Cato vs Hellenism

In the second chapter Gruen examines M. Porcius Cato, or Cato the Censor, a dominant figure in the second century of the Roman Republic. Gruen aims at challenging modern scholarship¹s common characterization of Cato as a radical antihellene who despised all things Greek, and attributed Rome's 'moral degeneration' to their acceptance of Greek cultural values. He writes, "Cato projected himself as a sharp critic of luxurious habits and lax moral discipline, characteristics conventionally associated with the Greeks -- at least by the Romans," (p. 54). In a few words, Gruen sees Cato's goal as not entirely separating Roman culture from Greek culture, but rather as one of holding to the more austere and conservative lifestyle of the Roman¹s while taking from the Greeks some of their learning and art. In this manner Rome's cultural supremacy could be thrown into greater relief against the lifestyle of the then-subservient Greeks, and also, Roman culture could to some degree be generated and refined in the adoption of those Greek things Rome deemed valuable.

The primary evidence for Cato as an antihellenic figure comes from a couple of extant sources. For one, Gruen notes one of Cato's speeches reproduced by Livy, which he passes off as being practically a fictional reproduction. Also, he examines fragments of an educational text believed to be composed for Cato's son. In regard to this educational text, Gruen posits that Cato may have been extremely harsh in his attack on Greek culture, and in his glorification of Rome in the work, in order to be sure he instilled 'good Roman values' in his son. This document indicates what Gruen asserts is Cato's greatest goal: the establishment of a unified culture and Rome¹s supremacy, which fell short particularly in the areas of art and learning until it began to incorporate a number of things from older, more sophisticated, orientalized Greece.

Gruen entirely discounts the speech Livy attributes to Cato. The speech, claimed to be a reconstructed part of a debate on the repeal of the lex Oppia (sumptuary laws) in the year 195, blames Roman luxury and extravagance on imported Greek culture and attacks the adoption of certain Hellenic gods, claiming these newly syncretized deities are being valued above those of the Romans. Gruen sees this speech as a complete reconstruction, practically a piece of fiction from Livy's own mind, filled with anachronisms and other difficulties. In particular, the speech is filled with"clichés of the Augustan era" (p. 70), giving Cato the language of Livy's own time. Livy also discusses the statues of gods taken from Syracuse and Athens, those same deities and figures Cato allegedly claimed were being prized above Rome's. Gruen points out that there could not possibly have been enough marble statues like this in 195 B.C., and that this must certainly be an anachronism. Evidently, Livy manufactured the speech himself and it ought to have no merit in the eyes of classical historians or in our sketching of Cato's character. What is also salient is that Gruen often makes this sort of argument in his work, using distinct moments and facts to fit broader themes. He would like the reader to believe that since this antihellenistic speech was created by Livy, Cato is no antihellene. In order to be sure, one must look at further evidence.

Gruen continues to cite examples where Cato attacks luxury, philosophy, oratory, or any number of things which seemed to detract from the citizen's duty to the state (e.g. conduct and holding of political office, warring afar, etc.). Cato's vision of this duty most definitely had its roots in Rome's history of fearless, stoic soldiers and agrarian farmers, of toil and struggle that held little place for pedants and sophists, empty words, or extravagant living. Certainly he used Greek culture as a target for his critiques of certain lifestyles and habits, as it provided a foil for stressing effeminacy and moral decline in Rome. But Gruen posits these attacks to be nothing more than a means for effectively criticizing problems in Roman culture, keeping Rome supreme, unique, and in tune with its cultural roots. Unfortunately, Gruen discusses these cultural roots very little.

Gruen goes on to discuss Cato's life, which serves to distinguish him not as an antihellene but rather as a sort of conservative moralizer and 'nationalistic' politician. Cato had extensive knowledge of Greek language and literature and was no stranger to Hellas' customs. Specifically, Gruen cites a speech Cato delivered in Athens. Although Cato knew Greek well, he chose to speak Latin to his audience. Gruen holds the reason for this to be more complex than modern scholarship¹s hasty assumption that Cato loathed Greek culture. Another interpretation is that Cato aimed at giving Greek culture a sort of secondary status to that of Rome, thus being sure to establish latin as the lingua franca for the time and region. Gruen writes, "Roman superiority could best be asserted by a man who commanded Greek language and literature -- and found them wanting," (p. 81).

So, far from being a vicious opponent of Greek culture, Cato has a vision of Roman culture that placed it superior to that of Hellas but also existed in relationship to it. Through familiarity with Greek culture and proving mastery in it, one could more legitimately make a claim of its inferiority. Also, Roman culture could assume its finest aspects, and fully flesh itself out in contrast with Greek culture. Gruen is careful to point out that Cato even claimed the origins of the Latin language and writing to be in Greece. In the end, one sees a proud statesman who aims at reinforcing and creating Roman values through their relationship with Greek culture. Cato is no antihellene, but a moral reformer and one of the fathers of late republican culture in that volatile time.

But there remain a few problems with Gruen's treatment of Cato. He gives Cato an exceptional amount of importance, performing a fairly narrow study while attempting to make a case for the factors in the cultural development of the Roman republic. The question becomes: Even if Cato's ideology prevailed in Rome and in the evidence we see today, how great was Cato's actual effect on Rome? Such a narrow focus on one man leaves other important figures out of the discussion, which leads one to wonder what other views might have been popular or at least existed in the Roman Republic. Somewhat related, one must wonder if Gruen's argument is too clean, in hindsight giving Cato too much credit and consistency of character, while people are rarely so easy to figure out according to the rationality of their actions. And lastly, one must note that Gruen often makes assumptions where there is no supportive evidence. For example, since Gruen manages to find arguments contradicting Cato being antihellenic, he makes the leap that Cato then in fact was a proponent of Greek culture as long as it is given a secondary importance to that of Rome. There is no evidence for this sort of position, of course, but it is certainly a possibility.