Who Was Cato the Younger?

Cato the Younger was a politician of moral integrity during the Roman Republic who inspired the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution 1,800 years later.

| September 2012

Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger was an aristocratic soldier who walked barefoot with his troops, a Stoic philosopher and staunch defender of sacred Roman tradition, a politician famous for his moral integrity and the final man to stand against Julius Caesar. Rome’s Last Citizen (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012) by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni tells the story of an uncompromising individual who was the last man standing when Rome’s Republic finally fell. Find out how Cato inspired a whole nation during the American Revolution in this excerpt taken from the Preface, “The Dream.” 

General Washington paused and studied his boot prints in the newly thawed mud. He took a deep breath of spring air, closed his eyes, and released the breath. He was pensive; it had been a year of long marches and small success, and winter’s toll on his troops had been heavy.

Food was scarce at Valley Forge. The men had to make do with a tasteless, tough, fire-baked combination of flour and water. Hundreds of horses were dead, some from sheer exhaustion, and others wasted away with hunger. The shelters the men had built could hardly handle the freezing and melting snows of the Pennsylvania winter. The entire camp seemed to be soaked and full of men yellow with jaundice, feverish with typhoid, or doubled over from diarrhea.

At the end of that bitter winter, before an audience packed into a converted bakery at the Valley Forge camp, soldiers dressed in togas mounted a rickety stage and began reciting blank verse. Washington did not have many means of inspiration at his disposal, but he did have drama. And the play he chose to stage for his officer corps was the story of a Roman senator named Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger.

For much of the captive, bone-tired audience, the story was a familiar one. Washington, along with a good part of the world’s English speakers, counted Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy as a personal favorite. By the time the play made its debut at Valley Forge, it had already been staged 234 times in England alone. With twenty-six different editions in print, it had become a mandatory text for every well-read man of the day. On the front lines of his first war, a twenty-six-year-old Washington wrote that he would rather be home, acting a part in Cato himself.

Washington’s peers studied and memorized the tragedy. They quoted it, consciously and unconsciously, in public statements and in private correspondence. When Benjamin Franklin opened his private diary, he was greeted with lines from the play that he had chosen as a motto. When John Adams wrote love letters to his wife, Abigail, he quoted Cato. When Patrick Henry dared King George to give him liberty or death, he was cribbing from Cato. And when Nathan Hale regretted that he had only one life to give for his country—seconds before the British army hanged him for high treason—he was poaching words straight from Cato. 

12/17/2017 5:27:39 PM

I look up Cato the Younger, and find many negative things about in in the encyclopedia biographies. But this book provides a totally different angle on him, why he should be remembered, why he should be remembered just as much as many other Romans. I love this article and can't wait to read the book!

Pete Hart
9/21/2012 3:06:58 PM

Cato was not the illustrious patriot this book paints him to be. He was a self-righteous political ideologue who was the inspiration for the "Boni" (the one-percenters of Rome in the time of Caesar). Without the "Boni" and Cato, Caesar would never have had to cross the Rubicon and possibly Rome would have remained a republic. The right-wing think tank isn't named the Cato Institute for nothing -- it's perpetuates the same kind of right-wing political tripe that Cato the Younger championed.

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