Punic puns

Cato the Elder

There are times when repetitions are annoying, and times when they are exactly what’s needed.

In the 12th century, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, used to annoy King Henry II of England with his insistence, repeated demands and protestations. Eventually the king could’ve have it anymore: ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’, Henry is spuriously and anachronistically said to have uttered, the result of which, whether directly or indirectly, was Becket’s asssassination in 1170.

Less dubious or anachronistic was the Carthaginian question in the ancient Roman senate. Cato the Elder, one of the moral voices of ancient Rome, is said to have finished every speech in the Senate with the famous words: ‘and moreover, Carthage should be destroyed’. Carthage, the Phoenician city in present-day Tunisia, was levelled by the Romans in 146 BC at the end of the third Punic War. Whether Cato annoyed the senators with his relentless singleness of mind is unclear, but I like to think it is likely the war was finally fought and won to make Cato stop his lobbying.

Cato’s famous words made him a bit of a non-contextual maniac, a cold caller, an obsessive visionary. The destruction of Carthage changed the course of Roman history, and it encouraged early modern politicians to leverage the Catonian strategy, like the Englishman Anthony Cooper who during the Anglo-Dutch war of 1672-4 went full Cato in Parliament, comparing England to Rome and the Dutch Republic to Carthage. And I suspect there are many today who, moved by the same words, may wish to Catonize some current affairs and ongoing conflicts…

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