Rome’s Last Citizen – Book Review
One of the first questions many Americans will assuredly ask themselves if they come across Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s book, Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar is: Who is Cato? More importantly, why publish an entire book about a relatively obscure Roman political leader in 2012? Why should 21st Century America care who Cato is?
By narrating the life and career of the Roman political giant, who his friends and enemies were, and how he affected the course of the Republic, Goodman and Soni make it clear that there are many parallels between the Roman Republic of Cato’s time and our own democratic society. In fact, there are ties between Cato and the very beginning of the United States of America, including a theatrical version of the famous Roman Stoic who holds a very important place within the Founding mythos. Most of the Founding Fathers (to use the most popular term) considered themselves late 18th-century Catos, men who did not necessarily pick up the sword themselves, but used their words and their actions to halt British transgressions against the American colonies. As Goodman and Soni point out, everyone from Nathan Hale to Benjamin Franklin aped Cato’s words and deeds, elevating the Roman from an antiquated figure lost to history into a potent symbol for liberty.
The one American most affected by Cato’s life and the theatrical play that took London and the American colonies by storm, however, was a man who picked up the sword in defense of his country: George Washington. The American Cincinnatus, the man who put down his sword and retired to a (supposedly) quiet retirement after his victory against the British, had a lot in common with Cato. If it was not in his nature to be a quiet, proper, relatively humorless man, Washington learned it from Cato—which is saying a lot, since Washington never had a proper education. Goodman and Soni note that Washington had the play based on Cato’s life performed at Valley Forge, when American fortunes and American morale plummeted. The tale of Stoic virtue, rigidness, and liberty tinged with tragedy seemingly affected the men who witnessed the play, including Washington himself, and morale began to creep up from its lowest point.
The adoption of Cato by the American Revolutionary generation only tells part of the Roman’s connection to modern America. Throughout their book, Goodman and Soni tell of a powerful elite who controlled Roman politics through bribes, force, and coercion; sex scandals at the highest levels that rocked Roman society; enemies on the fringe of the Roman empire who nibbled at the edges of the civilized world before exploding into open warfare; and a combination of urban and rural poor who were ground under the sandaled feet of the rich and powerful. Indeed, the popularity in England of the play Cato, Goodman and Soni point out, harkened to the public’s fears of a “new, moneyed elite – of the growing power of stock companies and banks.”
If any of the above sounds familiar, we need only think about the state of American political life today, where super PACs can raise and spend money at will in support of a candidate or cause of their choosing, with little to no oversight or responsibility for their messages. The poor and the middle class both bend under the strain of a system of taxation and spending that seems to have no clear goal or easy fix, a system where banks failed due to mismanagement and corruption—only to enjoy resurrection at the hands of the government. American society faces open challenges from radical elements within the Muslim world and a continued face-off against “rogue” nations such as Iran and North Korea, and American men and women face combat on a daily basis in far-away Afghanistan. While this may seem like an overly simplistic evaluation of American society (and indeed it is), it also serves to bolster the similarities between Roman society during Cato’s lifetime and the America of today.
In the end, Goodman and Soni reintroduce Cato to America as both an inspiration and a warning. Cato’s Stoic virtues do serve as a potential check against the myriad of problems that plague American political life. Cato’s unwillingness to take a bribe, his careful management of his—and the Republic’s—money, and his willingness to stand by his beliefs even if it meant making political enemies can serve as an example to modern-day politicians.
The example, however, is definitely less than stellar. Cato’s inflexibility worked to both personal and public detriment. His filibusters against several of his opponents and their issues served to grind the Roman Senate to a halt, and his personal involvement and opposition to elections and their results often led to deadlock at the highest levels of Roman government. Above all, Cato served as one of the (often-overlooked) factors that led to a massive civil war and the eventual victory of Julius Caesar.
Well-written and insightful, Rome’s Last Citizen is not only interesting for the historical perspective it sheds on Cato and Rome, but also for the light it sheds on the similarities between Rome and modern America. Goodman and Soni picked a perfect historical actor to reintroduce to the 21st Century, and a perfect time to do it.
Adam Koeth is a recent graduate of Norwich University with a Master’s of Arts in Military History. He also holds a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in History from Ohio University. A native Ohioan, Adam lives with his wife and two children near Columbus, and enjoys reading everything he can get his hands on, writing, and watching sports – even if it’s the Cleveland Browns.