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Attitude of Cato the Elder to Greeks and Greek Culture

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of an older man – the so-called patrician Torlonia. Considered to be a likeness of Cato the Elder
Roman bust showing an elderly man - the so-called patrician Torlonia. It is commonly believed that the sculpture depicts the famous Cato the Elder.

Wars in the East waged by legions in the early 2nd century BCE led to the expansion of the area controlled by the Republic. Along with the new territories, Greek culture reached the Tiber with its splendour and new ideas in the field of philosophy and literature. There was an exodus of Greek specialists to Rome.

After 167 BCE Polybius in an interview with Scipio Emilianus stated that there were many Greeks in the city, with whom Scipio could be studying. This process of “Hellenization” of Rome was accompanied by the fascination of some Roman elites with the Greek world. This group of nobles wanted to imitate the Greek way of life and acquired works of art from Hellas.

However, not all Roman aristocrats shared this point of view. The politician most criticizing the increasingly popular Philhellenism in Rome was Marcus Porcius Cato. He contrasted Greek customs with Roman traditions characterized by a simple life but rich in virtue. His ideal was a modest and thrifty citizen serving the Republic. During his political career, he ridiculed the nobles who were aping the life of the aristocracy of Hellas, demonstrating the superiority of Roman traditions over Greek ones. This hostility to Greek was also due to the fact that Roman leaders who won victories in the Hellenistic East grew rich, which contradicted his vision of a thrifty politician in the service of the state.

Cato showed his anti-Greek stance as Rome’s legate to the Greek lands, when he refused to address the inhabitants of these areas in their native language, insisting on his speech in Latin. Cato’s antipathy to the Greeks is best reflected in his statement quoted by Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia, in the context of the discussion of the medical profession:

[Greeks] are a most iniquitous and intractable race, and you may take my word as the word of a prophet, when I tell you, that whenever that nation shall bestow its literature upon Rome it will mar everything; and that all the sooner, if it sends its physicians among us. They have conspired among themselves to murder all barbarians with their medicine; a profession which they exercise for lucre, in order that they may win our confidence, and dispatch us all the more easily. They are in the common habit, too, of calling us barbarians, and stigmatize us beyond all other nations, by giving us the abominable appellation of Opici. I forbid you to have anything to do with physicians.

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, XXIX.7

There is evidence that Cato described philosophers (implicitly Greeks) as shrouds, and linked poetry to nudity and luxury. However, he was not ignorant, but had a thorough knowledge of Greek culture, as evidenced by his activities and literary works. Polybius recorded an episode when he asked Cato for further concessions for the Greeks, in addition to asking for the repatriation of the Achaeans interned in Italy in 167 BCE. He heard in response. that he is similar to the man asking to return to the Cyclops cave to retrieve his hat. Cato the Elder also quoted The Odyssey foretelling Scipio Emilianus that he would conquer Carthage. The assumption is that his manoeuvre in the battle with Antiochus III at Thermopylae in 191 BCE to step back into the rear of the Syrian army was a reference to the famous manoeuvre of Xerxes of 480 BCE One can easily hypothesize that when Cato called the monarchy in Greek zoon sarkophagon (animal devouring the body), he was referring to the Aristotelian definition of man as an animal living in the city – zoon politikon. Probably this contestation of the monarchical form of governance was caused by Cato’s observation of the excessive increase in wealth and political importance of people like Scipio Africanus. Another reference to Greek culture is the fact that Cato gave his slaves access to sexual pleasure as a reward for good behaviour – it was a reference to rewarding the brave guardians of the ideal state described by Plato.

A Roman copy of a Greek work depicting a sleeping Hermaphrodite. The object is dated to the middle of the 2nd century BCE.

Traces of the influence of Greek culture can also be seen in his writings – in the famous historical work Origines written in Latin. The title of the work itself echoes the work of Greek historians such as Timajos who undertook the study of the origins. The preface to Origines is a reference to a similar preface from the Sympozjon Xenophon, and the whole story described in Cato’s work resembles the work of the above-mentioned Timajos (in both cases we have the oldest history and description events relatively close to the author’s time). However, Origines Catona is a unique work, different from earlier Greek works on Italy and Rome – due to its focus on Italy and faithful recreation of the local tradition. Cato, however, takes into account in his work the presence and importance of the Greeks at the beginning of Rome.

Cato’s convergence with the views of Greek authors can be seen in the view, in line with Polybius, on the principle of exercising power in the Roman Republic, which was at the basis of the development of republican institutions and the history of Rome. This rule of government-dictated that the Roman republic was based not on the rule of one, but many people. This political system represents an oligarchy underpinned by the ideology of the supremacy of the aristocracy in society.

Summing up, Marcus Porcius Cato displayed an ambivalent attitude towards Greek. On the one hand, he had a thorough knowledge of Hellenic literature, on the other, he tried to fight Greek influences in Rome. This hostility may have resulted from the process of emerging among the Roman elite of a small group of very wealthy nobles, enriched by campaigns in the Greek East. It was also the result of the process of Hellenization of the Romans, considered by Cato as a threat to the traditional values ​​of generations of ancestors.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Crawford M., The Roman Republic, London 1992
  • Goldsworthy A., In the Name of Rome. The men, who won the Roman Empire, London 2006

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