by Melany Su
April 2012

When the threat of tyranny emerges in Joseph Addison’s play Cato (1713), the republican title character becomes aware of the lack of distinction between his political party and the enemy one. Seeking to differentiate himself and his followers from Julius Caesar, Cato redefines Roman identity in terms of a person’s adherence to political ideals rather than his national origin, forwarding the argument that one’s status as a “Roman” is not determined by his birthplace but, rather, by his loyalty to republicanism. This new definition allows Cato to represent Caesar as a “non-Roman,” and, at the same time, necessitates and authorizes Cato’s military action against Caesar. Ultimately, however, the play suggests that this new definition of Roman has the potential to be subverted by an arguably stronger force: romantic love. It is only by reinstating one’s loyalties by martial means and dying a politically-motivated death that one can truly stabilize his Roman identity.

The play takes place at the height of the Roman civil war (49–30 B.C.E.), a conflict between advocates of democracy and proponents of dictatorial rule (Rankov par.1). After successful conquests along the Mediterranean Sea, Caesar advances toward the North African coast. Cato the Younger, a republican statesman known for his Stoic philosophy, prepares to confront Caesar’s arrival at Utica, a busy port on the North African coast. Among Cato’s faithful supporters are his sons Portius and Marcus, his daughter Marcia, the senator Lucius, and young Numidian prince Juba. Senator Sempronius, Cato’s former ally, has turned traitor and sided with Caesar. Amidst the political unrest, the young republicans find themselves caught in a romantic skirmish as well: brothers Portius and Marcus are both madly in love with Lucius’ daughter Lucia, and Juba and Sempronius are equally smitten with Marcia.After vain attempts at deterring the Numidian prince from supporting Cato, Sempronius dies at Juba’s sword. Cato’s Stoic influence seems to prevail as Juba remains loyal, Marcus loses his life in defense of his state, and the lovers suppress the passion that distracts them from their political cause. Nevertheless, the Roman republic falls into Caesar’s hands, and Cato ultimately commits suicide.

The first scene of the play acquaints the audience with Caesar’s tyrannical threat to Cato’s republic. Because the two political opposites cannot be racially distinguished, Cato establishes a new definition of Roman identity based on virtue: “Caesar’s arms have thrown down all distinction; whoever’s brave and virtuous, is a Roman” (V.iv.90-1). This new definition, while excluding Caesar on the one hand, includes Juba on the other. By siding with Cato, Juba, though African by birth, has become Roman. In the meantime, a redefinition of Roman identity seems also to necessitate a redefinition of African identity. As Julie Ellison observes in “Cato’s Tears,” Rome and Africa no longer embody “place and race” (573), but rather, “states of mind” (583). Africa now encompasses “anti-Roman Africans or corrupted Romans”; Rome, “civil Africans or Roman republicans.”

As promoter of the republican ideal, Cato takes on the duty of “Romanizing” his subordinates. In “What’s Love Got to Do with Addison’s Cato?” Lisa Freeman notes that an ideal tragic hero’s integrity is contingent upon his freedom from “effeminating passions” (463). Just as malign as the external threat of tyranny, erotic passion seems to deter the young lovers from their political cause. When counseling his brother Marcus, Portius compares love’s tyrannical power to Caesar’s political tyranny:

Call up all thy father in thy soul:

To quell the tyrant Love, and guard thy heart

On this weak side, where most our nature fails,

Would be a conquest worthy Cato’s son.


A faithful follower of Cato, one worthy of Roman political identity, resists not only Caesar (tyranny), but also love.

Cato’s successful “Romanization” is realized in Portius’s and Marcia’s resistance to love. Just as Cato sacrifices his son Marcus for Rome, so Portius suppresses his love of Lucia for the sake of his brother Marcus. Portius exemplifies Roman virtue not only by controlling his passion for more urgent political duties, but also by advising his brother (I.i.64-7) and Sempronius (I.ii.26-7) to do likewise. Not surprisingly, it is for this filial piety that Cato grants Portius the honorable “paternal seat” (IV.iv.135). Like her brother Portius, Marcia seems to exemplify Roman virtue in both words and deeds: “Cato’s soul shines out in everything she acts or speaks” (I.iv.151-2). Juba admires her for her “inward greatness, unaffected wisdom, and sanctity of manners” (I.iv.150-1).

Re-establishing Roman identity through control of passion, however, poses overwhelming challenges. Initially, Portius keeps his promise by pleading for his brother’s cause, asking Lucia not to reject the antisocial yet love-sick Marcus. When faced with Lucia’s rejection of himself, however, Portius loses his strength and instead demands her to “recall those hasty words” of rejection, lest he should be “lost forever” (III.ii.38). To keep him loyal to his Roman virtue, Lucia must remind him four times of her vow not to mingle with him.

Likewise, mistaking the dead Sempronius for Prince Juba, Marcia loses her Stoic self-control, believing that her lover’s “virtue will excuse [her] passion for [him], and make the gods propitious to [their] love” (IV.iii.89-90). Juba’s virtue turns out to be not as reliable as she expects, however. The Numidian prince’s resolve to support Cato’s cause fades as he overhears her love confession to Sempronius (who she thinks is Juba). “Let Caesar have the world, if Marcia’s mine” (IV.iii.97), Juba declares, overcome by emotion at the sight. When one lover abandons her Roman virtue of self-control, she subjects the other to “de-Romanization.”

Marcus’s inability to imitate Cato renders him the least Roman of Cato’s young followers. Marcus recognizes this flaw when he compares himself to his brother, “Thy steady temper, Portius, can look on guilt, rebellion, fraud, and Caesar, in the calm lights of mild philosophy” (I.i.135). His own unpleasant temper requires special treatment from Portius, who must conceal his own love for Lucia (I.i.59-60). Later on, after failing to win the favor of his beloved, Marcus throws a tantrum at Portius, “Fool that I was to choose so cold a friend to urge my cause!” (III.iii.16-7).

Unable to become Roman by controlling his passion, Marcus must instead prove himself worthy by dying a Roman death. According to Valerie M. Hope, “to die well […] one should be at home, or at least with one’s loved ones, and one should be brave and resolute and utter some wise or witty parting words” (50). Marcus’s death falls short of his father’s only in that we do not hear Marcus’s parting words. Still, he “dies well” by demonstrating the “courage of a soldier” (55):

Long at the head of his few faithful friends,

He stood the shock of a whole host of foes;

Till obstinately brave, and bent on death,

Opprest with multitudes, he greatly fell.


In addition to verbal praise, Marcus earns the honor of having his urn buried next to his father’s (IV.iv.71-2). By dying for their political cause, Marcus and Cato dissociate themselves from the “effeminating passions,” thus preserving their integrity as “ideal tragic heroes.”

In neither Marcus’s nor Cato’s death does the audience witness the sword’s physical piercing of the body. To represent death as a means of “Romanization,” Addison contrasts their glorious deaths with Sempronius’s spectacular fall at Juba’s sword. Disguised as Juba, Sempronius sneaks close to Marcia’s chamber, scheming to kidnap her. Coincidentally, Juba himself appears, spies him, and kills him. Consequently, Sempronius suffers a triple doom: he falls at a “boy’s hand…, disfigured in a vile Numidian dress, and for a worthless woman” (IV.ii.21-2). First, by betraying the republicans, Sempronius fails to meet Cato’s political definition of a true Roman. Then, his African dress at his death metonymically “clothes” him with the “state of mind” of a “corrupted Roman.” Hence, though Roman by birth, Sempronius dies a death that stabilizes his political identity as an enemy of the state.

In the end, Cato, too, discovers that only death can stabilize his own Roman identity. The young lovers’ failures seem to make Cato lose his own resolve (V.iv.95-8). Although worshipped by his supporters, he reveals, through his choice of death, that he is really not a divine conqueror, but a human equally doubtful of his Roman identity. As Christine Henderson and Mark Yellin note, it is unlikely, given Caesar’s well-known policy of clemency (IV.iv.146), that Cato would have been killed if captured (n16, 87). With no apparent reason to fear death at Caesar’s sword, Cato resorts to suicide—perhaps to escape the de-Romanizing effect of “tyrant love.” According to Hope, rather than a “negative act of the desperate,” suicide among the ancient Roman elite was a “rational choice, and in politically unstable times…the ultimate means of self-definition” (58). To secure his own Roman identity, Cato follows Marcus in his fate.

When Caesar’s arrival calls for a new definition of Roman identity, Addison’s characters seek to “Romanize” themselves by adherence to republicanism and resistance to erotic love. They soon discover, however, that resistance to love is not straightforward, and only death can fully secure their Roman identity. Having died a Roman, Cato continues to reassure his followers through his transcendent power: “Cato, though dead, shall still protect his friends” (V.iv.105). Originally the active “Romanizer” who spurred them to adopt self-control, Cato himself has become the Roman “state of mind.” Despite tests of virtue, his followers ultimately acquire a relatively stable identity, and no longer need him alive.

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph. Cato: A Tragedy, and Selected Essays. Ed. Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004. Print.

Ellison, Julie. “Cato’s Tears.” ELH 63.3 (1996): 571-601. Web. 28 February 2011.

Freeman, Lisa. “What’s Love Got to Do with Addison’s Cato?” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39.3 (1999): 463. Web. 1 February 2012.

Hope, Valerie M. Roman Death: The Dying and the Dead in Ancient Rome. London: Valerie M. Hope, 2009. Print.

Rankov, N. Boris. “Roman Civil War.” The Oxford Companion to Military History. Ed. Richard Holmes. Oxford UP, 2001. Web. 1 February 2012.

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