The first time we see boy Cato, in the account of his great biographer Plutarch, he is being hung by his feet from a high window.
He is four years old and already an orphan; it is the year 91. The man dangling and shaking him out over the ground, intermittently threatening to drop him, is a stranger. He is Pompaedius Silo, an Italian politician visiting from out of town, a friend of Cato’s uncle and guardian. He is in Rome to plead once more for citizenship for the towns of Italy, Rome’s “allies.”
Pompaedius was evidently the kind of single-minded reformer who couldn’t let the cause go even when playing with children. He’d asked the boys of the house, with a smile, “Come, beg your uncle to help us in our struggle.” Though they barely understood the request, all of them, even Cato’s half brother, had nodded yes. Cato had only stared.
There came another request for help, then a joke, then the guest’s dropped smile, then threats, and still the angry stare from this four-year-old boy either dumb or self-possessed beyond his years, until he was shaken and dangled out the window—without a scream, without a cry for help, yielding just that same unblinking stare.
After Pompaedius gave up and set the boy back on his feet, he was overheard to say, “How lucky for Italy that he is a boy; if he were a man, I don’t think we could get a single vote.”
* * *
It is the kind of perfect story that could only come from a culture that didn’t believe in childhood. The truth is that we know precious little about the boy Cato, or the boy Caesar, or the boy Cicero. Most of the details of their childhoods, or any Roman childhood, were considered too trivial to remember. And when their stories do come down to us—like the story of Cato and the window, told by Plutarch about a hundred years after the fact—they are the stories of little adults. We talk about “formative” years, but in childhood stories like this one, it is as if the Romans were born fully formed.
Whether or not there was an authentic incident of a houseguest, a political controversy, and a children’s game turned violent, this is, at the very least, a projection back into boyhood of all the indelible qualities of the grown Cato: stubbornness (or obstinacy); fearlessness (or foolhardiness); traditionalist politics (or reactionary politics). The story shows Cato grabbed by an overwhelming force, facing death, and evincing utter calm in the face of it. It shows him proving so unshakable that the force, while remaining every bit as overwhelming, recognizes that it has suffered some kind of moral defeat. Plutarch was a deliberate artist: He started Cato’s life with a typology of his death.
What else do we know of Cato’s beginnings? We know he was born in 95 to his mother Livia Drusa and father Marcus Cato, a senator of whom little record survives. The conventions of Roman childhood and parenting are well understood in outline, though we know little unique to Cato. If the first moments of his life were at all typical, the screaming newborn Cato was placed at the feet of his father. His father raised him from the ground, held him close, inspected him for signs of strength and health—a tender gesture, but one that held the power of life and death. His father’s nod made him a citizen and a son; rejected on the ground, he would have been marked a bastard and left to die. Several days’ wait, and he was given the name of his family’s men for at least six generations: Marcus. Then came a series of rituals. The house was swept to rid it of evil spirits. A lucky golden locket was placed around the newborn’s neck. His future was divined in the flight of birds and the entrails of sacrificed animals. All this signaled Cato’s entrance into his father’s household and family line.
Above all, of course, we know that Cato survived his earliest days—no small feat in a culture that tested the toughness of newborns by exposing them to the elements, bathing them in ice water, and kneading the weakness out of their soft muscles. That there was not much weakness in Cato can be inferred from the simple fact that he lived.
* * *
Whether or not an enraged houseguest nearly defenestrated the boy Cato, what is indisputably true is the grievance the guest came to Rome to press. Italy hadn’t always paid tribute to Rome: Its independence had been worn down over centuries of war. Even where Rome’s authority was acknowledged, it was hardly welcomed. When Hannibal had marched over the Alps in 218, intent on conquering Rome, half of Italy had sided with him; when he was driven out, Rome punished the traitor cities severely, destroying some outright.
And yet, as Rome built an overseas empire, Italian soldiers shared the burden, manning up to two-thirds of the Roman army; Italian sons died alongside Romans to secure Sicily and Carthage and Greece. Romans and Italians were interchangeable to the conquered, indistinguishable Romaioi. Yet the spoils went overwhelmingly to the Roman capital, and Italians were denied the vote, even as they paid men and money into the Roman machine.
The Italian question had vexed Roman politics for generations, and it was a central theme in the brief careers of Rome’s greatest radicals, the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Their failure is often considered the beginning of the Republic’s slow end.
The oldest son of an old family, already decorated in war, Tiberius Gracchus is said to have conceived his political platform while on the march. A generation before Cato’s birth, he was infuriated to see firsthand an Italian countryside almost entirely given over to imported slave gangs and the massive plantations of the Roman rich. He grieved that “the Italian race … a people so valiant in war, and related in blood to the Romans, were declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy.” He also feared that Rome, with its hardy, small farmers on the decline, would grow increasingly vulnerable to its enemies.
In 133, soon after his return to Rome, Tiberius won election as tribune of the people. The Senate had set aside the office of the tribune as a pacifier for Rome’s underclass, but it was rarely used for any radical purpose until Tiberius got his hands on it. He electrified Rome with his passionate words on behalf of the soldiers who fought to build an empire, even as their own small pieces of that empire were stripped away:
It is with lying lips that their commanders exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.
On the strength of this rallying cry, Tiberius proposed to remedy Rome’s wealth gap by capping the holdings of the rich and distributing public lands to the urban poor. Ignoring the outrage of Rome’s senatorial establishment, Tiberius took his bill for land redistribution directly to the people’s assembly, a body with the authority to pass laws, but one that rarely dared to defy the aristocracy. The Roman masses passed the land reform by acclamation.
In the Senate, Tiberius’s success was perceived not merely as the action of a radical, but as the ambition of a would-be king, an attempt to put a faction in permanent power with the backing of the poor. Not long after passage of the land bill, a senator and neighbor of the Gracchus family was brought forward to testify that Tiberius was hiding a crown in his home. The Senate’s suspicions seemed all but confirmed when Tiberius broke with Roman tradition and announced his campaign for a second consecutive year in office. It was only because he wanted immunity from political prosecution, he insisted. It was the first step to declaring himself tribune-for-life, his enemies said.
It is not surprising that the fracas ended in the murder of Tiberius and the death of his followers. What is astonishing is that the party of senators who beat Tiberius to death in open daylight was led by Rome’s high priest, who wore his toga pulled over his head, just as he dressed when sacrificing an animal. The assassination of Tiberius was dressed up as a religious rite, a sacrifice to the Republic’s guardian gods.
* * *
Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, escaped the killings—and for the rest of his short life, “the grief he had suffered encouraged him to speak out fearlessly.” Friends and enemies alike painted Gaius as a man on fire for revenge. Yet, elected tribune ten years after Tiberius, he brought more than anger and grief to the work of coalition building and legislating. He brought a discipline that outdid his brother’s. While Tiberius reached out to the Roman poor alone, Gaius made inroads with Rome’s merchant class, the equites (so called because they could afford to outfit themselves with a horse in times of war). And in the most critical departure from his brother’s example, Gaius invited Italians into his populist coalition. For the first time, a leading Roman was offering equal citizenship, including full voting rights, to Rome’s closest Italian allies.
It was Gaius’s most creative act of statesmanship—but it was also the opening that allowed his conservative opponents a chance to destroy him. It took little effort to drive a wedge between Gaius’s Italian and Roman backers: His opponents had only to point out that more voting power and more cheap bread for Italians meant less of both for Romans. “If you give citizenship to the Latins,” said one nativist consul, one of two co-heads of the Roman state, “I suppose that you think that you will continue as now to find somewhere to stand to listen to speeches and attend games and public festivals? Surely you realize that they will occupy all the spaces?” Rhetoric like this helped pry away enough of Gaius’s supporters to weaken him fatally.
When Gaius finally met electoral defeat, the Senate pounced, moving for the repeal of his entire agenda. What was left of the Gracchan faction took this as such a provocation that it rioted. A consul’s servant was killed in the street fighting, all the cause needed for the Senate to deem Gracchus and his friends enemies of the state and call out the army against them. Though Gaius fled through the streets and “all the spectators, as at a race, urged Gaius on to greater speed, not a man came to his aid, or even consented to furnish him with a horse when he asked for one, for his pursuers were pressing close upon him.” Chased over the Tiber and cornered in a sacred grove, Gaius fell on his sword. Thousands of his followers joined him in death, summarily executed in a political purge. When it was over, and the blood was washed from the streets, the Senate broke ground for a grand new temple: the Temple of Concord.
* * *
But the prayers offered in the Temple of Concord, sincere or cynical, would be empty smoke. Concord, if it ever lived in Rome, was gone. The purge of the Gracchi might have, at least, promised peace through force, but as each side reflected on the decade that had fractured Roman consensus, it became clear that the purge had settled nothing. It hadn’t satisfied the Italians, who had been promised political rights and were furious to see the pledge go unfulfilled. It hadn’t resettled the countryside or calmed the poor. What Rome’s conservatives took from the Gracchan years was a conviction of how easily the masses could be bribed—the revelation that their loyalty belonged not to the state, but to the highest bidder. For those who had cheered Tiberius and Gaius, the brutal lesson was that their enemies had been the first to settle arguments with clubs and knives.
Out of this violent decade were born the two factions that would define the last century of the Republic. The populares (“men of the people”) took the Gracchi brothers as models and martyrs—often too dangerous to be spoken of directly, but an inspiration always. The optimates (“the best men,” a bit of self-flattery) stood for the traditional power of the Senate as a bulwark against what they saw as populist tyranny.
To be sure, the Republic never saw anything that we would recognize as political parties. Roman politics rested on a ceaselessly knitted web of personal attractions, alliances, and enmities: marriages, family ties, favors done and owed, old friendships, and older grudges. And Roman politics was always a rich man’s game: The average popularis may have played to the people more openly, but his economic interests differed little from his optimas neighbor’s. Whether Rome’s populists meant their words sincerely, or whether they merely held their well-born noses in the pursuit of selfish power, was always hotly argued—and still is. The optimates, on the other hand, might at least be credited with speaking up for their interests forthrightly. They were proud of selflessly swearing off pandering, of a readiness to speak hard truths to and about the people.
Though the factions had no organization, no structure, and no formal discipline, they changed the face of Rome. The stakes, as each side saw them, were life and death for the Republic itself.
“Whoever wants to save the Republic, follow me!” the priest had cried on his way to sacrifice Tiberius Gracchus. And when Gaius Gracchus heard that his followers were being killed in the streets, he took refuge in Diana’s temple, where “he sank upon his knees … and with hands outstretched towards the goddess, prayed that the Roman people, in requital for their great ingratitude and treachery, might never cease to be enslaved.”
* * *
These fractured politics were Cato’s birthright—and Cato could barely walk before the war came to his home.
By 91, three decades after the death of Gaius Gracchus, the Italians’ cause had gone nowhere. Yet the Italian elite continued to press for its say in the government and its share of the loot. And Roman reformers continued to see in the towns of Italy a massive, untapped source of political power.
Cato’s uncle and guardian, Marcus Livius Drusus, tribune of the people, was one of those reformers. Like the Gracchi brothers, he had made his name by demanding land reform for the peasants and subsidized bread for the urban plebs. Unlike the revolutionaries, he had demonstrated enough deference to keep in healthy standing with the Senate, which accepted him as a good, moderate pressure valve for popular discontent. But when Drusus took up the cause of Italy, he went too far. His proposal to grant citizenship to all of Italy launched a panic of rumormongering. His enemies claimed that every Italian city had pledged to enter Drusus’s political clientele, a bonanza of money, men, and favors that would bring him the biggest power base in the Republic. They alleged that Pompaedius had signed an agreement with Drusus and was marching on Rome at the head of ten thousand men. His enemies whispered, “A free state will become a monarchy, if a huge multitude attains citizenship by virtue of the activity of one man.”
The Senate isolated Drusus and revoked his reforms. Soon after, in the house he shared with four-year-old Cato, a stranger drove a knife into Drusus’s thigh. The attack left a deep enough impression on Rome to be singled out in a rhetorical handbook as a prime example of pathos: “Drusus—your blood splattered the walls of your home and your mother’s face.” Did Cato hear the struggle and the shouts?
Drusus bled to death, and Italy exploded.
* * *
Inconclusive battle played out up and down the Italian peninsula. A disfigured, often-drunk Roman general named Sulla made his reputation by storming and burning the allied cities, risking his neck so often and so bravely that his troops honored him with a sacred crown woven from battlefield grass. Rome triumphed as it always did, with brutality in one hand and careful conciliation in the other, turning Italy at last into one nation under Rome. But the success was illusory. The Republic was too divided and distracted to anticipate a genocidal danger building in the East.
In the spring of 88, as Rome’s war with its allies drew to a negotiated close, the governors of the towns of Asia Minor received identical copies of a letter from their lord, King Mithridates. In thirty days, Mithridates ordered, they were to kill every Roman or Italian man, woman, and child they could lay hands on. On the appointed day, throughout the province, wherever the resented Roman influence extended, the command was carried out—at the cost, Appian calculated, of eighty thousand lives. Though Rome had often inflicted similar treatment in its turn, Appian was shocked to report Roman children held under the sea by rough hands until they drowned, civilians’ hands chopped off as they desperately clutched sacred images, families murdered in cruel sequence before one another’s eyes—children first, then wives, then husbands.
At the far end of the world, in Asia Minor, just as in Italy, Rome was hated. Its rapacious taxes, its colonists, and its occupying troops generated a seething resentment. Cicero was honest enough to acknowledge that “the Roman name is held in loathing, and Roman tributes, tithes, and taxes are instruments of death.” Mithridates put it more starkly still: Rome was “the common enemy of mankind.”
Who was the king who acted on that hate and gave the brutal order? Mithridates claimed descent from Alexander the Great and Darius, Persian King of Kings. On the strength of that ancestry—and of a flamboyant personality, which made him the anti-imperial standard-bearer of his day—he laid claim to Asia Minor and the Black Sea. By the time of the massacre, he had already created a counter empire in the image of Greek Alexander’s—a check on Rome’s regional dominance.
Mithridates was ready to lock his mother and brother in prison to safeguard his throne; he was ready to swallow poison every day, to build his immunity to assassination; he was ready to conceive and launch the greatest premeditated massacre in the history of the ancient world. The massacre turned a border skirmish into a quarter century of war. And it put the future of Rome’s supremacy into grave doubt.
* * *
Growing up as he did in those years—a time of shaken confidence, war on his doorstep, and murder in his own home—it’s not surprising that what we know of Cato’s childhood and play is cast over with a sullen seriousness.
Along with the other boys, Cato played at law and at war. Playing lawyer was natural. For the adults in Cato’s life, law was sport and spectacle, always the dominant conversation. For a Roman unable to win advancement under arms, the only other arena was the Forum and its courts—the place of open-air word-combat, where the prize was a bequest from the will of a wealthy client, or an office and title taken from a politician successfully convicted, or, above all, the adoring eyes of the crowd. Like Roman politics, of which it was simply another branch, Roman law had room for both remarkable flights of rhetoric and lewd personal attacks. When denouncing the wanton ex-lover of a client, Cicero, the greatest lawyer of his time, slipped in a mention of “her husband—oops, I mean her brother. I always make that mistake.”
No wonder that Cato and his friends would turn a playroom into a courtroom. Left alone to amuse themselves at a grown-up party, they assigned plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, a jury, judge, and jailers. They practiced accusations and alibis for sacrilege, vote-buying, and slander. They turned on one another those comprehensive rhetorical educations that were mandatory for Roman boys of their class, the cruelty of children standing in for the cruelty of politicians.
In the midst of one of these play-trials, when a shy boy was falsely convicted and hauled off to be shut in the closet jail, he cried for Cato to save him. “Cato, when he understood what was going on, quickly came to the door, pushed aside the boys who stood before it and tried to stop him, led forth the prisoner, and went off home with him in a passion, followed by other boys also,” Plutarch writes of the incident.
A few years later, there was another solemn game—the Troy Game. It was a public game for youths on horseback, the kind of well-off young men who would soon be leading troops from the saddle. Its character was religious, its origin ascribed to the ancient games that sanctified Trojan funerals. Its object, for once, wasn’t competition, but shared perfection in horsemanship. The poet Virgil lauded its roots in the Trojans’ drills:
… The column split apart
As files in the three squadrons all in line
Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled
They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.
They entered then on parades and counter-parades,
The two detachments, matched in the arena,
Winding in and out of one another,…
So intricate the drill of Trojan boys
Who wove the patterns of their prancing horses.
But that was a pious myth. There was nothing Trojan, or even ancient, about the exhibition; it was quite new in Cato’s time. Yet the patina of antiquity dignified the games—and the name of Troy was invoked for good reason. The Trojans, valiant as they were, were history’s great losers. They were also, as the myth went, Rome’s true ancestors, beaten in war and sea-tossed from Asia Minor to Italy, where they rebuilt at last. In their heartfelt identification with a band of refugees from a razed city, the world-beating, city-razing Romans gained something priceless: the moral assurance of the underdog. Every reenactment of the Troy Game helped to recall it.
* * *
But in Cato’s year to participate, the Troy Game entered a minor crisis. The two leaders of the boys on horseback were both nepotistic appointments chosen for their closeness to General Sulla.
Sulla had every right to choose. He had forced his way to the head of the state, and he did it with the help of the most potent weapon in Roman politics: an army of the poor. Though he used the weapon to great effect, Sulla was not its inventor. That credit belonged to his old commanding officer, a rural popularis named Gaius Marius, who, with a single innovation, had ended the dilemma of Roman army recruitment but created a host of new, worse dilemmas.
Since the days of the Gracchi, it had been clear that the Roman army was on a dangerously dwindling course. Only landowning Romans were allowed to fight in the Roman armed forces. Small independent farmers were held to be the hardiest soldiers the earth could produce, rough-handed men who fought for their homes and had a hearth to return to when campaigning season was done. So tightly did Romans link property and military service that the requirement remained in place for years after it became evident that the number of landowners was shrinking precariously. The Gracchi had aimed to solve the problem by expanding the base of property owners, but Marius had found far more success with the revolutionary step of simply erasing the property qualification altogether. The desperate legions that resulted from this change ended Rome’s manpower worries for good. But rather than fight to protect land they already owned, the vast majority of Roman soldiers now fought to win land of their own. They were bound in loyalty to any commander who could deliver them spoils and acres when the campaign was finished—and, as Marius and Sulla demonstrated, they would follow their general-patrons into battle even when fellow Romans stood in the enemy lines.
By 88—the year that ended the war with the Italians and began the war with Mithridates—Marius was an old and sagging man, his best days as general behind him. Sulla was the natural choice to lead the new war in the East. But as soon as Sulla left the city to take up command, Marius’s faction forced through a decree handing the army back to Marius. Sulla, in response, demonstrated shockingly and conclusively that his troops answered to him alone. He ordered his army into Rome itself, across the city’s sacred and inviolable boundary line, proving in an afternoon the emptiness of Rome’s most central taboo. Having captured the city, forcing Marius to flee, and extorting the right to command the new war, Sulla marched east. But virtually the moment Sulla was out of earshot, Marius returned to follow his example and rampaged his troops through the city for five days, setting himself up as Rome’s first man again—until he dropped dead soon after, quite possibly of a heart attack.
Sulla was able to ignore the reports of chaos in Rome long enough to beat Mithridates out of Roman territory and force him into a wary truce. Without those reports, Sulla might have finished him, rather than leave an enemy alive and wounded. But there was no time for that. Back in Rome, there was revenge to be taken. In late 82, Sulla’s army met Marius’s faction in the shadow of the city’s walls. The result was a slaughter—and the dictatorship of Sulla.
* * *
The cowed Senate and people had no choice but to acclaim Sulla as Dictator Legibus Faciendis et Reipublicae Constituendae Causa: “Dictator for the Purpose of Making Laws and Stabilizing the Republic.” Unlike the other dictators in the venerable republican tradition—Cincinnatus, for instance, who famously fought off Rome’s enemies and then returned to his plow—Sulla’s term came without a limit. For the first time in memory, the Republic, that hive of ambition, had something resembling a king. Sulla was feared like a king, free to dole out spoils like a king, and, like a king, able to kill with a word.
For Sulla, rich with plunder from the East and even more bloated with the estates of his dead enemies, putting the children of his cronies at the head of the Troy Game was a very little thing. So, for the game of 81, he chose his wife’s son and a boy named Sextus, nephew of his lieutenant Pompey. Evidently, and unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a word of protest from the adults. But the young aristocrats responded with something unexpected, even brave: They went on strike. Sextus was disliked enough that they refused to drill under him at all; they put down their wooden weapons and called for a worthier leader. Sulla was there at the practice. He humored them, though he could have done much worse: “Who do you want to lead you?” The call went up for Cato.
So it was Cato who led the boys into mock battle and play charges under Sulla’s eye—Romans playing at being Trojans, conquerors playing at being the conquered, boys who in a matter of years would be carrying real metal weapons to real war in Africa, in the Eastern deserts, in Spain, in Gaul, boys who in their lifetimes would turn their weapons on one another.
Sulla was impressed with the boy-general. And this, it seems, is how the qualities of fourteen-year-old Cato came to a dictator’s attention—a promising and a dangerous thing.
* * *
Sulla’s house “looked exactly like an Inferno.” In came the fresh heads of Rome’s leading men; out went gold. Undisturbed by screams or moans, there reclined in state the dictator with the fierce gray eyes and the blotchy red birthmark, “like a mulberry sprinkled with oatmeal”—Sulla Felix, the Fortunate; Sulla Epaphroditus, Venus’s Favorite. Cato and his half brother often sat by Sulla’s side, eyewitnesses to the arbitrary power of a man fond of making the Senate listen to his harangues and the cries of the executed at the same time.
In what passed for dissent in Sulla’s Rome, a senator begged at last, “At least let us know whom you intend to punish.” The next day, eighty names were posted on a white tablet in the Forum. The day after and the day after that, several hundred more joined the list. This was privatized justice: The head attached to any of those names brought a fat bounty. The estates of the executed were sold to the highest bidder, with Sulla himself presiding as auctioneer. And while his wish list at first had a certain brutal logic to it—a purge of popularis enemies and any lingering supporters of his old commanding officer Marius—it grew to include the names of the conspicuously rich, the victims of private grudges, and, in one notorious case, a man who was already dead. Having killed his own brother, a crony of Sulla’s arranged to have the dead man’s name added to the proscription list, blessing the fratricide after the fact.
The sacred laws against bloodshed on hearths or in temples were pronounced null and void. Slaves had license to murder their masters, and sons their fathers. Any Roman sheltering a marked man was himself marked for death. A grisly commerce in human heads, the unpredictability of the killing amplified its terror—as Sulla well grasped. “I am adding to the list all of the names I can remember,” he announced with chilling nonchalance. “Those who have escaped my memory will be added sometime soon.” By the end of the bloodletting, as many as nine thousand Romans were dead.
Sulla went about it with the resentment of a man reclaiming a right denied. His family was noble, illustrious, and ruined. He came of age in rented rooms in the Roman slums. A favorite of prostitutes and comedians, he was a tireless drinker and sexual omnivore, whose ruined complexion naturally sparked talk of venereal disease. At home among the plebs, he might have been a revolutionary. And yet the theme of Sulla’s political career was restoration. He was another Roman in love with the sacred past, so in love that he swore to wash out with blood everything he found modern or decadent.
And so, as soon as Sulla had his say, gone was the power of the tribunes, the people’s representatives. The office was an old one, but there was nothing like it in the Rome of the fathers, in the austere golden days of senatorial power—or so Sulla’s argument went. There were only tribunes at all because the underclass had dared to go on strike against the patricians, leaving Rome’s fields unplowed and its wars unfought until the Senate promised the poor dedicated voices of their own in the councils of state. The tribunes were ten chosen men of the people with the power of veto over the Senate, backed by the plebeians’ oath to kill any man who so much as laid a hand on a tribune’s body. The office was the embodiment of all that was democratic in Rome; in the hand of politicians like the Gracchi, it was the platform for working-class agitation for jobs, cheap grain, and land redistribution. By Sulla’s time, the office of the tribunes was four centuries old, but for Sulla and other long-memoried patricians, it was still a foreign growth on the body politic, a deviation from the old ways, a modern imposition.
Having been voted sole power by the Senate and having asserted his power in the proscriptions, Sulla castrated the tribunate. Never again could a tribune propose a law. Never again could a tribune veto a decree of the Senate. Further, any man who had held the office of tribune would be removed from further participation in political life: Sulla forbade every other office to ex-tribunes. His aim was to cull the stock of ambitious and competent politicians willing to serve as the people’s voice.
Those well-off Romans who survived the proscriptions were given a strong stake in the restored order. Sulla doubled the Senate’s size from three hundred to six hundred, packing it with his partisans and with business leaders who agreed to back his program in return for an aristocratic title. To the augmented Senate, Sulla restored power over the law courts, which had belonged to the merchant-class equites since the Gracchi reforms.
Perhaps most important, Sulla, a general who had installed himself in power at the head of a personal army, did his best to pull the ladder up after himself. The cursus honorum, or “honors race,” the orderly progression of a political career—which Sulla had so dramatically stepped over—was permanently fixed in place, with mandated minimum ages for each successive step. There would be no more meteoric rises. Each magistrate, no matter how popular, would face a two-year waiting period before he was allowed to run for a higher post. No one man would ever again hold perpetual power: Even the most ambitious would have to cool his heels for a decade before running again for the same office. And no general would be permitted to form a bond with his legions as tight as Sulla’s had been. The two consuls, the state’s highest officials, would serve their year’s term in Rome, where armies were forbidden, before leading troops in the provinces—for one year only. There would be no more marches on Rome.
If there was anything new in Sulla’s constitution, it was laid down in the name of what was fundamentally old, a Rome ruled by an elite collective. There was something prophetic and sincere in it: an insight that this bloody play of ambition had every reason to repeat itself, and a determination that, nevertheless, this would be the last time. It was, as Sulla imagined it, the autocracy to end all autocracies. He himself would be the last. Rome would restore its immemorial competition, but not while Sulla ruled. And even after he passed, no one would attain the unchallenged height that he had occupied. As a last, despotic act, he redrew Rome’s sacred boundary line—the same line whose sanctity he had been the first to break by crossing it at the head of an army—simply because he could. Only the kings had ever done that.
* * *
Judging by the man Cato would become, he would have found much to like in that program. The reactionary spirit of Sulla’s reforms would animate Cato’s politics. But as a teenager watching the imposition of Sulla’s platform by fiat, Cato was shocked by the blood it required—shocked not just secondhand but daily and in person, as he reclined with the dictator on his couch. Here was Cato’s early education in politics: his guardian’s assassination, and Sulla’s government by murder. This boyhood in civil war would produce a man with an almost neurotic attachment to rules, to precedent, to propriety—to everything that was not Sulla.
One wonders how the boy Cato could have stomached the violence. “If you had put Marius himself in that place,” speculated an imperial chronicler, “he would have quickly started making plans for his own escape.” Coming home from the slaughter- and auction-house one day, Cato pulled aside the tutor walking with him and asked why Sulla was still alive. “Because,” he answered, “men fear him more than they hate him.” Cato regularly sat a mere arm’s reach away from the dictator, well out of any bodyguard’s range. And that, reports Plutarch, was all the plan his adolescent ambition needed: “Give me a sword, so I might kill him and set my country free from slavery.”
Every day after that plea slipped from Cato’s mouth, the tutor patted him down for weapons before setting out for Sulla’s house.
* * *
Give me a sword, so I might kill him and set my country free from slavery. Surely he didn’t say that. It’s a line from a tragedy, or from the base of a statue, not from real life. We have good reason for skepticism. Again, this is Plutarch writing the boy Cato in light of the man. In this, and in all of his Roman and Greek Lives, Plutarch did not practice what we would recognize as straight history, but rather moral education, a kind of didactic drama.
Nevertheless, to write off that line as the climax of a fable is to miss the more-interesting point: Boys of Cato’s class were trained to speak like that and to think like that. To our ears, it sounds stiffly strident, but the Roman education was, above all, rhetorical. It sounds uncharacteristically murderous for an elite teenager, but tyrannicide was a classical virtue.
Like much of Roman high culture, rhetorical education was an expensive Greek import. Tutors like Cato’s were often high-priced Greek slaves or Greek freedmen. In the same way that a genteel Edwardian was expected to spice his speech with well-placed Gallicisms, the Roman gentleman knew that a sophisticated moment called for something more than his native tongue. So his education was bilingual from the start. No sooner had he learned to string together his Latin and Hellenic alphabets than he began committing to memory long passages of Homer or Hesiod or Euripides, declaiming them with the proscribed gestures—a clenched fist for enraged Achilles or a knitted brow for wise old Nestor—and then inscribing on wax tablets variations and glosses on the old stories.
From Athens, Rome carried home not just a literature, but a conviction that public speaking should be at the center of learning. In the words of Isocrates, a legendary Athenian orator and a founder of rhetorical education: “I do think that the study of political discourse can help more than any other thing to stimulate and form the character.” But the character Roman fathers would pay to have instilled was that of the practical man, the advocate swaying a jury, the commander haranguing his troops, the man who, like Sulla, could respond to a delegation of Athenians orating at length on the glories of their city, “I didn’t come here for a history lesson.” The lessons Romans wanted were above all relevant ones, socializing and career-building ones.
So Cato was drilled in composing, organizing, memorizing, and reciting repeatedly two eminently useful genres of rhetoric: the controversia and the suasoria. The controversia was lawyer training: given the law and the facts of a case, persuade a jury of your schoolmates in both directions. A rich man claimed that his poor neighbor’s bees were destroying his flowers. He dusted the flowers with poison, the bees died, and the poor man sued. Argue the rich man’s side of the case. Now argue the poor man’s.
The suasoria was senator training: imagine yourself declaiming not in front of a bored teacher and an antsy class, but at a defining moment in the councils of one of history’s great men. Deliver your opinion, back it up with quotation, definition, precedent, and pathos, and do it all from memory. Should Alexander turn back at India? Should the three hundred Spartan warriors hold their ground at Thermopylae against the Persians and overwhelming odds? Should Hannibal and his elephants cross the Alps?
And what should we do with a tyrant? Roman boys were raised on stories of arrogance and its violent comeuppance. There was Hipparchus, the tyrant of Athens, slain by a pair of young lovers whose statue now stood in Rome’s Capitol. There was Tarquin the Proud, Rome’s last king, who demonstrated his style of rule by slicing off the heads of the tallest, most distinguished flowers in his poppy field, and who was driven out of the city when his sadistic son went too far and raped a nobleman’s daughter. There was, too, a long line of would-be reformers and friends of the plebs—starting with a rich farmer in the Republic’s early days who sold grain at a discount during a famine, and culminating with the Gracchi brothers—each of whom was accused in his time of coveting a crown, and each of whom was righteously killed in turn. “There can be nothing baser, fouler than a tyrant … for though in form a man, he surpasses the most savage monsters,” writes Cicero, who would have known those stories by heart. “If anyone kills a tyrant—be he never so intimate a friend—he has not laden his soul with guilt, has he?”
There wasn’t a Roman boy of such an education who hadn’t imagined himself the hero of such stories, time and again. In fact, it was mandatory. “Do you teach rhetoric?” sighed one burned-out teacher:
What iron bowels must you have when your troop of scholars slays the cruel tyrant, when each in turn stands up and repeats what he has just been conning in his seat, reciting the same things in the same verses! Served up again and again, this cabbage is the death of the unhappy master.
Cato certainly would have stood up in his turn. And if he went further than his classmates—if he tried to turn from reciting these stories of tyrannicide to acting one out—then it would not be the last time that he took Rome’s professed ideals further than any of his fellows were prepared to take them.
Yet those ideals, which must have proved so seductive to an unsmiling boy like Cato, were often the rhetorical gloss on an ugly reality. There can be nothing fouler than a tyrant—but who is a tyrant? Leaders of the working class were often called budding tyrants, and were killed as tyrants, whether they were dealers in discount grain, debtors’ advocates, or land reformers. Cato’s own uncle was killed as a tyrant. Conversely, Sulla was a liberator in his own propaganda and in his own mind—a liberator of the lands he added to the empire, the restorer of ancient libertas to Rome itself. For all the practical training Cato’s cohort received in allusion, in memory, in voice, and in stamina, what they were not taught was a way to apply the heroic stories to a politics in which every side of every argument cast itself as the friend of liberty, in which “tyrant” was the favorite accusation of the ruling class, in which a King Tarquin was seen to be lurking in every potential enemy.
It was too much for a boy, even for a young man. And perhaps Cato, rash as he was, understood this. When his formal lessons were over, he put off his entry into politics and went looking for training in philosophy. His classmates were already seeking army appointments or rich widows to defend in court, but Cato kept quiet.
“Men find fault with you for your silence,” a friend once reproached him.
Cato replied, “Only let them not blame my life. I will begin to speak when I am not going to say what was better off left unsaid.”
Copyright © 2012 by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni