Porcia Catonis was the daughter of Cato of Utica, Cato the Younger, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic. We know little about her except a few anecdotes of dubious historical authenticity. However, she appears to be portrayed as a female Stoic, dedicated to philosophy, following in the footsteps of her renowned father.
She lived in the first century BC, several generations before the Roman Stoics of the Imperial period, whose works survive today: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. She was a contemporary of Cicero and the Stoic Posidonius of Rhodes. She was the wife of Brutus, a Roman politician and philosopher also influenced by Stoicism, who was to be the leading assassin of the tyrant Julius Caesar. Brutus’ mother was the half-sister of Cato the Younger, making him both Brutus’ uncle and later his father-in-law, via his marriage to Porcia. Plutarch’s Life of Brutus contains the following story:
Porcia, being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage, resolved not to inquire into Brutus’s secrets before she had made this trial of herself. She turned all her attendants out of her chamber, and taking a little knife, such as they use to cut nails with, she gave herself a deep gash in the thigh; upon which followed a great flow of blood, and soon after, violent pains and a shivering fever, occasioned by the wound.
Now when Brutus was extremely anxious and afflicted for her, she, in the height of all her pain, spoke thus to him: “I, Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, was given to you in marriage, not like a concubine, to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part in all your good and all your evil fortunes; and for your part, as regards your care for me, I find no reason to complain; but from me, what evidence of my love, what satisfaction can you receive, if I may not share with you in bearing your hidden griefs, nor to be admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust? I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets; but certainly, Brutus, a virtuous birth and education, and the company of the good and honourable, are of some force to the forming our manners; and I can boast that I am the daughter of Cato, and the wife of Brutus, in which two titles though before I put less confidence, yet now I have tried myself, and find that I can bid defiance to pain.”
Which words having spoken, she showed him her wound, and related to him the trial that she had made of her constancy; at which he being astonished, lifted up his hands to heaven, and begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia. So then he comforted his wife.
According to one story, when she later heard of Brutus’ death, Porcia committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. Although other accounts contradict this, it became a well-known story and inspired several authors, most notably Shakespeare.
Porcia was sometimes referred to as Portia in Elizabethan English literature. Shakespeare portrays her in the play Julius Caesar and in The Merchant of Venice he wrote:
In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.