How did Cato the Elder alter the course Roman history?

Cato the Elder (234 – 149 BC), was one of the most important figures in the history of the Roman Republic. He was a member of the Republican elite, and he made a huge contribution to the politics and culture of Rome. Cato was a much-admired figure in his day and right throughout Roman history because he was seen as the embodiment of traditional values.

Cato the Elder was critical in Roman history because he caused the downfall of the great general Scipio Africanus, his campaign to maintain traditional values, and his conservative social policies. He was also a great writer and one of the pioneers of Latin literature. Perhaps his most important contribution to history was his role in the final destruction of Carthage.

Early Life of Cato the Elder

Bust of Cato the Elder

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC), was born in a family that belonged to the minor nobility who were prominent in the town of Tusculum. He was referred to as Cato the Elder, to distinguish him from his grandson Cato the Younger, by the Romans. The Cato family were highly regarded for their military record and also for their commitment to farming. The young Marcus Porcius Cato after his father’s early death worked on his family farm and became inured to hardship.

All his life he was committed to hardening his body, but he was also extremely well-educated for the time. The young man was called away from his farm to serve in the Roman army during the Second Punic War. Cato was a brave and capable soldier, and he made an important contribution to the defeat of the Carthaginians at the crucial Battle of Metaurus (207 BC). He was an imposing figure, and his devotion to the ascetic ideals of the Romans won him the respect of many of his peers and made him popular. Livy describes him as ‘undoubtedly a man of a rough temper and a bitter and unbridled tongue, an absolute master of his passions, of inflexible integrity, and indifferent alike to wealth and popularity.’ [1]

The Political and military career of Cato

Ruins of Carthage

Lucius Valerius Flaccus, a powerful aristocrat, became the patron of Cato and encouraged him to move to Rome and to enter politics. Flaccus was a member of the conservative patrician faction, and he appeared to believe that the young man could be of use to him and his group. Cato became an official in the government of Rome and was to prove to be a very effective one [2]. He soon gained a reputation for honesty and zealousness in his persecution of corruption.[3] He then became a Praetor in Sardinia and he won acclaim for banishing Roman moneylenders from the island.

Cato established an efficient administration in Sardinia. He became consul in 195 BC when the Second Punic War was still raging. He introduced a series of reforms, which outlawed the cruel and degrading punishments. Cato vehemently opposed the loosening of Rome’s sumptuary laws [4]. The Oppian laws penalized extravagances and luxurious living and were designed to save the city’s stock of gold and silver. Cato was defeated, but he had made a name for himself in Conservative circles, especially because of his powers as an orator.

He later went on to serve in Hispania Citerior (Spain) where he put down rebellions and successfully integrated it into the Republic’s Empire. Upon his return to Rome, he was awarded a Triumph, and he began a very public feud with Scipio Africanus. In 194 BC he played an important role in the defeat of Antiochus the Great at Second Battle of Thermopylae[5]. Typical of the severity of Cato he brought charges against his superior at the battle for corruption. If this was not enough, he resumed his attacks against L Scipio Africanus and accused him of corruption and aspiring to subvert the constitution of Rome.

His oratory was so persuasive that he effectively ended the political career of Scipio Africanus and forced the conqueror of Hannibal, to retire from public life [6]. After this Cato the Elder was elected Censor, this ancient office allowed him to act in ways to protect the Roman Constitution and way of life. With his usual directness he removed many Senators he deemed unsuitable from the rolls of the Senate. He also continued to wage war against luxury in Rome, and he introduced rules limiting feasting and spending on luxuries.[7].

Many conservatives approved because they agreed that luxury was undermining the character of young Romans. It was during his time as censor, that Cato displayed a deep dislike of all things foreign. Indeed many of his policies were almost xenophobic. He had a particular dislike of Greeks; this was probably because of their growing influence in the city. During his time as censor, Cato who was an efficient man who improved the water supply of the city, reformed the taxation system and reorganized government contracting. The austere Roman is also credited with the building of the first Basilica, which became a standard feature of many Roman or Romanized cities. After his term of censor was complete, he continued to serve in the Senate. He became a very famous figure as much for his politics as his lifestyle. Cato despite his wealth still lived a frugal and austere lifestyle and continued to work on his farm. Indeed, so severe was his lifestyle that the great man lived like his slaves[8]. This made him the titular leader of the conservative or patrician party in Rome. In the later years of his life, he urged the Senate to renew Rome’s conflict with Carthage, despite an existing peace treaty. Cato the Elder firmly believed that Carthage was capable of going to war with Rome, even after it had been decisively defeated in the Second Punic War. He died before the war he sought with Carthage ended in a complete victory for the Republic[9]. For Cato life was one continual struggle and only if Rome was disciplined and austere could it thrive. [10]. This was in line with traditional Roman values and standards of morality. His grandson Cato the Younger became the leader of the Patricians and the avowed enemy of Julius Caesar.

A bust of Scipio Africanus

Cato the Elder and the Scipiones

Cato was a man of the strictest principles and he was virulently opposed to any corruption and luxury. After Scipio Africanus victories in the Second Punic War he became very powerful and was very extravagant and probably corrupt. Many in the conservative, Patrician grouping resented Scipio Africanus whom they believed was seeking more personal power. Indeed, the victor at the Battle of Zama, was a charismatic figure who even claimed to be divinely inspired. To many conservatives, Scipio was too popular with the common people and he was acting like a demagogue. The great general was undermined by Cato and his oratory. His accusations of corruption and extravagance greatly embarrassed Scipio Africanus and it seemed that some of the charges of Cato the Elder had some substance. This eventually forced Scipio to retire and some believe that he later committed suicide on his estate. The onslaught of Cato ended the political career of Scipio Africanus, who may or may not have sought to dominate Rome. Cato represented the traditionalist/Patrician faction while Scipio represented the new class of men who were rising in the Republic and who were often populists[11]. The feud between Cato and Scipio was the first example of an ideological struggle that was to tear Rome apart in later decades and lead to the fall of the Republic.

Attacks on Hellenism

Cato disliked the Greeks and believed that their culture was a threat to traditional Roman values. He believed that they promoted luxury, extravagance and disrespect for traditional beliefs and even the Gods. The ideas and practices of Hellenic culture was contrary to the mos majorum (“ancestral custom”) of the Republic[12]. Cato the Elder, with his typical severity banned Athenian philosophers from the city and persecuted those who practised the Greek Bacchanalian rites. His anti-Hellenic policies, in particular, were regressive and did not stop the growing popularity of Greek art, literature and even religion in Rome. In the centuries after his death Hellenic culture thrived in the city on the Tiber and of its citizens became steeped in Greek culture[13]. Not only this, but increasingly they also abandoned the severe and austere customs of their forefathers.

Cato and Latin Literature

Despite Cato’s failure to maintain the old customs and virtues of Rome he did much to preserve the Latin language and the development of a Latin literature. Rome did not have any literature as such, what little there was, was only imitation of Greek verse and dramas. This was unacceptable to Cato the Elder and he only wrote in Latin. He wrote many books such as a very influential one on agriculture and a manual of military tactics and strategies. Cato was one of the founders of Roman history and in a lost work he described the origins of Rome and many other Italian cities. In this work he sought to demonstrate that Latin culture was superior to Greek. Cato was a master of the Latin Language and his speeches and maxims were considered to be masterpieces and showed that the Italian language was suitable for the writing of serious literature. Tragically, nearly all his works are lost but the traditional Roman was critical in the development of Latin literature. His writing ensured that Greek literature did not predominate in Rome and a native literature emerged. Without Cato and his commitment to Latin there would have been no poets of the stature of Vergil or Ovid and writers such as Tacitus and Livy[14].

Cato and Carthage

As a young man, the future Consul fought many battles against the armies of Hannibal. He had personally witnessed how close Rome had come to defeat. When he visited Carthage on a diplomatic mission in 153/154 BC he was shocked by how quickly the city was regaining its strength and wealth. He came to believe that Carthage would once again pose a challenge to Rome and its Empire. Cato the Elder believed that Rome should attack before the great Punic city became too strong. In the Senate, he constantly demanded a war against the Punic city-state [15]. He would end every speech he made with the line “Carthage must be destroyed”. Soon he was able to persuade the Senate and the Consuls to become more aggressive with the old enemy. The Romans demanded more concessions from the Carthaginians, such as moving their city inland. This provoked a war and led to the destruction of Rome’s greatest enemy. Cato the Elder did not live to see the destruction of his hated enemy, he died in 149, before the annihilation of the Punic city. Without the campaign of Cato, it is possible that Carthage could have endured and even once again challenged Rome. The disappearance of Carthage was to have immense consequences for Rome, for example, it ultimately led it to become a North Africa power and the rich farmland of their old enemy became the granary of Rome. This was all in part due to the campaign of Cato and his implacable hatred of the Carthaginians [16]


Cato the Elder was one of the giants of the Roman Republic. His contributed to the transformation of the city on the Tiber, from a small Republic to an Empire. Cato was pivotal in the politics of the Republic for some fifty years. He possibly prevented Scipio Africanus from dominating the Republic and undermining its constitution. Cato’s social policies were aimed at preserving the traditional Roman way of life, but this was a failure as was his efforts to prevent Hellenic culture from undermining Roman values and traditions. However, Cato the Elder was important in the development of Latin Literature and as a result, helped to preserve the unique culture of Rome and ensured that it was not dominated by Greek values. Finally, Cato was very instrumental in the final defeat of Carthage, which ultimately led to the Republic coming to dominate the Mediterranean.

Recommended Reading

O'Gorman, E. (2004). Cato the Elder and the Destruction of Carthage. Helios, 31, 99-125.

Sansone, D. ed., 1989. The lives of Aristeides and Cato. Liverpool University Press.

Ruebel, J.S., 1977. Cato and Scipio Africanus. The Classical World, 71(3), pp.161-173.

Bringmann, K., 2007. A history of the Roman Republic. Polity.

Goldberg, S.M., 2005. Constructing literature in the Roman Republic. Cambridge University Press.


  1. Livy, The History of Rome, 39: 40
  2. Livy, 39, 43
  3. Forde, Nels W. Cato the Censor (New York, Twayne, 1975), p 35
  4. Forde, p 89
  5. Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder, 3
  6. Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder, 5
  7. Forde, p 119
  8. Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder, 7
  9. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (London, Allen Lane, 2010), p 345
  10. Plutarch, 8
  11. Forde, p 189
  12. Plutarch, 5
  13. Forde, p 198
  14. Forde, p 201
  15. Miles, p 378
  16. Cicero, On Old Age On Friendship On Divination (Cambridge, Loeb Classical Library No. 154, 1956), p 45

Admin and EricLambrecht