Classics Cato the Younger
Fred Kilday Drogula
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0413


Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger (95–46 BCE), also identified as Uticensis from the place of his death, was a Roman politician in the final decades of the Republic. Orphaned as a young boy, he was raised by his maternal uncles, first by M. Livius Drusus (trib. pleb. 91 BCE) and then by Mam. Aemilius Lepidus Livianus (cos. 77 BCE). Upon entering politics he promoted himself as a champion of traditional Roman values by adopting extremely old-fashioned clothing, habits, and values, probably in emulation of his famous great-grandfather, Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder. As quaestor in 64 BCE he gained fame for his careful and scrupulously honest management of the state treasury, and as plebeian-tribune-elect at the end of 63 BCE he played a decisive role in convincing the Senate to direct the consul M. Tullius Cicero to put to death without trial the captured Catilinarian conspirators, an illegal action that would later lead to Cicero’s exile. His enmity for C. Julius Caesar (cos. 59 BCE) became obvious during the trial of the Catilinarian conspirators when he assisted those who were attempting (unsuccessfully) to implicate Caesar falsely in the crime. Cato acquired a leadership role among the optimates despite his relative youth, and he opposed the ambitions of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus with such success that he was in large part responsible for driving them to join forces and form the first triumvirate at the end of 60 BCE. The triumvirs and their allies temporarily removed Cato from Rome by giving him the dubious honor of a special mission to annex the kingdom of Cyprus from 58 to 56 BCE. As the triumvirate lost popular support, Cato succeeded in being elected praetor in 54 BCE, in which capacity he presided over the extortion court. After Crassus died at Carrhae in 53 BCE, Cato and the optimates successfully pulled Pompey over to their side, setting up the conditions that led to the outbreak of civil war. Cato worked with those who pushed to have Caesar declared a public enemy, but he may not have expected the political conflict to descend into civil war, since he openly lamented the deaths it caused and was given only secondary roles, including being left to guard Pompey’s camp at the decisive battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE. After Pompey’s defeat and death, Cato led the soldiers under his command to join the army of Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica in North Africa. Cato was in command of the strategic city of Utica when Caesar defeated Scipio in the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BCE, and he famously took his own life rather than surrender to Caesar.


Cicero makes many contemporary references to Cato in his letters, speeches, and philosophical works, and preserves one letter that Cato wrote to him explaining why he had not supported Cicero’s request for a triumph (Fam. 15.5). Sallust was also a contemporary and described Cato’s role in the events surrounding the Catilinarian Conspiracy. Several treatises were written about Cato shortly after his suicide in 46 BCE, but these appear to have idealized Cato heavily, reinterpreting his life and deeds according to the political aims of their authors. Cicero, M. Junius Brutus, Munatius Rufus, and Fabius Gallus all wrote encomia that presented him as a paragon of virtue and of the philosophical ideal of libertas, while Julius Caesar wrote an invective (called the Anticato) that focused on his faults. Under the murderous reign of Nero, prominent Roman thinkers latched on this reinterpretation of Cato as a model for noble suicide in the face of tyranny, leading authors such as Seneca and Lucan to present him as a Stoic guru instead of as a Roman politician. Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger drew heavily upon these authors who had reinterpreted Cato’s memory, so while it is the most complete source on Cato’s life and provides a full biography of the man, it also contains the biases and perspectives of those who reinterpreted his life and character in light of the events that occurred after his death. Among modern works, Osgood 2022, Drogula 2019, and Fehrle 1983 provide the most complete analytical discussions of Cato’s life, whereas Afzelius 1941, Frost 1997, Gelzer 1934, Marin 2009, and Russo 1975 tend to follow closely the presentations of Cato provided by Cicero and Plutarch. Stein-Hölkeskamp 2000 provides a very good overview of his life. Geiger 1971 provides a good commentary on Plutarch’s biography of Cato. Goodman and Soni 2012 provides a popularizing account of Cato’s life that tends to look through the lens of modern American politics.

  • Afzelius, A. 1941. Die politische Bedeutung des jüngeren Cato. Classica et Mediaevalia 4:100–203.

    An examination of Cato’s life based on the biography by Plutarch, arguing that Cato was a more adept and flexible politician than he was often made to appear. It suggests that Cato opposed Caesar because he believed that hero worship was contrary to Republican values.

  • Drogula, F. K. 2019. Cato the Younger: Life and death at the end of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A critical biography of Cato’s life and political career, with analyses of ancient sources and of modern scholarship and debates. It weighs Plutarch’s account against other ancient testimony on Cato’s life, career, and influence, and it contextualizes that within modern scholarly research on the social and political world of the late Republic, showing why and how Cato played a particularly important role in the events that caused the collapse of the Republic.

  • Fehrle, R. 1983. Cato Uticensis. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

    A biography that starts with a discussion of the sources on Cato, concluding that Plutarch’s account is generally reliable because it is based on the work of Munatius Rufus. The biography follows Plutarch closely, providing a similar assessment of Cato’s character and role in politics.

  • Frost, B.-P. 1997. An interpretation of Plutarch’s Cato the Younger. History of Political Thought 18:1–23.

    A thematic discussion of Cato life and career as presented by Plutarch.

  • Geiger, J. 1971. A commentary on Plutarch’s Cato Minor. PhD diss., Oxford Univ.

    An examination of how Cato’s legacy evolved after his death. After the rival reinterpretations of his career were produced after his death, Cato’s memory lost importance until the reigns of emperors Claudius and Nero, when Stoic writers reinterpreted Cato as a Stoic saint and personification of libertas.

  • Gelzer, M. 1934. Cato Uticensis. Die Antike 10:59–91.

    A summary and discussion of Cato’s personal life and political career as presented by Plutarch.

  • Goodman, R., and J. Soni. 2012. Rome’s last citizen: The life and legacy of Cato, mortal enemy of Caesar. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

    A biography of Cato that closely follows the account given by Plutarch. It looks at his political career and memory but does not engage with modern scholarship and debates, and it tends to view Cato through a modern lens.

  • Marin, P. 2009. Blood in the Forum: The struggle for the Roman Republic. London and New York: Continuum.

    A survey of political events in the late Republic that highlights the role played by Cato as described by ancient sources.

  • Osgood, J. 2022. Uncommon wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s deadly rivalry destroyed the Roman Republic. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An excellent dual biography of Cato and Julius Caesar that highlights their different perspectives of Republican values and how the Republic should operate. Their political differences were infused with their personal enmity, which came to be shared by their respective supporters, effectively splitting the state into separate camps. While both men held workable views for the Republic, their personal rivalry and hatred prevented either solution from prevailing and brought about the collapse of the Republic.

  • Russo, P. M. 1975. Marcus Porcius Cato: A political reappraisal. PhD diss., Rutgers Univ.

    A study of Cato’s career based primarily on the accounts of Cicero and Plutarch. It argues that Cato’s political power derived from his personal qualities, such as his birth, bravery, and integrity, rather than from his magisterial status. It argues that he was not heavily influenced by Stoic philosophy.

  • Stein-Hölkeskamp, E. 2000. Marcus Porcius Cato—Der stoische Streiter für die verlorene Republik. In Von Romulus zu Augustus. Große Gestalten der römischen Republik. Edited by K.-J. Hölkeskamp and E. Stein-Hölkeskamp, 292–306. Munich: C.H. Beck.

    A clear and concise description of Cato’s career and activities in the final decades of the Republic.

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