January 27, 2013


Present at the Revolution: The enduring legacy of Cato, inspiration to George Washington and many others : a review of Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni (Barry Strauss, 18 January 2013, City Journal)

Addison's play argued for death in defense of liberty. A decade later, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon's Cato's Letters went even further and offered a general theory: Liberty was a natural right, embodied in limited government, protected by opposition to tyranny, and characterized by freedom of speech and religion and private-property rights. Originally published in a London newspaper in the 1720s, Cato's Letters--actually a series of essays that the authors wrote under a "Cato" pseudonym-- eventually appeared in book form. The essays had enormous influence on the American Founders and on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Cato as a Whig and revolutionary is quite a stretch from the historical Cato. What about the reality? In Rome's Last Citizen, political speechwriters and journalists Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni offer an excellent introduction. They have done their homework in the classical sources. Their wise and lively book offers two lessons: first, knowing modern politics can yield insight into study of the ancient world; and second, Rome still has lessons to teach us today. The authors' Rome includes such phenomena as "favor-swapping," "personality-driven reform," "a late-night strategy session," "campaign apparatus," and "new rules of engagement." Balancing out these less inspiring features, Rome also offers Cicero's oratory, Caesar's Commentaries, and Plutarch's Lives, among other treasures. Goodman and Soni make particularly good use of Plutarch's Life of Cato the Younger, our main historical source, though one that requires caution--Plutarch wrote moralizing biography, not history.

The authors approach Cato with respect and critical distance. They carefully trace a life that took its bearings from a combination of Stoic philosophy and old-fashioned Roman virtue. Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 BC), the so-called Cato the Younger, came from a prominent family. He followed in the footsteps of his famous great-grandfather, also named Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) and sometimes referred to as Cato the Elder, who came to symbolize austerity, aggression, and conservatism.

Ancient Rome was a republic: a mixed government combining popular assemblies, powerful magistrates who operated as virtual kings for their year in office, and an aristocratic senate. The Roman republic indirectly inspired America's constitutional separation of powers. By Cato's day, though, Rome's government was out of joint, bitterly divided between populists and oligarchs. Cato emerged as a leader of the second faction. He championed a tiny senate elite's traditional role of guiding the destiny of the empire and its tens of millions of inhabitants. Yet Cato also defended freedom of speech, constitutional procedure, civic duty and service, honest administration, and the enlightened pursuit of the public interest.

More than anyone else, Cato saw clearly the threat that Julius Caesar posed to the old order. 

... your teacher mishandled Julius Caesar.
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Posted by at January 27, 2013 8:01 PM

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