Classics Cato the Censor
Enrica Sciarrino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0087


Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as “Cato the Censor” and “Cato the Elder” (b. 234–d. 149 BCE), was one of the most prominent figures in the political and cultural life of Rome in the first half of the 2nd century BCE. Born in 234 in Tusculum, fifteen miles south of Rome, Cato belonged to an elite family that is thought to have acquired Roman citizenship in 268 with the rest of the Sabines. In 204, he achieved the quaestorship, the lowest office on the ladder of electoral politics; in 195, at the age of thirty-nine, he reached the consulship. In the same year, Cato spoke against the abrogation of a sumptuary law (lex Oppia) promulgated during wartime that limited expenditure on women’s clothing and carriages. In 184, Cato became censor; afterwards, he became a most authoritative presence in the Senate and remained active until the year of his death (149 BCE). He is often remembered for his hostility to Greek learning, but he is also considered the virtual founder of Roman historiography, oratory, and Latin prose in general. Of his writings, only the De Agricultura survives in its entirety; the rest (which includes orations, historical writing, advice to his son, and other material) comes to us in fragments through quotations in later authors.

General Overviews

The impact of Cato on the Roman political and cultural scene has undergone major reappraisals since the early 1990s. Gruen 1992 (pp. 53–83) challenges the common characterization of Cato as a radical antihellene who despised all things Greek and attributed Rome’s “moral degeneration” to the acceptance of Greek cultural values. The chapter on Cato in Gruen 1992 needs to be read alongside Gruen 1990, where the author offers a larger overview of Rome’s early-2nd-century BCE cultural life and policies. Habinek 1998 (pp. 34–68) brings to view Cato’s impact on the development of a literature in Latin, based on the hypotheses of Zorzetti 1990 and Zorzetti 1991 concerning Cato’s evocation of the so-called carmina convivalia. An excellent treatment of Cato’s work and the contemporary scene in German is in Suerbaum 2002 (pp. 380–418). Sciarrino 2011 pinpoints Cato’s contribution to our understanding of early-2nd-century sociocultural issues and offers close readings of his oratory, the De Agricultura, the Origines, and other fragments attributed to him.

  • Gruen, Erich S. 1990. Studies in Greek culture and Roman policy. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Each chapter discusses the relationship between political and cultural issues, including the impact of Greek learning and religion on central aspects of Roman life in the middle Republic.

  • Gruen, Erich S. 1992. Culture and national identity in republican Rome. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    In chapter 2 (pp. 52–83), Gruen revises previous views on Cato’s anti-Hellenism and suggests that his positioning contributed to the construction of Roman national identity.

  • Habinek, Thomas N. 1998. The politics of Latin literature: Writing, identity and empire in ancient Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    The second chapter represents a milestone in the revival of Cato as a culturally relevant figure and views his interventions through sociological lenses.

  • Sciarrino, Enrica. 2011. Cato the Censor and the beginnings of Latin prose: From poetic translation to elite transcription. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

    This book offers in English an introduction to the scholarly debate regarding the beginnings of Latin literature and situates Cato’s cultural impact vis-à-vis the development of poetic practices in Rome.

  • Suerbaum, Werner, ed. 2002. Handbuch der lateinischen Literatur der Antike. Vol. 1, Die archaische Literatur: Von den Anfängen bis zu Sullas Tod: Die vorliterarische Periode und die Zeit von 240 bis 78 v.Chr. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 8.1. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    It includes an impressive presentation of various aspects of early Latin literature, with accurate bibliography (including reception) and testimonia. See also reviews for a better understanding of the issues relating to the beginnings of Latin literature: Ingo Gildenhard, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.39; Denis Feeney, “The beginnings of a literature in Latin,” Journal of Roman Studies 95 (2005): 226–240 (articles available online for purchase or by subscription).

  • Zorzetti, Nevio. 1990. The carmina convivalia. Paper presented at the First Symposium on the Greek Symposion, Balliol College, 4–8 September 1984. In Sympotica: A symposium on the symposion. Edited by O. Murray, 289–307. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Together with Zorzetti 1991, this article has had an enormous impact on the resurrection of Cato as a pivotal cultural figure.

  • Zorzetti, Nevio. 1991. Poetry and ancient city: The case of Rome. Classical Journal 86:311–329.

    This article complements Zorzetti 1990, and it is crucial for understanding the current scholarly debate over preliterary and early literary practices in Rome. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.