This painting, attributed to Giovanni Battista Langetti (c. 1635-1676), depicts the final moments of Marcus Porcius Cato, better known as Cato the Younger (95-46 BCE). He 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. Along with the famous silver-tongued Cicero, Cato was one of the key politicians in the Roman Senate that sided against Julius Caesar during the long Roman Civil Wars. The Republic and its defenders, however, lost the war.
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. Cato, from his position in Utica (located in modern day Tunisia), 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, Cassius Dio and Julius Caesar, himself, leave behind a very grisly and disturbing scene.
After the Battle of Thapsus, the usually charismatic and gregarious Cato 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 the 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 eventually regained consciousness, however, and he was still determined to die. With his own two hands, he reportedly ripped open the doctor’s stitches and brought about his death by yanking out his own innards, one handful at a time. It is this morbid scene that is recreated in the artwork featured above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.