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Cato the Younger

The history of the Roman Republic has no shortage of dramatic figures and events, and yet the story of Cato the Younger (Cato Minor) stands out. A pamphlet from Cicero praising Cato prompted Caesar to write a rebuttal, "Anticatones".

Cato's Death in Utica by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1863, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Brutus wrote praise for Cato, and Octavian wrote against him. Clearly he attracted attention in the politics of the day. While the reality of Cato the man was likely complex, the lasting legend is something like the 19th century painting that opens this note: Cato, a symbol of virtue, unyielding, an honest man in a corrupt time, defender of liberty, defender of the ideals of the Roman Republic.

In the 14th century: Dante, writing his Divine Comedy, encounters Cato in the first Canto of Purgatory.

"May it please you to welcome his arrival, since he's in search of liberty, which is so dear, as he well knows who gives his life for it. You know this well, since death in Utica did not seem bitter, there where you left the garment that will shine on that great day." [Note: "garment" a references Cato's earthly garment or body]
Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, II.1.70-75  

In "Cato", a play by Joseph Addison from 1712, a character in Act Two states: "It is not now a time to talk of aught / But chains or conquest, liberty or death." The play was performed for George Washington's troops, and certainly sounds familiar in Patrick Henry's words: "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Cato's name is invoked as a brand in politics today, as lines are debated between liberty and public health. On this debate, I choose to see Cato as defender of the public good and not advocate for liberty at all costs. It does become easy to see why the characters of the Roman republic and the small metal artifacts from this time would see a surge of interest. Spartacus and the slave rebellion is another of many Roman republican stories invoked recently in modern politics. (See: The True Face of Freedom Wears a Mask).

Here is a coin minted by Cato in 47/46 BCE in North Africa. He died April 12, 46 BCE:

Roman Republican, M. Porcius Cato, denarius, 47-46 BCE, North Africa

Obv: Female bust draped right, M. CATO. PRO. PR. before

Rev: Victory seated right, holding patera, VICTRIX, in exergue

The reverse commemorates the shrine to Victoria Virgo near the temple of Victory that was dedicated by Marcus Porcius Cato. (See Livy 35.9.6)

Cato's idea of "victory" over Caesar was unyielding. Plutarch gives a full story: when offered intervention by a relative of Julius Caesar to broker a peace...

"Cato would not suffer him to do this."For if," said he, "I were willing to be saved by grace of Caesar, I ought to go to him in person and see him alone; but I am unwilling to be under obligations to the tyrant for his illegal acts. And he acts illegally in saving, as if their master, those over whom he has no right at all to be the lord....""
-Plutarch Lives, Life of Cato the Younger, 66.1

The subsequent scenes from Plutarch are vivid, gory, and much messier than the painting that starts this note.

Cato drew his sword from its sheath and stabbed himself below the breast. His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus​ that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound.​ Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.
-Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, 70.5

After Cato's death, even his opponent, Caesar, took care to align himself in praise of the man.

"When, however, he [Caesar] heard of his death, he said thus much only, as we are told: "O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life." For, in reality, if Cato could have consented to have his life spared by Caesar, he would not be thought to have defiled his own fair fame, but rather to have adorned that of Caesar."
-Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, 72.2

His coins are very close to those of his namesake (of uncertain relation), the M Porcius Cato of this coin, minted in 89 BCE.

Roman Republican, M. Cato, AR denarius, 89 BCE

Obv: Diademed and draped female bust r., behind, ROMA and below neck truncation, M CATO

Rev: Victory seated right, holding patera in right hand and palm branch in left; below seat, ST and in exergue, VICTRIX

Ref: Crawford 343/1c (ST below seat)

The identity of this M. Cato is not clear. Crawford explains that it cannot be the father of Cato the Younger, and refers to Wiseman & Rowland:

"M. Cato, father of Uticensis (Cato the Younger), was dead by 91, when his son was in the care of Livius Drusus (Plutarch, Cato Min. 1.1); another man of the same name, descended from the Censor's first marriage, was an ex-praetor who died in Transalpine Gaul at about the same time (Gellius XIII 20.12); after the deaths of these two men, with no other M. Cato alive except Drusus' infant ward, it was unnecessary for the moneyer to add his affiliation. He could have been a son of the ex-praetor or perhaps a (younger) son of C. Cato M.f.M.n., cos. 114"
- Crawford, M., & Wiseman T. (1964). The Coinage of the Age of Sulla. The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society,4, 141-158.

A note on amphorae found stamped "M. Porcius": Rowland, R. (1969). M. Porcius the Wine Merchant. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 18(3), 374-5.

"A series of amphorae which have come to light at Enserune (near Narbo Martius), at Vieile Toulouse, and along the Garonne to Bordeaux provides important evidence for the wine-trade in Gallia Narbonensis in republican times. These amphorae are similar to one found at Pompeii; all are stamped with the name M. Porcius, which happens to be the name of a Pompeian notable of the period after Sulla."

See the reference article for the potential relationship between M. Porcius the wine merchant and M. Cato the Younger.


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Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
04 de ago. de 2021

Sulla, This is another interesting article 😉. Both coins are interesting, especially the first one posted, since it directly relates to the historical figure we're familiar with. The life of Cato is a paradox. While being a fierce enemy of Julius Caesar, & setting up a well fortified position in North Africa, he chose suicide instead of continuing his personal battle against Caesar. This seems odd for a man who was so idealistic & always fighting for justice....

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