Cato the Younger was born in Rome in the year 95 B.C. His parents passed away when he was a small boy, and there are many legends that have been passed down surrounding his remarkable personality even as a child, and highlighting his vigorous and innate sense of justice. Plutarch in particular recorded these events, and made it known by his writings that Cato was very respected as a youth– even Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the Roman dictator, had a fondness for talking to Cato who openly disagreed with his brutal policies.
When he was old enough to acquire his inheritance and live on his own, Cato studied the Stoics and adopted a very austere lifestyle of strict exercise, minimal food, and purposeful exposure to the harshness of nature’s weather. It can be gathered from accounts that he trained himself to live out his philosophy by firmly translating his beliefs into action. In typical Roman fashion, Cato married (and soon divorced) Atilia for reasons of state, although readers can easily discover from his Archilochian iambics that he was very much infatuated with Aemilia Lepida, although she was married to Quintus Caecilius Metellus Scipio.
At the age of 28, Cato became a military tribune. Once again, he naturally won the respect of those around him by sharing in the disciplined work and strict routine of his men. Upon returning to Rome after tours in Macedon and the Middle East, Cato was subsequently elected as quaestor in 65 BC. This treasury position meant that he became familiar with the details of the Roman tax code, and he would continue to keep a watchful eye on the inflows and outflows his entire life. Cato then joined the Senate (never missing a single meeting, which was nearly unheard of) and aligned himself with the Optimates, a group of conservative senators who consistently argued for returning the Roman Empire back to its roots as a republic. By this era in the Empire’s history, the political system consisted of a wealthy, ambitious clan whom merely traded wives and public offices to achieve their personal ends. Cato’s principled adherence to the original form of government took full force with the rise of the First Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus), and he worked to diminish their corrupt concentration of power through certain tax reforms. Soon, many senators realized that they would not be able to achieve their selfish goals with Cato always ready to speak up against the injustices he witnessed, so finally Clodius, hoping to exile Cicero, had Cato sent far from the Senate to govern Cyprus. Although unwilling to leave, Cato obeyed the orders and began to reform the foreign policy and treasury bookkeeping in this wealthy Roman territory in conformity with his Stoic principles of uprightness and honesty.
Unsurprisingly, the First Triumvirate dissolved amidst conflict before long, and in 48 B.C. Cato convinced the Senate to order the runaway Caesar back to Rome in order to strip him of his expired proconsular command. Instead, Caesar gathered his XIII Legion and crossed the Rubicon, thus declaring war by marching on Rome. Caesar soon defeated his former ally Pompey, but Cato and Metellus Scipio fled to continue resistance from Utica. Defeat was near, but rather than allow Caesar the satisfaction of granting him his pardon, Cato committed suicide in April of 46 BC.
In the years following his death, Cato continued to be highly esteemed and commemorated for his incorruptible virtue throughout Roman history, and Cicero penned a panegyric, a public essay of praise, entitled Cato. Later, Virgil made Cato a hero in his Aeneid. Even in the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, and beyond, great men such as Dante and even George Washington would pay respect to his example.
The Gryphon Editions consultation has placed Cato the Younger on our list of the 100 Most Influential People because of his steadfast example of the ideal Stoic statesman. His ascetic lifestyle earned him the sincere admiration of even his enemies, and his refusal to bow to circumstances which offended his sense of justice certainly changed the course of the Roman Empire and that of history forever. The story of this great man will be immortalized once again in our leather-bound biography, part of our 100 Most Influential People Library.