BMCR 2021.02.05

Cato the Younger: life and death at the end of the Roman republic

, Cato the Younger: life and death at the end of the Roman republic. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 350. ISBN 9780190869021 $35.00.


Fred Drogula has produced a welcome addition to scholarship on the late Roman republic: the first full scholarly biography of Cato the Younger in English.[1] As Drogula’s book shows, Cato warrants a biography alongside those of more famous contemporaries thanks to his influence on events of the last two decades of the republic, despite never reaching the consulship or celebrating a triumph. Not all readers will agree with Drogula’s assessment of Cato’s role in precipitating the end of the republic or his rejection of Cato’s Stoicism, but Drogula’s thorough survey offers much of value for anyone interested in Cato or late republican politics.

The book adopts a chronological format, beginning with Cato’s family background (especially Cato the Elder), early life, and character, then following Cato’s political career. All the key episodes are discussed: Cato’s efforts as quaestor to reform the administration of the treasury; his rise to prominence when, as tribune-elect, he persuaded the senate to execute the Catilinarian conspirators (and, Drogula argues, attempted to have Caesar executed along with them); his opposition to Pompey and Caesar; his mission to liquidate the property of the king of Cyprus, which was both a means for Clodius to remove Cato from Rome and an opportunity for Cato to advance his political career (as well as, Drogula suggests, to practice some modest embezzlement); his anti-corruption activities as praetor in 54 BCE (though see below); his support for Pompey’s sole consulship in 52 and unsuccessful campaign for the consulship of 51; his role in the civil war and suicide at Utica.

Along the way, Drogula seeks to explain Cato’s eccentric habits (such as not wearing shoes and tunic) and his precocious emergence as a leader of the optimates, both of which he attributes to Cato’s self-fashioning as Rome’s foremost representative of the mos maiorum (‘the customs of the ancestors’), and not to any Stoic influence (see further below). Drogula also argues that Cato’s animosity towards Caesar was more likely due to a personal feud than anticipation that Caesar would aim at tyranny, although, in the absence of clear evidence for such a feud, Drogula is obliged to hypothesize that Cato may simply have hated Caesar for his intelligence, talent, wit, and popularity with women (p. 79).

Another theme is how Cato’s inflexibility and obstructionism helped to destroy the republic he claimed to defend. In this respect, Drogula’s Cato is a traditional one, but less principled.[2] It was regrettable, Drogula argues, that the optimatesconverged around Cato, since his obstructionism led to the alliance between Pompey and Caesar; later, it was Cato’s efforts to drive a wedge between the two that set Rome on the path to civil war, even though Cato himself never wanted that outcome. Drogula’s Cato emerges ultimately as recklessly provocative and rather dim-witted (cf. pp. 24–5), albeit less bloodthirsty than his hard-line allies. Caesar, by contrast, receives a favourable appraisal as a might-have-been optimate who marched on Rome to defend the ‘strong traditional values’ of personal honour and dignitas (p. 269).

The question of responsibility for the civil war will likely be debated as long as Roman history is studied. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Drogula’s book, however, is his rejection of the traditional picture of ‘Cato the Stoic’, the topic of the epilogue. It was only after Cato’s death, Drogula argues, that his devotion to mos maiorum was reinterpreted as Stoic virtue, beginning with Cicero’s Cato. Drogula concludes that Cato would have resented this transformation: ‘he was not a sage of Greek philosophy, but a stern champion of ancient Roman custom’ (p. 314).

Drogula is right (and certainly not the first) to note how the ‘Stoic martyr’ tradition has distorted or distracted from the historical Cato. However, recovering ‘the real Cato’ (p. 296) should not mean dispensing with ‘Cato the Stoic’ altogether. One difficulty with Drogula’s argument is that it takes inadequate account of the ample and explicit testimony to Cato’s Stoicism, not only in posthumous sources, but also in the contemporary evidence from Cicero, written during Cato’s lifetime. In Paradoxa Stoicorum, for example, Cicero pronounces Cato a ‘perfect Stoic’ (perfectus… Stoicus, pr.2), who incorporated Stoic ideas into his speeches but was nonetheless an effective orator. Drogula counters that ‘[Cicero’s] main point is that Cato does not speak like a Stoic—his behavior does not reflect his philosophical study’ (p. 297). Yet, to say that Cato did not speak like a Stoic makes little sense unless Cato was a Stoic (and could be expected to speak like one).[3] Moreover, Cicero has just stated that Cato used philosophical arguments when giving opinions in the senate; what was ‘un-Stoic’ about his oratory was that (unlike most Stoics) he succeeded in making these arguments acceptable even to the people.[4] In other words, Cato’s behaviour as a politician did reflect his Stoicism, as Cicero elsewhere says explicitly: not only in Pro Murena (where his lampoon of Cato’s Stoicism forms part of his defence strategy)[5] but also in a letter to Cato himself, where Cicero claims that he and Cato have brought philosophy ‘into the forum and into public life’.[6]

A further difficulty is that Drogula’s case against Cato’s Stoicism proceeds from a misleadingly narrow concept of what it was to be ‘a Stoic’. Being ‘a Stoic’ did not necessarily mean being ‘a philosopher’, however one defines that term. Being a Stoic also does not equate to being a sage. Seneca depicted Cato as that vanishingly rare creature, the true sapiens,[7]but it is unlikely that Cato would have characterised himself as such. Stoic philosophy was concerned above all with prokoptontes—‘progressors’ in virtue in the real world—rather than the perfect wisdom of the sage. Thus, Cato’s grief at his brother’s death or the fate of his city was not a ‘rejection’ of Stoic apatheia (pp. 37, 285) but merely evidence that Cato was not (yet) a sage. And it was quite possible to engage with Stoic ideas in significant ways without being a sage (or indeed a Stoic at all, as in the case of Cicero).[8] In fact, Drogula acknowledges that Cato had some interest in Stoic philosophy, that he made use of it in his prosecution of Murena, and even that ‘the ideas of the Stoics probably influenced Cato’s thinking’ (p. 54), yet he limits his discussion to aspects of Cato’s persona that were not Stoic, without exploring those that might have been, or the larger question of what it meant to be Stoic in late republican Rome.[9] As such, the book seems a missed opportunity to evaluate how Stoicism and Roman tradition combined in Cato the politician.

Instead, Drogula’s insistence on mos maiorum seems to substitute one legend for another—and an often ill-fitting one. Drogula is repeatedly obliged to explain Cato’s actions and behaviours as evidence of the flexibility of custom or of Cato’s interpretation (see, e.g., pp. 174–5 on Cato’s decision to divorce Marcia). Drogula also observes that Cato’s obstructionist tactics were in conflict with the mos maiorum but resembled those of popular tribunes, as did his grain law. Meanwhile, Cato’s principles fade in and out: in places Cato appears motivated by opposition to corruption or considerations of good faith, but elsewhere acts simply to defend the traditional ability of the nobility to control elections. No single framework, it seems, can explain Cato. Drogula sets out much of the evidence, but does not always fully explore its implications.

Drogula writes lucidly and strikes a sensible balance between the needs of more and less experienced readers, supplying background information where needed (and a helpful glossary). The introduction and epilogue discuss the ancient sources on Cato; it would have been useful if Drogula had also situated the book within the landscape of modern scholarship (instead, p. 6 n. 2 simply lists some scholars who have been ‘challenged’ by the biases of the ancient sources). Editing and production is of a high standard, with two stemmata, a selection of maps and illustrations, and a general index. A few minor corrections are noted below, but neither these nor Drogula’s problematic rejection of Cato’s Stoicism should deter readers from this very readable biography and the important questions it poses about the end of the Roman republic.


•p. 184: Afranius did not move that there should be no accusations against the praetors-elect. Since the elections for 55 were held after the start of the year, the magistrates elected would normally enter office immediately and become immune from prosecution. The (unsuccessful) proposal that they should remain private citizens for 60 days (Cic. QFr. 2.8.3) was intended to facilitate prosecution.
• pp. 197–205: Drogula discusses the events of 54 out of sequence, which obscures the connections between the scandalous pact between the consuls and the consular candidates, Cato’s attempt to introduce a ‘silent process’ against the candidates, and the continued delay in holding elections. Moreover, Cato’s umpiring of the tribunician elections and the exposure of the pact occurred before the silent process was proposed, not afterwards.[10] In addition, the discussion of bribery on p. 202 seems to overlook the existence of the lex Tullia de ambitu and Drogula’s suggestion that Cato avoided the senate meeting on 1 October contradicts his earlier statement that Cato was seriously unwell in September–October.
• pp. 208–9: The senatus consultum de provinciis of 53 was not designed to prevent consuls from influencing their own provincial assignments; the lex Sempronia already had that effect. There is no indication that a bill was put to the assembly in 53.
• pp. 251–2: The technical qualifications for a triumph did not apply to a supplication, and Bibulus’ claim to the latter was probably stronger than Cicero allows.[11]
• Some less important points: On p. 14, Drogula seems to conflate the lex Oppia and the lex Voconia. On p. 21, Salonia, the second wife of Cato the Elder, is described both as ‘the daughter of one of his scribes’ and ‘said to have been the daughter of one of his clerks’. At p. 106, Hortensius might have been surprised to learn that he had ‘more or less retired’ from politics in 61–60. The discussion of Cato’s proposal to hand Caesar over to the German tribes in 55 BCE (pp. 199–200) sits strangely in the middle of the narrative of 54.


[1] Previous studies include a full biography in German by R. Fehrle ([1983] Cato Uticensis, Darmstadt) and a popular biography by R. Goodman and J. Soni ([2012] Rome’s Last Citizen, New York).

[2] Compare, e.g., Cicero’s quip that Cato spoke as if he lived in Plato’s Republic (Att. 2.1.8), or T. Mommsen’s portrait of ‘Der Don Quixote der Aristokratie’ ([1922] Römische Geschichte, 13th edn, Berlin, 3.166–7).

[3] Cic. Brut. 118 makes the same point and is dismissed by Drogula in the same way (p. 297).

[4] Cic. Par. Sto. pr.1–2. See further R. Stem (2005) ‘The first eloquent Stoic: Cicero on Cato the Younger’, CJ 101,37–49.

[5] Cicero (Mur. 62) states that Cato embraced Stoicism ‘not for the sake of discussion, like most people, but truly as a way of living’ (neque disputandi causa, ut magna pars, sed ita vivendi). Moreover, Cicero’s strategy presupposes that Cato was associated with Stoicism and used Stoic ideas in his prosecution speech (as Drogula acknowledges, p. 63).

[6] Cic. Fam. 15.4.16 (in forum atque in rem publicam). Furthermore, Cato was not the only Stoic among Roman politicians; P. Rutilius Rufus, in particular, might have been a worthwhile comparison.

[7] Sen. Const. 2.1; see, e.g., Long & Sedley 61N and Cic. de Or. 3.65 on the rarity of the true sage.

[8] It is curious that Drogula (p. 226) refers to ‘Stoics such as Cicero’ (in fact a follower of the Academy) yet denies that label to Cato.

[9] On the question of the relevance of philosophy in Roman politics, see (e.g.) M. T. Griffin and J. Barnes (eds) (1989) Philosophia Togata, Oxford.

[10] See G. V. Sumner (1982) ‘The coitio of 54 BC’, HSCP 86, 133–9.

[11] See K. Morrell (2017) Pompey, Cato, and the Governance of the Roman Empire, Oxford, 197–200.