Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men

Date: 1859

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Chapter XVI Cato the Censor: A Roman of the Old School



Anecdotes of his Public Career


Cato grew very powerful by his eloquence, so that he was commonly called the Roman Demosthenes. But his manner of life was yet more famous. For oratorical skill was, as an accomplishment, commonly studied and sought after by all young men. It was, however, very rare for a man to cultivate the old habits of bodily labor, or to prefer a light supper and a breakfast which never saw the fire; or to be in love with poor clothes and a homely lodging, or to set his ambition rather on doing without luxuries than on possessing them. . . . With reason, therefore, everybody admired Cato. When they saw others sink under labors, and grow effeminate by pleasures, they beheld him unconquered by either, and this, not only when he was young and desirous of honor, but also when old and gray-headed, after a consulship and triumph. He was like some famous victor in the Olympic games, persevering in his exercise and maintaining his character to the very last. . . .

For his general temperance and self-control, he really deserves the greatest credit. When he commanded the army, he never took for himself and for those that belonged to him, above three bushels of wheat for a month, and somewhat less than a bushel and a half a day of barley for his baggage-cattle. When he entered upon the government of Sardinia, where his predecessors had been used to require tents, bedding, and clothes upon the public account, and to charge the state heavily with the cost of provisions and entertainments for a great train of servants and friends, the difference Cato showed in his economy was something incredible. There was nothing of any sort for which he would put the public to expense. He would walk without a carriage to visit the cities, with only one of the common town officers, who carried his dress and a cup with which to offer libations. Yet, though he seemed thus easy and sparing to all who were under his power, he, on the other hand, showed most inflexible severity and strictness in what related to public justice. . . . The Roman government never appeared more terrible or yet more mild, than under his administration.

His manner of speaking was courteous, yet forcible; pleasant, yet overwhelming; facetious, yet austere; sententious, yet vehement. He was like Socrates, in the description of Plato, who seemed outwardly to those about him to be but a simple, talkative, blunt fellow; though at the bottom he was full of such gravity and matter, as would even move tears and touch the very hearts of his auditors. . . . We must now write down some of Cato’s memorable sayings; being of the opinion that a man’s character appears much more by his words, than by his looks.

Being once anxious to dissuade the common people of Rome, from their unseasonable and impetuous clamor for gifts and distributions of corn, he began thus to harangue them, "It is a difficult task, O citizens, to make speeches to the stomach, which has no ears." Reproving, also, their sumptuous habits, he said that it was hard to preserve a city, where a fish sold for more than an ox. He had a saying, also, that the Roman people were like sheep; for they, when single, do not obey, but when together in a flock, they follow their leaders. "So you," said he, "when you have got together in a body, let yourselves be guided by those whom singly you would never think of being advised by." Discoursing on the power of women, he remarked, "Men usually command women; but we command all men, and the women command us". . . .

The Romans once dispatched three ambassadors to Bithynia,1 of whom one was gouty, another had his skull trepanned, and the other seemed little better than a fool. Hereupon, Cato said that the Romans had sent an embassy which had neither feet, head, nor heart. His interest was once entreated by Scipio,2 on account of Polybius, for the Achæan exiles. There happened to be a great discussion in the Senate about it, some being for, and some against, their return. Cato, standing up, thus delivered himself, "Here we sit all day long, as if we had nothing to do but beat our brains whether these old Greeks should be carried to their graves by the bearers here, or by those in Achæa." . . . He used to assert, also, that wise men profited more by fools, than fools by wise men; since wise men avoided the faults of fools, but fools would not imitate the good examples of wise men. He would profess, too, that he was more taken with young men who blushed, than with those who looked pale; and that he never desired to have a soldier who moved his hands too much in marching, and his feet too much in fighting; or snored louder than he shouted. . . . When one who was much given to the pleasures of the table desired his acquaintance, Cato answered that he could not live with a man whose palate was of a quicker sense than his heart. He would likewise say. . . that in his whole life he most repented of three things: one, that he had trusted a secret to a woman; another, that he went by water when he might have gone by land; the third, that he had remained one whole day without doing any business of importance. . . .

1 . The Dryden translation, revised by A. H. Clough. Boston, 1859. Little, Brown, and Co.

2 For a notice of Plutarch see page 98.

3 Plutarch, Marcus Cato, 4, 6–9.

1 Bithynia, a division of Asia Minor, was at this time an independent kingdom.

2 Publius Cornelius Scipio Æmilianus. His friend Polybius, famous as the historian of Rome, was one of the 1000 Greek hostages brought from Achæa in 167 B. C. and detained in Italy for sixteen years.


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Chicago: Dryden, trans., "Anecdotes of His Public Career," Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 187–189. Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2022,

MLA: . "Anecdotes of His Public Career." Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men, translted by Dryden, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 187–189. Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: (trans.), 'Anecdotes of His Public Career' in Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.187–189. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2022, from