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Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar by [Rob Goodman, Jimmy Soni]

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Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar Kindle Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 205 ratings

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



The first time we see boy Cato, in the account of his great biographer Plutarch, he is being hung by his feet from a high window.
He is four years old and already an orphan; it is the year 91. The man dangling and shaking him out over the ground, intermittently threatening to drop him, is a stranger. He is Pompaedius Silo, an Italian politician visiting from out of town, a friend of Cato’s uncle and guardian. He is in Rome to plead once more for citizenship for the towns of Italy, Rome’s “allies.”
Pompaedius was evidently the kind of single-minded reformer who couldn’t let the cause go even when playing with children. He’d asked the boys of the house, with a smile, “Come, beg your uncle to help us in our struggle.” Though they barely understood the request, all of them, even Cato’s half brother, had nodded yes. Cato had only stared.
There came another request for help, then a joke, then the guest’s dropped smile, then threats, and still the angry stare from this four-year-old boy either dumb or self-possessed beyond his years, until he was shaken and dangled out the window—without a scream, without a cry for help, yielding just that same unblinking stare.
After Pompaedius gave up and set the boy back on his feet, he was overheard to say, “How lucky for Italy that he is a boy; if he were a man, I don’t think we could get a single vote.”
*   *   *
It is the kind of perfect story that could only come from a culture that didn’t believe in childhood. The truth is that we know precious little about the boy Cato, or the boy Caesar, or the boy Cicero. Most of the details of their childhoods, or any Roman childhood, were considered too trivial to remember. And when their stories do come down to us—like the story of Cato and the window, told by Plutarch about a hundred years after the fact—they are the stories of little adults. We talk about “formative” years, but in childhood stories like this one, it is as if the Romans were born fully formed.
Whether or not there was an authentic incident of a houseguest, a political controversy, and a children’s game turned violent, this is, at the very least, a projection back into boyhood of all the indelible qualities of the grown Cato: stubbornness (or obstinacy); fearlessness (or foolhardiness); traditionalist politics (or reactionary politics). The story shows Cato grabbed by an overwhelming force, facing death, and evincing utter calm in the face of it. It shows him proving so unshakable that the force, while remaining every bit as overwhelming, recognizes that it has suffered some kind of moral defeat. Plutarch was a deliberate artist: He started Cato’s life with a typology of his death.
What else do we know of Cato’s beginnings? We know he was born in 95 to his mother Livia Drusa and father Marcus Cato, a senator of whom little record survives. The conventions of Roman childhood and parenting are well understood in outline, though we know little unique to Cato. If the first moments of his life were at all typical, the screaming newborn Cato was placed at the feet of his father. His father raised him from the ground, held him close, inspected him for signs of strength and health—a tender gesture, but one that held the power of life and death. His father’s nod made him a citizen and a son; rejected on the ground, he would have been marked a bastard and left to die. Several days’ wait, and he was given the name of his family’s men for at least six generations: Marcus. Then came a series of rituals. The house was swept to rid it of evil spirits. A lucky golden locket was placed around the newborn’s neck. His future was divined in the flight of birds and the entrails of sacrificed animals. All this signaled Cato’s entrance into his father’s household and family line.
Above all, of course, we know that Cato survived his earliest days—no small feat in a culture that tested the toughness of newborns by exposing them to the elements, bathing them in ice water, and kneading the weakness out of their soft muscles. That there was not much weakness in Cato can be inferred from the simple fact that he lived.
*   *   *
Whether or not an enraged houseguest nearly defenestrated the boy Cato, what is indisputably true is the grievance the guest came to Rome to press. Italy hadn’t always paid tribute to Rome: Its independence had been worn down over centuries of war. Even where Rome’s authority was acknowledged, it was hardly welcomed. When Hannibal had marched over the Alps in 218, intent on conquering Rome, half of Italy had sided with him; when he was driven out, Rome punished the traitor cities severely, destroying some outright.
And yet, as Rome built an overseas empire, Italian soldiers shared the burden, manning up to two-thirds of the Roman army; Italian sons died alongside Romans to secure Sicily and Carthage and Greece. Romans and Italians were interchangeable to the conquered, indistinguishable
Romaioi. Yet the spoils went overwhelmingly to the Roman capital, and Italians were denied the vote, even as they paid men and money into the Roman machine.
The Italian question had vexed Roman politics for generations, and it was a central theme in the brief careers of Rome’s greatest radicals, the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Their failure is often considered the beginning of the Republic’s slow end.
The oldest son of an old family, already decorated in war, Tiberius Gracchus is said to have conceived his political platform while on the march. A generation before Cato’s birth, he was infuriated to see firsthand an Italian countryside almost entirely given over to imported slave gangs and the massive plantations of the Roman rich. He grieved that “the Italian race … a people so valiant in war, and related in blood to the Romans, were declining little by little into pauperism and paucity of numbers without any hope of remedy.” He also feared that Rome, with its hardy, small farmers on the decline, would grow increasingly vulnerable to its enemies.
In 133, soon after his return to Rome, Tiberius won election as tribune of the people. The Senate had set aside the office of the tribune as a pacifier for Rome’s underclass, but it was rarely used for any radical purpose until Tiberius got his hands on it. He electrified Rome with his passionate words on behalf of the soldiers who fought to build an empire, even as their own small pieces of that empire were stripped away:
It is with lying lips that their commanders exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.
On the strength of this rallying cry, Tiberius proposed to remedy Rome’s wealth gap by capping the holdings of the rich and distributing public lands to the urban poor. Ignoring the outrage of Rome’s senatorial establishment, Tiberius took his bill for land redistribution directly to the people’s assembly, a body with the authority to pass laws, but one that rarely dared to defy the aristocracy. The Roman masses passed the land reform by acclamation.
In the Senate, Tiberius’s success was perceived not merely as the action of a radical, but as the ambition of a would-be king, an attempt to put a faction in permanent power with the backing of the poor. Not long after passage of the land bill, a senator and neighbor of the Gracchus family was brought forward to testify that Tiberius was hiding a crown in his home. The Senate’s suspicions seemed all but confirmed when Tiberius broke with Roman tradition and announced his campaign for a second consecutive year in office. It was only because he wanted immunity from political prosecution, he insisted. It was the first step to declaring himself tribune-for-life, his enemies said.
It is not surprising that the fracas ended in the murder of Tiberius and the death of his followers. What is astonishing is that the party of senators who beat Tiberius to death in open daylight was led by Rome’s high priest, who wore his toga pulled over his head, just as he dressed when sacrificing an animal. The assassination of Tiberius was dressed up as a religious rite, a sacrifice to the Republic’s guardian gods.
*   *   *
Tiberius’s younger brother, Gaius Gracchus, escaped the killings—and for the rest of his short life, “the grief he had suffered encouraged him to speak out fearlessly.” Friends and enemies alike painted Gaius as a man on fire for revenge. Yet, elected tribune ten years after Tiberius, he brought more than anger and grief to the work of coalition building and legislating. He brought a discipline that outdid his brother’s. While Tiberius reached out to the Roman poor alone, Gaius made inroads with Rome’s merchant class, the
equites (so called because they could afford to outfit themselves with a horse in times of war). And in the most critical departure from his brother’s example, Gaius invited Italians into his populist coalition. For the first time, a leading Roman was offering equal citizenship, including full voting rights, to Rome’s closest Italian allies.
It was Gaius’s most creative act of statesmanship—but it was also the opening that allowed his conservative opponents a chance to destroy him. It took little effort to drive a wedge between Gaius’s Italian and Roman backers: His opponents had only to point out that more voting power and more cheap bread for Italians meant less of both for Romans. “If you give citizenship to the Latins,” said one n...
--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.


“Effectively the first-ever modern biography of Cato. The writing is excellent, the stories unforgettable, and the lessons practical.”
—Tim Ferriss on

“[This] wise and lively book offers two lessons: first, knowing modern politics can yield insight into study of the ancient world; and second, Rome still has lessons to teach us today.”
City Journal

"The authors succeed brilliantly in bringing this fascinating statesman to life."
Kirkus Reviews

"In a rare modern biography of Marcus Cato the Younger, a rival of both Caesar and Pompey, Goodman, formerly a Democratic speechwriter, and Soni (managing editor, Huffington Post) argue that understanding Cato and the many legends surrounding him will help readers understand both the current American political climate and contemporary notions of freedom...there are great moments here: Cato, struggling in Utica after the defeats at Pharsalus and Thapsus, is revealed in all his flawed humanity. Where others (e.g. Adrian Goldsworthy in Caesar: Life of a Colussus) are inclined to view Cato as a hypocrite, using his virture and stoicism as another tack to rise in the high-stakes world of late Republic Rome power politics, Goodman and Soni take a more nuanced approach, broaching many questions, never answering firmly. This makes for a more revealing portrait of a real man and demonstrates just how much a symbol Cato has become."
Library Journal

"Written in flowing, nonacademic prose, this biography suits the never-waning popular interest in the dramas of ancient Roman history."

“This well-paced and dramatic book narrates the controversial life and political and moral legacy of Marcus Porcius Cato…They [the authors] give their account depth by closely grounding it in the ancient sources, and their experience in and knowledge of modern politics adds special value to their assessments of Cato… indeed frankly describing his flaws as a politician and a man….As the opening discussion shows and the main narrative confirms, there is indeed a lot worth thinking about in deciding what should be the lessons to draw from Cato’s life and legacy.”
History Book Club

“Well-crafted retelling of the life of Cato”
The New American

 “Goodman and Soni's examination of Cato the Younger—the Roman reactionary, Stoic, and enemy of Caesar—is the story of a harsh man in a violent age. With his pronounced British accent, Derek Perkins is a surprising choice for narration as this book seems directed at an American audience. But his voice is strong, and he sets the pace like someone leading a brisk, invigorating jog. The slightly cynical, skeptical edge of his tone fits the text, which refuses to take Cato at his own saintly face value or to respect the turbulent "banana republic" of Rome. His edgy take fits both Cato's troubled republic and (despite the accent) our own, which is part of the book's point. Perkins's vigorous performance helps keep this an absorbing program.”
AudioFile (starred review)

“When the Roman Republic finally fell, the last man standing was Cato, staunch defender of old Rome's venerable legacy and enemy of Caesar's new world order. Thanks to Goodman and Soni, this rare creature—a politician of honor willing to die for his principles—steps out of the shadows into history again. Illuminating and timely!”
—Adrienne Mayor, Stanford University, National Book Award finalist for
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

"Cato, history's most famous foe of authoritarian power, was the pivotal political man of Rome; an inspiration to our Founding Fathers; and a cautionary figure for our times. He loved Roman republicanism, but saw himself as too principled for the mere politics that might have saved it. His life and lessons are urgently relevant in the harshly divided America—and world—of today. With erudition and verve, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni turn their life of Cato into the most modern of biographies, a blend of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Game Change."
—Howard Fineman,
New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteen American Arguments

"A truly outstanding piece of work. What most impresses me is the book's ability to reach through the confusing dynastic politics of the late Roman Republic to present social realities in a way intelligible to the modern reader. 
Rome's Last Citizen entertainingly restores to life the stoic Roman who inspired George Washington, Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale. This is more than a biography: it is a study of how a reputation lasted through the centuries from the end of one republic to the start of another."
—David Frum,
DailyBeast columnist, former White House speech writer, and New York Times bestselling author of The Right Man

“Cato’s life always had epic dimensions in his own mind.  His principled, gory suicide made him a symbol of liberty for two thousand years, the model for George Washington and many others.  Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have somehow given us a life of Cato that is neither hero-worshiping nor debunking.  Instead, this handsomely written biography is vividly intelligent and valuably reflective.  It is a very fine treatment of a life worth knowing, and a valuable meditation on how a life becomes a myth.”
—Jedediah Purdy, professor of law at Duke University, author of
For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today and Being America: Liberty, Commerce and Violence in an American World

"Cato, an icon to the founding fathers, has become a neglected figure. In their spirited new biography—the first since Plutarch!—Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni give us his story, and explain why this Roman statesman meant so much to our political forbearers."
—Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group and
New York Times bestselling author of The Bush Tragedy

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0085UD4A0
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Thomas Dunne Books; Reprint edition (Oct. 16 2012)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 1575 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Not Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 381 pages
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.6 out of 5 stars 205 ratings

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4.0 out of 5 stars you don't like him?
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Joseph Spicer
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good
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5.0 out of 5 stars Last citizen indeed.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great to book to get a refresh of how connect we are still with history.
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Esel Kiefer
5.0 out of 5 stars Must read for fans of the roman empire
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