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Cato, Diony'sius


We possess a small volume which commonly bears the title Dionysii Catonis Disticha de Moribus ad Filium. It commences with a preface addressed by the author to his son, pointing out how prone men are to go astray for want of proper counsel, and inviting his earnest attention to the instructive lessons about to be inculcated. Next come fifty-six proverb-like injunctions, very briefly expressed, such as " parentem ama," " diligentiam adhibe," " jus-jurandum serva," and the like, which are followed by the main body of the work, consisting of a series of sententious moral precepts, one hundred and forty-four in number, each apophthegm being enunciated in two dactylic hexameters. The collection is divided into four books; to the second, third, and fourth of these are attached short metrical prefaces, and the whole is wound up by a couplet containing a sort of apology for the form in which the materials are presented to the reader.

It is amusing to take a survey of the extraordinary number of conflicting opinions which have been entertained by scholars of eminence with regard to the real author of this work, the period when it was composed, its intrinsic merits, and indeed every circumstance in any way connected with it directly or indirectly. It has been assigned with perfect confidence to Seneca, to Ausonius, to Serenus Samonicus, to Boethius, to an Octavius, to a Probus, and to a variety of unknown personages. The language has been pronounced worthy of the purest era of Latin composition, and declared to be a specimen of the worst epoch of barbarism. The adages themselves have been extolled by some as the dignified exposition of high philosophy; by others they have been contemptuously characterised as, with few exceptions, a farrago of vapid trash. One critic, at least, has discovered that the writer was undoubtedly a Christian, and has traced nearly the whole of the distichs to the Bible; while others find the clearest proofs of a mind thoroughly imbued with Pagan creeds and rites. In so far as the literary merits of the production are concerned, if we distrust our own judgment, we can feel little hesitation in believing that what such men as Erasmus, Joseph Scaliger, Laurentius Valla, and Pithou concurred in admiring warmly and praising loudly, cannot, although its merits may have been exaggerated, be altogether worthless; and any scholar, who examines the book with an impartial eye, will readily perceive that, making allowance for the numerous and palpable corruptions, the style is not unworthy of the Silver Age. As to the other matters under discussion, it will be sufficient to state what facts we can actually prove. The very circumstance that every one of the suppositions alluded to above has been ingeniously maintained and ingeniously refuted, would in it-self lead us to conclude, that the evidence which admits of such opposite interpretations must be both scanty and indistinct.

The work is first mentioned in an epistle addressed by Vindicianus, Comes Archiatrorum, to Valentinian, in which he states that a certain sick man used often to repeat the words of Cato--

Corporis exigua (leg. auxilium) medico committo fideli
a line which is found in ii. D. 22; the next allusion is in Isidorus, who quotes Cato as an authority for the rare word officiperda (see iv. D. 42) ; and the third in order of time is in Alcuin, contemporary with Charlemagne, who cites one of the Distichs (ii. D. 31) as the words of the " philosopher Cato." In our own early literature it is frequently quoted by Chaucer. It is clear, therefore, that these saws were familiarly known in the middie of the fourth century, and recognized from that time forward as the composition of some Cato. So, in like manner, all the MSS. agree in presenting that name; while for the addition of Dionysius we are indebted to a single codex once in the possession of Simeon Bos, which was inspected by Scaliger and Vinet, and pronounced by them of great antiquity. We must remark, however, that the combination Dionysius Cato is exceedingly suspicious. Dionysius was a name frequently borne by slaves of Greek extraction ; but when combined with a Roman name, according to the fashion among libertini, it was added as a cognomen to the gentile appellation of the patron. Thus, C. Julius Dionysius appears in an inscription as a freedman of Augustus; so we find P. Aelius Dionysius, and many others; but it does not occur prefixed to a Roman cognomen, as in the present case. Names purely Greek, such as Dionysius Socrates, Dionysius Philocalus, and the like, do not of course bear upon the question.

No one now imagines that either of the Catos celebrated in history has any connexion with this metrical system of ethics. Aulus Gellius (11.2), it is true, gives some fragments of a Carmen de Moribus in prose by the elder; and Pliny (Plin. Nat. 29.6) has preserved a passage from the precepts delivered by the same sage to his son; but these were both works of a totally different description, and no hint has been given by the ancients that anything such as we are now discussing ever proceeded from Cato of Utica.

In truth, we know nothing about this Cato or Dionysius Cato, if he is to be so called; and, as we have no means of discovering anything with regard to him, it may be as well to confess our ignorance once for all.

Perhaps we ought to notice the opinion entertained by several persons, that Cato is not intended to represent the name of the author, but is merely to be regarded as the significant title of the work, just as we have the Brutus, and the Laelius, and the Cato Major of Cicero, and the treatise mentioned by Aulus Gellius, called Cato, aut de Liberis educandis.

Lastly, it has been inferred, from the introduction to book second, in which mention is made of Virgil and Lucan, that we have here certain proof that the distichs belong to some period later than the reign of Nero; but even this is by no means clear, for all the prologues have the air of forgeries ; and the one in question, above all, in addition to a false quantity in the first syllable of Macer, contains a most gross blunder, such as no one but an illiterate monk was likely to commit,--for the Punic wars are spoken of as the subject of Lucan's poem.


This Catechism of Morals, as it has been called, seems to have been held in great estimation in the middle ages, and to have been extensively employed as a school-book. This will account for the vast number of early editions, more than thirty belonging to the fifteenth century, which have proved a source of the greatest interest to bibliographers. One of these, on vellum, of which only a single copy is known to exist, is in the Spenser collection, and is believed by Dibdin to be older than the Gottenburg Bible of 1465. The title in the earlier impressions is frequently Cato Moralisatus, Cato Moralissimus, Cato Carmen de Moribus, and so forth.

The best edition is that of Otto Arntzenius, 8vo. Amsterdam, 1754, which contains an ample collection of commentaries; the Greek paraphrases by Maximus Planudes and Joseph Scaliger; the dissertations of Boxhorn, written with as much extravagant bitterness as if the author of the Distichs had been a personal enemy; the learned but rambling and almost interminable reply of Cannegieter; and two essays by Withof. These, together with the preliminary notices, contain everything that is worth knowing.

One of the oldest specimens of English typography is a translation of Cato by Caxton through the medium of an earlier French version : THE BOOKE CALLYD CATHON, Translated oute of Frenche into Englyssh by William Caxton in thabby of Westmystre the yere of our lorde MCCCClxxxiij and the fyrst yere of the regne of Kyng Rychard the thyrde xxiij day of Decembre. From the preface to this curious volume we learn, that the same task had previously been accomplished in verse. " Here beginneth the prologue or proheme of the book called Caton, which book hath been translated out of Latin into English, by Maister Benet Burgh, late Archdeacon of Colchester, and high canon of St. Stephen at Westminster; which full craftily hath made it, in ballad royal for the erudition of my Lord Bousher, son and heir at that time to my lord the Earl of Essex."

The Cato we have been discussing is frequently termed by the first English printers Cato Magnus, in contradistinction to Cato Parvus, which was a sort of supplement to the former, composed originally by Daniel Church (Ecclesiensis), a domestic in the court of Henry the Second, about 1180, and also translated by Burgh. The two tracts were very frequently bound up together.

Further Information

See Ames, Typographical Antiquities, vol. i. pp. 195-202; Warton's History of English Poetry, vol. ii. section 27.


hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 29.6
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 11.2
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