Rome’s Last Citizen [Book Review]

Title: Rome’s Last Citizen, The Life, and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar
Author: Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni
ISBN: 978-0-312-68123-4 (hardcover)
Copyright: 2012 by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni pgs. 366

Cato, how in the world did I end up here? While I’ve heard the name mentioned in my reading before, there was never enough interest to invest money or time into reading a book about him. I mean, what’s with all the hubbub, why the fan fair, why the influence throughout history? Why am I reading about Cato?

The answer is in my reading habits. My interest in history, particularly early American history, has me focused on the American Revolution, having read two books so far spanning the Revolution from start to finish now I am reading on some of the specifics covering the movers and shakers, events, battles, firsthand accounts from those who fought in it, etc. In my latest read Cato was mentioned as having had a big influence on Washington and in many respects, his life and cause inspired many, which affected in many respects, the outcome of the War. Washington, of course, is the key figure.

My question was this, of all the influential figures throughout history why Cato. Why not Leonidis, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Attila the Hun and so on, why Cato? Why was General Washington so fond of Cato, what was the draw concerning his life and politics that got Washington, at so young an age, so enamored with him? Anyone of the generals or philosophers of yesteryear would have sufficed.

There are two things I picked up from my reading on Cato that offer a glimpse into why Washington was drawn to him.

Cato was in many respects his own man. He was principled un-bought (would not accept nor endorse bribery) fought against tyranny was a good general and committed to his cause. His moral compass and tenacity even amid the most trying times made him the archenemy of Caesar and others. Even in Cato’s suicide at Utica, before facing Caesar in battle, his death and legacy plagued Caesar. It is here you see some similarities with General Washington; he was principled and earnest in his fight against British tyranny.

Washington’s account of the war and the many hardships he and the Continental Army faced, especially at Valley Forge, you see the effects of Cato’s example both in war and his stoicism. Washington remained composed in what would otherwise reduce other men to nothing.

The other draw to Cato for Washington was Cato’s philosophy. Cato’s example in stoicism lived on long after he died, we find later the Stoicism of Seneca was influenced by him; we read of Cato in Dante’s Divine Comedy and during the Age of Enlightenment a play was made after him a play by the way that was performed for Washington and his troops at Valley Forge. This was done as a means of inspiration and apparently, it worked. But what of Cato’s stoicism, how did this philosophy influence Washington? Pg 301 the authors write, “no one was more taken with Cato than George Washington, who read and reread it [The play, Addison’s Cato] and constantly quoted it, staged it at Valley Forge – set out to make himself into a latter-day Cato.”

Washington aligned himself with the ancient stoic in many ways, at the age of eleven he wrote 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. I picked this book up several years ago at a home school convention here in the city. Although some of the rules are dated it’s still a worthwhile read. I mean after all, what is wrong with being civil?

Washington at only seventeen read Seneca’s dialogues which “lionized Cato’s stoic virtues”, and lived to make them his own. These virtues would become an anchor point for Washington and helped enable him to be temperate under the most adverse of circumstances and to face death with a stoic frame of mind – serenity.

This book was a pleasant break from my current focus and opened up new levels of understanding with regards to the founding fathers of our nation. It was an easy read with plenty of drama as was typically for Cato’s age.

Have a great day and remember READ A BOOK! You won’t regret it!