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Cato’s Triumph: Cato’s Attempt to Redefine the Roman Triumph.

Noah Segal

University of California, Santa Barbara

          The letters exchanged between Cicero and Cato in 50 BCE (Fam. 15.4-6 = SB 110-112) are among the most memorable of Cicero’s epistolary corpus. Cicero’s initial request for Cato’s support for a supplicatio en route to a triumph, Cato’s refusal, and Cicero’s reply give the modern scholar an excellent resource for understanding the politics that went into such a request. Given the conservative reputation of both Cato and his family, and perhaps skepticism of Cicero’s qualification for triumphal consideration, some have chosen to see Cato’s withholding of support as a defense of traditional Roman values (Wistrand 1979: 24-5). I argue that such an understanding of Cato’s letter (15.5 = SB 111) overlooks the ways in which Cato rewrites Roman aristocratic values in respect to the triumph. In his response to Cicero, Cato describes an honorific economy that greatly devalues military achievement and the glory assigned to successful imperatores. Such a conception of the triumph stands in stark contrast to other contemporary understandings of the triumph and its role within Roman political life.

          In recent years scholars have recognized that the triumph is a more complicated political institution than previously acknowledged (Beard 2004, Itgenshorst 2005, Pittenger 2008, (eds.) Lange and Vervaet 2014). While the last generation of the Roman republic yielded some of the most memorable triumphs, it was also one of the most difficult periods for obtaining the honor (Beard 2007: 198ff; Steel 2013: 220-221, 242). In a span of time that roughly corresponds with the inception and rise of Cato’s political career, we are able to trace both a decrease in triumphal frequency, as well as a noticeable increase in the obstruction that generals seeking a triumph faced. To attribute the increased appearance of triumphal obstruction solely to Cato would be speculative, but he appears repeatedly at the forefront of efforts to block successful generals from triumphing. When Cato’s obstruction (eg. Pompey in 61 BCE and Caesar in 60 and 50 BCE, Spinther in 54 BCE) is viewed through what we know of the values that surrounded senatorial decisions regarding the triumph his position appears less conservative and more ideologically innovative.

          Finally, having considered Cato’s role in triumphal obstruction more critically, my paper gives a new reading of Cato’s letter to Cicero in 50 BCE. Cato’s brief response regarding his refusal to lend his support posited that a supplicatio would redirect credit from Cicero to the gods, and that a reputation for upright administration was a more valuable reward than a triumphal parade (15.5.2 = SB 111.2). Cato’s conception of reward undermines the well-documented economy of honor in exchange for beneficium, the ideological engine that was expected to drive republican politics in pursuit of the common good (Rosenstein 2006; Morstein-Marx 2010). Likewise, Cicero’s interesting criticism of Piso in the In Pisonem for failing to pursue a triumph strongly suggests that Cato’s obstruction of triumphal honors was at odds with prevailing senatorial values. I argue that Cato’s letter to Cicero gives us a firsthand account of the ideological basis of Cato’s opposition to his militarily successful colleagues. Our other sources focus on Cato’s tactics for obstructing others, but Cato’s exchange with Cicero shows us the values for which Cato went to such lengths in his opposition. Military achievement was the most powerful political tool in the late republic, and one of which Cato made no personal use. Cato’s opposition to the triumphs of others sought not only to undermine his opponents, but to redefine Roman values in a way to prioritize non-martial virtues. Cicero famously said that Cato lived, “as if in Plato’s Republic and not Romulus’ cesspool” (Att. 2.1.8 = SB 21); the epistolary conversation concerning Cicero’s supplicatio illuminates firsthand Cato’s alternate political reality.

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Spectacle and Authority

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