Money-Lenders are Twice as Bad as Thieves (or, Cato the Elder loves Farming)

Palaiophron, well into his first month teaching Latin at a new high school, told me that he feels like Cato at times when considering “kids today”. Here’s the introduction to Marcus Porcius Cato’s De Agri Cultura (Praefatio). (He was a censor, by the way. This makes censorious make sense…)

“It is in fact true that one may make a living by trade, if it were less dangerous, or even by money-lending, if it were honorable. Our forefathers thought this way and enshrined it in the laws to indemnify a thief doubly and a usurer by a factor of four. How much they considered a money-lender worse than a thief can be seen from this fact. When they used to praise a man as good, they would praise him by calling him a good farmer, a good land-owner—it was thought that to be praised in this way was the most impressive compliment. I think that the trader is a vigorous man, serious about making money; but, as I said above, this is dangerous and calamitous. No, the bravest men and the strongest soldiers are born from farms—their way is the most dutiful, the most stable, the least susceptible to envy and those who pursue this way of life are also least likely to be depressed. Now, that I may return to the subject at hand, what I have said will serve as a basic introduction to my project.”

Est interdum praestare mercaturis rem quaerere, nisi tam periculosum sit, et item foenerari, si tam honestum. Maiores nostri sic habuerunt et ita in legibus posiverunt: furem dupli condemnari, foeneratorem quadrupli. Quanto peiorem civem existimarint foeneratorem quam furem, hinc licet existimare. Et virum bonum quom laudabant, ita laudabant: bonum agricolam bonumque colonum; amplissime laudari existimabatur qui ita laudabatur. Mercatorem autem strenuum studiosumque rei quaerendae existimo, verum, ut supra dixi, periculosum et calamitosum. At ex agricolis et viri fortissimi et milites strenuissimi gignuntur, maximeque pius quaestus stabilissimusque consequitur minimeque invidiosus, minimeque male cogitantes sunt qui in eo studio occupati sunt. Nunc, ut ad rem redeam, quod promisi institutum principium hoc erit.

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 6.22: Fat Knights, Censorious Censors, and Cato the Elder

“The censors used to remove a man who was out of shape and too fat from his horse because they thought that a man of such weight was less than fit for performing the duties of a knight. This was not as much a punishment as one might think: the duty’s burden was removed without the shame of losing office. Nevertheless, Cato, in the speech which he wrote concerning the neglect of sacrifice, objects that this matter is more criminal, that it was possible to be seen as a matter of public disgrace. If you accept his argument, it must be assumed that a man was not wholly free of being blamed for lethargy, since he had spoiled and plumped his body to such an immoderate size.”

1 Nimis pingui homini et corpulento censores equum adimere solitos scilicet minus idoneum ratos esse cum tanti corporis pondere ad faciendum equitis munus. 2 Non enim poena id fuit, ut quidam existimant, sed munus sine ignominia remittebatur. 3 Tamen Cato in oratione, quam de sacrificio commisso scripsit, obicit hanc rem criminosius, uti magis videri possit cum ignominia fuisse. 4 Quod si ita accipias, id profecto existimandum est non omnino inculpatum neque indesidem visum esse, cuius corpus in tam inmodicum modum luxuriasset exuberassetque.

Aulus Gellius kept a collection of passages for his son.