Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 5b Cato the Elder

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire … (1817), oil on canvas, 170.2 x 238.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Turner Bequest 1856), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Cato the Elder must have stood out from the crowd, if Plutarch’s description of his reddish hair and keen grey eyes is anything to go by. As one of the early Roman historians, writing a critical biography of him must have been quite a daunting task.

Cato, the great-grandfather of the Cato the Younger who was to oppose Julius Caesar, had the full name of Marcus Porcius Cato, and is often referred to as Cato the Censor or Cato the Wise. He is now believed to have lived from 234-149 BCE.

He made his initial reputation as a diligent advocate for the Romans of villages and towns surrounding the city of Rome, and lived out in the country himself. The farm next to his was owned by Valerius Flaccus, then a nobleman of the greatest influence, who was impressed with Cato’s dedication to justice and willingness to work his own land. Valerius persuaded the young man to move to the city and engage in public life; Cato was first made military tribune, then Quaestor, before serving as Consul alongside Valerius.

Pietro Perugino (1450–1523), Cato (1497-1500), fresco, dimensions not known, Collegio del Cambio, Perugia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Pietro Perugino’s fresco of Cato in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, Italy, from 1497-1500, is one of the few more modern images of the man, but curiously omits his red hair and grey eyes. Its Latin inscription reads:
Quisquis, vel celebri facturus verba corona surgis, vel populo reddere iura paras, privatos pone affectus: cui pectora versant aut amor aut odium, recta tenere nequit.
I haven’t located a good translation of this epithet, but it refers to him restoring rights to the Roman people regardless of his popularity or dislike.

Cato aligned himself with Fabius Maximus, which brought him into conflict with Scipio Africanus, another major general and statesman of the time. When Cato was Quaestor, he noticed how extravagantly Scipio spent money during the war in Africa. Cato told him that even more serious was the effect on his soldiers, who spent their money on ‘wanton pleasures’. Scipio merely responded that he had no use for a parsimonious quaestor, so Cato and Fabius Maximus denounced Scipio’s extravagant spending to the Senate, complaining that the general was acting not as the commander of an army, but as the master of a festival.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), The Continence of Scipio (1640), oil on canvas, 114.5 x 163.5 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts Музей изобразительных искусств им. А.С. Пушкина, Moscow, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

In later accounts, Scipio was branded a ceaseless philanderer. He is best known in art from a succession of paintings which might be seen as damning by their faint praise. Among these is Nicolas Poussin’s The Continence of Scipio from 1640, which shows Scipio in one of his moments of moral courage.

Scipio is shown as a Consul, with two Lictors holding the fasces of his office, at the left, during the Second Punic War. The beautiful woman to the right of his throne has been brought to him apparently to satisfy his well-known desires: she is the captured fiancée of a Celtiberian prince. Rather than succumbing, Scipio is reported to have returned her and the generous ransom offered by her family, demonstrating his moral continence – on that occasion.

Cato’s own lifestyle was quite the opposite of Scipio’s: he lived frugally, wearing inexpensive clothing, and eating and drinking modestly. However Plutarch is critical of his meanness with slaves, who he worked hard until they were old and incapable, then drove them off to be sold. Cato claimed that his enemies hated him because he rose before dawn each day and, neglecting his own private concerns, devoted his time to the public interest.

After he and Valerius Flaccus had been elected Consuls, Cato was given responsibility for the Roman provinces in Spain. When his forces there were attacked by barbarians, Cato sought and paid for the allegiance of the Celtiberians, a neighbouring tribe (Celtish people who had settled in the Iberian peninsula). Others were critical of this action, but Plutarch claims that it transformed his military campaign in Spain into a great success.

Scipio was appointed Cato’s successor in Spain, and hurried to displace his predecessor from the province. But Cato left with a small army as an escort, and crushed the Lacetanian tribe on his way back to Rome. Scipio was enraged by this, but had his wings clipped when the Senate ruled that he should not make any change to the order that Cato had brought to Spain. Scipio’s period there was thus singularly inactive, and Cato celebrated a triumph.

Later Cato fought against Antiochus the Great, ruler of the Seleucid (Syrian) Empire, in Greece, winning back a great deal of territory there for the Romans. He fought a second battle for the pass at Thermopylae in 191 BCE: recalling the tactics which had been used successfully there by the Persians against the Greeks, Cato set out on a dark and moonless night with his army, using a prisoner of war as his guide. Their guide became lost, and the army lost morale as a result.

Together with an expert mountain climber, Cato thought that he had found a way forward to surprise his enemy, but it led them to the top of a steep ravine. His army again grew despondent and fearful. Cato resolved this by leading his most valiant soldiers in an attack at first light on the small enemy force which had been left to guard the pass.

At the same time, the Consul Manius, leading the main body of the Roman force, drove his troops against enemy positions in the pass, and stormed their defences. King Antiochus had all his teeth knocked out by a flying rock, and was forced into retreat. Cato was surprisingly boastful of this military success.

In his civil duties, Cato proved to be dedicated to the impeachment and conviction of those who had taken advantage of their high positions.

A decade after he had served as one of the two Consuls of Rome, Cato stood for appointment as one of the nation’s two Censors, whose supreme authority allowed them to discipline knights and senators, to revise assessments of property, and more. He was opposed by all the best-known and most influential in the Senate, who put forward seven candidates in opposition to him. Despite the promises of favours by his opponents, and Cato’s unflinching stance over his earnest views, he was duly elected Censor.

When in office, Cato appointed Lucius Valerius Flaccus the chief senator, and expelled many senators for abuse of their office. He also put a stop to extravagance among those in public office, often by over-valuing their property so as to exact swingeing taxes from them. When others criticised him for this, he ignored their complaints and grew ever more strict.

Cato even pursued a campaign against those who were abstracting water from Rome’s aqueducts illegally, having their supplies cut off. Yet his popular appeal remained undiminished. He was devoted to his wife and family, and Plutarch claims that his History of Rome was written in large characters so that his son could read it from an early age.

Plutarch relates many anecdotes about Cato, detailing his apparent dislike of Greek philosophers, and of the many Greek physicians in Rome. Of the latter, Cato claimed that their Hippocratic oath ensured that they would never put their skills at the service of the enemies of the Greeks, which included the Romans.

Cato had lived through the wars with Carthage. Although he was only young when Hannibal had crossed the Alps with his elephants during the First Punic War (218-204 BCE), and his enemy Scipio had led much of the Second Punic War, Cato was largely responsible for the third and final Punic War which resulted in the destruction of the city. He discovered that during the period of peace which had followed the end of the Second Punic War, the military power of Carthage had grown again, and expressed to the Senate his opinion that Carthage should be destroyed. He died shortly after its start, though.

Though Cato’s military actions were of great significance at the time, it is the exploits of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and the eventual destruction of the empire and city of Carthage which are the most painted motifs of this period in Roman history.

Jacopo Ripanda (fl 1500-1516), Hannibal Crossing the Alps (detail) (c 1510), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo del Campidoglio (Capitoline Museum), Rome, Italy. Image © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jacopo Ripanda devoted an entire room of frescoes in the Palazzo del Campidoglio in Rome to the Carthaginian. Among them is this detail of Hannibal Crossing the Alps from about 1510.

Nicolas Poussin (attr) (1594–1665), Hannibal Crossing the Alps on Elephants (c 1625-26), oil on canvas, 100 x 133 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This canvas of Hannibal Crossing the Alps on Elephants has been attributed to Poussin, and dated to 1625-26, but is no longer considered to be by Poussin’s hand.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), oil on canvas, 146 x 237.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Turner Bequest 1856), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

It inspired JMW Turner to paint one of his most radical early works, showing Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), which must have been influenced by the artist’s own firsthand experience of crossing Alpine passes. He is also one of the few to have downplayed the famous elephants, which dominated earlier depictions.

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire ... exhibited 1817 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire … (1817), oil on canvas, 170.2 x 238.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Turner Bequest 1856), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Only five years later, though, Turner looked back to Claude Lorrain for this view of the sun setting on The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire … (1817), which is perhaps the most fitting image with which to end Cato’s career.

Comparison between Aristides and Cato the Elder

Plutarch starts his short comparison by pointing out differences in the times in which they lived. When Aristides became involved in the politics of Athens, it was not yet great, and its leaders and generals were of moderate fortunes. However, Cato came from a small country town to the powerful city of Rome, which had grown arrogant in its success. He therefore had to compete against great generals and statesmen such as Scipio and others.

In war, though, Aristides was only one of many generals who were responsible for the Greeks’ successes. Cato’s victories in Spain and at Thermopylae were far more personal. In politics, Aristides was ostracised and spent long periods in the minority; Cato’s opposition was much stronger, yet he never lost power or fell from favour.

Both men were distinguished by their hatred of extravagance, but Aristides remained poor and left his family destitute. While Cato never indulged in excess, his wealth did increase, and on his death his descendants were left in comfortable circumstances, able to continue providing Rome with able candidates for high public office. Plutarch’s discussion of the virtues and pitfalls of poverty makes salutory reading.

When he considers their personal lives, though, Plutarch finds that Aristides remained faultless throughout his life. In contrast, he considers that Cato’s constant praise of virtuous living wasn’t always borne out by his own lifestyle choices.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.