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Review: “Uncommon Wrath” by Josiah Osgood

Pierre Bouillon’s 1797 painting “The Death of Cato the Younger of Utica”

“[Josiah] Osgood’s book is a welcome and exciting read about the rivalry between Caesar and Cato; Cato, in the process, finally receives some much-deserved due in the story of the republic’s final decades.”

The fall of the Roman Republic and the following dictatorship of Julius Caesar are likely the most famous events in Roman history. Not even the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. has captured our imagination to the degree of the final decades of the republic, with its panorama of personalities, among the most famous being Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger. In his new book, Uncommon Wrath, the eminent classicist Josiah Osgood retells this story through the unflinching and uncompromising rivalry of Caesar and Cato as their personal competition paralyzed the republic and brought it to civil war.

Once upon a time, Cato the Younger was a name as well known as Caesar’s. Dante, in his Divine Comedy, had the virtuous and just Cato guarding the realm of Purgatory as souls prepared their ascent into Paradise. Cato was a mighty influence upon the early modern political theorists, who championed republican government and personal liberty against the monarchies of Europe. George Washington was heavily influenced by the speeches of Cato and Joseph Addison’s hagiographic drama, often quoting him to rouse the spirits of his soldiers during the direst moments of the American War of Independence. Today, the libertarian think tank Cato Institute is indirectly named after him, taking its name from Cato’s Letters penned by Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard in the early 1720s, which excoriated corruption, the lack of moral virtue in politics, and how corruption and immorality are the stepping stones to tyranny. These were, of course, the exact arguments Cato made during the nadir of the Roman republic.

The formative years for Caesar and Cato were during the days of the Catiline Conspiracy. “The age of Catiline,” Osgood reminds his readers, “was an age in which virtually everyone in public life was bent on trying to capture the Republic for himself.” The Catiline Conspiracy, which saw the Senator Catiline attempt to seize power himself through a cunning plan of murder, riot, and usurpation, was eventually exposed and put down by Cicero, another of the remarkable and famous figures of that era. But “two men of extraordinary excellence” were also intimately involved in dealing with the Catiline Conspiracy: Caesar and Cato.

These two men, however, were very different. Although both had aristocratic lineages, Caesar was a supporter of the populares, whereas Cato was a stalwart stallion of the optimates. The populares referred to the faction of Roman politicians advocating land reform, increases in welfare (bread) allotment to the poor, and debt forgiveness to the masses. The optimates were conservative defenders of Senatorial prerogative, but men like Cato (and Cicero) constantly warned against the militarization of the masses by populare politicians (like Caesar) and widespread corruption within and without the political system. Further differences grew in time: Caesar would become a military hero, and he commanded the loyalty of entire legions (much to the consternation of the Senate, including Cato). Cato, on the other hand, became a leading orator and anti-corruption activist from within the Senate. The lines were being drawn as both men aged and matured.

What follows in Osgood’s dual biography is a gripping and riveting side-by-side account of Caesar and Cato as they rose through the political ranks of the late republic and their own personal rivalry led to a deadlock in politics. Caesar recognized Cato as a stalwart opponent of his own political ambitions. Cato saw Caesar as a dangerous demagogue, a populist rebel keen on overturning the traditions of the Senate and feeding corruption through bribery, while stoking the passions of the masses. Eventually, the two squared off against each other.

During the rivalry between Caesar and Cato, Caesar sought to have Cato arrested numerous times. Cato, though a master orator and stoic, also knew how to play a crowd. By allowing himself to be hauled away, he would win the sympathy of the Senate (and the citizens of Rome) as a defender of justice and peace being unfairly punished by Caesar (and his reliance on brute force). Caesar, intelligent as he was, realizing Cato’s plans, backed down and had the senator released so as not to give Cato his prize. The back-and-forth between the two as they maneuvered against each other and advocated their respective political causes led to wear and tear within the political system.

Although Osgood’s book mostly concerns itself with Caesar and Cato, other notable names leap out from the pages. As mentioned already, Cicero is a prominent player in the late republic. As is Pompey. So too, Crassus (before his ignominious death fighting the Parthians). As Caesar grew in power and popularity from his military exploits, Cicero and other leading optimates had to turn to Pompey as the final bulwark against Caesar. In turning to Pompey as the last line of defense for the Senate, and with Cato (and Cicero) clamoring on and on about the dangers of Caesar, the condemnation of Caesar finally came. As we know from history, Plutarch, and Shakespeare, the die was cast. Caesar took his army and marched on Rome. A civil war ensued. 

The collapse of the republic into a civil war equally reads as a commentary on American politics. “For government to function peacefully,” Osgood writes, “politicians could not push the rules to the limits, and they sometimes needed to back down.” Elsewhere, “Politicians can and must argue with each other all the time. But regularly staking out extreme positions, while perhaps rewarding for an individual’s politician’s career, threatens to devastate the political system overall.” No wonder why parallels to the fall of Rome always arise in times of intense political crisis.

The only problem with Osgood’s political table talk is what exactly constitutes an “extreme” position? In the view of Cato, Cicero, and the other optimates, Caesar and the populares were taking extreme positions. The flip side was true for Caesar and the populares; the inflexibility of the optimates to concede to populist reforms was extreme. If one then applies Osgood’s commentary to the politics of today, which is undoubtedly part of his intent, who gets to decide what is extreme and what is not? The extremes of 50 years ago are now normal today. The norms of 50 years ago are now said to be extreme. Plus, it is not as if either side did not have good points. Debt and land reforms were needed; all the while, corruption and political violence within the political system also needed cleansing. The problem, then, was not that one side was moderate and the other extreme. Neither side wanted to concede to the good points the other side was making. Unsurprisingly, conflict ensued.

Cato, to this end, certainly comes out the better man, even if his refusal to moderate or to compromise played a role in the slide to civil war. “Cato believed that unless changes were made, there would be a total breakdown of politics.” Cato knew changes were needed. Yet Cato refused to accept the changes offered by the populares out of fear of Caesar (and those fears were proven correct, and this justifies Cato’s intransigence). Thus, as Caesar marched on Rome with his legionary army in violation of political precedence, Cato joined with Pompey and the other republicans to fight against Caesar’s despotism. 

Was Caesar’s victory foreordained? 

Osgood says no. We remember Caesar’s victory because he was victorious. However, the early (and even middle) part of the civil war seemed to favor the republican cause. Pompey and the Senate had evacuated to Greece and commanded the seas. They controlled the grain supplies from Egypt that the city of Rome depended on. They also controlled the grain supplies from North Africa, then one of the principal breadbaskets of the Roman republic-cum-empire. Furthermore, Pompey’s eastern campaigns from decades earlier ensured strong support from the client kings and queens of the east.

How, then, did Caesar emerge victorious? He was cunning and daring, the very things we still remember him for. Caesar made his bold cross of the sea to Greece in winter, a time when the republicans thought Caesar would stay encamped in Italy. Once in Greece, he brought the fight to Pompey and the republicans. Although outnumbered, he relied on his own unpredictability and scored the decisive victory at Pharsalus. The republicans had to split up and flee, with Cato and leading senators sailing to North Africa. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was eventually killed. 

Caesar then arrived in Egypt, met the charming and seductive Cleopatra, impregnated her, defeated her enemies, and installed her on the throne. Caesar then left Egypt and sailed to North Africa. He was confronted by a formidable second army and was outnumbered. But he managed to defeat his rivals by mitigating their cavalry advantage. He then marched on Utica, where Cato and numerous senators were holding out.

The arrival of Caesar in North Africa and his defeat of the republican army at Thapsus spelled the end for Cato. The stoic that he was, he remained in the city rather than escape (though he advised others to do so in order to keep up the fight). He wanted to ensure order and make sure that innocent civilians were not killed in the chaos that followed the republican defeat and Caesar’s impending arrival. With no options left and wishing to deny Caesar the opportunity to extend a hand of clemency (Cato understood the power of political theatrics), the noble and virtuous senator for liberty and justice committed suicide. He stabbed himself and pulled out his entrails before his aides and friends could stitch him back up.

“Cato chose to take his own life, but his death could be seen—was meant to be seen—as the final act of a martyr who suffered for the cause of freedom.” To the extent that we still remember Cato, we remember him as a martyr for freedom. “He had allowed himself to be pelted with stones, dragged off the Rostra, hauled to prison—and now stabbed. When he tore out his guts, he made himself stronger than ever before.”

Osgood’s book is a welcome and exciting read about the rivalry between Caesar and Cato; Cato, in the process, finally receives some much-deserved due in the story of the republic’s final decades. Although Cato, in his own inflexibility, helped to cause the deadlock that led to civil war, there is no doubt that Cato’s politics were sincere. As Osgood shows, from his youthful days saving a teenage boy from rape at a party to his insistence on public justice and an end to corruption wherever it was found, Cato had a stern moral virtue that commanded his soul. Unfortunately, that also made him an immovable object to the populares whom he singularly saw through the lens of violence and self-advancement though the causes of debt forgiveness and land reform were pressing matters that, if enacted, may have given the republic a new lease on life. The rest—as the saying goes—is history.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. His most recent book is Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the Classics. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause 

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