoted to Cato, who never commanded them to do anything without first doing it himself, and were never so happy as when he praised them.
While he was in Macedonia he received news that his brother was ill at Ænus, in Thrace. The sea was very rough, and no large vessel was at hand, but Cæpio needed him, and he was determined to go to him at all hazard. So, with two friends and three servants, he sailed in a little trading-boat. He narrowly escaped drowning, and arrived at Ænus to find that he had risked his life for nothing, for Cæpio was dead. This was a dreadful blow to Cato, who gave way to such passionate grief that those who had witnessed his fortitude on other occasions were astonished. He wept, he groaned, he embraced the dead body again and again, and refused to be comforted. Although so simple in his tastes, Cato spent vast sums of money on his brother's funeral, and erected a marble monument to his memory at Ænus that cost no less than eight talents.
He then returned to the army, and when his time of service ended the soldiers embraced him and parted from him with tears, spreading their garments at his feet and kissing his hands as he passed along, an honor that had seldom been paid to any Roman commander.
Before going home he made a visit to Asia to study the customs of the people. The following was his manner of travelling. Early in the morning his baker and cook would go forward to the place where he intended to pass the night. If they found no friend or acquaintance of their master, they would take lodgings and prepare his supper at an inn, without giving trouble to any one. If there happened to be no inn, they would ask the magistrates for lodgings; but they travelled with so little display that people often refused to believe they were Cato's men, and he would arrive to find no supper ready. Indeed, when he appeared it was no better, for he seemed an ordinary person to whom it was not necessary to pay attention. Sometimes he would take the magistrates to task and say, "Foolish people, why do you not learn to be more hospitable? All your visitors will not be Catos; so do not by your ill manners give them an excuse for taking from you by force what you give so unwillingly."
He met with a humorous adventure at Antioch. On his arrival there a crowd stood at the gates, the young men being ranged in a row on one side, and the boys in their best clothes on the other, while the priests and magistrates stood in white robes, with garlands on their heads. At first Cato was displeased, because he thought his servants had announced his coming; however, the people had evidently gathered to do him honor, so he desired his friends to alight, and walked with them towards the city gates. When they were near enough to be spoken to, an elderly man, with a staff and crown in his hand, advanced, saluted Cato, and asked, "How far behind is Demetrius, and when may we expect him?" Demetrius was Pompey's favorite, and just at that period Pompey was at the height of his glory. Then Cato knew that the honors were not meant for him, and his friends laughed heartily at his mistake; but as he passed through the crowd he said, with a sigh, "Alas, poor city!"
Some time later the people of Antioch were ashamed of the way they had treated Cato; it was when Pompey insisted on showing that he regarded him as a more honorable person than himself, and praised him for the very simplicity that had made them neglect him. Pompey did not love Cato, and did not desire to share his power with him, but he could not help admiring and esteeming him. After Pompey showed such respect for Cato, every city through which he passed did the same, and he was feasted on all sides.
On his return to Rome he was made quæstor, or public treasurer, but he would not enter upon the office until he had studied its duties, and when he knew them he brought every one to account who had misused the public money, and turned out every servant who did not do his work faithfully and honestly. At first many complained, but they soon found that, although they were not so heavily taxed as before, the state had never been so rich, so they were satisfied, and as time went on there was no man in Rome whom the people trusted as they did Cato.
He had often refused to be tribune, because he did not desire that office, but when the time came that Rome was in danger, he worked hard to get it, in order that he might defend her liberty and her government; for the office of tribune gave great control, and a man holding it could, with his single vote, decide a point one way or another.
Cato was not remarkable as an orator, but at the time of Catiline's conspiracy he proved that he could speak with force when occasion called for it. Catiline had formed a plot to destroy Rome by open warfare; but Cicero exposed him, and he was forced to fly. The others who were connected with Catiline called him a coward, and resolved to set the town on fire, overthrow the empire, and cause other nations to make war on Rome. Cicero did not rest until he had found out every conspirator, and then laid the matter before the senate. Cæsar, who was an excellent speaker, and for reasons of his own not averse to political changes, made such an eloquent appeal in behalf of the conspirators, claiming for them a fair trial as citizens of Rome, that the senators were almost convinced of the justice of their cause.
It was on that occasion that Cato made the only speech that has been preserved to the present day. He asked Cæsar and others who were inclined to mildness how they dared advise a trial of traitors who were on the point of ruining the commonwealth. He charged Cæsar with being guilty himself, otherwise he would not attempt to rescue from justice the unnatural wretches who had sought to ruin their country. So earnest and eloquent was Cato that he carried his point, and all the prisoners were condemned to death on the spot.
Not long after this, Cato won the highest reputation by his opposition to the First Triumvirate, or the bond made by Cæsar between Pompey and Crassus by which they hoped to get complete control of the state. Cato fought hard at this period, and his life was in danger, when Metellus, the tribune, filled the Forum with armed men, in order that he might carry his law favoring Pompey. After the trouble subsided and Metellus had departed for Asia, the Romans saw the danger they had escaped, and blessed Cato as their preserver.
When Pompey returned, he tried to be friendly with Cato, because he thought that thereby his power would be increased; but Cato would not agree to any measures that did not seem of benefit to his country. Then Pompey turned to Cæsar, and these two powerful Romans worked together so successfully that Cato lost influence with the people. So when Cæsar proposed certain laws about the division of grain and lands, everybody took an oath to observe them except Cato, who did not think them wise or just. But it was ordained by the senate that any man who should attempt to alter the laws or refuse to take the oath should be severely punished. Cato's wife, children, and all his friends begged him to yield, but it was Cicero who forced him to do so, by using the argument that was sure to have effect, the safety of his country. "For," said he, "though Cato have no need of Rome, yet Rome has need of Cato, and so likewise have all his friends."
Then Cæsar was appointed to the government of Illyricum and all Gaul for five years, though Cato opposed it, saying, "You are placing a tyrant in your fortress." But for the time being he had lost his influence with the people, and Clodius, a very bad man, was declared tribune, while Piso, Cæsar's father-in-law, and Gabinius, one of Pompey's creatures, became consuls.
Still the men in power feared Cato, for they knew how much it had cost them to get the upper hand over him; besides, he was a friend to Cicero, whom Clodius hated. So it was decided to get him out of the way, and thus silence Cicero's eloquence. He was therefore appointed to the government of Cyprus.
He went there against his will, but fulfilled his office with so much ability and success that on his return to Rome he placed nearly seven thousand talents of silver in the treasury. That was an enormous sum of money, being equal to about eight millions of dollars.
The news of his success had reached Rome from time to time, and both banks of the Tiber were crowded with people who were anxious to do him honor when he went back home. The magistrates, the priests, and the whole senate were there too, but Cato rowed up the stream in a royal galley, never stopping until he reached the dock. When the money he had brought was carried through the streets, everybody gazed at it in astonishment, and when the senate assembled they praised him, and voted him the right of appearing at the public shows in a purple-bordered gown, and an extraordinary prætorship. This last was a great honor, because Cato was but thirty-eight years of age, and no man could be prætor until he was forty. All these honors were declined.
Not long after this, Pompey and Crassus, by agreement with Cæsar, who had crossed the Alps to confer with them, had themselves declared consuls. Cato felt sure that with such men at the head of the government Rome was in danger, so he resolved to stand for prætor, or public treasurer, knowing that he could do much in that office to diminish their power.
Pompey and Crassus were aware of that also, and assembled the senate unexpectedly, giving notice only to a few of the senators. They then declared that those who were chosen prætors should at once enter upon their office, without waiting, as was the custom, to see whether they should be accused by the people of having accepted bribes. In spite of this and other precautions, Cato was elected. Thereupon Pompey cried out, "It thunders!" Thunder was considered a bad omen among the Romans, so the assembly broke up at once, though nobody else had heard the sound. Afterwards, by means of bribery, Vatinius was elected prætor in place of Cato, but those who had been paid to vote for him ran away and hid themselves, while Cato, who had made a speech warning the people against Pompey and Crassus, was followed to his home by an immense crowd, who cheered him as he walked along.
Disturbances continued during the year, and corrupt practices in the elections grew to such an extent that when, at last, Cato became prætor again, he moved that a law be passed in the senate compelling every man who obtained an office to declare upon oath how he had managed it. This was unpopular, because no one would dare to offer bribes if he had to confess them, and if he did not get votes in that way there was little chance of gaining the election. So one morning when Cato was going to the tribunal a crowd of unruly people ran after him, calling names and throwing stones, so that it was with difficulty he made his escape unhurt. He succeeded in putting a stop to the bribery in this way: a certain sum of money was collected, and it was agreed that the candidates for office should use it in canvassing for votes, but if any man were found guilty of having offered a bribe, all the votes he brought in were to be destroyed. To see that it was fairly conducted, Cato was chosen to stand by the tribune who received the votes and examine into every proceeding connected with the election.
He did it honestly, but it made him unpopular with the chief men of Rome, who looked upon him as a sort of a spy upon their actions. Pompey was one of these and he did not hesitate to make some very harsh and insulting remarks about Cato; yet when affairs in Rome had gone from bad to worse, and the senate moved to create Pompey sole consul, hoping thus to re-establish a lawful government, Cato voted for him.
When Pompey heard of it, he sent for Cato, thanked and embraced him warmly, and begged his assistance in the management of his difficult office. Cato answered, "Nothing that I have ever said was spoken out of hate to you, Pompey, nor is what I do now out of love for you; all is for the good of the commonwealth. If you ask my advice in private, I will give it freely; but in public, whether you ask or not, I will speak my opinion openly." And so he did always.
Meanwhile, Cæsar, though in Gaul, was gradually, but steadily and surely, increasing his power in Rome. Cato warned Pompey more than once; but so great was the latter's confidence in the friendship of the conqueror that he paid no attention to the warnings.
As it was Cato's habit to speak his mind freely, he openly found fault with Cæsar's actions in Gaul, whereupon that general sent a letter to the senate full of charges against Cato. Cato laughed at them, and made each appear absurd as it was read aloud, and at last exclaimed, "It is not the sons of the Britons or the Gauls that we have to fear, but Cæsar himself, if we are wise." This made such an impression on the senate that it was at once decided to send some one to replace Cæsar. Then his friends demanded that if that were done Pompey should lay down his arms and give up his provinces too. "What I have foretold has come to pass!" exclaimed Cato; but he could not do much, for Cæsar was so exceedingly popular with the people that, though the senate saw the justice of Cato's remarks, they were afraid to oppose the general.
But when news came that the latter had seized Ariminum and was marching on Rome, then everybody turned to Cato in despair. "It is too late!" he exclaimed. "If you had believed me, or listened to my advice, you would not now be standing in fear of one man, or obliged to put all your hopes in one only." Pompey said, "It is indeed true that Cato has spoken like a prophet, while I have acted too much like a friend." Cato advised the senate to put everything in the hands of Pompey, saying, "Those who can raise up great evils know best how to cure them."
But Pompey did not feel that his forces were numerous or strong enough to oppose Cæsar, so he left the city. Cato followed Pompey into exile; but from that time to the end of his life he was so sad and dejected on account of the misfortunes that had befallen his country that he never cut his hair, shaved his beard, or wore a garland.
His advice to Pompey was of great value, and he got much honor for himself on account of his humanity; for not only did he postpone battles as long as possible, but he persuaded Pompey to ordain that no city subject to Rome should be destroyed, and that no Roman should be killed except in battle.
In Pompey's life will be found an account of his engagements with Cæsar, also of his death in Egypt. Afterwards his men declared that nobody should lead them but Cato, and he consented to do so; but it was necessary to increase his strength, and for that purpose Cato resolved to join his forces with those of Scipio, Pompey's father-in-law, who had made friends with Juba, the king of Mauritania.
So Cato set out across a desert country in the depth of winter, determined to lose no time. He had a great number of asses in his train to carry water and food, also many horses and carriages; still the troops suffered much during their seven days' march. Cato set them an example of endurance which they would have been ashamed not to follow. He was always foremost, and never made use of a horse or chariot during the entire journey. At last he reached Utica with his ten thousand men and joined Scipio.
Then Scipio, who held a higher office in Rome than Cato did, was on that account appointed commander-in-chief. He was inclined to kill all the people of Utica and burn the city, but Cato opposed it so strongly that he succeeded in preventing the cruel deed. Then the inhabitants requested him to take the command of the town and protect them against Cæsar, to which Scipio agreed. Utica was a very important city in Africa; so Cato set to work to fill it with supplies, repair its walls, and fortify it with ditches and ramparts. He also armed the young men and posted them in the trenches, while the rest of the inhabitants were kept close within the walls. Meanwhile, Scipio marched against Cæsar and gave him battle at Thapsus. A terrible defeat was the result, and opened the way for the great conqueror to march on into Africa.
When the news of this defeat reached Utica the people were almost distracted; so was Cato, but he appeared calm, and made a speech so full of hope and determination that confidence was restored, and the belief grew strong that it was not possible for even Cæsar to conquer such a man as Cato.
A large body of cavalry had escaped from Scipio's army and soon arrived at Utica. Cato desired to make use of them for the defence of the city, but they refused to act unless he would drive out or destroy all the people, saying, "They have Carthaginian blood in their veins, and will certainly prove traitors." Cato would not listen to so cruel a proposal, and so the cavalry rode off; but he followed, and, with tears in his eyes, entreated them to return, if only for one day, so that those who desired to leave Utica might get off safely. They consented, and were placed at the gates and in the fortress.
Then the council of Utica sent for Cato, and, after thanking him for treating them in the upright manner he had done, told him that they had resolved to send messengers to Cæsar to ask him to have mercy on Cato and on them. "Should he refuse," they added, "we will fight for Cato as long as we have breath." After thanking them, Cato said, "I advise you to send without delay to intercede for yourselves, but for me intercede not. It is for the conquered to ask for mercy, and for those who have done an injury to beg pardon. For my part, I have never been conquered, and have had victory over Cæsar in all points of justice and honesty. It is Cæsar who ought to be looked upon as the defeated man, for he now shows himself guilty of the designs against his country, which he has constantly denied." As he walked away he was informed that Cæsar was coming. "Ah," he said, "he expects to find us brave men."
Scipio was all this time at anchor under a promontory near Utica, and Cato now provided ships for all those Romans who desired to join him, even persuading many who were loath to leave him to go. He saw them all embark, and then turned away without a word. That evening he supped with a large party of Uticans, and afterwards took his usual evening walk with his friends. When he went to his room he read Plato's book on the immortality of the soul, but he had not been thus occupied very long before he looked up and asked a servant who had taken away his sword. He received no reply, and went on reading; but presently he asked the same question again in a louder tone, and became so angry at getting a vague answer that he struck the servant, and demanded the weapon. Thereupon his son, who, having observed something strange in Cato's manner, had cautiously removed the sword, entered with some friends.
Cato looked at them fiercely, and said, "Am I deranged, that I must be disarmed and hindered from using my own reason? And you, young men, why do you not bind your father's hands behind him, that when Cæsar comes he may find him unable to defend himself? I need no sword to despatch myself, for if I but hold my breath for a while, or strike my head against the wall, it will do as well."
His son then left the room, weeping. To two of the friends who remained, Cato spoke thus: "Do you also think to keep a man of my age alive by force, and to sit here and watch me? or have you any arguments to prove that it is no dishonor for Cato to beg mercy of his enemy? If so, speak, and let me unlearn what I have been taught, and by Cæsar's help grow wiser. Not that I have determined upon anything regarding myself, but I would have it in my power to do that which I think fit to decide upon. Meanwhile, do not trouble yourselves about me, but go and tell my son that he cannot compel his father to what he fails to persuade him to." So they retired, and the sword was sent in by a little boy.
"Now I am master of myself," said Cato, as he received it, and carefully examined the blade. He then returned to his book, and after reading for a while fell asleep. Towards morning a noise was heard in his room; his son rushed in with some friends, and found Cato on the floor in a pool of blood. He had stabbed himself in the breast, and had fallen from the bed, throwing over a little table as he did so. He was not dead, and an attempt was made to bind up the wound, but he no sooner recovered consciousness than he tore it open, and instantly expired.
In less time than one might believe it possible the people of Utica had crowded about the dead man's door, calling him "their benefactor, their savior, the only free and unconquered man."
Cæsar was approaching, but neither fear of him nor their own party troubles could prevent their turning out in a body to do honor to Cato. They adorned his body, made him a magnificent funeral, and, after turning out in procession, buried him near the sea.
When Cæsar heard that Cato, with his son and a few others, had stayed at Utica, though the rest of the Romans had been sent away, he hurried forward with his army; for he had great regard for Cato. Upon being informed of his death, he exclaimed, "Cato, I envy thee thy death, since thou couldst envy me the glory of saving thy life." What Cæsar would have done had Cato been willing to owe his life to him cannot be known, but it is probable that he would have been merciful.
Cato was forty-eight years old when he died, and his name has come down to us of modern times as that of one of the purest statesmen and one of the most upright and persevering defenders of the liberties of Rome.