Cato the Elder

(234—149 bc)

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‘Cato the Censor’ (234–149bc) (‘Censorius’) was a dominant figure in both the political and the cultural life of Rome in the first half of the 2nd cent. bc. A novus homo (roughly, the first man in his family to become a senator and/or consul), he was born at Tusculum, but spent much of his childhood in the Sabine country, where his family owned land. He served in the Hannibalic War (see HANNIBAL), winning particular praise for his contribution at the battle of the Metaurus in 207. He embarked on a political career under the patronage of the patrician Lucius Valerius Flaccus, who was his colleague in both consulship and censorship. As quaestor 204 he served under Scipio Africanus in Sicily and Africa; a constant champion of traditional Roman virtues, he looked with disfavour on Scipio's adoption of Greek customs and relaxed military discipline in Sicily, but the story that he came back to Rome to express his criticisms should be rejected. He is said to have returned from Africa via Sardinia, bringing thence the poet Ennius to Rome. He was plebeian aedile 199 and praetor 198, when he may have carried the Porcian law which extended the right of provocatio (appeal to the people against the action of a magistrate) to cases of scourging. He governed Sardinia, expelling usurers and restricting the demands made on the Sardinians for the upkeep of himself and his staff. He reached the consulship in 195: after unsuccessfully opposing the repeal of the Oppian law, he went to Spain, where, in a campaign which may have extended into 194, he suppressed a major rebellion, extended the area under Roman control, and arranged for the exploitation of the gold and silver mines; he returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. In 191, as military tribune, he played an important part in the defeat of Antiochus III at Thermopylae, and was sent to Rome by Manius Acilius Glabrio to report the victory.

Cato was constantly engaged in court cases, both as prosecutor or prosecution witness and as defendant. He was an instigator of the attacks on the Scipios (Africanus and his brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiagenes), and two of his other targets, Quintus Minucius Thermus and Glabrio, can be seen as allies of the Scipios. The attack on Glabrio was connected with the censorial elections of 189, when Cato and Flaccus stood unsuccessfully. Five years later they were elected, having stood on a joint programme of reversing the decline of traditional morality. They were severe in their review of the rolls of the senate and the equites (knights), removing Flamininus from the senate and depriving Scipio Asiagenes of his public horse. High levels of taxation were imposed on what the censors regarded as luxuries, and the public contracts were let on terms most advantageous for the state and least so for the contractors. They undertook extensive public works, including major repairs and extensions to the sewage system. The controversies caused by his censorship affected Cato for the rest of his life. But he courted conflict and spoke his mind to the point of rudeness. He rigidly applied to himself the standards he demanded of others and made a parade of his own parsimony: when in Spain he had made a point of sharing the rigours of his soldiers.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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