It’s a Wednesday towards the end of August, and that can only mean one thing – the British viewing public are gearing up for the return of the Great British Bake Off to their screens this evening. If you have missed this landmark in British cultural history, it is essentially a baking competition where twelve bakers compete in a marquee over who can bake the best version of whatever fiendish concoction Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have come up with to vex them, while Mel and Sue (now so well known they no longer require surnames) try to get as much smut into their commentary on proceedings as possible. One evening this week, after I reminded my husband that the annual baking fest was about to revisit our screens, he came up with a great test of true cultural value – what would Cato the Elder have made of it all?
For those unfamiliar with Cato the Elder, who lived during the middle of the Roman Republic, there were two things he was particularly famous for: his unabated hatred of Carthage and his commitment to traditional Roman virtues, exemplified by his personal behaviour and his actions when he held the office of censor. During this period, a pair of censors were appointed every five years to review the membership rolls of senators and knights, and remove those who were deemed unsuitable; the review of Cato and his co-censor Valerius Flaccus was particularly severe. One good source we have for Cato’s life is the Parallel Life that Plutarch wrote about him; while it was written many years after Cato’s death, and in all likelihood a lot of popular stories about Cato less than completely grounded in fact have found their way into the narrative, it’s a good way to think about how the Romans defined quintessentially Roman behaviour. Even though a lot of his behaviour seemed unpopular, taken together they created a figure who was respected for his “wise leadership, sober discipline and sound principles” (Life 19). So what would Cato have made of Bake Off?
Why are these people cooking? Our first instinct might be that he would disapprove of freeborn citizens baking at all – ancient Rome was, after all, a slave-owning culture, and surely that’s what slaves were for. Cato was, however, a bit different in that respect. Despite his own position of authority, he worked alongside the labourers at his farm (Life 3), and bought the fish and meat for his own dinner at the market (Life 4). So perhaps the idea of people wanting to demonstrate their grasp of skills his fellow Romans might have deemed below them would not have shocked Cato.
The ‘new men’: in an odd sort of way, Cato may have found himself having a love-hate relationship with the particular genre of reality television that Bake Off belongs to, where one wins based on actual hard-won talent and skill rather than popularity. As a new man, or novus homo, Cato himself had no prior familial advantage to give him a leg-up into public life, so he may have found the ability of someone to enter the public eye through demonstrating mastery of a particular skill (and so gain glory within the state) weirdly appealing. At the outside edge of possibility, I can almost imagine a scenario where he might argue that given the debased state of our political system, finding alternative ways to demonstrate one’s excellence was the only possible route for a sensible person to take, but I’ll admit that’s pushing it. (more…)