Life and Political Career of Cato the Elder

Marcus Porcius Cato, known as Cato the Elder, was born in 234 BC in Tusculum, a municipal town of Latium, southeast of Rome. He hailed from a family of plebeian farmers, and his early years were spent working on his small family farm.

However, his talents and ambitions quickly drew him away from the farm and into the military and political life of Rome.

Military Career

Cato’s military career began when he served in the Second Punic War, where he fought under the Roman General Fabius Maximus and participated in notable battles, including the devastating Battle of Cannae in 216 BC against Carthaginian general Hannibal‘s forces. His courage and strategic acumen were noticed, and he quickly climbed the ranks.

Political Career

Following his military service, Cato embarked on a political career. He first held the office of Quaestor (the lowest ranking Roman magistrate) in Sicily, where he gained a reputation for his strict adherence to Roman law.

His career progressed, and he held the offices of Aedile (responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals) and Praetor (magistrate with judicial powers), leading to his election as Consul in 195 BC, the highest office in the Roman Republic.

In 184 BC, Cato was elected Censor, a highly respected but infrequently filled role responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the government’s finances. In this position, he was known for his conservative policies, his resistance to foreign (especially Greek) influences, and his commitment to maintaining traditional Roman values.

Carthage and the Third Punic War

Cato the Elder is particularly known for his fierce opposition to Carthage, Rome’s long-standing rival. After an official visit to Carthage in 157 BC, he became convinced that Carthage was growing too powerful and could again pose a threat to Rome. This led to his insistent calls for the destruction of Carthage.

Famously, he would end all his speeches, regardless of the topic, with the phrase “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” – “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.”

This constant advocacy influenced the initiation of the Third Punic War in 149 BC, although Cato did not live to see the war’s outcome, with the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.

READ MORE: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the Punic Wars

Literary Contributions

Despite his busy military and political career, Cato found time for significant literary contributions. He wrote “De Agri Cultura,” a practical handbook on farming, and “Origines,” a seven-volume history of Rome, both written in Latin. These works mark Cato as the first significant prose writer in Latin.

Cato the Elder died in 149 BC, but his legacy lived on, as he represented an ideal of Roman virtue and traditionalism. His life and career were characterized by a constant commitment to Roman values, a robust and uncompromising stand on moral and political issues, and a remarkable ability to influence Roman policies.

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