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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Cato the Elder (234–149 B.C.)

FOR many reasons, Cato “the Censor” can hardly be wholly ignored in any adequate general view of literature. If we look to the chance of survival as a test of vitality, his practical and juiceless book on Agriculture is the oldest volume of Latin prose extant; though we can hardly speak of it as still existing in the form given it by Cato. It appears to have been cruelly “modernized” in outward form about the time of Augustus. Again, the sturdy old supporter of Roman simplicity was the first Italian to publish a collection of orations. A hundred and fifty speeches were known to Cicero. Fragments of eighty still survive; though in many cases they are represented merely by citations given incidentally by some late grammarian, to prove the existence of some rare word or antiquated form. Again, the ‘Origines’ of Cato would not only have afforded us, if preserved, welcome light upon the beginnings of Rome and many other Italian cities, but a political and military history, brought down to Cato’s own day, and especially valuable for its fearless treatment of recent events. Indeed, his own actual speeches were taken up into the history, and one of them, as partly preserved by Aulus Gellius, furnishes the best example we have of the straightforward unadorned oratory of early Rome. There is reason to believe, even, that Cato left what we may fairly call an encyclopædia,—dedicated to, and compiled for, his son. At any rate, he wrote largely—not to mention works already alluded to—on eloquence, medicine, the military art, etc.

Yet it must be confessed that Cato illustrates, as strikingly as any figure that could be selected, how little at home the true literary artist would have found himself in early Latium, if a perverse fate had made it possible for him to be born there, or to stray thither, at all. Even his figure and face were repellent enough to stand between Socrates and Samuel Johnson, as the most familiar ugly old men upon the stage of the world’s life.

  • “Porcius, fiery-haired, gray-eyed, and snarling at all men,—”
  • says the unforgiving satirist, is unwelcome even when dead, to Persephone in Hades! No authentic portrait-statue of him exists. Indeed these Roman busts and figures, especially in the earlier time, were the work of Greek artists, and the likelihood of his giving a sitting to one of that race is exceedingly small.

    The only work of Cato’s which from its title might seem to have had a poetic form was the ‘Carmen de Moribus.’ It seems to have been a eulogy upon old Roman simplicity. Not only are the extant fragments in prosaic prose, but the most famous of them declares, with evident regret over his own gentler days of degeneracy: “Their custom was to be dressed in public respectably, at home so much as was needful. They paid more for horses than for cooks. The poet’s art was in no honor. If a man was devoted to it, or applied himself to conviviality, he was called a vagabond!”

    Indeed, Cato’s activity in literature probably had for its chief end and aim to resist the incoming tide of Greek philosophy and of refinement generally; he is the very type of Horace’s “laudator temporis acti,” “the eulogist of a bygone time”: that crude heroic time when Dentatus, hero of three triumphs, ate boiled turnips in his chimney-corner, and had no use for Macedonian gold.

    Whether there was any important mass of ballads or other purely national Roman or Latin literature in that elder day has been much debated. The general voice of scholars is against Niebuhr and Macaulay. There is every indication that the practical, unimaginative Latin plowmen and spearsmen received the very alphabet of every art from vanquished Hellas. Much of this same debate has turned on a fragment from Cato. Cicero reports:—“In his ‘Origines’ Cato said that it had been a custom of the forefathers, for those who reclined at banquet to sing to the flute the praises and merits of illustrious heroes.” The combination of conviviality and song in this passage tempts us to connect it with the scornful words from Cato’s own ‘Carmen,’ already cited! Cato was half right, no doubt. The simple charm and vigor of rustic Latium were threatened; Greek vice and Oriental luxury were dangerous gifts: but his resistance was as hopeless as Canute’s protest to the encroaching waves. That this resistance was offered even to the great Greek literature itself, is unquestionable.

  • “I will speak of those Greeks in a suitable place, son Marcus, telling what I learned at Athens, and what benefit it is to look into their books,—not to master them. I shall prove them a most worthless and unteachable (!) race. Believe that this is uttered by a prophet: whenever that folk imparts its literature, it will corrupt everything.”
  • The harsh, narrow, intolerant nature of Cato is as remote as could well be from the scholarly or literary temper. Even his respectful biographer Plutarch bursts out with indignant protest against the thrifty advice to sell off slaves who had grown old in service. Indeed, most of Cato’s sayings remind us of some canny old Scot, or—it may be politer to say—of a hard-headed Yankee farmer, living out the precepts of Poor Richard’s philosophy.

    “Grip the subject: words will follow,” is his chief contribution to rhetoric. Another has, it must be confessed, more of Quintilian’s flavor: “An orator, son Marcus, is a good man skilled in speaking.” He is most at home however upon his farm, preaching such familiar economies as “Buy not what you need, but what you must have: what you do not need is dear at a penny.” The nearest approach to wit is but a sarcastic consciousness of human weakness, like the maxim “Praise large farms, but till a small one”; the form of which, by the way, is strikingly like the advice given long before by a kindred spirit, the Ascræan farmer Hesiod:—

  • “Praise thou a little vessel, and store thy freight in a large one!”
  • Even the kindness of Cato has a bitter flavor peculiarly Roman. When the great Greek historian Polybius and his fellow exiles were finally permitted to return to their native land, Cato turned the scale toward mercy in the Senate with the haughty words, “As though we had nothing to do, we sit here discussing whether some old Greeks shall be carried to their graves here or in Achaia!” There was a touch of real humor, and perhaps of real culture too, in his retort when Polybius asked in addition for the restoration of civic honors held in Greece seventeen years agone. “Polybius,” he said, with a smile, “wishes to venture again into the Cyclops’s cave, because he forgot his cap and belt.” A few touches like this permit us to like, as well as to admire, this grim and harsh pattern of old simplicity.

    Whether “Cato learned Greek at eighty” as a grudging concession to the spirit of the age, or to obtain weapons from the foe’s own armory wherewith to combat his influence, we need not argue. Indeed, it is nearly certain that any special study at that time could have been only a revival of “what he learned at Athens” many years earlier.

    It is however a supreme touch of irony in Cato’s fate, that he rendered, doubtless unconsciously, a greater service to Hellenistic culture in Rome than did even his illustrious younger contemporary Scipio Æmilianus, the patron of Terence and the generous friend of Polybius; for it was our Cato who brought in his train from Sardinia the gallant young soldier afterward known as the poet Ennius,—the creator of the Latin hexameter, of the artistic Roman epic, and in general the man who more than any other made Greek poetry, and even Greek philosophy, well known and respected among all educated Romans.

    Cato is chiefly known to us through Plutarch, whose sketch shows the tolerance of that beloved writer toward the savage enemy of Hellenism. The charming central figure of Cicero’s dialogue on ‘Old Age’ takes little save his name from the bitter, crabbed octogenarian, who was still adding to his vote on any and all subjects, “Moreover, Senators, Carthage must be wiped out.” All the world admires stubborn courage, especially in a hopeless cause. We, the most radical and democratic of peoples, especially admire the despairing stand of a belated conservative. The peculiar virtues of the stock were repeated no less strikingly in the great-grandson, Cato of Utica, and make their name a synonym forevermore of unbending stoicism. The phrase applied by a later Roman poet to Cato of Utica may perhaps be quoted no less fittingly as the epitaph of his ancestor:—

  • “The gods preferred the victor’s cause, but Cato the vanquished;”
  • for in spite of him, the Latin literature which has come down to us may be most truly characterized as “the bridge over which Hellenism reaches the modern world.”