The Roman Republic was a mess.
Wealth and power did what wealth and power usually does: it corrupted the political system. Rome’s money troubles, prevalent in the time of Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE) were over. The final defeat of Carthage in 146 BCE paved the way for further conquest in the Mediterranean, and the cash came rolling in.
Upper class Romans got land and slaves and money and seats in the Senate, which they used to consolidate their power and make sure that they stayed high while the lower classes stayed low. The excesses of the rich—sex scandals, wild parties, and the occasional recreational slave execution—earned them plenty of enemies among the lower classes.
There was a very clear sense that Rome was on the wrong track.
Appointing a dictator seemed like one possible answer, but it ended up as these things usually do - with severed heads on pikes in the Forum. Rome needed an emergency brake.
Enter Cato the Younger. Plutarch says that, “even from his infancy, in his speech, his countenance, and all his childish pastimes, he discovered an inflexible temper, unmoved by any passion, and firm in everything.”
Just the kind of guy to become a thorn in the side of an autocrat.
Reign of Terror Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty-Seven: Despots do not like persistent nagging.
Check out this episode on the History's Trainwrecks Podcast or the embedded players below:
Duncan, Mike. “The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic.” Public Affairs, 2017.
Goodman, Rob and Soni, Jimmy. “Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar.” St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Wikipedia, “Cato the Elder.” Retrieved September 14, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_the_Elder.
Wikipedia, “Sulla.” Retrieved September 14, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulla
Wikipedia, “Gaius Marius.” Retrieved September 14, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaius_Marius