Cato’s Suicide and Civic Martyrdom in Early British and Spanish America

By Francesca Langer

The story of Cato’s suicide, as handed down by the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, was a gruesome political parable that captured the revolutionary imaginations of early Americans, both North and South. Every schoolboy could recount how Cato was cornered at Utica by a victorious Julius Caesar in the final days of the Roman Republic. When the would-be emperor offered him pardon, Rome’s last true senator gutted himself with his own sword rather than live under Caesar’s tyranny. Severe, cantankerous, always dressed in mourning-black, the character of Cato was a mainstay of early American literature, from the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African American author, and newspaper editor Phillip Freneau, known as the “Poet of the American Revolution,” to the works of Ecuadorian satirist Eugenio Espejo and Colombian playwright Luis Vargas Tejada.[1] The ubiquity of Cato in the Age of Revolutions reflected what the famous U.S. historian Bernard Bailyn once called the “Catonic image”— a heroic ideal of citizenship best exemplified by the slogan “Liberty or Death.”[2] Yet this Catonic image was even more pervasive than Bailyn suggested, extending beyond the circle of Anglo American political elites to form an important part of the popular culture of independence throughout early British and Spanish America. By emphasizing the dignity and virtue of cherishing one’s liberty, even to the point of death, the story of Cato’s suicide provided a model of civic martyrdom that shaped early Americans’ understanding of citizenship itself.

Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy, which glamorized the ancient senator to early modern audiences, was the most popular English play of the eighteenth century, continuously reprinted and staged on both sides of the Atlantic from its debut in 1713. During the American Revolution, however, this familiar fixture of Anglo-American popular culture was newly politicized, becoming so strongly identified with the cause of independence, that Washington’s troops staged their own production of it at Valley Forge.[3] Many of the American Revolution’s most famous slogans— including Patrick Henry’s cry of “liberty or death” and patriot spy Nathan Hale’s lament that he had “but one life to lose for my country”—were in fact lines of dialogue spoken by Addison’s Cato.[4] A 1787 Spanish translation of the play by Bernardo María de Calzada, entitled Catón en Utica, took on a similar political significance in Spanish America, where it was staged at patriotic festivals and Independence Day celebrations throughout Gran Colombia and Peru.[5] In 1812, Argentine revolutionary Bernardo de Monteagudo called for all Americans, North and South, to “renew the sacrifice of Cato” in their common fight for Independence from Europe.[6] From Boston to Buenos Aires, American Revolutionaries reproduced and reinterpreted the story of Cato’s suicide in countless patriotic speeches, parades, pamphlets, newspapers, plays, and songs, reiterating the message that Americans’ willingness to die for their liberty was the ultimate proof that they deserved to be free. 

Early Americans tended to understand classical antiquity as a universal past, not necessarily the exclusive inheritance of those with European ancestry. Roman figures like Cato belonged to a semi-mythical Age of Heroes from which early Americans freely borrowed and blended with other traditions. As Juan Bautista, brother of the Andean revolutionary leader Túpac Amaru recalled in his memoir of the 1780 Andean rebellion, indigenous and mestizo insurgents laid claim not only to the moral authority of “our virtuous fathers, the ancient Incas,” but also to that of Greco-Roman antiquity. Drawn, quartered, and beheaded upon his arrest in 1781, Túpac Amaru died the gruesome and public death of “a martyr for liberty,” for which Juan Batista placed him among the pantheon of classical heroes. Indeed, Juan Batista declared, it was the Inca who lived up to the Greco-Roman example, and not the Spaniards. “Mankind reveres Cato,” he wrote, “yet bows before the yoke of Caesar. Posterity honors the virtue of Brutus, but allows for it only in ancient history.”[7] Spanish colonial authorities claimed to uphold civic virtue, but when a modern Cato appeared to them in the form of Túpac Amaru, they treated him as a criminal for meeting their own standards better than they could.

For early Americans, Cato represented the ultimate citizen—South American Independence leader Simón Bolívar called him “a complete citizen.”[8] The life of a citizen was one of constant struggle against tyranny and in the name of liberty. Cato’s suicide revealed the existential nature of citizenship itself: a cultivated readiness to literally die for the Republic which underlaid all proper civic conduct. Those who lived (and even died) by Cato’s example could claim a kind of moral authority which had the potential to transcend their station in society and push the boundaries of legitimate political action. If those excluded from citizenship could emulate the ultimate citizen, then citizenship’s moral underpinnings were unstable. This contradiction was most apparent when it came to the suicide of slaves. To compare the death of a slave with the death of Cato was not only to charge slaveholders with the tyranny of Caesar; it also suggested that such a suicide was not an act of private desperation, but a grand public gesture that belonged to the realm of high politics. 

Many slaveholders argued that enslaved people were incapable of appreciating liberty—that they lacked the moral fiber of a Cato, the stoic conviction that death would be preferable to such degradation. In a pamphlet opposing the reelection of Thomas Jefferson, Federalist Clement Clarke Moore responded to this argument as it appeared in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Moore told the story of an “experienced slave, whose boast it was that his skin had never been marked by the lash” who worked on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. When a new overseer ordered him to be whipped for the first time, the enslaved man “leaped into the boiler of melted sugar” and burned to death, rather than endure this new tyranny. “If Roman Cato has been extolled for ages,” Moore wrote, “because he could not endure to survive the liberty of his country, surely a poor untaught slave…showed equal magnanimity when he chose to die in torment, rather than live and bear about him what he thought an indelible disgrace.” According to Moore, the existence of this and many similar accounts refuted Jefferson’s claim that slaves lacked the “nobleness of spirit, and delicate sense of honour” required to appreciate liberty.[9] 

As active participants in the culture of independence, enslaved Americans also made use of the Catonic image in their public gestures and rhetoric. Gabriel Prosser, the leader of an 1800 slave rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, designed his own silk banner that read “Death or Liberty”—an arguably pessimistic inversion of the famous Catonic slogan.[10] When authorities arrested, interrogated, and hanged Gabriel and twenty-seven of his comrades, it became clear that the members of Gabriel’s Rebellion were well acquainted with the ideology of the American Revolution, and were fully prepared to become political martyrs. At trial, one of the men declared, “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause.” Secure in the knowledge that he had achieved the secular immortality of the Catonic hero, he concluded, “I beg as a favor that I may immediately be led to execution.”[11] 

Although we don’t know his name, this man’s story and the speech he made before his execution would be collected in an 1826 volume called Records of Patriotism and Love of Country as a model of civic conduct that future Americans should emulate.[12] By contributing his own words and deeds to the corpus of Catonic literature, he not only emulated the heroic ideal of citizenship, but also shaped it. As part of the multimedia popular culture of Independence, the myth of Cato did not just belong to classically educated elites; it was collectively authored by all those who dared to echo Cato’s stark ultimatum of Liberty or Death. 

Francesca Langer is a PhD candidate in history at UNC Chapel Hill specializing in the political cultures of early Anglo and Latin America. Her research deals with the aesthetics of civic republicanism and creole patriotism, including neoclassicism, pan-Americanism, and indigenismo@ChessieLanger on Twitter

Title Image: “Death or Liberty,” 1993. Valentine Museum.

Further Readings:

Ellison, Julie. Cato’s Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Guadet, Katherine. “Liberty and Death: Fictions of Suicide in the New Republic.” Early American Literature 47, no. 3(2012): 591-622.

MacCormack, Sabine. On the Wings of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Niell, Paul B. and Stacie G. Widdifield, eds. Buen Gusto and Classicism in the Visual Cultures of Latin America, 1780-1910. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013. 

Snyder, Terri L. The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.


[1] John Levi Barnard, “Phillis Wheatley and the Affairs of State,” Empire of Ruin: Black Classicism and American Imperial Culture (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2017); Evert Duyckinck ed. Philip Freneau, Poems Relating to the American Revolution, (New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1865); Eugenio Espejo, Marco Porcio Catón o memorias para la impugnación del Nuevo Luciano de Quito (1780); Luis Vargas Tejada, Catón de Utica (1828).

[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 42.

[3] Colonel William Bradford to Rachel Bradford, May 14, 1778, printed in Paul Leicester Ford, Washington and the Theater (New York: Dunlap Society, 1899), 26.

[4] Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy, 1713; Fredric M. Litto, “Addison’s Cato in the Colonies,” The William and Mary Quarterly 23, no. 3 (1966): 431-449.

[5] Bernardo María de Calzada, Catón en Utica, 1787; “Aniversario del 19 de Abril,” Correo de Orinoco, April 21, 1821; “La Muerte de Catón,” Mercurio Peruano, August 8, 1827.

[6] Bernardo de Monteagudo, Gazeta de Buenos-Ayres, January 3, 1812.

[7] Colección Documental de la Independencia del Perú, La Rebelión de Túpac Amaru II, vol. I (Lima: Comisión Nacional del Sesquicentenario de la Independencia del Perú, 2017), 729-31; Juan Batista also compared the Inca Empire to the Greek city-state of Sparta, writing that “Freedom and virtue appear for only a few moments in a few parts of the earth! Sparta, and the empire of Peru shine like lightning in the middle of immense darkness!” Ibid, 731. 

[8] Simón Bolívar, “Juramento de Monte Sacro,” August 15, 1805, in Manuel Uribe Ángel, “El Libertador, su ayo y su capellán,” Homenaje de Colombia al Libertador en su Primer Centenario, 1783–1883, ed. M. Ezequiel Corrales (Bogotá: Imprenta de Medardo Rivas, 1884) 73.

[9] Clement Clarke Moore, Observations Upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (1804), 23-4.

[10] James Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 87.

[11] Robert Sutcliffe, Travels in Some Parts of North American in the Years 1804, 1805, & 1806, (1815), 68. 

[12] William Bailey, Records of Patriotism and Love of Country (1826), 128.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s