Nipissing University  -- History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Reading for February 5, 2001

Plutarch:  Life of Marcus Cato

Introduction (Muhlberger):

Plutarch, a Greek-speaking Roman citizen of the 2nd century A.D., was a prolific biographer and is our main source for many details about important figures and events of much earlier times.

A full translation of the Life of Marcus Cato can be found at:

Marcus Cato (Cato the Elder) lived in the 2nd century B.C., when Rome conquered most of the various Greek states; yet he was not very comfortable with the new intimacy between Greeks and Romans.  What does this account tell us about the Roman reaction to Greek civilization and culture?   Plutarch might have seen himself, by his very existence, as a refutation of Cato's fears.  Why?  Would Cato have agreed?

     He was now grown old, when Carneades the Academic, and Diogenes the Stoic, came as deputies from Athens
     to Rome, praying for release from a penalty of five hundred talents laid on the Athenians, in a suit, to which they
     did not appear, in which the Oropians were plaintiffs and Sicyonians judges. All the most studious youth
     immediately waited on these philosophers, and frequently, with admiration, heard them speak. But the gracefulness
     of Carneades's oratory, whose ability was really greatest, and his reputation equal to it, gathered large and
     favourable audiences, and ere long filled, like a wind, all the city with the sound of it. So that it soon began to be
     told that a Greek, famous even to admiration, winning and carrying all before him, had impressed so strange a love
     upon the young men, that quitting all their pleasures and pastimes, they ran mad, as it were, after philosophy; which
     indeed much pleased the Romans in general; nor could they but with much pleasure see the youth receive so
     welcomely the Greek literature, and frequent the company of learned men. But Cato, on the other side, seeing the
     passion for words flowing into the city, from the beginning took it ill, fearing lest the youth should be diverted that
     way, and so should prefer the glory of speaking well before that of arms and doing well. And when the fame of the
     philosophers increased in the city, and Caius Acilius, a person of distinction, at his own request, became their
     interpreter to the senate at their first audience, Cato resolved, under some specious pretence, to have all
     philosophers cleared out of the city; and, coming into the senate, blamed the magistrates for letting these deputies
     stay so long a time without being despatched, though they were persons that could easily persuade the people to
     what they pleased; that therefore in all haste something should be determined about their petition, that so they
     might go home again to their own schools, and declaim to the Greek children, and leave the Roman youth to be
     obedient, as hitherto, to their own laws and governors.

     Yet he did this not out of any anger, as some think, to Carneades; but because he wholly despised philosophy, and
     out of a kind of pride scoffed at the Greek studies and literature; as, for example, he would say, that Socrates was
     a prating, seditious fellow, who did his best to tyrannize over his country, to undermine the ancient customs, and to
     entice and withdraw the citizens to opinions contrary to the laws. Ridiculing the school of Isocrates, he would add,
     that his scholars grew old men before they had done learning with him, as if they were to use their art and plead
     causes in the court of Minos in the next world. And to frighten his son from anything that was Greek, in a more
     vehement tone than became one of his age, he pronounced, as it were, with the voice of an oracle, that the
     Romans would certainly be destroyed when they began once to be infected with Greek literature; though time
     indeed has shown the vanity of this his prophecy; as, in truth, the city of Rome has risen to its highest fortune while
     entertaining Grecian learning. Nor had he an aversion only against the Greek philosophers, but the physicians also;
     for having, it seems, heard how Hippocrates, when the king of Persia sent for him, with offers of a fee of several
     talents, said, that he would never assist barbarians who were enemies to the Greeks; he affirmed, that this was
     now become a common oath taken by all physicians, and enjoined his son to have a care and avoid them; for that
     he himself had written a little book of prescriptions for curing those who were sick in his family; he never enjoined
     fasting to any one, but ordered them either vegetables, or the meat of a duck, pigeon, or leveret; such kind of diet
     being of light digestion and fit for sick folks, only it made those who ate it dream a little too much; and by the use
     of this kind of physic, he said, he not only made himself and those about him well, but kept them so.