The end of this war appears to mark a transition from the "pre-Hannibalic War" style of politics - in which the Republican constitution functioned successfully - to a "post-Hannibalic War" style of politics - which exhibited many of the trends that undermined the stability of the Roman constitution and led, ultimately, to the collapse of the Republic and its replacement by an autocratic empire.
[The following is based on two versions of an original article by Richard L. Trumbo, St. Catherine's School, one of which is here.]
On the death of Africanus the spirits of his adversaries rose, the first of them being Marcius Porcius Cato, who even during his life had been accustomed to snarl at his greatness.
Many of the elements of Roman politics have been characteristic of human political activity throughout history. Personal likes and dislikes and group affiliations have always been an important part of politics. Deep-seated beliefs about justice and ethics have always been powerful shapers of political behaviour. Motivations of vanity, desire for personal power, and pursuit of glory have also been evident throughout recorded history.
While the basic building-blocks of politics have changed little, if at all, the relative importance or influence of each motivating factor has fluctuated over time. Family connections and factional affiliations can explain some political behaviour during the Republic; class struggle and economic power relationships can explain others.
A durable and popular theory of Republican politics emphasises the growth of Rome into an empire, with some sort of impersonal inevitability drawing Rome into revolution and autocracy at the end of the Republic. Polybius predicted such an inevitable process in his famous chapter on the Roman constitution, and since his time a perennial analysis of the latter half of the Republican era moves from Roman territorial expansion to the inadequacy of the "small town, simple government" of Republican Rome, typically culminating in reflections that the collapse of Rome's republican institutions was inevitable, and that territorial expansion somehow made monarchic government necessary.
The sources describing the conflicts between these two great men suggest that a shift occurred in the relative importance of ideology in Roman politics, a shift for which Cato was primarily responsible. This change, as well as the conflicts between Cato and Scipio, laid the foundations for the great struggle between Populares and Optimates in the last century and a half of the Republic.
A variety of causes, some petty and some consequential, contributed to the differences between Cato and Scipio.
Resistance Against Greek Culture
One of the lesser issues was their respective attitudes towards Greek culture. Plutarch tells us that Cato spoke to a Greek audience through an interpreter, even though he was capable of addressing them in Greek. He also reportedly warned his son, "that if ever the Romans became infected with the literature of Greece, they would lose their empire." Cato seems to have been especially concerned by the allure of excessive fondness for Greek ways which would undermine traditional Roman mores. In a speech during his consulship opposing the repeal of the Lex Oppimia (a sumptuary law restricting women's clothing and displays of wealth), Cato reportedly argued:
...as our empire increases - and already we have crossed into Greece and Asia (regions full of all kinds of sensual allurements) and are even laying hands on the treasures of kings - I am the more alarmed lest these things should capture us instead of our capturing them; those statues brought from Syracuse, believe me, were hostile standards brought against this city. And now I hear far too many people praising the ornaments of Corinth and Athens, and jeering at the terracotta antefixes of the Roman gods.
Cato's opposition to Greek influence, while deep-seated, was not universal. Plutarch tells us that Cato was billetted with a Pythagorean named Nearchus during the siege of Tarentum, and that Cato learned from him the ideas of purifying the soul from the body and living a life of "simplicity and self-discipline." Although Plutarch adds that Cato did not study Greek or read Greek books until he was an old man, this seems difficult to reconcile with his capacity to speak in Greek before an Athenian audience while he was actively representing Rome overseas in the 190s. It seems much more likely that Cato reacted against excessive 'love of all things Greek' and was suspicious of parts of Greek culture which might undermine Roman character. In this attitude Cato may well have been following the model of Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, with whose policies he generally co-operated:
[Fabius'] attitude to the cultural life of Rome is largely unknown, but that he may have been among the anti-Hellenists could be deduced from such facts as that, unlike Marcellus at Syracuse, he did not, with one exception, touch the pictures and statues at Tarentum, that young Cato followed his habit and manner of life, and that he was among those who later criticised Scipio's Greek way of life in Sicily.
While Scipio was not mindless in his philhellenism, Scullard notes, "Their life and habits show them [Scipio Africanus and his brother Lucius] to have been among the foremost supporters of the wave of Hellenism which was sweeping over Rome." Cassius Dio reported about an incident when Scipio was consul and preparing to invade Africa from Sicily:
The Romans, learning of the treatment of the Locrians, and thinking it had been due to Scipio's negligence, were indignant, and in their anger immediately planned to remove him from his command and to recall him for trial. They were further exasperated because he adopted Greek manners, wore his toga thrown back over his shoulder, and frequented the palaestra.
It seems highly likely that Cato and his supporters would associate Scipio and his circle with the negative aspects of Greek influence upon Rome which they regarded as undermining Roman character.
Factional Dispute with Fabius
In addition to the cultural antipathy of the two sides, there was also a serious factional dispute. Cato, early in his career, sided with Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Cunctator. Fabius and his political allies strongly opposed Scipio's military and foreign policy strategies in the Second Punic War. Plutarch reports that Cato opposed Scipio at that time because of his rivalry to Fabius. When Scipio was elected consul and proposed to invade Africa, Fabius
"did not hesitate to say or do anything which he thought might dissuade his fellow-countrymen from adopting his opponent's policy. He succeeded in convincing the Senate, but the people believed that he was attacking Scipio out of jealousy of his exploits. . . ."
Plutarch himself evaluated the dispute between Fabius and Scipio as going beyond merely policy disagreement:
It seems likely that Fabius' opposition originally sprang from his instinctive caution and prudence and that he was genuinely alarmed by the risks involved in Scipio's strategy, which indeed were great, but that in the course of time the effort to check his opponent's rising influence made his attitude more violent and extreme and introduced an element of personal rivalry and ambition into the conflict. He even tried to persuade Crassus, Scipio's fellow-consul, not to hand over the command of the army to his colleague but to lead it to Carthage himself, if the decision to invade Africa were adopted, and he also prevented the voting of any funds for the campaign.
Plutarch adds that Fabius also discouraged young men from joining Scipio's army, and he alarmed the Senate so much that they restricted Scipio to using only the troops already in Sicily.
Even when reports came to Rome of Scipio's successes in Africa, Fabius tried to have him replaced. Silius Italicus, in his poem Punica, cites Fabius' opposition to Scipio's proposal to invade Africa, ascribing to him the argument that Rome should drive Hannibal out of Italy before attacking Africa, lest Italy be left undefended before Hannibal's army. Italicus adds that the older senators agreed with Fabius.
Cato played a leading role in the active opposition of the Fabian faction to Scipio at this time. Cornelius Nepos remarks concerning Cato, "As quaestor he was allotted to Publius Africanus, the consul, with whom he did not live in keeping with the bond of the lot, for he disagreed with him all his life."
According to Plutarch, Cato as quaestor opposed Scipio because he was "not only indulging in his usual lavish personal expenditure, but was also squandering extravagantly high pay upon his troops." When Cato remonstrated with Scipio, the consul retorted that he was accountable to the Roman people for winning battles, not for petty considerations.
Cato left Scipio's army and "helped Fabius to denounce the general before the Senate," raising such an outcry that tribunes were sent to investigate Scipio's actions. Scipio succeeded in persuading the tribunes that his army was well-managed, and that his hellenic recreational activities would not deflect him from attending to his duties as army commander. Silius Italicus suggests that Scipio's opponents in the Senate may have used fear of Hannibal as a mask for their desire to keep Scipio from gaining the glory of bringing the war to an end.
These factional disputes occurred primarily within the senatorial elite, not in the larger community of Rome. As Scullard observes about Roman politics of this era:
Although occasionally constrained by popular action, the nobles in the main skillfully controlled the People, and the chief domestic struggles raged less between nobles and commons than within the ranks of the nobility itself, which would naturally tend to fall into rival groups.
Scullard goes on, however, to observe the parallel between the popular support of plebeian leaders prior to Cannae and popular enthusiasm for the Scipionic-Aemilian faction in the Senate and hypothesises that "this faction was more tolerant of the People than were the other noble families." Two of the popular leaders, Flaminius and M. Minucius Rufus, appear to have tied themselves to the Aemilii and Scipiones in sharing offices. Scullard concludes:
Thus the evidence points in one direction and suggests that the Aemilian-Scipionic group was a liberal progressive section of the Senate which was more ready than the conservatives under Fabius to listen to the demands of the People, and that it was more tolerant of, or even co-operated with, the leaders whom the People put forward.
In the decade following the end of the Second Punic War, there was further evidence of factional conflict. As censor, Titus Flamininus named Scipio princeps of the Senate. He later became a bitter opponent of Cato because Cato in his censorship deposed Flamininus' brother Lucius from the Senate because of scandalous conduct. Plutarch tells us:
But Titus still so deeply resented his brother's degradation, that he allied himself with those who had long borne a grudge against Cato; and winning over a major part of the Senate, he revoked and made void all the contracts, leases, and bargains made by Cato, relating to public revenues, and also got numerous actions and accusations brought against him.
The Fabian faction genuinely disagreed with Scipio and his allies regarding conduct of the Second Punic War. Fabius had a limited vision of Rome's future, wanting to concentrate on Italy and minimise Roman commitments beyond Italy. Fabius may even have been willing to accept a negotiated peace with Hannibal as late as 205. Scipio, on the other hand, wanted to take the war into Africa and push for all-out victory. The Fabians simply wanted Hannibal out of Italy, while Scipio insisted upon breaking Carthage's power and making Rome a force in the Mediterranean world. Scullard goes on to assert of Scipio:
Despite the lack of precise evidence, the clues provided by his dealings with the Greeks and other foreign powers, together with the character of the settlements he sought to impose on Rome's conquered foes, suggest that he championed Rome's protectorate mission in the world.There may be factional overtones in an episode reported by Livy which occurred a dozen years after Scipio's death. A Roman commission, anticipating war with Perseus of Macedon, had used clever diplomatic manoeuvring to induce Perseus to seek a truce, giving Rome additional time to prepare militarily. Discussion in the Senate about this mission seems to reflect Cato's earlier concerns about the "modernism" which Scipio and his faction appeared to encourage:
The majority of the Senate approved these actions as the achievements of the highest diplomatic skill; but the older members, who recalled the ancient standards of behaviour, confessed that they did not recognise in this mission the Roman way of doing things. . . . They did not fight in such a fashion as to glory in their cunning rather than in genuine bravery. . . . [earlier actions of integrity] were acts of Roman obedience to conscience, not of Carthaginian cunning, or of Greek cleverness for among these peoples it has been matter for boasting to deceive an enemy rather than to overcome him by force. . . . Such were the thoughts of the older men, who were not so well pleased by this new and over-clever wisdom.
For all of the factional nature of the disputes recorded, however, Cato seems to have increased the role of ideological conflict almost single-handedly.
As noted already, Scullard sees the Roman nobility at the end of the Second Punic War as relatively agreed on the methods and goals of political activity. Politics consisted of factional jockeying for positions of power within a well-established framework, chiefly among the nobles and only occasionally taking into account popular wishes. Cato, on the other hand, introduced a moral earnestness to Roman politics which cast political opponents as reprobates. Of Cato's political life Plutarch comments that he "seems to have concerned himself most of all with the impeachment and trial of wrongdoers." Cato's moralistic approach was reciprocated by his enemies, who impeached him (without success) on almost fifty occasions.
In his own understanding, it appears, Cato opposed Scipio on grounds of principle, not simply partisan advantage. The question naturally arises, what were the ideological grounds which led Cato to attack Scipio and his friends, viciously and repeatedly?
Cato recognised the danger which a man such as Scipio posed to the Republican constitution of Rome. Unlike any man before him, Scipio had entire countries - Spain and Carthage - as clients. It was one thing for a Roman noble to build up an impressive number of clients among Roman voters, but the influence Scipio held in Spain and Carthage was potentially overwhelming and therefore disruptive of Republican politics. Even Polybius, a friendly witness for the Scipios, tells us that Scipio as a young commander was hailed as king by the Spaniards.
Livy's report of the prosecution of Scipio by the Petillii in the 180's is also revealing. He says that those who favoured this prosecution argued that no man should become too important to be held accountable to the laws. Scipio was accused, among other things, of wanting to dominate Rome and of saying "that one man was the source of Rome's power and the prop of her empire." Scullard cites a highly symbolic gesture of young Scipio when he was aedile in 213:
. . . significantly one of the earliest references to such calculated generosity concerns Scipio Africanus, the first individual who might have sought to challenge the rule of the Senate: . . . he celebrated the Roman Games for two days and distributed a congius (c. three quarts) of oil in each street. However little the average Roman may have thought about the implication of this, Scipio himself will have known that Hellenistic monarchs were accustomed to distribute oil at Games.
Cassius Dio reports that the Senate, "through jealousy of his successes and through fear that he might become arrogant and play the tyrant," relieved Scipio of his command in Spain in 206 BC.
Later, Scipio aroused fears in Rome not only because of his adoption of Greek recreations, but also because, "he was said to be turning over the property of the allies to the soldiers for plunder, and he was suspected of delaying his voyage to Carthage purposely in order that he might hold office for a longer time. . . ."
None of these incidents proves that Scipio was guilty of undue ambition, but they all suggest that Scipio was in a position to take power and unbalance the constitution - which must have seemed dangerous to Cato, whether Scipio actually made the attempt to grab power or not.
In Scipio's defence, it is only fair to observe that ancient writers uniformly comment upon the injustice of the attacks upon him. Polybius reports that after defeating the Carthaginians in Spain, Scipio received Spanish representatives who hailed him as king. Scipio informed them that this title was unacceptable to a Roman, and he refused it. Polybius underlines the restraint of the youthful general as follows:
Such achievements indeed might have tempted not only a man but even a god, if the expression is permissible, to display arrogance; yet Scipio so far excelled all other men in this quality of magnanimity that when the prize of kingship, the highest ambition for which a man would even dare to pray to the gods, was often placed within his grasp by Fortune, he declined it and set a higher value upon his country and his loyalty to her than the status of kingship, which is the object of universal admiration and envy.
Livy similarly remarks about charges brought against Scipio in the final decade of his life, which included financial misdealings and excessive arrogance and power-seeking that the accusations, "were based more on suspicions than on evidence . . . Thus they assailed with spiteful calumny a man untouched by any ill repute." Cassius Dio also wrote about the prosecution of Scipio and his brother Lucius in the 180's, and he, too, asserts that the underlying motive in this prosecution was jealousy, and that the Scipio brothers were in fact innocent:
These brothers, who had proved themselves men of such valour, and as a result of their excellence had attained such a great reputation, were not long afterward brought to trial before the assembly. Lucius was condemned nominally for having appropriated a large share of the spoil, and Africanus for having made the terms of peace milder on account of his son; but the true cause of their conviction was jealousy. That they were guilty of no wrong-doing is made plain both by other evidence and in particular by the fact that when the property of Asiaticus was confiscated it was found to consist merely of his original inheritance, and that though Africanus retired to Liternum before a vote was taken and lived there to the end, no one ever again voted to condemn him.Cato's attacks on the Scipios (and on at least one prominent ally) appear to have gone beyond ordinary partisan conflict. Plutarch tells us that when Cato was censor in 184 BC (possibly also the year in which the aforementioned prosecution took place) he excluded Lucius Quinctius, brother of Titus Quinctius Flamininus, the "liberator of Greece," from the Senate on the grounds of shocking abuse of power during his consulship. Whatever Titus' affiliations before, he became a strong opponent of Cato and an ally of the Scipios, and it is likely that they already supported one another because of similar views on policy towards Greece.
Cato also deposed Lucius Scipio from the equestrian order in the same censorship. Livy tells us that even after Scipio Africanus' death (probably in 183 BC) Cato mounted attacks on him and his brother, putting a motion before the Senate to reopen the investigation of the financial transactions of Lucius Scipio as consul in the war against Antiochus of Syria (in which Scipio Africanus had served as Lucius' advisor).
In other cases, Cato had dropped prosecutions once a political opponent had withdrawn from candidacy for an office, but in the case of Scipio Africanus Cato seemed to be anxious to root out any vestiges of his influence.
Scipio as a Threat to the Republic
Cato's virulent opposition to Scipio Africanus and those around him, which far exceeded his treatment of other political rivals, seems intelligible only in the light of Cato's concern for the soundness of the Republic. Scipio posed a potential threat to the Republican order which was afterwards realised by the great imperators such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar. Scipio himself was too public-spirited and too committed to the Republic to follow through in his independence of the Senate, but his career might well have pointed the way for his less scrupulous successors.
One might particularly note the "formula" implicit in Scipio's career: entire subject provinces as personal clients, a large, well-trained, and devoted army, and popularity with the lower classes because of his military success and his willingness to defy the Senate. These would become indispensable factors in the rise of the great dictators and would-be dictators of the Late Republic.
The issue was not whether Scipio actually tried to take over the Republic. Despite justifiable pride in his military accomplishments and a certain haughtiness of manner, Scipio clearly did not take advantage of opportunities to seize undue power. Scipio's military and popular support, especially with the potential aid of Spain and Africa, did inherently pose a threat to the oligarchical balance within the Senate, and Cato perceived this early on and devoted a great deal of effort to "break up" the power bases of Scipio and his supporters.
- Evan Sage, trans., History of Rome from Its Founding, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1936
- Ian Scott-Kilvert, trans., Makers of Rome, New York, Penguin, 1965
- Henry Bettenson, trans., Rome and the Mediterranean, New York, Penguin, 1976
- H. H. Scullard, Roman Politics: 220-150 BC, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973
- Earnest Cary, trans., Dio's Roman History, vol. 2, New York, MacMillan, 1914,
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- Nicholas Horsfall, trans., Cornelius Nepos, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989
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- Ian Scott-Kilvert, trans., The Rise of the Roman Empire, New York, Penguin, 1979