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THE YOUTH OF CATO
at windmills or at flocks of sheep, or taking innkeepers and milkmaids for castellans and princesses. On the contrary, he knew precisely whom he was fighting with, and what he was fighting for, and used every means that an honourable man might, the most practical and positive no less than those mere constitutional figments in which the Roman mind delighted to deal. Unlike a Don Quixote, he was a thoroughly successful minister of finance, and an excellent and practical soldier. It was only because he fought for an impossible ideal, and because he was foiled by meaner and pettier souls, that he can possibly be called by the mocking name which Mommsen has imposed on him.
M. Cato was the great-grandson of old Cato the censor, a fact which was destined to colour his whole life, for it was his dearest wish to copy in everything, down to tricks of language and dress, a man who had already been noted as somewhat quaint and old-fashioned eighty years before. Hence came his reputation for eccentricity. It was in imitating his ancestor that Cato learnt to despise all fine raiment to such an extent that he habitually dressed in sombre colours. He would sit in the tribunal without his shoes, refused to ride when going about on public missions with his friends, and would not wear a hat even when he was marching across Africa in mid
It was probably the example of the elder Cato, too, that induced the younger to show the one concession to the spirit of the times of which he was ever guiltyto study Greek philosophy, and keep at home as a sort of private chaplain a tame philosopher named Athenodorus, whom he had picked up at Ephesus.
It is fortunate that Plutarch has preserved for us a long and detailed life of Cato. It is from anecdotes there related that we are able to make out how a man who was somewhat eccentric in his habits, and some
what idealistic in his political views, was able to exercise SO considerable a sway over the politics of his own day-the sway always exerted by the man who knows his own mind, is perfectly consistent, and is ready at any personal risk, however great, to act in accordance with his conscience. In a time when every one else was peculiarly slack and acquiescent, and given to the grossest opportunism, the man who refused to yield to the stress of affairs or the spirit of the times, and rigidly did his duty, got an influence far beyond that to which his merely intellectual powers entitled him.
Cato was born in B.C. 95. The earliest notices that we have of him show him displaying the same inflexible courage and the same adherence to old views, wrong as well as right, which distinguished him down to his death. His father died when he was very young, and he was brought up by his maternal uncle, the celebrated popular leader Drusus. The house of Drusus was haunted, during his agitation, by the prominent Italians for whom he was working, the men who afterwards led the revolt when he had been murdered. Q. Pompaedius Silo was staying with Drusus when he fell in with the boy Cato, aged five, and his younger half-brother, Servilius Caepio. my good children, you will help your uncle Drusus, will you not, to assist us poor Italians in getting our freedom,' said the Marsian. Servilius lisped a polite assent; but Cato had already picked up political views, and did not love Italians. He said not a word, and appeared from his silence and his surly looks inclined to deny the request. Pompaedius, half irritated, half in jest, took him to the window and held him out of it by the scruff of his neck, threatening, if he would not promise, to let him drop. This he did in a harsh tone, and at the same time gave him soveral shakes, as if he were about to
But as the child bore this for some time without
CATO AND SULLA
any marks of concern or fear, Pompaedius set him down, observing, “I verily believe that if this boy were a man, we should not get even one vote among the Roman people.”
Nine years later, when Cato was fourteen, he was taken by his Optimate relatives to visit Sulla at the time of the proscriptions. While he was waiting with his pedagogue, Sarpedon, in the hall, he saw several delators bring the heads of democratic leaders to the dictator's house, and receive money for them. At this he was very wroth, and asked his tutor “why somebody does not kill this man.”
Because,” said Sarpedon, “men fear him more than they hate him!” “Then give me a sword,” said Cato,
and I will go in and make away with him, for evidently he is enslaving his country!” So obviously in earnest was he, that he had to be hurried out of the house to prevent his doing something violent, and to be narrowly watched for some time.
Cato first appeared in public life some four or five years after this incident, attending the courts like other young Romans of his age; there he acquired a very good knowledge of law, and taught himself a kind of oratory which, as we are told, differed much from the florid style of Hortensius and the careful elaborateness of Cicero, for “there was neither heat nor artificiality in it—all was rough, strong, and sensible.” Yet he had a turn for natural humour and a clear exposition which served him as well as the studied eloquence of others.
Besides attending in the law-courts, the young Roman had to serve his stipendia in the field. his first service in the cohors praetoria of the proconsul Gellius, in the unhappy Servile War with Spartacus. He was noted as one of the few officers in the contemptible army of B.C. 72 who did his work punctually and intelligently. He was offered crowns and promotions by
Gellius, but refused them, saying that he had only done his duty and nothing that deserved honour.
When the Servile War ended, he went to Macedonia and served under the proconsul Rubrius in B.C. 68, with the office of military tribune, which gave him a turn in the command of a legion. His troops soon obtained a good name in the province, because, instead of caring for his own comfort like other officers, he insisted on living with the men and taking no better rations than they. On the march, though his freedmen rode on horses, he insisted on going on foot with his soldiers, and on carefully putting himself in the way of every fatigue that came to them. Yet he would not allow undue familiarity, was unhesitating in the application of punishments, and sternly repressed plundering; so that, as Plutarch says, “it was doubted whether his legion was more peaceable or more warlike—more valiant or more well-behaved.” Having now passed twenty-four, the
age at which it was possible to stand for the quaestorship, he came back to Rome, but refused to solicit the magistracy till he had spent many months in getting up all the duties and functions of a quaestor, so that he stood a year late for the office.
His year was notable in the history of the quaestorship for the thorough reformation which he made. He found the treasury almost entirely in the hands of the permanent under-secretaries, who had the routine of the business in their hands, and did practically what they liked with the young and inexperienced quaestors, who generally entered the office entirely ignorant of their functions, and were only just beginning to learn them when they found their twelve months at an end. But Cato started with his duties and powers at his finger-ends, and soon detected the permanent clerks committing all sorts of irregularities and illegalities, to their own private profit.
CATO REFORMS THE TREASURY
He turned out one chief clerk for embezzlement and another for forgery, though it set a hornets' nest of friends and patrons of the offenders about his ears. Having humbled the secretaries, he took the whole management of the Aerarium into his own hands, his lazy and indifferent colleagues gladly allowing him to bear all the burden. In a short time, it is said, he made the treasury much more respectable than the Senate, and his quaestorship more memorable than most consulates. For he recovered an immense amount of outstanding debts owed by men of mark, whom his predecessor had not dared to press, and at the same time paid off a number of bills owed by the state to poor men, which the unhappy creditors had long despaired of recovering. One extraordinary instance of his courage has been preserved. Finding a list of Sulla's delators and of the sums they had been paid for the murders they had committed, he compelled all the survivors to pay back the blood-money, because (as he said) it had been an illegal disbursement, never justified by any decree of the people.
When his year of office was running out, Cato had a complete chart and analysis of the public revenues for the last ten years made out, at the personal expense to himself of five talents. He kept it, and it proved invaluable to future quaestors, who always came to consult him when in difficulties, and to get his lights on the meaning of difficult points in the annual balance-sheet of the Republic. At thirty-one, then, Cato had a fair military record, and was acknowledged to be the best financial expert in the Senate, a reputation which he preserved till his death.
He would seem to have intended to spend some time in getting up the duties of the higher offices of state, but was suddenly called into activity by the Catilinarian conspiracy. He is generally remembered for the support that he gave to Cicero through all the troubles of B.C. 63.