As this is my first proper blog post ever, I thought it would only be appropriate to dedicate some time to discussing the inspiration for my pseudonym. I’ve used his name for dozens of different accounts on websites like Twitter and Instagram, so it’s only fair for me to pay him back a little bit. Now I say this fully aware of the fact that the real Cato likely would not approve of me, or my blog, or likely anything about the world after 300 CE. That being said, I offer this up as a tribute to a man who’s spirit and tenacity I greatly admire, Cato the Younger.
Cato, (full name – Marcus Cato Porcius Uticencis), was a Roman statesman who lived from 95 BCE to 46 BCE, and is commonly referred to as Cato the Younger. Cato came from a proud Roman family with a long history of military and political service. He is referred to as, “the Minor,” to set him apart from his great-grandfather, another giant in the history of Rome. Cato the Elder became notorious for his dogged pursuit of a third Punic War to eliminate Carthage, Rome’s enemy for generations. He famously ended each of his speeches with the word’s, “Ceterem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.” This famous phrase is loosely translated as, “Furthermore, Carthage must be destroyed.” Cato the Elder was convinced that not only did Carthage pose a key threat to Rome’s hegemony, but it also represented all of the loose morals that he despised in the world. Cato would take after his grandfather in this regard.
By Cato the Younger’s time Carthage had long-since been destroyed and its fields sewn, allegedly, with salt. However, Cato would continue to pursue his family’s legacy of enforcing the strictest of moral codes. Although he was a young politician he distinguished himself for his remarkable moral fiber. At a time when Rome appeared to be quickly falling into decadence and luxury Cato embodied the Roman character that had lead them to conquer much of the known world. He was unsusceptible to bribery, despised corruption, and upheld his values to the end. Cato believed in duty, always did what he felt was right, and was a fierce opponent to anyone whom he thought was not serving the interest of Rome. It was his misfortune to be born in the same age as Julius Caesar.
Cato defied Caesar and his rise to power throughout his political career. He upheld his reputation as a bastion of old Roman virtues, and fought his quest for dominance tooth and nail. Once, when Caesar attempted to push through legislation that Cato found unlawful, he made a public speech against Caesar in the Senate. Caesar had Cato physically removed from the building, still adamantly decrying his policies. One of the senators removed himself with Cato, famously remarking that it would be better to be out there with Cato than in the Senate with Caesar. Eventually he would defy Caesar physically, facing him in battle after Pompey was defeated at Pharsalus. When Caesar fought Cato’s troops at Utica he had them slaughtered after their defeat.
Perhaps no aspect of Cato’s life is as moving or as dramatic as his death. Cato had not been killed with his troops at Utica, but knew that Caesar would soon come for him. Worse, he knew that Caesar would likely pardon him. Say what you will about Julius Caesar, but he knew the political and strategic value of mercy. Sparing Cato would publically shame him, and make him indebted to Caesar for his very life. This would be intolerable for a man who Plutarch described as, “inflexible, imperturbable, and altogether steadfast.”
Cato could not go on in a world when his moral and political enemy had power over him. He decided to choose the only suitable solution, and resolved to take his own life. After enjoying a meal with his family, Cato retired to his rooms, read from Plato’s dialogues, and stabbed himself in the stomach. He wished to die a slow, painful, honorable death. As poetic and dramatic as this death might have been, his family did not seem to appreciate the merits of this. One of Cato’s children found him, called a doctor, and promptly had his wound treated.
Perhaps another man might have taken this a sign that there was more to live for, or that he should content himself to live out his remaining days in peace. But Cato was Cato, and one of his trademark Roman virtues was stubbornness. When he realized that a surgeon was treating him, and that he was being denied the death he so desired, he pushed the doctor away. Digging his fingers into his self-inflicted stomach wound, Cato tore out his stitches and bled to death in his bed. Cato had lived his life by his own terms, and he chose to die by them as well.
You might wonder why I idolize a man who at worst sounds certifiably insane and at best must have had quite a stick up his ass. Excuse me, a bacculum in rectus. Once, at a Classics department book sale that I was raiding, I mentioned my affection for Cato the Younger to one of my old professors. He seemed puzzled by my interest in the ancient senator.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, stroking his prodigious orange mustache, “I appreciate him for his place in history… But I hardly think I’d like to get to know him!” Of course he was right, I hardly think that I’d like to get a beer with Cato (wine, if anything) but I’ve always been drawn to similar figures in history. I have great admiration for John Adams for the same reason. He might have been, “obnoxious and disliked,” as the musical 1776 put it, but he was a man of principle who dedicated his life to service of his country in the manner best suited to his talents. I doubt that I would like to get to know many of my historical idols, but in the case of Cato I still admire the man’s character.
In a time of corruption and weakness, of violence and civil war, Cato stood by his principles quite literally until the end. He was an anachronism in his own time, yet in his own highly quixotic way he chose to strive to elevate political discourse and the future of his country simply by acting according to his beliefs. His quest was doomed to begin with, but still admirable. I admire Cato for having the strength of character and the discipline to see his convictions through despite irrepressible odds. I admire it largely because it is a quality I too rarely find in myself. So I look to Cato as an ideal of strength and moral rectitude, so that I can steal some of that grace for myself someday.
The quote that I feel best captures my feelings towards Cato comes from Wes Anderson’s magnificent Grand Budapest Hotel, when the character of Zero Moustafa discusses his late mentor and friend M. Gustave (Played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes). “To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.”