Roman historian and orator
Cato the Elder, who has often been called the father of Latin prose literature, is famous for his speeches and for his written history of Rome. He also gained prominence in politics, using his skills in public speaking to influence the policies of the Roman Republic*.
Marcus Porcius Cato was born into a landowning family of the equestrian order, the second rank of Roman society. As a young man, he won praise for his actions during the Second Punic War. A patrician* friend and neighbor, Lucius Valerius Flaccus, recognized his talents and helped him gain public notice. Cato entered politics, serving in several government positions. As a plebeian*, he viewed the Roman people as the source of the republic’s power and tended to oppose the interests of the nobility. He and Flaccus took office together as consuls—chief magistrates—in 195 B.C.,and as censors in 184 B.C.. The censors supervised public morality and public lands, and kept the official list of Rome’s citizens.
As censor, Cato became known for his harsh, abrasive personality and for speaking his mind to the point of rudeness. He opposed the popularity of Hellenistic* culture in Rome. For a time, he made speeches against Scipio Africanus, a Roman leader who had adopted Greek ways. He encouraged Romans to return to the traditional values of the previous century, such as discipline and modesty. He imposed high taxes on luxuries and had senators discharged for misconduct. Cato also remained active in military activities as a leader and as a politician. As consul he led a military campaign in Spain, where he followed his own strict code of discipline and shared many of the hardships of his soldiers. In later life, he also served as Roman ambassador to the African city of Carthage, Rome’s archrival in the Mediterranean.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
* plebeian member of the general body of Roman citizens, as distinct from the upper class
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Despite his outspokenness against Greek culture in Rome, Cato’s historical writing continued a tradition begun by Greek authors. Greek had been the language of historians since the 400s B.C., when Herodotus and Thucydides developed a new approach to exploring and interpreting events. These writers presented background information on local customs and geography, included important speeches, and discussed long-term policy trends. Cato was the first historian to follow this approach in Latin.
Cato’s history, called Origins, began with the founding of Rome in the 700s B.C. and continued to 149 B.C., the last year of his life. Though only quotations from this work survive, it is known that there were seven books. The first three covered the beginnings of Rome and other towns in Italy; the remaining four focused on historical events, with particular attention to the issues of Cato’s own time. In writing about his era, Cato included several of his own speeches. Cato also wrote books on other topics, including volumes on law, morality, and military affairs. The only work that still exists in full is On Agriculture, a manual on the economics of farming that contains practical information on farm equipment and management.
In addition to his histories, Cato was well known for his speeches, both in the Senate and in the law courts. Cato’s speeches owed much to the style of classical Greek rhetoric*. A century later, the Roman statesman and orator Cicero wrote that more than 150 of Cato’s speeches were still studied for their style and eloquence. Deeply concerned about the threat to Rome from the powerful city of Carthage, Cato often ended his speeches with the phrase Carthago delenda est, meaning “Carthage must be destroyed.” (See also Punic Wars.)
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing