1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cato, Publius Valerius

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20101811911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 5 — Cato, Publius Valerius

CATO, PUBLIUS VALERIUS, Roman poet and grammarian, was born about 100 B.C. He is of importance as the leader of the “new” school of poetry (poetae novi, νεώτεροι, as Cicero calls them). Its followers rejected the national epic and drama in favour of the artificial mythological epics and elegies of the Alexandrian school, and preferred Euphorion of Chalcis to Ennius. Learning, that is, a knowledge of Greek literature and myths, and strict adherence to metrical rules were regarded by them as indispensable to the poet. The νεώτεροι were also determined opponents of Pompey and Caesar. The great influence of Cato is attested by the lines:—

“Cato grammaticus, Latina Siren,
Qui solus legit ac facit poetas.”[1]

Our information regarding his life is derived from Suetonius (De Grammaticis, 11). He was a native of Cisalpine Gaul, and lost his property during the Sullan disturbances before he had attained his majority. He lived to a great age, and during the latter part of his life was in very reduced circumstances. He was at one time possessed of considerable wealth, and owned a villa at Tusculum which he was obliged to hand over to his creditors. In addition to grammatical treatises, Cato wrote a number of poems, the best-known of which were the Lydia and Diana. In the Indignatio (perhaps a short poem) he defended himself against the accusation that he was of servile birth. It is probable that he is the Cato mentioned as a critic of Lucilius in the lines by an unknown author prefixed to Horace, Satires, i. 10.

Among the minor poems attributed to Virgil is one called Dirae (or rather two, Dirae and Lydia). The Dirae consists of imprecations against the estate of which the writer has been deprived, and where he is obliged to leave his beloved Lydia; in the Lydia, on the other hand, the estate is regarded with envy as the possessor of his charmer. Joseph Justus Scaliger was the first to attribute the poem (divided into two by F. Jacobs) to Valerius Cato, on the ground that he had lost an estate and had written a Lydia. The question has been much discussed; the balance of opinion is in favour of the Dirae being assigned to the beginning of the Augustan age, although so distinguished a critic as O. Ribbeck supports the claims of Cato to the authorship. The best edition of these poems is by A. F. Näke (1847), with exhaustive commentary and excursuses; a clear account of the question will be found in M. Schanz’s Geschichte der römischen Litteratur; for the “new” school of poetry see Mommsen, Hist. of Rome, bk. v. ch. xii.; F. Plessis, Poésie latine (1909), 188.

  1. “Cato, the grammarian, the Latin siren, who alone reads aloud the works and makes the reputation of poets.”