Cato, a Tragedy

Cato by Joseph Addison was one of the most popular plays of the 18th century and was first performed at the Theatre Royal (Drury Lane) in London on April 14, 1713. Cato focuses on the life of Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) who was an important figure in the late Roman Republic. The events take place in Northern Africa where Cato unites with the Numidian king to fight Caesar who, to Cato, represents government tyranny and Monarchism. In the conclusion, Cato ends his life when he realizes that Caesars army is advancing, victorious, and he would rather give his life than be taken prisoner by Caesar.

Cato was extremely well received by the public and political parties. In Great Britain, the Whigs and the Tories used the play as a propaganda tool. They both saw that the play related to dictatorial events happening in England. In America, George Washington was an extreme fan of the play.

"George Washington was so taken with the character of Cato the younger in Joesph Addison’s 1713 play Cato that he made the Roman republican his role model. He went to see Cato numerous times from early manhood into maturity and even had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge despite a congressional resolution that plays were inimical to republican virtue. Washington included lines from the play in his private correspondence and even in his farewell address." (Stockdale 75).

Several famous quotes from the American Revolution were supposedly derived from this play. Nathan Hale’s statement “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” is a paraphrase from Cato (“How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!/Who would not be that youth? What pity is it/ That we can die but once to serve our country” – Act IV, Scene 4). Patrick Henry’s famous declaration “Give me Liberty or give me death” is loosely based on the line “It is not now a time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.” (Act II, Scene 4).

The play has fallen out of favor in the last 200 years with productions now scarce. During the 18th century though, it was one of the most popular and influential plays of its time.

The copy owned by McCain Library & Archives was printed in 1804 and contains a prologue by the English poet Alexander Pope. To view the item, visit Special Collections in Room 305 in McCain Library & Archives (Special Collections PR3304 .C5 1803) or contact Jennifer Brannock at or 601.266.4347. To see more Items of the Month, click here.

For more information on Joseph Addison and Cato:

Otten, Robert M. Joseph Addison. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. (Cook Library PR3307 .O8 1982)

Smithers, Peter. The Life of Joseph Addison. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1954. (Cook Library PR3306 .S5)

Rosenthal, Laura J. “Juba’s Roman Soul: Addison’s Cato and Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism.” Studies in Literary Imagination 32 (Fall 1999): 63.

Halsband, Robert M. “Addison’s Cato and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,” PMLA 65 (1950): 1122-29.


Works Cited

Stockdale, James B. Thoughts of a philosophical fighter pilot. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995, 75.

Text by Jennifer Brannock, Special Collections Librarian