Cato The Elder

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Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.)

There were a number of notable Romans by the name of Cato. Marcus Porcius Cato is often called Maior ("the Elder") or Censorius ("the Censor") to distinguish him from famous men of the same name who came later.

Born to a peasant family in Tusculum, a city fifteen miles south-east of Rome, Cato began his career as a military tribune during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.).  He was at the battle of Metaurus in Umbria  in 207 B.C. in which Rome defeated a Carthaginian army commanded by Hasdrubal.  This defeat of the Carthaginian force sent to reinforce and re-supply Hannibal's army in Italy served as a turning point for Rome in the Second Punic War.

As Quaestor, the lowest of the regular administrative offices (magistratus) in the Roman government, Cato served in Sicily. It was on his return to Rome (in 203-202 B.C.) that he met Ennius, the early poet often called the father of Latin literature, and persuaded him to come to Rome. By 195 Cato had attained the office consul, the highest position in the Roman government, and in the time that followed he was appointed proconsul for the new territory of Hispania Citerior (the east coast of Spain).  In his term as governor he continued the inland push to gain new territory and proceeded to set up the administration of Rome's influence in the new lands.

As Censor in 184 B.C. Cato continued his life long endeavor to reform Roman morals which he saw as succumbing to the influence of foreign cultures, Hellenism in particular. The office of Censor was first instituted in about 443 B.C. to compose and maintain the list of citizens of Rome (the census).  The duties of Censor expanded over the centuries to include responsibility for public morals and the leasing of public buildings and areas.

Cato had a strong natural talent for writing.  He produces a prolific amount on a wide variety of topics.  He published his speeches of which about 80 have survived (Cicero wrote that he knew more that 150 speeches by Cato the Elder).  He wrote an encyclopedia covering a wide variety of topics including agriculture, rhetoric, and medicine.  Other works covered topics such as jurisprudence, medicine, and military service. His book on agriculture, De Agri Cultura, is the earliest surviving example of Latin prose, since Latin writers up to that time had written in verse. Most of his works, including an ambitious history of Rome, survive only in fragments and quotations preserved by later authors. Just as in his political career, his writing style reflected a rejection of Hellenism.  Cato used plain rhetorical devices, sentence structure and vocabulary  to produce a style that has endured for millennia.


"The style is the man, and if his talent moved narrowly in the expanding field of imperial politics, it touched greatness in his literary stimulus to the Roman tradition.

Alexander Hugh McDonald, entry for Cato in the Oxford Classical Dictionary  

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp.214-215.

Writings Res Rustica sic est; si unam rem sero feceris omnia opera sero facies. 

"It is this way with farming; if you delay in one task, you will delay in all your tasks."

Updated on October 27, 2000 

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