Cato and the Conservative Senate
The First Triumvirate did not go unopposed. The conservative element of the Senate that prompted the three men to form an alliance was led by Cato the Younger. He was staunchly against the power of the Triumvirate and attempted to prevent their agenda as best he could. Cato was an early rival of Caesar and opposed his run for consul for 59 BCE by filibustering on the Senate floor for hours. He wanted to prevent the Senate from voting on whether to allow Caesar to run for consulship in absentia as well as hold a triumph (a public spectacle in celebration of military victories) for his military success in Spain. According to Roman tradition, you could not run for consul while holding other magistrate positions (thereby celebrate a triumph for your imperium). As a result, Caesar had to choose between a triumph and consulship, and he chose the latter. As we saw from last lesson, Caesar won the consulship in 59 BCE, despite Cato’s insistence otherwise. Caesar’s consular colleague was Marcus Bibulus, the husband of Cato’s daughter Porcia and whom Caesar treated with disrespect and intimidation.
Cato continued to oppose any legislation that Caesar wanted to pass and swore an oath to prosecute him for the crimes he committed while consul once his service expired (high magistrates were usually immune from prosecution while in office). This oath, as we shall see, will have a serious impact on Caesar’s decisions later. Much of Caesar’s intention behind his legislative agenda was to provide assistance to the poor, landless masses in Rome, thereby gaining political constituents, votes and support. According to Plutarch, in his biography of Cato the Younger, Cato saw Caesar’s tactic as “stirring up and attaching to himself the numerous diseased and corrupted elements in the commonwealth” and politically motivated rather than altruistic (Plutarch, Cato the Younger 26). Plutarch further explains Cato’s opposition to Caesar:
Caesar introduced another law, which provided that almost the whole of Campania be divided among the poor and needy. No one spoke against the law except Cato, and Caesar ordered him to be dragged from the speaker’s platform to prison. Cato did not remit his bold utterances, but as he walked along discoursed about the law and advised the people to put a stop to such legislation (Plutarch, Cato the Younger 33).
The historian, Cassius Dio gives us the additional detail that one “Marcus Petreius, upon being rebuked by Caesar because he was taking his departure before the senate was yet dismissed, replied: ‘I prefer to be with Cato in prison rather than here with you’” (Dio Cassius, Roman History 38.2). Clearly there was much opposition to Caesar within the Senate, but Cato was by far the most vocal.
In the end, Cato was unsuccessful in countering much of Caesar and the Triumvirate’s agenda. Instead of gaining Senatorial support, the three men used the method of the populares and bypassed the Senate by taking much of their legislation straight to the Assembly of the Plebs. Caesar was granted his consulship and later a command in Gaul, as we shall see. Pompey settled his veterans, and Crassus gained favorable financial status in the newly acquired east. Although Cato was attempting to uphold the ideals of the Republic, eventually his staunch conservative values prohibited any kind of compromise between members of the Triumvirate and set Rome on a path of inevitable civil war.
If Cato and his followers had been successful at countering Caesar’s agenda, do you think the Republic could have been saved at this point?
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