For those interested in the history of statecraft, there are few subjects more compelling than the Roman Republic, and in particular the reasons for its downfall. Josiah Osgood, professor of classics at Georgetown University, has written an insightful and important book on this subject.
His book “Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic” delves into the political warfare waged between two of the leading men of first-century BC Rome: Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger.
Osgood is one of the leading historians of ancient Rome. His scholarship is evidenced by his ability to present in clear order what led to the destructive fighting between Caesar’s allies and Cato, and ultimately to the destructive civil war, known as Caesar’s Civil War.
Osgood states at the beginning of the book that “the war did not break out because of lingering hatreds in large sections of the population. It broke out because of fights between politicians. Years of demonization and threats, violence and obstruction, by Caesar, Cato and their respective allies, meant that each side was afraid to back down.
Preparing the ground for disaster
The author presents Cato the Younger as an irreproachable man (although his integrity does not always endear him to others), who took it upon himself to bring Rome out of the darkness of bribery and corruption. He never demands more of others than he demands of himself, though in a republic where politicians thrive on bribery and corruption, these demands are severe, difficult to meet and still more difficult to apply.
César is presented as a man in the making. His ambitious spirit is the opposite of Cato’s, though his qualities, such as generosity and mercy, along with his charismatic personality make him a rather likable figure.
The author succeeds in presenting these two figureheads as both attractive and repulsive. Caesar and Cato are unfortunately attractive and repulsive for opposite reasons. Cato is attractive due to his strong moral character, while at the same time his stoic lifestyle and morality lead him to be very uncompromising and quite prickly.
Caesar has no problem bending the rules, living lavishly, and breaking tradition, and it’s this lifestyle that makes him dearer to the citizens of the city-state than to members of the Senate.
Cato’s rigor is in direct opposition to Caesar’s flexibility. This is exemplified during the Senate debate on the Catiline conspiracy.
This plot was a coup attempt led by Lucius Sergius Catilina in 63 BC. Cato countered with death sentences for those involved, suggesting that mercy would lead to the overthrow of the republic. These counter-arguments presented at the beginning are a microcosm of the ongoing conflict between the two.
The Struggle for the Consulate
Cato’s control over the Roman Senate, his affinity for filibuster, and his disdain for human ambition (especially that of Caesar) lead to constant intrigues between the two politicians. As Caesar rose through the ranks, he used various methods to secure prominent places in Roman politics with the goal of becoming consul. Corruption, matrimonial alliances (which he marries and which he gives in marriage) and the eventual triumvirate (Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius “Pompey” Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus) help him achieve this goal.
Cato attempts to pull as many political levers as possible to keep Caesar at bay, but ultimately Caesar claims the consulship in 59 BC with Cato’s son-in-law Bibulus, an obvious anti-Caesar politician.
The author points out that the year in which Caesar’s consulship began marked the dismantling of the Roman Republic: “In trying to strangle Caesar, Cato had strangled compromise, an essential characteristic of politics. Both sides had reasons for what they were doing, but together they were undermining the Republic.
Osgood’s point is insightful and can be traced to the entire history of statecraft. Political opponents have their “reasons”, even if they are often reluctant to reason together, which results in negative ends. These ends are often the weakening of the established government or “large sections of the population”.
The mistrust between Caesar and Cato had grown so much that neither trusted the other’s motives. Caesar had an army on the outskirts of Rome, his military victories demanded much praise, but his desire was to become consul again. Cato would not support Caesar’s return to the consulship, and certainly not a return to Rome with an army at his command. Therefore, Cato ironically allowed Pompey to gather his own army and, even more ironically, to be installed as dictator.
As the story progresses, Caesar earnings more power, while Cato, and therefore the Senate, lose Powerful. Cato’s warnings of Caesar’s dictatorial aims are revealed, sometimes violently. The author shows Cato as a man trying to clog a ship with too many holes. Caesar, on the other hand, is at the helm.
A political warning
In Cato and Caesar we see the pinnacle of partisanship. It was more than two conflicting personalities. Cato and Caesar were (and are) the personifications of colliding political movements. Two sides “afraid to back down” chose war over compromise.
After Caesar’s assassination, another civil war, and the rise of Gaius Octavius (eventually known as Caesar Augustus), we see the best of Caesar and Cato converge, but at the expense of the Republic. Osgood further repeats that later Romans, as well as non-Roman statesmen, were strongly influenced by Cato and his relentless pursuit of moral politics and Stoicism.
“Uncommon Wrath” is a powerful work of large-scale political analysis. This indicates what can happen to even the most powerful nations when politics becomes too partisan and strong personalities defend their favorite factions.
The book is about two powerful figures who used their influence to create a massive partisan divide where compromise was untenable. Although there are no references to modern American politics, this is definitely a book for our times.
Osgood took one of history’s great moments and turned it into a feast of political wisdom that readers can feed on. It’s also a very enjoyable read strictly from a historical point of view.
“Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic”
By Josiah Osgood
Core Books, November 29, 2022
Hardcover: 352 pages