Cato, a Tragedy

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Joseph Addison. Addison-j.jpg
Joseph Addison.

Cato, a Tragedy is a play written by Joseph Addison in 1712, and first performed on 14 April 1713. Based on the events of the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (better known as Cato the Younger) (95–46 B.C.), a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric and resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar made him an icon of republicanism, virtue, and liberty. Addison's play deals with, among other things, such themes as individual liberty versus government tyranny, Republicanism versus Monarchism, logic versus emotion, and Cato's personal struggle to hold to his beliefs in the face of death. It has a prologue written by Alexander Pope, and an epilogue by Samuel Garth.

Joseph Addison 17th/18th-century English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician

Joseph Addison was an English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician. He was the eldest son of The Reverend Lancelot Addison. His name is usually remembered alongside that of his long-standing friend Richard Steele, with whom he founded The Spectator magazine.

Cato the Younger Roman Optimate politician and writer (95 BC – 46 BC)

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, commonly known as Cato the Younger to distinguish him from his great-grandfather, was a statesman in the late Roman Republic, and a follower of the Stoic philosophy. A noted orator, he is remembered for his stubbornness and tenacity, as well as his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his famous distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period.

Stoicism School of Hellenistic Greek philosophy

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness) for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.


The play was a success throughout England and her possessions in the New World, as well as Ireland. Frederick, Prince of Wales put on a production at Leicester House on 4 January 1749 to promote his own support for English liberty against the supposed tyranny of his father George II of Great Britain. The cast featured four of Frederick's children, including the future George III, who spoke a specially-written prologue - this included the line "What, tho' a boy? it may with pride be said / A boy in England born, in England bred" to contrast to George II's German birthplace [1] . The play continued to grow in popularity, especially in the American colonies, for several generations. Indeed, it was almost certainly a literary inspiration for the American Revolution, being well known to many of the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington allegedly had it performed for the Continental Army while they were encamped at Valley Forge. The letter which proves the performance has questionable authenticity.[ citation needed ]

Frederick, Prince of Wales heir apparent to the British throne from 1727 until his death

Frederick, Prince of Wales, KG, was heir apparent to the British throne from 1727 until his death from a lung injury at the age of 44. He was the eldest but estranged son of King George II and Caroline of Ansbach, and the father of King George III.

Leicester Square square in London, United Kingdom

Leicester Square is a pedestrianised square in the West End of London, England. It was laid out in 1670 and is named after the contemporary Leicester House, itself named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester.

George II of Great Britain British monarch

George II was King of Great Britain and Ireland, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) and a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire from 11 June 1727 (O.S.) until his death in 1760.


During the final years of Caesar's Civil War, the remnants of the Roman senate, lead by Cato the Younger, have fled from Caesar's legions to Utica, Tunisia. In Cato's court are his twin sons Marcus and Portius, his daughter Marcia, the exiled Numidian prince Juba (an ally of Cato whose father, Scipio, Caesar killed in the battle of Thapsus), Juba's servant Syphax, and the senior senators Sempronius and Lucius.

Caesars Civil War Civil war between factions of the Roman Republic from 49 to 45 BC

The Great Roman Civil War, also known as Caesar's Civil War, was one of the last politico-military conflicts in the Roman Republic before the establishment of the Roman Empire. It began as a series of political and military confrontations, between Julius Caesar, his political supporters, and his legions, against the Optimates, the politically conservative and socially traditionalist faction of the Roman Senate, who were supported by Pompey and his legions.

Utica, Tunisia archaeological site in Tunisia

Utica was an ancient Phoenician and Carthaginian city located near the outflow of the Medjerda River into the Mediterranean, between Carthage in the south and Hippo Diarrhytus in the north. It is traditionally considered to be the first colony to have been founded by the Phoenicians in North Africa. After Carthage's loss to Rome in the Punic Wars, Utica was an important Roman colony for seven centuries.

Numidia Ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa

Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom of the Numidians, located in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia, Libya and Morocco in the Berber world. The polity was originally divided between Massylii in the east and Masaesyli in the west. During the Second Punic War, Massinissa, king of the Massylii, defeated Syphax of the Masaesyli to unify Numidia into one kingdom. The kingdom began as a sovereign state and later alternated between being a Roman province and a Roman client state. It was bordered by Atlantic ocean to the west, Africa Proconsularis to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Sahara Desert to the south. It is considered to be one of the first major states in the history of Algeria and the Berber world.

The play opens as Marcus and Portius praise their father's bravery and reassure one another that he will prevail over Caesar. The senator Sempronius arrives and pretends to agree with them, but reveals to the audience he resents Cato for refusing his requests to marry Marcia and is planning to betray him to Caesar in exchange for Marcia's hand. Sempronius persuades Syphax to join his cause, and urges him to persuade Juba to marshal the Numidian armies he has brought to Utica and overthrow Cato. Syphax goes to Juba and tries to turn him against Cato, but Juba rebuffs him, saying that Cato is like a second father to him and, besides, he is in love with Marcia and wants Cato's favor to marry her. Syphax complains that Juba's idolatry of Cato and Marcia have blinded him to reasonable advice and leaves. Juba finds Marcia cavorting with her friend Lucia and flirts with her, but she scolds him for being distracted by romantic fantasies during a dire crisis. He apologizes and leaves to tend to his Numidian armies, resolving to try to win her over later. Lucia chides Marcia for spurning the advances of the rich and handsome prince, and confesses that she is in love with Portius and they are eloping. Marcia sympathizes with her, but warns her that Marcus loves her as well, and his jealousy will drive the brothers apart forever if he finds out. She beseeches Lucia to hold her tongue until the war is won, lest she create more chaos in Cato's house.

In the senate house at Utica, Cato calls a meeting of the few remaining Roman senators and asks for a plan to defeat the rapidly advancing Caesar. Sempronius calls for war, arguing that it is time for Rome to avenge the deaths of Scipio and others with fire and fury. Lucius pleads for peace, stating that enough blood has been needlessly shed and it is time for Rome to yield to Caesar. Cato states that both are half right but also half wrong, explaining that the best course of action is neither too reckless nor too cowardly. He declares that he will continue to fight until Caesar reaches Utica, and only then sue for peace. An envoy from Caesar's camp arrives and informs Cato that Caesar has agreed to spare his life if he surrenders Utica immediately. Cato retorts that he will be merciful enough to spare Caesar's life if he surrenders now and stands trial in the senate, and sends the envoy away. Juba arrives and praises Cato's strong leadership, prompting Cato to express gratitude for Juba's loyalty. Cato promises to give Juba whatever he wants as repayment for his service when the war ends. Juba shyly asks to wed Marcia, but Cato is affronted by the notion of Marcia marrying a Numidian and storms off. Syphax arrives and Juba laments that Cato will not consent for him to marry Marcia. Syphax once again urges Juba to marshal the Numidian armies and overthrow Cato, suggesting that once Cato is dead he can take Marcia as his prize, but Juba vows that he will remain an honorable man and win Cato's favor fairly in order to marry Marcia. Syphax worries Juba will never turn against Cato.

Marcus, still unaware of Portius and Lucia's affair, comes to Portius and begs him to convince Lucia to wed him. Portius informs Lucia how much grief Marcus is in because of his love for her, and, saddened by this news, she decides to end their affair before it brings any more misfortune to Cato's already suffering family. Portius tells Marcus that Lucia feels compassion for him but has sworn off love and cannot be with him, and a grieving Marcus pledges that if Lucia will not be his he will die fighting his father's enemies rather than live without her. In the senate, Sempronius grows tired of waiting for Syphax to turn Juba's allegiances and raises his own mutinous legion to overthrow Cato. He sends them to arrest Cato, but when Cato is confronted he makes an impassioned speech that moves them to release him. Sempronius realizes Cato cannot be deposed by troops so loyal to him, and resolves to abandon his plot, abscond with Marcia, and leave Utica to join Caesar's legions. He dresses as Juba to gain entry to Marcia's apartments, but Juba himself finds him and kills him. Marcia finds Sempronius' body, and, believing it to be Juba's by his dress, confesses tearfully that she truly loved Juba all along and she weeps for his death. Juba hears this and reveals that he is still alive, and they embrace. Meanwhile, Syphax succeeds in marshaling the Numidian armies himself, but the reckless and self-destructive Marcus viciously attacks them and slays Syphax before being slain himself. Cato learns of all this and condemns Sempronius and Syphax while praising Marcus' bravery. He declares that instead of mourning his son everyone ought to mourn the fallen Roman Empire which he died to protect before announcing that he intends to surrender Utica to Caesar.

While waiting for Caesar's legions to arrive, Cato privately ponders whether or not to fall on his sword before they do, lamenting that "the world was made for Caesar" and not for virtuous men. He does, and as he dies he is discovered by a shocked Marcia and Portius. With his dying breaths he gives Marcia his blessing to marry Juba (who he declares is a Numidian with "a Roman soul") and Portius the same to marry Lucia. Portius curses the "guilty world" that would take Cato's life and leave Caesar victorious, and declares that the tragedy of Caesar's conquest will forever be a warning to all nations of the dire cost of civil war.

Influence on the American Revolution

Some scholars, including historian David McCullough—author of 1776—believe that several famous quotations from the American Revolution came from, or were inspired by, Cato. These include:

David McCullough American historian and author

David Gaub McCullough is an American author, narrator, popular historian, and lecturer. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award.

Patrick Henry 18th-century American attorney, planter, and politician

Patrick Henry was an American attorney, planter, and orator best known for his declaration to the Second Virginia Convention (1775): "Give me liberty, or give me death!" A Founding Father, he served as the first and sixth post-colonial Governor of Virginia, from 1776 to 1779 and from 1784 to 1786.

(Supposed reference to Act II, Scene 4: "It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.").
The actor John Kemble in the role of Cato in Addison's play, which he revived at Covent Garden in 1816, drawn by George Cruikshank. John Kemble as Cato.jpg
The actor John Kemble in the role of Cato in Addison's play, which he revived at Covent Garden in 1816, drawn by George Cruikshank.
Nathan Hale soldier for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War

Nathan Hale was an American soldier and spy for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City but was captured by the British and executed. Hale has long been considered an American hero and in 1985, he was officially designated the state hero of Connecticut.

(Supposed reference to Act IV, Scene 4: "What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country.").
(Clear reference to Act I, Scene 2: "'Tis not in mortals to command success; but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it.").

Not long after the American Revolution, Edmund Burke quotes the play as well in his Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont, expanded the following year into Reflections on the Revolution in France : "The French may be yet to go through more transmigrations. They may pass, as one of our poets says, 'through many varieties of untried being,' before their state obtains its final form." The poet in reference is, of course, Addison and the passage Burke quoted is from Cato (V.i. II): "Through what variety of untried being,/Through what new scenes and changes must we pass!" [2]

Charles Thomson, a patriot leader from Pennsylvania who John Adams once described as "the Sam Adams of Philadelphia", paraphrased a passage from Cato in a letter to Ben Franklin about Parliament's violations of the freedoms of the colonists. Thomson wrote, “I am ready to ask with the poet [referring to Joseph Addison] 'Are there not some chosen thunders in the stores of heaven armed with uncommon wrath to blast those Men, who by their cursed schemes of policy are dragging friends and brothers into the horrors of civil War and involving their country in ruin?' Even yet the wounds may be healed and peace and love restored; But we are on the very edge of the precipice." Thomson paraphrased Cato Act I: Scene 1 Verses:21 – 24.

Influence today

Although the play has fallen considerably from popularity and is now rarely performed or read, it was widely popular and often cited in the 18th century, with Cato as an exemplar of republican virtue and liberty. For example, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were inspired by the play to write a series of essays on individual rights, using the name "Cato."

Addison's tragedy also inspired the Portuguese playwright Almeida Garrett (1799–1854) to write Catão , in 1821. The play was premiered on 29. September of the same year, celebrating the anniversary of the 1820 Liberal Revolution, in Portugal, by a group of Portuguese liberal intellectuals. It was staged a few times in Portugal, the following years, always by amateurs. In 1828, it had the British premiere, in Plymouth, by a group of exiled officers and intellectuals, reviewed by British newspapers. Catão had its first edition in 1822. There were four other editions, being one of them in London, in 1828.

Wilkins Micawber, a character in the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, quotes Cato from the play: "Plato, thou reasonest well."

In M.T. Anderson's young adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, the main character also quotes the play, "A day, an hour, of virtuous liberty/Is worth a whole eternity in bondage" (p. 346).

A performance of the play, in New York in 1746, is a feature of Francis Spufford's 2016 novel, Golden Hill .

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  1. "'Prologue spoken by his present Majesty at the Representation of Cato at Leicester House...', from Poetical Essays, April 1769, page 207".
  2. Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789)