Cato: Present at the Revolution

January 24th, 2013

In the latest issue of City Journal, Barry Strauss reviews a new book on Cato the Younger, the Roman stoic who provided inspiration to many American founders. Though George Washington regularly went to the theater to see other plays—and regularly quoted from them, especially those by Shakespeare—Joseph Addison’s 1713 Cato, a Tragedy is the play with which Washington is most closely associated. Indeed, in 1778, Washington had the play performed for his men at Valley Forge. 

But as Strauss points out, the Cato of history is rather different than the Cato presented by Addison. By the time of Valley Forge, Strauss notes, “centuries of mythmaking had transformed Cato from a suicidal martyr into a hero of liberty.”

He continues:

Addison’s play argued for death in defense of liberty. A decade later, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters went even further and offered a general theory: Liberty was a natural right, embodied in limited government, protected by opposition to tyranny, and characterized by freedom of speech and religion and private-property rights. Originally published in a London newspaper in the 1720s, Cato’s Letters—actually a series of essays that the authors wrote under a “Cato” pseudonym— eventually appeared in book form. The essays had enormous influence on the American Founders and on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Cato as a Whig and revolutionary is quite a stretch from the historical Cato. What about the reality? In Rome’s Last Citizen, political speechwriters and journalists Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni offer an excellent introduction. They have done their homework in the classical sources. Their wise and lively book offers two lessons: first, knowing modern politics can yield insight into study of the ancient world; and second, Rome still has lessons to teach us today. The authors’ Rome includes such phenomena as “favor-swapping,” “personality-driven reform,” “a late-night strategy session,” “campaign apparatus,” and “new rules of engagement.” Balancing out these less inspiring features, Rome also offers Cicero’s oratory, Caesar’s Commentaries, and Plutarch’s Lives, among other treasures. Goodman and Soni make particularly good use of Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, our main historical source, though one that requires caution—Plutarch wrote moralizing biography, not history.


Ancient Rome was a republic: a mixed government combining popular assemblies, powerful magistrates who operated as virtual kings for their year in office, and an aristocratic senate. The Roman republic indirectly inspired America’s constitutional separation of powers. By Cato’s day, though, Rome’s government was out of joint, bitterly divided between populists and oligarchs. Cato emerged as a leader of the second faction. He championed a tiny senate elite’s traditional role of guiding the destiny of the empire and its tens of millions of inhabitants. Yet Cato also defended freedom of speech, constitutional procedure, civic duty and service, honest administration, and the enlightened pursuit of the public interest.

More than anyone else, Cato saw clearly the threat that Julius Caesar posed to the old order. A brilliant and ambitious populist, Caesar wanted to dominate Rome. Unfortunately, Cato made things worse. He turned Caesar into a bigger enemy of the senate than he already was, unintentionally making Caesar stronger. Finally, he drove Caesar into civil war by refusing any compromise. Caesar prevailed, and Cato took his own life rather than admit defeat. His death capped a career of standing up for the republic as he saw it. If there was something blind and wrongheaded about him, there was also something magnificent.

As we noted yesterday, stories—both true and fictional—provide a great way to get students interested in the study of history. The story of Cato—both the historical and the theatrical version—does just this. Strauss, who is a history professor at Cornell University, concludes by detailing some of the questions that students can discuss from their study:

Soldiers can take courage from Cato’s example. Politicians should ponder it with care. His life offers a lesson in particular for conservatives about the need for tactical compromise to save what’s best of an old order. For how long should one stand on principle when tectonic shifts rumble below? If only Cato could have read Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel, The Leopard, with its cynical but effective lesson: “If we want things to stay as they are, everything has to change.” 

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