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Cato the Elder – Portrait of a Roman Conservative

Marcus Porcius Cato (pronounced KAY-toe) was a respected war veteran military leader, a Roman senator, a Consul and then a Censor – a position responsible not only for assessing property for taxation and taking the census but also for public morality. While censor he tried to restore what was thought to be the rectitude of the past. Cato believed in honesty and courage. He was frugal, believed in temperance and that luxury corrupted. He lived unostentatiously and ate coarse food, and although he had slaves he did some of his own manual labor. He opposed what he saw as a new decadence among the elite. He passed a law limiting the size of private feasting, and he created a tax on high-priced slaves in order to discourage the purchase of attractive young male slaves for use as pages or concubines. Most of Cato's colleagues saw him as representing the old virtues, the virtues that Cato believed had made Rome superior.

Cato believed that rule was doomed which ignored the collective wisdom of the past. He believed that Rome's republican government was best, that weakness lay in rule by a king or tyrant, that it was better to draw from the wisdom of the many, and he believed that Rome benefited from a balance of power between common people and the aristocracy.


Cato, conservative Roman politician. Charming for some.

Cato disliked the softer manners of the Greeks. He was fluent in Greek but opposed to Greek literature, poetry and art, and he opposed Greek medicine, claiming that it was poisoning Romans. Cato joined other Roman conservatives in fighting against the spread of Greek sophistication. He was influential in deporting from Rome two Epicureans whom he thought had been sneering at religion, and he played a role in deporting a host of other philosophers and rhetoricians from east of the Adriatic. To keep his children untouched by Greek intellectuality, he home schooled his children: Latin grammar, boxing and the history of the great deeds of his forefathers. He wanted to keep Roman youth puritanical. He thought Socrates had been a babbler justly put to death for questioning religious faith and the laws of his city. Rather than all the questions put forth by Eastern doubters and philosophers, Cato preferred what he saw as the solid answers provided by Roman tradition.

Cato's solid answers included his belief that by having his wife nurse the infants born to his slaves these infants would grow up loving his own children. Cato wanted to be liked by his slaves, but he believed that his slaves should be either working or sleeping, and when his slaves grew too old to work he sold them, which saved him the cost of feeding them. Never missing a chance to make a little money, he obliged his male slaves to pay him for sleeping with his female slaves. And after he aged and his wife died he had one of his slave women visit him nightly, Cato apparently believing that her compliance was right in the eyes of Rome's gods.


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