Suicide In The Family—Cato The Younger And Porcia Catonis

(Left: The suicide of Cato the Younger by Charles Le Brun  (1619–1690), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons. Right: The Suicide of Porcia by Pierre Mignard  (1612–1695), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Marcus Porcius Cato, better known as Cato the Younger (95-46 BCE), was a brilliant Roman statesman who spent his life fighting against corruption and defending the status quo of the Roman Republic against prospective dictators, such as Julius Caesar and Pompey. The interesting life and accomplishments of Cato deserve (and will get) an article of their own, but for now, all that really needs to be known about Cato is that he was, along with Cicero, one of the key politicians in the Roman Senate that sided against Julius Caesar during the long Roman Civil Wars.

In 46 BCE, Cato must have known that the Roman Republic, as he knew it, was coming to an end. Pompey the Great had already been defeated by Caesar and was assassinated in Egypt. The other extremely skilled general, Labienus, had just lost a major battle in North Africa against Caesar at Thapsus (read about how Caesar prepared for Thapsus, HERE). From his position in Utica, located in modern day Tunisia, Cato could only observe as the Roman Republic fell, once again, into the hands of a dictator.

While most of Caesar’s armed opponents fled to Spain after the Battle of Thapsus, Cato remained where he was in Utica. There, the hopeless politician decided to end his life, no matter what it took to get the job done. The accounts of Cato’s suicide given by Plutarch, Dio Cassius and Julius Caesar, himself, leave behind a very grisly and disturbing scene.

After the Battle of Thapsus, the usually charismatic and gregarious Cato shockingly became bizarrely introverted and calm. He checked that the finances of Utica were all tidy, and then withdrew from governing the city.

Cato’s friends and family, suspicious of the statesman’s sudden change of character, followed him home and kept a constant watch on the man. They even searched Cato’s home, locking away all the dangerous instruments they could find. Nevertheless, Cato somehow found a knife.

On a certain day, after having just finished an evening meal with his comrades, Cato retired to his room to read. That night, it is said he read Cicero’s entire Phaedo, a collection of arguments for the immortality of the soul. After reading his final book, Cato produced a knife that he had managed to hide from his friends and vigorously stabbed himself in the gut. Losing strength and consciousness, Cato fell to the floor with enough force to alert his nearby friends.

The already wary friends and family rushed into the room, staunched the bleeding and quickly brought in a doctor to stich up the knife-wound. Miraculously, the doctor stabilized the statesman. Cato, however, eventually regained consciousness, and he was determined to die. With his own two hands, he ripped open the doctor’s stitches and brought about his death by yanking out his own innards, one handful at a time.

After Cato’s suicide, his young daughter, named Porcia Catonis, married a certain zealot for the Republic named Brutus. Once married, she reportedly joined the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar, and her husband, Brutus, was one of the men who stabbed the dictator to death on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Brutus, however, was hunted down by Caesar’s successors in the next generation of the Roman Civil War by 42 BCE, and he committed suicide as Octavian and Mark Antony closed in. His wife, Porcia Catonis (Cato’s daughter), also allegedly committed suicide around this time. The most popular accounts of her death either involve suicide by sealing herself in a room with noxious smoke, or by gruesomely swallowing live coals.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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