Peter Jones

What the Tories can learn from Cato the Elder

[Getty Images]

One MP pays a tax fine, one borrows money from a relation and one is accused of bullying staff. More ‘corruption and sleaze’? Romans might have seen it as a matter of basic values.

In 443 bc, Rome established the prestigious office of censor, to be held by two men, usually ex-consuls. As well as maintaining an official list of Roman citizens and their property (the census), they were also responsible for the oversight of public morals (regimen morum).

Anyone who fell below what the censors regarded as the high standards of a Roman citizen was removed from his tribe, was not allowed to vote and had a mark made against his name on the citizen register.

The most famous censor was Marcus Porcius (‘Carthage must be destroyed’), also known as Cato the Elder (234-149 bc), ‘a man to whom severity was ascribed for the whole of his life’. Surviving extracts from his speeches give a sense of the man: ‘I have no expensive buildings, vases or clothes, no costly slaves. If I have anything to use, I use it; if not, I do without… what one does not need, however cheap, costs too much.’

For Cato, indulgence in luxuries, especially clothes, vehicles and extravagant feasting, led to avarice, corruption and love of the ‘soft life’ (he condemned the erection of statues to two cooks with the words ‘obsession with food, none with virtue’). Under his watch, seven senators were expelled, cavalrymen were downgraded for lack of fitness, and others were too, for letting their farms run to waste.

He was equally strict in the other area of the censor’s work, public contracts. Personal gain from public office, including the private distribution of booty, was anathema to him and he saw to it that as much revenue as possible went to the state and that public works were leased without excessive profits for the contractors.

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