Bust of the Roman statesman Cato the Younger

The feud that felled the Roman Republic

The personal differences between Caesar and Cato mattered

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This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If there was one thing the Romans did well — aside from sanitation, irrigation and concrete — it was polemic. Cicero composed fourteen fiery Philippics against Mark Antony in the 40s BC, and Catullus jibed at Julius Caesar so profusely in his poems that he had to issue an apology. Less famous, but equally explosive, was Caesar’s own collection of vitriol. The Anticato survives today only in fragments, but according to an ancient satirist, it was originally so long that it took up two scrolls and almost outweighed the penis of Publius Clodius Pulcher, apparently among the best-endowed politicians in Rome.

Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic, Josiah Osgood (OUP, £25)

Caesar wrote it shortly before he became dictator, with the intention of denigrating the memory of Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Younger”. For years the two men had been locked in furious rivalry. Caesar blasted Cato as cold and miserly. Cato despaired at Caesar’s profligacy and tireless womanising. If Caesar was louche in his barely-belted toga and exotic unguents, Cato was positively austere — a prime hair-shirt candidate — with his bare feet, rustic diet, extreme exercise and strict sexual mores; it was most unusual for a Roman to make his wife the first woman he slept with.

Few would argue with Josiah Osgood, Professor of Classics at Georgetown, when he describes Caesar and Cato as opposites. Even Donald Trump and Joe Biden have more in common than they did. Caesar was the nephew of the wife of Gaius Marius, the populist enemy of Sulla, who as dictator had thousands of Italians proscribed and killed in his bid to restore the authority of the Senate. Cato could count Sulla as an old family friend. Caesar belonged to a well-established Roman family and claimed descent from Venus via her son Aeneas. Cato’s family was Sabine, and his most famous ancestor was a mere mortal in the shape of the plebeian writer and highly conservative statesman Cato the Elder.

The differences between Caesar’s and Cato’s personalities mattered because they reflected the differences in their visions for Rome. Osgood sums these up as “an empire wielding its power for the people” (Caesar) versus “a Senate protecting the people from the all-powerful empire builders” (Cato). It is little wonder they came to blows.

Cicero never lived down executing the accused without trial

Osgood takes the tense relationship between Cato and Caesar as the central focus of his book. He argues that their feud has been overlooked as a contributing factor to the civil war that erupted in 49 BC and brought the Roman Republic crashing to the ground. Blame for this war has more usually been placed on the collapse of the First Triumvirate — an illegal alliance for power forged between Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus in 60 BC — and the breakdown in relations between Caesar and Pompey in particular. But all wars have long-term and short-term causes. For Osgood, the dispute between Caesar and Cato was significant in at least the medium term.

It began in earnest in the wake of the Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63 BC. Catiline was a disaffected and almost bankrupt politician who engineered a coup in Rome after repeatedly failing to be elected to the consulship in the senate. Whilst Catiline rushed to head up the command of the military uprising in Etruria, five of his key co-conspirators remained in Rome, ready to see off his chief opposition. Catiline was killed in battle. The big question that confronted the senators was how best to punish his accomplices after they were captured.

Caesar spoke in favour of confiscating their property and handing them a life sentence in one of Rome’s prisons. Cato felt that a death sentence was necessary. He spoke impassionedly of the threat the conspirators posed to the very existence of Rome and her Republic and found himself on the winning side of the argument.

Cicero, by contrast, never lived down his role in proceeding to execute the accused without trial. For Osgood, the real importance of the Catilinarian Conspiracy lay not in the damage it caused to Cicero’s reputation, but in the impact it had upon the dynamic between Cato and Caesar. In the wake of the drama, Cato felt vindicated in his long-held mistrust of Caesar and his populist politics, and firmly made an enemy of him.

As different as they were, Cato and Caesar were both plagued by problems in their marriages, some of them of their own making. Caesar divorced his wife Pompeia after she became involved in a scandal involving Clodius Pulcher, her alleged but unlikely paramour. It was only right, Caesar famously said, that any wife of his should be above suspicion.

Cato similarly divorced his wife Atilia after claiming she was unfaithful. He proceeded to marry a noblewoman named Marcia, only to give her up to the orator Hortensius at the latter’s insistence. To make matters even stranger, Marcia was probably pregnant with her third child by Cato at the time, and there were no apparent problems in their marriage. Marcia agreed to marry Hortensius all the same.

The Republic collapsed beneath a deluge of personal animosities

When the orator died, she returned to Cato, bringing with her a handsome inheritance. The episode naturally found a place in Caesar’s Anticato. To Cato’s further embarrassment, his half-sister, Servilia, became Caesar’s mistress. Servilia’s son, incidentally, was Brutus, one of Caesar’s assassins.

Familial ties often compounded the messiness of Roman politics, and Osgood is superb on the role that affairs and marriage alliances played in influencing the senatorial protagonists in this period. He writes with great clarity, too, on the broader power play that took place between Cato and Caesar as they positioned themselves in relation to other politicians, including Cornelius Nepos, Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Pompey the Great.

It may be unfair to question whether the “wrath” between Cato and Caesar was as “uncommon” as the title of Osgood’s book suggests. Reading the sources from the period, it can be hard to avoid the conclusion that most politicians were at war with one another, and that the Republic collapsed beneath a deluge of personal animosities.

That said, Osgood isn’t wrong when he asserts that the conflict between Caesar and Cato has been under-emphasised relative to many of the other divisions of the 50s and 40s BC. Particularly impressive is his ability to bring Cato to the fore without diminishing Cicero in the process.

It takes skill to bring the reader as close to the complex events of the Late Republic as this. If Osgood’s section on Caesar’s Gallic War feels slightly languid and prolonged, it is mainly because the surrounding narrative on Rome’s internal politics is so pacey and immediate. It is a sign of a good book when the ending comes as a pulse-quickening surprise — even to those who already know what is coming.

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