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Cato denounces generals like Julius Caesar who use success on the battlefield as a stepping stone to political power (1710)

Marcus Porcius Cato (95–46 B.C.) was a Stoic philosopher and politician who opposed the actions of the Roman general Julius Caesar who used his successes on the battlefield to make himself dictator of Rome. In this passage “Marcus” denounces the would be tyrant for seeking political greatness by means of slaughter and the ruin of his country:

Thy steady temper, Portius,

Can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar,

In the calm lights of mild philosophy;

I’m tortured ev’n to madness, when I think

On the proud victor: every time he’s named

Pharsalia rises to my view!—I see

The insulting tyrant, prancing o’er the field

Strowed with Rome’s citizens, and drenched in slaughter,

His horse’s hoofs wet with Patrician blood!

Oh, Portius! is there not some chosen curse,

Some hidden thunder in the stores of heaven,

Red with uncommon wrath, to blast the man

Who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?

SCENE I

Portius, Marcus.

Portius

The dawn is overcast, the morning lowers, And heavily in clouds brings on the day, The great, the important day, big with the fate Of Cato and of Rome.—Our father’s death Would fill up all the guilt of civil war,

And close the scene of blood. Already Caesar Has ravaged more than half the globe, and sees Mankind grown thin by his destructive sword: Should he go further, numbers would be wanting To form new battles, and support his crimes.

Ye gods, what havoc does ambition make Among your works!

Marcu

Thy steady temper, Portius, Can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar, In the calm lights of mild philosophy; I’m tortured ev’n to madness, when I think

On the proud victor: every time he’s named Pharsalia rises to my view!—I see The insulting tyrant, prancing o’er the field Strowed with Rome’s citizens, and drenched in slaughter, His horse’s hoofs wet with Patrician blood!

Oh, Portius! is there not some chosen curse, Some hidden thunder in the stores of heaven, Red with uncommon wrath, to blast the man Who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?

Portius

Believe me, Marcus, ’tis an impious greatness,

And mixt with too much horror to be envied. How does the lustre of our father’s actions, Through the dark cloud of ills that cover him, Break out, and burn with more triumphant brightness! His sufferings shine, and spread a glory round him;

Greatly unfortunate, he fights the cause Of honour, virtue, liberty, and Rome. His sword ne’er fell but on the guilty head; Oppression, tyranny, and power usurped, Draw all the vengeance of his arm upon ’em.

Marcus

Who knows not this? but what can Cato do Against a world, a base, degenerate world, That courts the yoke, and bows the neck to Caesar? Pent up in Utica he vainly forms A poor epitome of Roman greatness,

And, covered with Numidian guards, directs A feeble army, and an empty senate, Remnants of mighty battles fought in vain. By heavens, such virtues, joined with such success, Distract my very soul: our father’s fortune

Would almost tempt us to renounce his precepts.

About this Quotation:

Joseph Addison’s play Cato: A Tragedy (1710) is another one in our series commemorating a significant anniversary in 2010. It is 300 years since the play was first written and 297 years since it was first performed. The play became very popular in the American colonies in the years prior to the Revolution because of its strong stand against tyrants like Julius Caesar and the destruction of the Republic and the consequent emergence of the Empire (the parallel with Great Britain was obvious to 18th century American readers). Ten years after the play was written John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon began writing their very popular and influential newspaper articles under the pen name of “Cato” in which they denounced tyranny, empire, corruption, and the destruction of liberty in very similar terms to those used by Addison (Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects (1720-1723)). One might also mention that Shakespeare used the assassination of Caesar as the basis of one of his plays, and Voltaire set his play Brutus (finished in 1730 but which he started to write while in England during the 1720s) some 500 years earlier in which Brutus defends republican liberty against kingly tyranny. Voltaire’s play was very popular during the French Revolution until another successful general rose to power and created yet another Empire.

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