Cato’s Figgish Fib

Note: This article was originally published by me via one of the discussion threads of the AncientWorlds group ‘Delenda est Carthago’ (link to original post here) on 15 February 2005. ‘Us’, ‘members’, and other terms of a similar nature refer to the ‘Delenda est Carthago’ members for whom the post was originally written. The article may be edited in the near future to remove such references.

O-hisashiburi desu ne. Long time no see, Quirites, for which I have only my lazy self and my unreliable ISP to blame. In any case, let us turn to the matter at hand.

Many of us here are familiar with the famous episode in which Marcus Porcius Cato illustrates Carthage’s newfound prosperity and dangerous proximity to Rome by showing his fellow senators some fresh, plump, newly-harvested ‘African’ figs (which the old fart, eager to push the case for war along by any means necessary, probably plucked from one of his own Italian estates). I am currently trying to assign a date to this event for the PWIII Timeline Project and would be grateful for your advice.

The anecdote is recorded in two ancient sources: Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis. Although their accounts agree in almost every respect, slight differences seem to point to two very different dates for Cato’s figgish fib. Plutarch’s version (the more famous of the two narratives) runs thus:

As he ended this speech it is said that Cato shook out the folds of his toga and contrived to drop some Libyan figs on the floor of the Senate-house, and when the senators admired their size and beauty he remarked that the country which produced them was only three days’ sail from Rome. Afterwards he adopted a still more forceful method of driving home his point: whenever his opinion was called for on any subject, he invariably concluded with the words, ‘And furthermore it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed!’ (Lives, ‘Cato the Elder’ 27)

Though the historian offers little that would help fix an exact date, a few lines in the preceding section (i.e. ‘Cato’ 26) offer some valuable clues. Plutarch wrote that Cato, after having seen Carthage regain much of her former strength — presumably during his stint with the Roman delegation of 153 B.C. — ‘returned with all speed to Rome’ and began to issue dire warnings to his fellow senators over their old enemy’s imminent resurgence. The speech that Plutarch summarised in this paragraph is, of course, the same speech which is referred to in the opening line of ‘Cato’ 27: ‘As he ended this speech . . .’ (boldface mine). This would suggest that the Figgish Fib took place shortly after the Roman diplomatic mission sent to mediate between Carthage and the king of Numidia — i.e. sometime in 152 or thereabouts.

Furthermore, from a rather less scientific perspective, the middle and closing sections of ‘Cato’ 27 seem to have been written in such a way as to suggest that a considerable period of time (perhaps amounting to years) elapsed between this speech and the outbreak of hostilities in 149 B.C. Plutarch describes how Cato and Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica repeatedly sparred with each other in the Senate . . .

Cato: And furthermore it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed!
Scipio: And in my view Carthage must be spared!

. . . and implies — especially in the line ‘[a]fterwards he adopted a still more forceful method of driving home his point’ — that the old censor spent a good deal of time trying to persuade the Senate to adopt his line of thinking.

Pliny’s account is as follows:

Burning with a mortal hatred to Carthage, anxious, too, for the safety of his posterity, and exclaiming at every sitting of the senate that Carthage must be destroyed, Cato one day brought with him into the Senate-house a ripe fig, the produce of that country. Exhibiting it to the assembled senators, ‘I ask you,’ said he, ‘when, do you suppose, this fruit was plucked from the tree?’ All being of opinion that it had been but lately gathered, –Know then,’ was his reply, ‘that this fig was plucked at Carthage but the day before yesterday –so near is the enemy to our walls.’ It was immediately after this occurrence that the third Punic war commenced, in which Carthage was destroyed, though Cato had breathed his last, the year after this event. (Historia Naturalis, 15.20)

Taking this description at face value, it would appear that ‘immediately’ after tossing his lovely figs onto the floor of the Curia Cato’s senatorial colleagues wasted no time in declaring war against their old enemy and sending the consuls off towards Africa — thus placing the Figgish Fib firmly in 150 or 149 B.C., the first year of the Third Punic War.

So which one is it: 153/152 or 150/149? I’m not entirely sure, though I find myself leaning quite heavily in favour of the earlier date. My opinion is based chiefly on the strength of the clues in Plutarch but also because Pliny’s account could be viewed in a different light. The man, after all, was writing about figs — not about Cato himself or about the war with Carthage. (Hence the title of the relevant chapter in his Historia Naturalis: ‘HISTORICAL ANECDOTES CONNECTED WITH THE FIG’.) It should come as no surprise that events tend to become a little compressed in his account, which is rather less of a history and more of a collection of fig tales. In addition, D. W. Baronowski (Classical Philology 90, no. 1, Jan. 1995, p. 28) asserted that Cato might have repeated the proximity argument — and hence the Figgish Fib — in his De Bello Carthaginiensi oration, delivered towards the beginning of 149. This means that although the incident probably took place just after the embassy of 153, it may well have been retold (perhaps reenacted?) by Cato just days or hours before the Senate declared war against Carthage. In other words, Pliny could have been writing about the figs’ second appearance, two or three years after they made their debut on the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, the issue is by no means settled, and there may be some evidence out there that would suggest another date entirely. Feel free to air your own views and interpretations. (Since my only modern account of the war is Goldsworthy, perhaps some of our fellow members who have read other modern authors might have something different to suggest.)


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