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"Furthermore, I am of the opinion that Carthage should be destroyed"

by Bruno Van de Casteele

May 10, 2015

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Donate Recently, at work, we were discussing some changes that really needed to be made to our IT architectural landscape (decommissioning of old spaghetti-like applications and implementing more modern tools). One of the biggest challenges would be to convince senior management that the changes actually needed to be made, and we agreed during that discussion that we would need to repeat that message several times in the months to come. As a history buff, I gave as an example of such tenacity Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman who lived from 234 BCE to 149 BCE. Towards the end of his life he kept on insisting that Carthage (Rome's archenemy), after two previous conflicts, was still a danger to the Republic and needed to be destroyed in a Third Punic War. Most famously, he was known to add as a closing remark to any speech he made, whatever the topic, "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam" (meaning, "furthermore, I am of the opinion that Carthage should be destroyed").

He got what he wanted posthumously, as Carthage was destroyed and burned to the ground in 146 BCE, and any habitation in the vicinity was forbidden. Any student of Latin has heard this anecdote, and could probably repeat by heart these words. It is indeed a very powerful story, but did it really happen?

As any good skeptic checking on older stories about UFOs or hauntings, we should of course try to check original sources as close as possible to or even from Cato himself. This is a problem, in the case of Cato, as we hardly have any sources from this era. Even worse, we do not seem to have many secondary sources from a later era (by historians or rhetoricians) describing Cato or this period, as here, too, there are lots of gaps in the surviving literature. And the quote itself seems to have a lot of variants.

Luckily, during my search I stumbled upon a 1934 article by Arthur Little, which summarizes best our understanding of the extant literature. The article is behind a paywall and is not cited much, so here is a summary of the main findings.
  • We have no direct sources from that era, neither speeches by Cato nor reports nor official documents, detailing this utterance.

  • The first reference of Cato's animosity against Carthage is by Cicero, writing 100 years after Cato's death. Cicero mentions in De Senectute that Cato agitated against Carthage constantly, and claiming that he wanted it excised (not destroyed). We can conclude from this, therefore, that Cato's animosity was probably real, and that such words may have been uttered (though maybe not every time). Cicero (who happens to be one of my most favourite philosophers) was probably not lying, although he could have been embellishing on an urban legend going around, even if he had direct access to Cato's recorded speeches.

  • We are sadly missing some or all of the chapters about this period in the historical works by Polybius or Livy. The latter one alludes to it in surviving books and might have quoted the original wording in the lost parts. Importantly, he also mentions Scipio Nasica, another statesman from the period (and a relative of the famous Scipio Africanus) who argued the opposite. This gives the impression that the Carthage question was indeed debated, and that there seemed to be two opposing groups.

  • The first clear statement is from Pliny the Elder, writing more than 200 years after the fact. In his Naturalis Historia he mentions the repetition and the words "delendam" (to be destroyed). He also places it, according to Little, in a declamatory setting. Pliny could have been quoting from the speeches directly, since it can be shown that they were not yet lost at the time.

  • We have the most mentions in the second century CE. Plutarch gives the entire story of Cato's visit to a prosperous Carthage with a well-equipped military, bringing a fig to the Senate for a theatrical speech about the dangers lurking "only three days' sail away." And we have, from Plutarch, the first quotation of the all the words in the well-known quote.

Little concludes from this that Pliny the Elder and Plutarch have created or at least embellished the rhetorical setting in the Senate and the exact wording. It seems certain that Cato was indeed in the camp of those that thought Carthage should be dealt with once and for all. Ursula Vogel-Weidemann mentions, in an article from 1989, that the debate between Cato and Nasica is representative of a more principled discussion taking place in the Senate in that period "between two divergent views on Rome's foreign policy." As Little also hinted, it might very well be that these two views got crystalized in the persons of Cato and Nasica, each arguing vehemently for their cause. It might well be that the phrase we now know was uttered in some form by Cato, therefore providing an inspiration to the later rhetorical setting.

As a coda to this conclusion, Sylvia Thrlemann (Gymnasium, 1974) went into more detail on the modern reception of this phrase. I cannot track down the original German article at the moment, but from the citations of this article I picked up in Google Scholar, I can surmise that she argues that the actual formalized version only appeared first in the 18th century in English and French circles, and only in the 19th century in Germany. She seems to argue that there is a big time gap between Plutarch (and some 4th century writers) and our modern understanding and exact quotation. The story as such, of an aging senator railing tenaciously against what he perceived a critical threat to his homeland, is still as strong. But it may very well be a rather recent and modern reinterpretation of a rhetorically augmented historical fact. And it shows that studying Latin is still interesting...

Thanks to my friend Philippe and his contacts for providing me with literature references.

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by Bruno Van de Casteele

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