Cato the Elder: ancient Rome’s broken record and his famous use of the gerundivum

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE), generally known as Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor, was a Roman soldier, senator, and statesman at the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.

He was famous (or notorious, depending on one’s point of view) for interjecting into every speech, regardless of the subject — even if it were the price of vegetables, so to speak — the phrase:

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendam esse

(often slightly ungrammatically misquoted as)

Ceterum censeo Carthago delenda est

In plain English: “Otherwise, I opine that Carthage is to be erased”. Countless Latin students remember this phrase, as it is a memorable example of the Latin gerundivum — a form of the verb that indicates necessity, timeliness, or desirability of an action. Another, more prosaic example: bibere = “to drink”, nunc est bibendum = “now it’s [time to] drink”.

The phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage is to be erased) would be grammatical on its own, but in the original, the entire phrase is the direct object of the verb “censeo” (I opine, I hold, it is my opinion) and hence has to be in the accusative case.

People who barely remember anything about Cato or the Punic wars may remember two things about the era: Hannibal’s elephants and Cato’s “broken record phrase”. The latter is sometimes paraphrased in jest, as “Ceterum censeo ___ delendam esse” (substitute Barney the dinosaur, Hollywood, …)