Cato the Younger made his name by tirelessly advertising his high personal morals. His public career as a senator and tribune of the Roman republic was distinguished by a use of obstructionist tactics whose mixture of pig-headed stubbornness and improvisation may sound humorously familiar to modern Congress-watchers. Here are some highlights, based on Adrian Goldsworthy’s fantastic biography of Julius Caesar, Cato’s principal political enemy.
Cato was a filibusterer par excellence. The rules of debate in the Roman senate forbade cutting off a speaker. When asked his opinion on an issue he opposed, Cato gave it, and gave it, and gave it, talking all day, without notes, until the Senate would adjourn with the issue unresolved. Most notably, in 59 BC, Cato so infuriated Caesar by trying to run out the clock on a land-reform bill that Caesar simply ordered him jailed. It was a (short-lived) political triumph for Cato: one senator walked out, saying he’d rather join Cato in prison than remain with Caesar, and Cato was rapidly released.
In 62 BC, while serving as tribune, Cato used his veto powers to block another bill being proposed by Quintus Metellus Nepos with Caesar’s support. As Goldsworthy describes it:
Nepos ordered a clerk to read the bill aloud. Cato used his veto to forbid this, and when Nepos himself took up the document and started to read, he snatched it from his hands. Knowing the text by heart, [Nepos] then began to recite it, until [Cato’s ally] Thermius slapped his hand over his mouth to stop him.
A riot ensued, again embarrassing Cato’s political enemies. But not everything he did to embarrass Caesar worked out so well. During a critical debate over how to punish the Catiline conspirators, a note was brought in and handed to Caesar. Cato, who was speaking, proclaimed that it must be a secret communication from those conspirators still at large. When Cato demanded that the note be read aloud, Caesar instead passed it to Cato. It turned out to be a love letter from Cato’s half-sister.
You can keep your blood-drenched fictionalizations; good legislative floor fights are timeless.