Rome's Last Citizen by Goodman & Soni
Book Review by Brian Igoe
This is a fabulous book for historians. It is a serious, yet gripping, book of history, the story of a man little known in this century although much loved 200 years ago.
You may not recognise the names of either of these two co-authors. They both graduated from Duke University in North Carolina, USA, nine or ten years ago. Both have been political speech writers at one time or another since then, so are well versed in the customs and practices of the paraphernalia of modern Government in the United States. Both have cooperated on a number of pieces for various publications including (according to Wikipedia) Politico, The Huffington Post, Business Insider, AdWeek, and The Atlantic, and others, as well as the subject book of this review.
It is a brilliant achievement, this biography of the man generally known to history as Cato the Younger, and must have involved a very great deal of research. The historical detail is faultless. I do hope that they will join forces again in another historical book, for between them they have the necessary discipline in full measure.
Rome`s last citizen starts, surprisingly for a book about a man who lived over two thousand years ago, with George Washington at Valley Forge in 1777. As his Continental Army goes into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania just after Thanksgiving in December that year, The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving, he has arranged for the production of a play written by an English playwright named Joseph Adison some 65 years previously. The play was intended to entertain and cheer up the troops who were having a really bad time of it that winter, but there was a deeper purpose in Washington`s mind, for the play was a favourite of his, Cato - a Tragedy. The authors write: How did the legend of a Roman who walked the halls of his Senate eighteen hundred years before America was born speak so powerfully through the ages? And why did Washington, in the darkest moment of his career, choose Cato to lift the spirits of his army? Who was Cato?
Who was Cato indeed? The story of Cato is ably told. We learn of the usual Roman upbringing, National Service, climbing the Cursus Honorum (the staircase to political achievement), the final accolade of Consul being interrupted by Caesar and Civil War. In the end he was defeated by Caesar, and famously committed suicide rather than bend the knee to the new tyrant. There is enough drama in Cato`s life and death to grip the reader from beginning to end - but that is not the object of the book, I think. That is the bait.
Rome, the City and the Senate Chamber, must have been veritable bear pits which, unedited, would be unintelligible to a modern readership. Goodman and Sunni work their brand of magic to make it all clear. Stoicism is a vein which runs through everything Cato said or did. Indifference to pleasure and pain are the most obvious external attributes of a Stoic, but there is more to it than that. Cato when in the army in charge of a legion marched with his men, slept on the same surfaces as his men, ate with his men, and could march faster and further than they carrying a heavier pack. So he was respected by his men.
Back in Rome in the political arena he outshone the competition as an orator, and yet remarkably for a politician, he never changed his mind or his principles. So he was respected. Truth was always at the forefront of his mind. "It must be true, Cato says so" was often heard in the Forum. His watchwords were always honesty and constancy. But when Rome, the whole of Italy in fact, were taken over by Caesar in a month, he decided to join Caesar`s bête noir, Pompey the Great, who had fled with his army to Greece. There of course they were famously defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus, and fled to Africa where Pompey was murdered and Cato, now at last in charge of the only remaining rump of Republican administration, marched across the desert for four weeks to Rome`s capital in Africa, Utica. Caesar caught up with Cato there a month later, and Cato committed suicide.
In the end, Goodman and Soni finish where they came in, in the USA: His whole life, Cato portrayed himself as the Republic embodied, the last repository of its ancient liberty and virtue... What successor generations found in Cato was the conviction that republican citizenship, self-governing citizenship, even citizenship of a republic as fatally flawed as Rome`s, was something precious and set apart. Even as the idea of liberty continues its contentious evolution, that conviction traces some part of its origins to the desert sands of Utica. Cato of Utica-history`s neglect has not erased him from our story. He remains there, a silent shaper of our era: firm, flawed, and full of lessons for our time.
That is the objective I see in this book, to underline Cato`s virtues - honesty, constancy, and bravery as being timeless, as applicable to us in 2016 as they were to Cato over two thousand years ago. I used this book extensively while writing my most recent book, Caesar and Cato - The Road to Empire, and I am meticulous about verifying sources. I cannot recommend it too highly to anyone interested in history, particularly that of Rome.
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Brian Igoe holds an BA (Hons) and MA in law and so thinks he can write intelligibly. He never even thought about writing anything more than a diary or a legal document until he retired. That momentous event left him with time to write for fun, almost exclusively history.
Apart from history, a passion since his schooldays, his other great passion has been flying light aircraft, which is how he survived the years of the Liberation Struggle, or so he says! That, and computers. He was running an automated dairy herd on a Kaypro "portable" computer in 1983 and has never looked back. That was why he took to Kindle as soon as he came across it, and now everything he writes is written mainly for eBook publication.