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Cato and women

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of Cato the Younger
Bust of Cato the Younger | Photo: Flavio Konti

In “The Life of Cato Younger” Plutarch we learn a lot about the private life of Cato. The work also accidentally paints a picture of how conservative Romans perceived the role of women in society.

According to Plutarch, Cato was reportedly unlucky with women, and not only with wives. His half-sister, Servilia Cepionis, had a tarnished reputation for her relationship with Caesar. Once a wax tablet was brought to a Senate meeting. Cato, believing that there was evidence of participation in the Catiline conspiracy, ordered it to be read. But then Caesar showed him the tablet, and Cato recognized his sister’s handwriting. And the second Servilia, Katona’s niece, was not better. She got married to Lucullus but also had to leave his house due to promiscuity. It is said that Cato’s own wife, Atilla, “was not free from such sins,” Plutarch says. They had two children but he was forced to divorce her due to “immorality”.

Then Cato married Marcius Philippus’ daughter, Marcia, considered a very decent one, who was known for her virtues. According to Plutarch, as in drama as in life, this relationship turned out to be full of problems that were difficult to solve. At that time, Cato already had a daughter, Porcia, who was the wife of Bibulus, Caesar’s great enemy and Cato’s henchman.

Citing the historian Plutarch writes that Quintus Hortensius, a man of great respect and decent decency, admired Cato greatly. No less admired his daughter, beautiful Porcja, later wife of Marcus Junius Brutus. He wanted to become not only a trusted friend of Cato, but also related to him through kinship, the community of home and family. He began to persuade him that Porcja, who had already had two children with Bibulus, should be handed over to him, “as a noble role for fertile sowing”. At that time in Rome it was not considered indecent. Hortensius claimed, however, that “in nature it is good and for the motherland, that a woman should not be idle and the ability to give birth, but also not be a burden to the house, giving birth to too many children and contributing to its impoverishment without need”. He maintained that “when decent husbands share their offspring, there will be no envy between the families of rich fertility, and the motherland itself will be more closely related by kinship.” He also agreed to give the Portion to Bibulus. He promised that if Bibulus wanted to keep his wife, he would send her back to him immediately after the birth of his children, already related to Bibulus and Cato by this community of children. Cato did not agree to such a trade in his daughter. We will say, no wonder, after all, he was a model of virtue.

And yet….

Cato replied that he liked and respected Hortensius as a close family, but in his opinion, it was impossible to talk to him about the marriage of a daughter already given to another. Undaunted, Hortensius immediately changed his mind and bluntly asked for Cato’s own wife, Marcia, who was still young and could still bear children. Plutarch writes that “it cannot be argued that he did this because he knew Cato did not feel attracted to Marcia; because then she was, they say, pregnant.”

Cato, seeing “Hortensius sincerely eagerly”, did not refuse him. He decided to divorce Marcia, he only added that it was necessary to inform also Marcia’s father, Philippus. So when Philippus took note of this at the meeting, he handed over Marcía to him, but with Cato’s presence and his consent. Let us add that Philippus, the “model of virtues”, was then the husband of Atia Balba Caesonia, mother of Octavia and of Octavius, the future Octavian Augustus. All of them, in the opinion of contemporary historians, were considered models of virtue.

Plutarch saw fit to add this story. He did not write that when Marcia actually gave birth to Hortensius’ child, Hortensius died soon. Then his and Marcia’s child inherited the huge fortune of Hortensius. Back then, in 50 BCE, there was a civil war between Pompeians and Caesarians, and Marcia returned to Cato’s house.

Suffice it to say that, indeed, such “trafficking in women” was not normal in Rome, and couples who lived together in a single relationship of old age enjoyed respect. Cato was accused by his contemporaries of trafficking with his wife. Even Caesar and Antony reprimanded him, although they were both accused of promiscuity. The case got much publicity in Rome.

The above story should not be read as a mockery of Cato’s somewhat twisted sense of decency, or of his hypocrisy. He was probably convinced that such a solution was perfectly appropriate from the republic’s point of view. Probably, like many moralists, he was reprehensively approaching the gusts of passion, but he did not notice anything wrong in his cold calculation. Unfortunately, we do not know what opinion Marcia herself had on the whole incident (which sounded unintentionally ironic).

Author: Izabela Henning (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Appian, The Civil Wars II
  • Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger

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