Cato vs. The Dancing Girls of Ancient Rome

The dancing girls would take their clothes off, but not while Cato the Younger was in the audience.

It was 55 BC, and the Floral Games were in full…um…bloom. The Games were the culmination of a week-long festival celebrating fertility, with the usual accompanying shenanigans: outrageous dress, lots of drinking, prostitutes being treated like queens, and a troupe of dancing girls in an amphitheatre reminding the spectators of the rites of spring.

A message came down to Cato where he was seated in the crowd. The spectators wanted “to encourage the girls to take off their clothes, but are embarrassed to do so with Cato watching.”

Cato got up from his seat without a word and went for the exit. A chronicler reports that “As he was leaving, the crowd loudly applauded him and then went back to their usual theatrical pleasures.”

The spectators catcalled, the dancers disrobed, “and the Floral Games went on.”

This scene captures the feeling Rome had for the man who was their moral compass. They didn’t want him to see them at their low points, but instead of rising to the high ground that Cato had staked out for himself, they just wanted him to be somewhere else. They were “eager to applaud him for leaving, unwilling to follow him out.”

If we can equate the dismantling of the Republic with some dancing girls stripping to the buff, the same scenario plays out: Rome would embrace empire, shamefully, as long as Cato wasn’t watching them as they did it, reminding them the entire time that they could have done better.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast):

***

Cato had come back from Cyprus in triumph. He had been sent there to get him out of the way while the First Triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Marcus Crassus used the institutions of the Roman Republic, and their own gifts, to gain ultimate power.

Cato had administered the annexation of Cyprus as a Roman province responsibly, returning to Rome with a fortune in silver and a bullseye on his forehead. It was a foregone conclusion that he would be accused of lining his own pockets like every other provincial governor (including his own great-grandfather, Cato the Elder), and the financial records that could prove otherwise were at the bottom of the sea.

Julius Caesar and his partners had used Cato’s absence from Rome to proceed with their long-term plans, but Caesar, as usual, found himself on the razor’s edge. His smashing victories in Gaul had captured the imaginations of the Roman people and lent him a reputation greater than Pompey’s, who up to that moment had been considered Rome’s greatest military hero.

But Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was a delaying tactic; he had been consul in 59 BC and had bent and broke Roman laws while doing it. Once his time in Gaul was up and he came home, he could be prosecuted for his crimes. He needed protection, which meant Pompey and Crassus would have to again be elected consuls for the year.

Caesar’s two partners had gotten everything they originally wanted from the Triumvirate-Pompey the general had gotten land for his soldiers and Crassus the mogul had made a ton of money. Their motivation to keep working with Caesar, who might one day soon be cast down in disgrace, was low. But Pompey had married Caesar’s daughter, which was the glue that held them together, and Crassus, always looking for glory, had his eye on a military conquest of Syria.

Caesar managed to persuade them to hang in there by bringing up the one guy they were all afraid of, the one who, despite having no legions, no money, and no political office, had managed to thwart all three of them.

Cato the Younger was back in town, and the Triumvirate needed to stick together.

A fracturing of their alliance would be just the opening Cato and Cicero needed to undo all they had accomplished and take back everything they had been given. It would mean the Republic would be back on top, and all three of them remembered what that had been like.

The first step was to neutralize Cicero, who had been sent into exile by way of the tribune Clodius, no doubt acting under instructions from the triumvirs. Pompey lobbied the Senate to allow Cicero to return home and be compensated for all the property that had been stolen or destroyed when he left town.

Which meant Cicero owed Pompey a favor.

Unlike Cato, Cicero hadn’t made the best of his exile. He was desperate to get back to Rome and solve his money troubles, so as soon as he returned he repaid the favor he owed, praising Pompey in the Senate and offering no objection to the lifesaving extension of Caesar’s Gallic campaign. There were very likely some loans provided from Crassus so Cicero could rebuild his estates.

Cicero confided in his best friend, “since those who have no power refuse me their affection, let us take care to secure the affection of those who have power.” Later in the same letter he admits, “I have made an ass of myself.”

That was one problem solved for Caesar. Cicero himself took care of another one on his own: driving a wedge between himself and Cato.

***

Cicero couldn’t exactly admit to his new friends the First Triumvirate that they were the cause of his exile. The same way that Caesar had used Clodius as a proxy for his attack on Cicero, Cicero went after Clodius to get revenge.

In 56 BC, Cicero went before the Senate to get them to “demand that every action Clodius had taken as tribune…be declared null and void. He argued that Clodius had been ineligible for the office of Tribune of the Plebs because he was a fake pleb. (Clodius had arranged for himself to be adopted by a twenty year old).

In particular, Cicero wanted his decree of banishment erased from the public record.

But it was Cato of all people who rose up to challenge him. Cato had nothing good to say about Clodius-the man who had sent him into exile — but he had been legally elected by the people, and it would set a damaging precedent if the Senate could decide after the fact that an election or an administration was invalid. He knew it was just the kind of thing Caesar and his Triumvirate would exploit. Cato had every reason to despise Clodius, but he had to draw a line at chipping away at the institutions of the Republic, which would have been doing Caesar’s work for him.

Nullifying all of Clodius’s actions as tribune would also invalidate the annexation of Cyprus and all the work Cato had done to bring the island into Rome’s orbit. This issue was personal for him.

Cicero, blindsided by his former ally, took Cato’s objections as a betrayal. At a time when the Republic needed them both on the same side, they fell out. Cicero put the cherry on the sundae when he petitioned the Senate to extend Caesar’s command in Gaul for five more years.

Julius Caesar could not have been happier.

***

Although no one really knew what deal had been struck by Caesar and Pompey and Crassus to stick together in the face of Cato’s return to Rome, it became pretty obvious when Pompey and Crassus announced their intention to run for consul.

The conservatives went into a panic, as usual, but Cato kept his head. He put up his brother-in-law Ahenobarbus, who came from a long line of Roman consuls, to run against them. This was a tactic he had used before to prevent two like-minded consuls from doing whatever they felt like during their year in office.

On their way to the polling place, Cato and Ahenobarbus were attacked by a gang of Pompey’s men. Cato was left bleeding from a wound in his arm. Ahenobarbus was a little roughed up but otherwise fine. “Ahenobarbus may have been relieved to be alive; Cato, it seems, was relieved to be stabbed.” The attack meant Cato was still a force to be reckoned with.

But Ahenobarbus didn’t see a consular election worth dying for, even if being consul was the family business. He dropped out of the race and Pompey and Crassus were elected.

***

Cato had been inspired by the attack to run for praetor-the second highest ranking magistrate in the Republic, which would put him in a good position to block the initiatives of the new consuls. Most importantly, he could block the extension of Caesar’s campaign in Gaul.

The two new consuls started a massive bribery campaign to defeat Cato’s election. They were helped along by Metellus Scipio, who had stolen Cato’s would-be bride twenty years before and continued the feud between their two families that had begun a century before when Cato’s great-grandfather accused Metellus’s ancestor, the great general Scipio Africanus, of all manner of corruption.

Metellus denounced Cato’s tenure in Cyprus, charging that there was no way he could have passed all those riches through his hands without keeping some for himself. Clodius himself got into the act, demanding to see Cato’s account books, knowing they were lost.

Even this didn’t guarantee Cato’s defeat, so on the day of the election, Pompey and his guards showed up to make it clear the consul had a serious interest in the outcome. The first votes went for Cato. Pompey looked up at the sky and said he heard thunder, which was a bad omen. The election was postponed a few days.

On the second go-round, Pompey made sure Cato’s supporters were physically barred from voting or paid off. It was the first election Cato ever lost. He gave a speech denouncing the stolen election, asking the crowd what was so important to Pompey and Crassus that he not be elected praetor.

The answer was simple. They were afraid of him.

***

The new consuls made one of the first orders of business securing their post-consulship provinces. Crassus wanted Syria and Pompey wanted Spain. There was going to be two days of public debate on the question, then a vote by the People’s Assembly. Cato and his followers were the only voices of dissent. At one point Cato, sitting on the shoulders of one of his supporters, yelled “Thunder! Thunder!” at Pompey, mocking his “bad omen” ploy during Cato’s election. A riot ensued in which several of Cato’s followers were killed.

The vote went through and the consuls got their provinces. Their next move would be to grant Caesar’s extension so he could escape prosecution.

Cato was out of options. So he went to go see Pompey the Great.

***

Cato knew he was powerless. And he was one of the first men in the Republic to understand that the final battle for the Roman Republic would be between Caesar and Pompey. He told the general that he was “taking Caesar upon his shoulders, and that when he began to feel the burden and to be overcome by it, he would neither have the power to put it away nor the strength to bear it longer.”

In short, Pompey was the only one left who could stop Caesar. And time was running out.

But Pompey believed that Caesar would always be the junior partner in their relationship. He believed that his own power and glory would always be more than Caesar’s. He knew Cato had no power left, except as a prophet of the Republic’s eventual doom.

He surely didn’t see himself as burdened by Julius Caesar.

Pompey sent Cato away.

***

A delegation approached Cato in the run up to the elections of 54 BC. All the candidates had spent their campaign war chests on bribes, and the electoral playing field was now level because everyone was broke. But it meant that if one candidate could come up with some money, he’d probably win. Most of the city’s moneylenders themselves were so depleted that the interest rate on loans doubled.

But rich old Crassus was still out there, and he still had piles of cash, so as the election grew closer, it was not a crazy thought that he would swoop in at the last minute and buy offices for his supporters at bargain basement prices.

The group of candidates came to see Cato with a novel idea. They would enter into “a contract to swear off all bribes.” Each of them put up five hundred sesterces as a bond that they would forfeit if they engaged in bribery.

Cato the Younger would be the arbitrator of the deal.

Of all the reforms Cato and Cicero had considered to stop the fall of the Republic, this one fell right into their laps: fair elections. Cicero wrote his brother, “If the election proves free, as it is thought it will, Cato alone can do more than all the laws and all the judges.”

On the day of the election, though, Cato, in his role as judge, rose to denounce one of the candidates, accusing him of cheating on the contract and paying bribes. He demanded that the man forfeit the five hundred sesterces.

“In that moment, it indeed looked as if Cato had done what the laws and the judges could not. He had orchestrated a clean election and, with all the city’s eyes on him, delivered a ringing denunciation of a corrupt politician.”

But in the next moment, all the signers of the contract thanked Cato for his service, canceled the contract, and let the accused briber keep his money. Like trying to keep the clothes on the dancing girls at the Floral Games, Cato’s uprightness and moral authority didn’t last, and the Romans-elite and poor alike-wanted him to leave so they could get back to business as usual.

Business as usual, in this case, meant delivering the Republic into the hands of the three men who would bring it to an end.

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.