Cato’s Speech on Stoic Philosophy
From Lucan’s The Civil War
(Quotations from the translation by Susan H. Braund.)
The poet Lucan (39-65 AD) was the nephew and student of the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (4-65 AD), and his epic The Civil War (De Bello Civili), also known as the Pharsalia after the Battle of Pharsalus, is steeped in Stoic philosophical themes and terminology. It describes the Great Roman Civil War (49-45 BC) between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate led by Pompey.
In the Pharsalia, Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) is portrayed as a Stoic hero or warrior-sage, because of his defence of the Roman Republic and defiance of the tyrant Julius Caesar. In Book Two, Cato is introduced as follows by Brutus:
‘Of Virtue long ago expelled and banished from all lands
you are now the sole support, and Fortune will not with any whirlwind
strike her from you: I call on you, as I hesitate and waver,
to guide and reinforce me with your resolute strength.’
Then Cato’s character is described by Lucan:
This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring: for Rome he is father and for Rome he is husband,
keeper of justice and guardian of strict morality,
his goodness was for the state; into none of Cato’s acts
did self-centred pleasure creep in and take a share.
In Book Nine, Cato marches his beleaguered troops through the deserts of Africa, where they endure many hardships, and suffer many casualties. However, they are inspired to persevere in the face of great adversity by Cato’s example. At one point, Cato’s army come across the only temple to Jupiter (or Zeus), under the name of Ammon, in the surrounding lands. A general who had defected from Caesar’s army, Labienus, urges Cato to consult the oracle about their fate in the civil war. However, Cato refuses to do so, because of his Stoic principles, and instead becomes a kind of oracle himself, delivering a short speech on Stoic doctrine to reproach and inspire his men.
He, filled with the god he carried in his silent mind,
poured forth from his breast words worthy of the shrine:
’What question, Labienus, do you bid me ask? Whether I prefer
to meet my death in battle, free, to witnessing a tyranny?
Whether it makes no difference if our lives be long or short?
Whether violence can harm no good man and Fortune wastes her threats
when virtue lines up against her, and whether it is enough to wish for
things commendable and whether what is upright never grows by its success?
We know the answer: Ammon will not plant it deeper in me.
We are all connected with the gods above, and even if the shrine is silent
we do nothing without God’s will; no need has deity of any
utterances: the Creator told us at our birth once and always
whatever we can know. Did he select the barren sands
to prophesy to a few and in this dust submerge the truth
and is there any house of God except the earth and sea and air
and sky and excellence? Why do we seek gods any further?
Whatever you see, whatever you experience, is Jupiter.
Let those unsure and always dubious of future events
require fortune-tellers: no oracles make me certain,
certain death does. Coward and brave must fall:
it is enough that Jupiter has said this.’ So declaring
he departed from the altars with the temples credit intact,
leaving Ammon to the peoples, uninvestigated.
Get my Newsletter
Subscribe to get information by email on new books and courses, special offers and discounts, etc.