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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 28, No. 10 (July 1933), 574‑578.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p574  The Eternal Triangle, First Century B.C.
By Hattie L. Gordon
Punahou School, Honolulu

In the anxious times which heralded the fall of the Roman Republic lived Cato the Younger, stanch defender of the old order and the unwavering enemy of the new régime which was personified by Julius Caesar. Cato's public life and his strictly conservative political beliefs are fairly well known, but one surprising incident in his private life may well bear another airing: After divorcing one wife for infidelity, he divorced his second wife so that one of his friends could marry her, and then after that friend's death, himself remarried her.

Sometimes before 67 B.C. Cato married Atilia, the daughter of Atilius Serranus.​1 There is no record of Cato's feelings toward the lady, but she seems to have been very fond of him, at least if her concern over his departure to serve as military tribune in Macedonia is any indication. Far from dashing home to his bride after his term of service had expired, Cato went on to tour Asia.

On his return to Rome he divided his time between talking philosophy with the Stoic Athenodorus and studying the current political situation by attending his friends in the Forum. He was also engaged in extensive study of the laws relating to the quaestor­ship, preparatory to becoming a candidate for that office.​2 All this can have left little time for his young wife. Atilia bore him in the course of time two children, but Cato's ideas of a happy home life were apparently not very satisfactory, and probably it was his absorption in outside matters which led her to seek other  p575 diversions. These culminated in the infidelity which caused Cato to divorce her.3

After divorcing Atilia Cato married Marcia, the daughter of L. Marcius Philippus, consul in 56, and "a woman of excellent reputation, about whom there was the most abundant talk."​4 Plutarch's description of her suggests that she was somewhat more mature than many Roman brides, though she had not previously been married. There is little material on Marcia, though she also was deeply concerned over Cato's personal safety,​5 and Appian says that Cato was extremely fond of her. She had borne Cato three children,​6 and there is not the slightest indication that they were not happily married, when suddenly Cato divorced her.

The story is told in Plutarch, Cato Minor XXV: Hortensius first asked for the hand of Cato's daughter Porcia, who was not only already married to Bibulus but had borne him two sons. What Hortensius' motives were it is difficult to say; his first wife, the daughter of Q. Lutatius Catulus, had apparently died, perhaps recently; he had been much disappointed by his son's profligate ways; and since the rise to power of the triumvirate, he had withdrawn from the dangerous vortex of political life. Perhaps he saw a cheerless and lonely old age closing in upon him, yet hesitated to take a long chance on a second wife. Hortensius, who was nearing sixty, was an absurd match for the young Porcia, who was about twenty and moreover already happily married, as her father pointed out. Then Hortensius threw off the mask and asked for the wife of Cato; she was still  p576 young enough to bear children, and Cato already had all he needed.

Plutarch attributes Cato's acceptance to his observance of Hortensius' deep interest in the matter. Cato did, however, insist that Marcia's father Philippus must first approve. Philippus on being consulted consented; Cato divorced her, thus destroying his manus over her, and Philippus then gave her in marriage to Hortensius.

Strabo (XI.9.1) says that Cato gave Marcia in marriage to Hortensius "according to an old custom of the Romans," but examples are singularly lacking.​7 The objurgations of the Church Fathers​8 may be set aside as based on the point of view of an utterly different age, religion, and standard of morality; in fact Augustine himself admits the divergence. Appian​9 narrates the incident with no comment except that after Hortensius' death Cato took Marcia back "as if he had merely loaned her."

So far there would be no criticism worth considering in relation to Cato's action in this matter, for there were no legal obstacles to divorce either to mutual consent or by repudium, or restrictions as to reconciliations and remarriages. But it is a fact to be considered that by Quintilian's day the transaction had evidently  p577 become a common subject of declamation.​10 This discussion surely indicates that the situation was neither so common nor so accepted as Strabo and the commentator on Lucan imply.

The opening for an attack was made when at the outbreak of the Civil War, in 49 B.C., Cato took Marcia back — a Marcia who by the death of Hortensius was now a wealthy widow. "Why," said Caesar, "should Cato, wanting the woman, give her up or, not wanting her, take her back again, unless from the beginning he set her as a bait for Hortensius, and gave her up when she was young in order to take her back when she was rich?" (Plut., C. Min. LII.4). But this seems just such stuff as political mud-slinging is made of, and Caesar doubtless remembered also Cato's none too private or complimentary remarks about men who made women a means to power at the time Caesar married his daughter to Pompey. Trafficking in marriage was much too risky to offer an enticing prospect of gain to anyone but an inveterate gambler; the possibility that Hortensius might not have died before Cato is only one of the chance circumstances which would have completely wrecked such a scheme, in addition to the fact that there is no evidence of avarice in Cato. The reason given by Plutarch (LII.3) for taking Marcia back into his home is exceedingly plausible: He was going to join Pompey, times were troubled, and he needed some one to look after his household (cf. Lucan II.347, where Marcia says, In curas venio partemque laborum). That Marcia was fond of Cato is obvious from the fact that she returned to him, but for all that he may not have been exactly her ideal. Her affection for the children was doubtless a factor, and it is suggestive that she did not remarry Cato until he was going away to war and the children needed her. She would inevitably retain much independence, also, by returning from choice. Lucan's fervid ravings do no particular credit to his knowledge of feminine psychology. The simplest view of the psychological situation  p578 is that all three of the people concerned were mature, had a calm view of marriage as an institution for the perpetuation of the State, and had passed beyond the romantic idealism of youth. But the taunts hurled at Cato go to show that the transaction was not "according to an ancient custom of the Romans," while Cato's indifference to them is quite in accord with his general character.

The Author's Notes:

1 Cf. Plutarch, Cato Minor VII.3.

2 Ibid. IX.1; XVI.1.

3 Ibid. XXIV.2. Cf. Lucan's interpretation, II.387 f., Venerisque hic unicus usus, Progenies. . . .

4 Plut., op. cit. XXV.1. Other references to this marriage are Appian, Bellum Civ. II.14, 99; Lucan II.329; Hieronymus, Adversum Iovinianum I.46, Brutus Porciam virginem duxit uxorem, Marciam Cato non virginem, must have confused the names of the women, as Porcia had married Bibulus before Brutus, and the other sources agree that Marcia had not been married before.

5 Plut., op. cit. XXXVII.2.

6 Cf. Lucan II.331; Commenta Lucani II.331; Adnotationes Lucani II.339. Or possibly two, and the third was still on the way, as according to Plut., op. cit. XXV.5 she was with child at the time of Hortensius' proposal.

7 There is an interesting passage in Nepos, Dion VI: Nam cum uxorem reduxisset, quae alii fuerat tradita. But this may mean only that she was under the protection of a friend while Dion was in Corinth, not that she actually married someone else. The case is of course not Roman anyhow.

8 Cf. Tertullianus, Apologeticum XXXIX,º O Romanae gravitatis exemplum! Leno est philosophus. Augustinus, Contra Julianum Pelagianum V.46; De Bono Coniugali XXI; Hier., Adv. Jov. II.7, Catonum sectetur exemplum . . . pecudum more lasciviunt; ib. I.46; Salvianus, De Gubernatione Dei VII.23; Augustinus, De Fide et Operibus X, In Ecclesia, . . . nuptiarum non solum vinculum, verum etiam sacramentum ita commendatur, ut non liceat viro uxorem suam alteri tradere; quod in republica tunc Romana, non solum minime culpabiliter, verum etiam laudabiliter Cato fecisse perhibetur.

9 Cf. B. C. II.14, 99. Lucan II.331 also mentions it; so Adnotationes Lucani II.339, while Commenta Lucani II.330 has a statement similar to Strabo's, Aput veteres mos fuerat ut quisque susceptis quod libitum fuerat liberis propter utilitatem civitatis alii uxorem suam traderet, ut illi filios procrearet. Vel quoniam philosopho magnae sapientiae viro Catoni contempnenda libido fuerat, susceptis tribus liberis uxorem suam Hortensio tradidit.

10 Inst. X.5.13, in a list of infinitae questiones, Nam quid interest, . . . Cato Marciam honestene tradiderit Hortensio, an conveniatne res talis bono viro? De personis iudicatur, sed de rebus contenditur; and III.5.11, Thesis, "An Orestes recte sit absolutus"; cuius generis est, "An Cato recte Marciam Hortensio tradiderit."

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