Marcus Porcius Cato: aristocrat who walked barefoot and slept on the ground with his troops, political heavyweight who cultivated the image of a Stoic philosopher, a hardnosed defender of tradition who presented himself as a man out of the sacred Roman past - and the last man standing when Rome's Republic fell to tyranny. His blood feud with Caesar began in the chamber of the Senate, played out on the battlefields of a world war, and ended when he took his own life rather than live under a dictator.
Centuries of thinkers, writers, and artists have drawn inspiration from Cato's Stoic courage. Saint Augustine and the early Christians were moved and challenged by his example. Dante, in his Divine Comedy, chose Cato to preside over the souls who arrive in Purgatory. George Washington so revered him that he staged a play on Cato’s life to revive the spirit of his troops at Valley Forge. Now, in Rome's Last Citizen, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni deliver the first modern biography of this stirring figure.
Cato's life is a gripping tale that resonates deeply with our own turbulent times. He grappled with terrorists, a debt crisis, endemic political corruption, and a huge gulf between the elites and those they governed. In many ways, Cato was the ultimate man of principle - he even chose suicide rather than be used by Caesar as a political pawn. But Cato was also a political failure: his stubbornness sealed his and Rome’s defeat, and his lonely end casts a shadow on the recurring hope that a singular leader can transcend the dirty business of politics.
The co-author of the book, Jimmy Soni is currently Managing Editor at The Huffington Post spoke about the book with CNN-IBN's Amrita Tripathi, here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Why Cato? What led you and your co-author to write this book?
Jimmy Soni: We wrote this book because we wanted to read it. When we first learned about Cato and his shocking death, we wanted to know his whole life story-and were surprised that we couldn't find any modern biography of him. Rome's Last Citizen is our effort to fix that, because we believe that Americans need to know about Cato. Cato was the last man standing when the Roman Republic fell. He was the ultimate man of principle in politics: a man immune to corruption and compromise, who committed suicide rather than live under a tyrant. He was a soldier, a senator, and a Stoic-and the only man Julius Caesar never forgave.
We don't believe that American politics has reached the Roman Republic's point of crisis, but the parallels between our time and Cato's time are impossible to miss, and we need to learn from them. In times of seemingly unsolvable problems and unbridgeable political divides, the appeal of a Cato is never greater. We want our readers to understand and appreciate that appeal, like we do. And we also want to show them its dangers.
Q: What do you think Cato's relevance is today? If you could posit this against the US political scenario right now, as we go into elections next month, and also if possible against a global backdrop?
Jimmy Soni: One reason Cato is relevant is because he was a pivotal figure in the history of the United States: our founders' fixation on Cato wrote him into our country's DNA. At Valley Forge, George Washington staged a play to raise the spirits of his starving troops: Cato, A Tragedy, which depicts Cato's resistance to Caesar, and his ultimate suicide. Washington, and Samuel Adams were each honored, at various times, as the "American Cato." John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and Nathan Hale all quoted the Cato play. As they staged an unprecedented revolution, the American founders looked to Cato as their single most inspiring precedent from the ancient world.
Cato also invented a lasting model of a public life--a model we still see at work today. Every politician who wins authority through a refusal to compromise is drawing on Cato's precedent. Every leader who rails against the corrupting influence of money on politics has a model in Cato. So does every politician who presents him- or herself as someone "above" politics-and everyone who claims to be a model of a simpler, purer time. Cato created or perfected all of those appeals. If we want to understand their lasting power, and their weaknesses, we should go back to the source.
Finally, Cato's life is a cautionary tale. For all of his authority, he was also a failure. His inability to compromise with his opponents hardened Rome's battle lines and pushed the Republic into political breakdown and then civil war. Cato teaches us why the most principled, uncompromising leaders are also the most dangerous.
We can see these threads in both domestic and international politics. Just look across the global landscape. How many politicians around the world have made a fashion of refusing to compromise or have drawn their authority from an appeal to an idealized past? These are highly relevant themes for our times--and we can go back to Cato to understand them better.
Q: Take us through a bit of the writing process for you -- you're also Managing Editor of Huffington Post? - how have you juggled both roles? Though I understand the book pre-dates your joining HuffPo?
Jimmy Soni: Both Rob and I worked full-time while writing the book, but in some ways, I think that made it easier, not harder, to finish the book. We both had limited time, and scarcity forced us to be efficient. For almost two years, we worked on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights from 7 PM to around 11 or so. On Saturdays and Sundays, we would work from noon to 6. It's also easier when you have a writing partner. It's much tougher to justify idly surfing the internet when the person across the table from you is pounding away on the keys.
Q: What are some of the books you've enjoyed? What are you reading at the moment?
Jimmy Soni: When I'm not sleeping or working, I'm reading, but the list of books I love is too long for this space. I recently read and enjoyed Candice Millard's book "Destiny of the Republic" about the assassination of James Garfield. And I'm about a quarter of the way through Jon Meacham's new book on Thomas Jefferson, which, so far, is just as good as Meacham's earlier work on Andrew Jackson. There's obviously a theme here--I love historical biographies. But that's not all I read. I also picked up and finished Tobias Wolff's book "In Pharaoh's Army," and I'm almost done with a book called "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer.
I'd recommend both.
Q: Lastly, give us a day in the life of Jimmy Soni, now that the book is out!
Jimmy Soni: Right now my work at The Huffington Post occupies my days (and nights). Apart from that, my goal is to get the Cato book into as many hands as possible, which takes time, planning, and energy. Once the initial intensity of the book launch winds down, I'm hoping to return to something resembling a life. When that happens, it'll hopefully be a new creative project, more time with family and friends, and a vacation (or two).