REVIEW: ‘Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic’
March 12, 2023
The great unresolved, perhaps never to be resolved, historical question is: Which is the greatest agent of change in history, the times and their conditions or human beings and their ambitions? Historians tend to divide between the two—Charles Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville toward the former, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay toward the latter. The standard thought has it that the truth lies between the two views. I am less than sure that it does.
Josiah Osgood, a professor of classics at Georgetown University, in his recent book Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic, comes down on the side of human ambition as the great moving force in history. He illustrates his position with Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) and Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 B.C.). Caesar was possibly the most ambitious man ever to walk the earth, and his talents—as a soldier, a politician, a writer—were in every way commensurate with that ambition. If Cato was ambitious, it was not for himself but for the Roman Republic, whose greatest enemy he thought, rightly, was Julius Caesar. Cato may even be said to have been an enemy of ambition per se. Caesar, for his part, viewed Cato as a persistent roadblock on his clearly marked path to preeminence in Rome.
The enmity between Caesar and Cato had its beginnings in what is known as the Catiline Conspiracy. The conspiracy entailed one Lucius Sergius Catilina, a patrician defeated in the 63 B.C. election for consul by Cicero, and defeated again the following year, who plotted a revolt against the Senate. Both Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus, a wealthy patrician, tended to side with Catilina, with Cicero—then consul of Rome—and Cato strongly against him. With Cato’s strong support, Cicero, with the consent of the Senate, arranged for the execution of the conspirators. When Caesar pled to spare them, Cato’s earlier suspicions about Caesar, as Josiah Osgood writes, “hardened into a deeper fear and hatred.” Caesar for his part “was appalled by Cato’s rage-filled attack, and by how Cato had carried the Senate with him. … The deadly rivalry had begun.”
Caesar came of the family of Julii, then in fading phase. Cato, known as the Younger, was the grandson of Cato the Elder, known for championing, in Josiah Osgood’s words, “traditional Roman values of hard work, austerity, and a willingness to make any sacrifice for the public good” and a man always ready to attack those Roman senators who deviated from those values.
Julius Caesar, often in debt, was lavish in his spending, Marcus Porcius Cato parsimonious. Caesar was licentious, a man with many love affairs, Cato abstemious in this line. Caesar was vain, not least about his early balding, Cato, according to Plutarch, “would often come to court without his shoes, and sit upon the bench without any undergarment, and in this attire would give judgment in capital causes, and upon persons of the highest rank.” Cato was known for his steely integrity, Caesar a careful caretaker of his own dignity.
So radically different in motive, manner, and temperament were the two men that no one could find them equally appealing. Most historians have chosen to favor one over the other. The great German classical scholar Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), for example, chose Caesar and was contemptuous of Cato, whom he described as “a man of the best intentions and of rare devotedness, and yet one of the most Quixotic and melancholy phenomena in this age so abounding in political caricature”—a man fit to be only “a tolerable master of finance.” Mommsen wrote: “The Don Quixote of the aristocrats, [Cato] proved by his character and his actions that at this time, while there was certainly an aristocracy in existence, the aristocratic policy was nothing more than a chimera.” As for Caesar, Mommsen wrote: “As a matter of course Caesar was a man of passion, for without passion there is no genius; but his passion was never stronger than he could control,” adding that he was “a master of the world.”
Josiah Osgood makes a valiant attempt not to choose sides between Caesar and Cato. Instead in measured prose he totes up their respective weaknesses and strengths. He mentions, though is not himself convinced of, Caesar’s Alexander Complex, in which Caesar, comparing himself to Alexander the Great at the same age, according to Suetonius “was heard to sigh impatiently: vexed, it seems, that at an age when Alexander had conquered the whole world, he himself had done nothing in the least epoch-making.” Noting that Caesar and Cato were effective orators, Osgood adds that “in differing ways, each man was a master of accruing and deploying power.” He reports that “both men shared a horror for the disaster of civil war, strong even for members of their generation.” Yet civil war, by Osgood’s calculations, is where the personal qualities of both men led them. “Caesar and Cato envisioned futures for Rome,” Osgood writes, “that could not coexist.”
Cato imagined a future that entailed retaining the power of the Senate and with it the traditions of the Roman Republic. With his heightened sense of what Osgood calls constantis, or steadfastness, Cato had a keen opposition to injustice and corruption wherever he found it—and in the Republican Rome it was not difficult to find. Yet his idealism, informed by his Stoic philosophy, often seemed at odds with reality. Osgood quotes Cicero, writing to his friend Atticus: “As for our friend Cato, I have as warm a regard for him as you. The fact remains that with all his patriotism and integrity he is sometimes a political liability. He speaks in the Senate as though he were living in Plato’s Republic instead of Romulus’s cesspool.”
Caesar was never slowed by idealism. He saw the weakness in the old Roman system of governing. After his military victories in Spain and Gaul, his own reputation now at its height, he felt his own leadership the logical next step in the alteration of that system. Carl Von Clausewitz famously noted that “diplomacy was war by other means”; Caesar was adept at making marriage politics by other means. He married off his daughter Julia to his rival Pompey, with whom, along with Crassus, he would form the first triumvirate in Rome. “Marriage and politics could rarely, if ever, be separated in the lives of senatorial families,” Osgood writes. “Marriage announced an alliance of a couple and their families—and divorce a split, sometimes acrimonious.” He recounts the story that Pompey wished to marry Cato’s daughters, the older one for himself, the younger for his son, adding that in doing so, “It was Cato whom Pompey was wooing.”
Nicely balanced though Josiah Osgood’s portraits of Caesar and Cato are, setting out the virtues and flaws of both men, one nevertheless wonders if the thesis announced in his subtitle—How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed The Roman Republic—finally holds up. Could not as strong an argument be made about the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey destroying the Republic be adduced? Might not the death of Crassus, at the hands of the Parthians, whom he went off to fight in the hope of accruing military glory for himself, whose demise split apart the triumvirate of himself, Pompey, and Caesar, leaving the latter two men to go after each other, be as convincing?
An argument quite as persuasive could be made that the end of the Roman Republic came about chiefly not because of any rivalries among prominent Romans but because, in the words of John Buchan in his excellent biography of the emperor Augustus, “Rome’s success had been her ruin?” Rome, the village founded in 753 B.C., had conquered all of Italy, many of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean, had devastated once powerful Carthage, its legions dominating Spain, Gaul, and even faraway Britain.
By the time of Caesar and Cato, Rome was, in effect, an empire without an emperor. The city’s republican government was no longer sufficiently flexible to rule and run such vast colonization. This government, much of it founded on its hatred of kingship—Rome’s last king was Tarquin, who ruled from 534-509 B.C.—was based on strict term limits: Consuls, for example, served only for a year and were then sent off to govern provinces for a term not to exceed two years. The Roman Senate set policy, but the various magistrates—aediles, pontifexes, quaestors, praetors, and consuls—had executive power, all subject to veto by both the Senate and the tribunes, the latter representing the populace.
The politically shrewd Julius Caesar doubtless sensed that the days of the Roman Republic were at an end, and who better to pick up the reins of leadership than he. Many Romans agreed. After his defeat of Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar proclaimed himself dictator perpetuo, a role he would doubtless have held for decades had he not gone out to the Theatre of Pompey on that March 15th afternoon. Two years before, Cato, at the age of 48, having taken the side of Pompey against Caesar, took his own life, death in his mind, as Josiah Osgood has it, being “necessarily preferable to defeat.”
Caesar killed by assassins, Cato by his own hand—a strange way for a strong rivalry to end, but then history often specializes in unexpected endings.
Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic
by Josiah Osgood
Basic Books, 352 pp., $32
Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.