October 16, 2012 — 19 Comments

How could one of Rome’s—and history’s—most respected “philosophers” have gotten away with never really writing anything? Because stoic philosophy is about action, not words. Men were considered philosophers based on how they lived life, not on how they studied, wrote or spoke about it.

Cato was such a man. He was a soldier, a politician, a thinker and most important an example. His unassailable place in Roman culture is best seen in the old proverbial expression used to make excuses: “We’re not all Catos.”

He lived on principle—often stubbornly and ineffectual so. But it wasn’t just for show. Cato also died on principle—gruesomely, and heroically so.

For whatever reason, as a historical figure, he has been so intimidating that basically no one has written about him since Plutarch. The legends, it seems, were more appealing than a human biography. I’ve tried to write about Cato before. And I’ve referred to him in other posts and places. But in terms of books, the offerings are scant.

Two friends of mine have taken a stab at it though. I’ve been lucky enough to see the book develop, and as a result of the early drafts, been thinking about Cato for close to 18 months now. Like the authors, I struggled with strong feelings about Cato—both respect and disgust in fact. It’s hard to wrap your head around a man who was so brave, yet often so petty. He was a constant violator of the final law of power: assume formlessness.

Cato could not compromise, ever, even when it was best for the cause he claimed to hold dear. He’s a tragic figure in that sense, more Greek tragedy than Roman pragmatism. But an inspiring, bold and self-sufficient moral example nonetheless.

I’ve recommended a lot of biographies on this blog, from Everitt’s books on Augustus, Hadrian and Cicero to Liddell’s Sherman. I love biographies. I think they are the best way to start a deep study of a subject. Start with people, move on to events and then you can understand the ideas behind them.

Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar is a book like that. It’s subject is worth studying, particularly today. There’s a lot to learn from a politician who couldn’t be corrupted. A philosopher who refused to write. A millionaire who lived among his soldiers and people. He is Marcus Pocrcius Cato, a man of a different epoch—some two thousand years passed—but a man, who we, without a question, are better off knowing. Cato, as Paul Johnson said of Socrates, is a man for our times.

For more on Stoicism visit The Daily Stoic

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

19 responses to Cato

  1. If I recall correctly, the tragic story that comes to mind when I think of Cato is of Julius Caesar being in the senate and handed a note, Cato demands it is read publicly, to which Caesar demurs. Cato then forces Caesar to read it and it turns out be a love-letter from Cato’s wife to Caesar.

    • Patrick, it was actually Cato’s half-sister who was Caesar’s mistress at the time.

      Wiki dump: “In a meeting of the Senate dedicated to the Catilina affair, Cato harshly reproached Caesar for reading personal messages while the senate was in session to discuss a matter of treason. Cato accused Caesar of involvement in the conspiracy and suggested that he was working on Catilina’s behalf, which might explain Caesar’s otherwise odd stance that the conspirators should receive no public hearing yet be shown clemency. Caesar offered it up to Cato to read. Cato took the paper from his hands and read it, discovering that it was a love letter from Caesar’s mistress Servilia Caepionis, Cato’s half-sister.”

  2. Hi Ryan, just a quick heads up: the three links in the paragraph that begins “For whatever reason, as a historical figure…” are using the mailto: protocol, which means browsers will treat them as email links rather than web pages.

  3. Fourth paragraph. “Two friends of mine*…”


  4. Has your wine consumption increased after reading about Cato?

  5. Hey Ryan,

    You, RG, Max, Ender, and Ferris are my role models.

    If you haven’t tripped down this dude’s rabbit hole yet you should.

    He thinks a lot like you, is creative as hell, and looks like he is apart of the fight club. Check him out. My dream is to wrap all my role models together and rocket launch myself into your atmosphere in a year (being locked inside my slave job isn’t helping of course, but I’ll be playing in the big leagues as soon as I master my flow).

    Keep up the good shit.


    Also, you need to watch this don tapscott TED talk. Wait for the end. Tapscott shows us what we need to become.

  7. Dude, I’m sorry to make this comment, but these words are devoid of any meaning or maybe you could clarify – rocket launching, big leagues, wrapping role models?

  8. Why in the name of Seneca’s left nipple does it read “Coming July 19th” over your book image on your website? It should read “IN STORES NOW!!!!!!”

    -Delete this comment

  9. Finished Rome’s Last Citizen. Are there were similar biographies for Seneca and Marcus Aurelius? The books recommended at the end of Letters From a Stoic are rare and hard to find. Inner Citadel is a philosophical biography, but not a political/power biography.

  10. Dude I left some questions and comments in that reddit thing on your book. Can you go back and look at those? I need to understand these stoic writers fully. Why didn’t our parents give us these books when we were in highschool? Makes no fucking sense

  11. Everyone, read the book. Good recommendation.

    One thing to note:

    His unassailable place in Roman culture is best seen in the old proverbial expression used to make excuses: “We’re not all Catos.”

    One problem: “We’re not all Catos” refers to Cato the Elder, not Cato the Younger, the subject of the book and this post. Of course, the two shared a lot of the same qualities, and Cato the Younger is more respected, reputable, and famous. It would be totally reasonable for someone to make that statement about him. But that “proverbial expression” has nothing to do with his “unassailable place in Roman culture,” and is certainly not the best evidence of it.

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