Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 March 2014
When Richard Brathwaite compiled his The Scholler's Medley of 1614, he justified his use of fragmentary portions of Roman history by claiming that they were of the utmost utility to his readers. In recording and scrutinizing the lives of significant individuals, Brathwaite wrote, history ‘truly demonstrates the life of the person, characters his vertues, or vices’. History, then, in the minds of most seventeenth-century gentlemen, recorded the deeds of the great, the good and the downright wicked in order that they might be preserved for posterity and prove useful in later times:
Many worthy Statists haue desired, and in themselues no lesse deserued … to haue their memorable acts recorded: as Cicero his withstanding Catyline, Cato his opposing Caesar.
This essay explores how the ‘memorable acts’ of Cato of Utica were received, reinterpreted and reconstructed in early seventeenth-century England. Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger was an ardent opponent of unconstitutional rule at Rome during the last days of the Republic; the strength of his convictions led him to conclude that death was preferable to continued existence under the tyranny of Julius Caesar. It was this very integrity that rendered him a problematic historical figure in the early modern context, an individual upon whom competing philosophies and ideologies converged. Cato's actions were enshrined in historical fact in the ancient sources, and could not be altered. But early modern retellings of the story of Cato placed different emphases upon his deeds, and constructed very individualized characters for this Stoic stalwart.