Cato’s daughter Porcia has herself a really good cry

2015.08.12 | By Gregory Nagy

The meeting of Hector and Andromache
Andromache and Hector by Flaxman via Look and Learn []

In my posting for 2015.07.29, I focused on a scene in Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger [Greek | English] where the women in Cato’s life—especially his wife, his sisters, and his daughters—are pictured in the act of mourning for the impending doom of this Roman statesman.

In this moment, we see the lamentations of these women for the doomed Cato. And these lamentations, I suggest, are a properly operatic setting for the self-made drama of Cato’s life:

Selection 1: Lamentations that await the bitter end

[2] Κάτωνι δὲ οἱ πρῶτοι τῶν πολιτῶν συνηγανάκτουν καὶ συνηδικοῦντο μᾶλλον ἢ συνηγωνίζοντο, πολλὴ δὲ τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ κατήφεια καὶ φόβος εἶχεν, ὥστε τῶν φίλων ἐνίους ἀσίτους διαγρυπνῆσαι μετ᾽ ἀλλήλων ἐν ἀπόροις ὄντας ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ λογισμοῖς, καὶ γυναῖκα καὶ ἀδελφὰς ποτνιωμένας καὶ δακρυούσας.

[2] In the case of Cato, the foremost citizens shared in his displeasure and sense of wrong more than they did in his struggle to resist, and great dejection and fear reigned in his household, so that some of his friends took no food and watched all night with one another in futile discussions on his behalf, while his wife and sisters wailed [cried out “potnia!”] and wept.

Plutarch Cato the Younger 27.2 [=Selection 5 from the last posting[1]

I pick up here on the “operatic” behavior of the women in Cato’s life. Their “performances” of wailing and weeping are a most appropriate setting for the “final exit” of Cato. Such dramatic “exits” are typical also of the women in Cato’s life. I highlighted in my last posting a fictionalized remark attributed to Marcus Antonius as he comments on the death of Servilia, sister of Cato and mother of Brutus. Here is a dramatization of that remark from the HBO serial “Rome.”

And here is another dramatization of such an “operatic” exit, for Brutus himself, who remarks just before his own “exit” that he sends his best regards to his mother, Servilia.

Selection 2: Porcia reverts to having a good cry every time she looks at a picture of Andromache’s lamenting farewell to Hector

The lamentations that the sisters and the wife of Cato had performed in mourning for him are symmetrical, in their dramatic force, to the lamentations that could have been performed by Porcia, daughter of Cato, for her husband Brutus. I cite here a most revealing passage I found in Plutarch’s Life of Brutus [Greek | English], along with my own translation from the original Greek. We see here the figure of Porcia expressing her intense feelings of foreboding as she contemplates the doom that awaits her husband at the Battle of Philippi. Instead of lamenting here, over and over again, Porcia reverts—over and over again—to a timeless picture of such lamentation, as performed by Andromache in her feelings of foreboding over the impending doom of her husband Hector.

[23.2] ὅθεν ἡ Πορκία μέλλουσα πάλιν εἰς Ῥώμην ἀποτραπέσθαι λανθάνειν μὲν ἐπειρᾶτο περιπαθῶς ἔχουσα, γραφὴ δέ τις αὐτὴν προὔδωκε τἆλλα γενναίαν οὖσαν. ἦν γὰρ ἐκ τῶν Ἑλληνικῶν διάθεσις, προπεμπόμενος Ἕκτωρ ὑπὸ Ἀνδρομάχης κομιζομένης παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ τὸ παιδίον, ἐκείνῳ δὲ προσβλεπούσης. [23. 3] ταῦτα θεωμένην τὴν Πορκίαν ἡ τοῦ πάθους εἰκὼν ἐξέτηξεν εἰς δάκρυα: καὶ πολλάκις φοιτῶσα τῆς ἡμέρας ἔκλαιεν.

[23.2] As Porcia was preparing to return from there [= from the retinue of Brutus heading for Philippi] to Rome, she tried to conceal her extreme emotional state, but a certain painting [graphē] gave her away, in spite of her noble character. The subject [of the painting] was derived from Greek traditions. It showed Hector at the moment when Andromache is saying goodbye to him as he goes off [to war] and she is taking back from his arms their little child while her gaze is riveted on him [= Hector]. [23.3] As Porcia was gazing at all this, the picture [eikōn] of the emotion [pathos] caused her to dissolve into tears, and she kept on revisiting it many times a day and weeping over it.

Plutarch Life of Brutus 23.2–3

As I argue in 1§§208–211 of my book Homer the Classic:[2]

{1§208} The story of Plutarch goes on to compare Porcia with Andromache, who is pictured as the most accomplished singer of laments in Homeric poetry. Andromache was sent back to her weaving after her own final lamenting farewell to Hector:

Ἀκιλίου δέ τινος τῶν Βρούτου φίλων τὰ πρὸς Ἕκτορα 
τῆς Ἀνδρομάχης ἔπη διελθόντος·

Ἕκτορ, ἀτὰρ σύ μοί ἐσσι πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ
ἠδὲ κασίγνητος, σὺ δέ μοι θαλερὸς παρακοίτης
[Iliad 6.429–430]

μειδιάσας ὁ Βροῦτος “ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐμοί γ’” εἶπε “πρὸς Πορκίαν ἔπεισι φάναι τὰ τοῦ Ἕκτορος·

<ἀλλ’ εἰς οἶκον ἰοῦσα τὰ σαυτῆς ἔργα κόμιζε,>
ἱστόν τ’ ἠλακάτην τε καὶ ἀμφιπόλοισι κέλευε·
[Iliad 6.490–491]

σώματος γὰρ ἀπολείπεται φύσει τῶν ἴσων
ἀνδραγαθημάτων, γνώμῃ 
δ’ ὑπὲρ τῆς πατρίδος
ὥσπερ ἡμεῖς ἀριστεύσει.” ταῦτα μὲν ὁ τῆς Πορκίας υἱὸς ἱστόρηκε Βύβλος.

And when Acilius, one of the friends of Brutus, quoted the verses spoken by Andromache to Hector,

Hector, you are for me my father and my mother the queen
and my brother as well as my vibrant partner in lovemaking
[Iliad 6.429–430]

Brutus smiled and said: “But it does not even occur to me that I should say to Porcia the verses spoken by Hector:

But you [= Andromache] go back to the household and attend to your own work,
that is, the loom and the shuttle, giving orders to the handmaidens [who work for you].
[Iliad 6.490–491]

[[Plutarch continues quoting the words of Brutus]] Even if she may not be physically up to performing deeds of valor that equal those of men, when it comes to her powers of mind, she can perform the greatest deeds of valor just like me.” This story about Porcia was told by her son Bibulus.

Plutarch Life of Brutus 23.3–6

{1§209} The idea of being sent back to your weaving is being equated in this story with the idea of being sent back, again and again, to weaving the original picture, which is a tapestry that recounts the sorrows of war as experienced by Andromache.[3] We see here a poetics of retrospection, which is already at work in Homeric poetry. In an exquisite moment, we see Andromache herself returning again and again to the original picture of her last farewell to Hector:

ἐντροπαλιζομένη, θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσα

She was turning her head back again and again, shedding tears thick and fast.[4]

Iliad 6.496

{1§210} Andromache and Hector have just parted, turning away from each other and heading in opposite directions. He is going off to die while she is going back to her weaving. As she is being led away, Andromache keeps turning her head back again and again, entropalizomenē, hoping to catch one last glimpse of the receding view of her doomed husband.[5]

{1§211} Just as Andromache is shaping her last mental image of her last parting with Hector, so also the poetry of epic is shaping the last mental image of Andromache in its own act of retrospective, of returning to the fixed image. Every time Homeric poetry is performed, it can return once again to the picture of Andromache in the act looking back to see if she can capture one last glimpse of Hector. It is a world of tears, and there is a world of beauty in these tears. To quote Virgil (Aeneid 1.462), sunt lacrimae rerum. ‘there are tears [lacrimae] that connect with the real world [res plural], and things that happen to mortals touch [tangere] the mind [mens]. To look back on this world is to look back on perfection, in all its frozen beauty. Homeric poetry is like that: it looks back on its own crystallized perfection.

Postscript: Variations on Hector and Andromache by de Chirico

Just as Porcia returns to the image of Hector and Andromache, we too get attracted to it and return to it. Here I cite several modern masterpieces by Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978). Each offers a variation on the Hector and Andromache theme.

Hector and Andromache,” 1912
Hector and Andromache,” 1924
Hector and Andromache,” 1926
Hector and Andromache,” 1942
Hector and Andromache,” 1968

And just as each look by Andromache is a different image, so also each look “by” de Chirico is a different image.[6]


[1] Greek text for Plutarch’s Cato the Younger via Perseus: Translations by G. Nagy.

[2] Greek text for Plutarch’s Life of Brutus and Iliad as it appears in G. Nagy, Homer the Classic.

[3] In my book Masterpieces of Metonymy (2§69), I analyze the pictures that are pattern-woven into the web of Andromache in Iliad 22.440–441.

[4] A related image is Iliad 6.484, where Andromache is described as δακρυόεν γελάσασα ‘smiling through her tears’.

[5] There is a comparable image in Euripides’ Hecuba 939.

[6] My personal favorite—the version to which I keep coming back—is the one dated 1926. Also, Claudia Filos draws my attention to a cartoon version of Porcia looking at Hector and Andromache as well as the following works by de Chirico: “The Dioscuri” (1974),  “The Prodigal Son” (1922), “The Prodigal Son” (1965).


Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.

Nagy, G. 2015. Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.