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.
Recipes: the BBC would win brownie points for their copious Bake Off recipe archive. Cato had an interest in this sort of material – his book De Agri Cultura, or On Agriculture, contained recipes as well as general advice on how to manage an estate, so sharing this sort of material would have made sense to him. He even had recipes for bread (hat-tip to Jane Draycott for the reference). He also put together a book of recipes for treating members of his household who fell ill (Life 23).
Honouring one’s elders: the need to acknowledge and respect one’s ancestors, both from one’s own family and those one shared as part of a communal Roman identity, was a central part of Roman social life. The deference that is given to Mary Berry’s auctoritas, and to a lesser extent Paul Hollywood’s, would surely have Cato nodding in approval.
Educational value: Cato was deeply committed to his own son’s education; he taught him how to read and understand Roman law, and instructed him in various physical activities like throwing the javelin and riding. He also wrote out his history of Rome in large letters so his son could easily read it (Life 20). The Bake Off’s didactic element, including the to-camera explanations of how to manage the tricky chemistry of baking and the secret life of yeast, would complement his commitment to learning.
Competition: the nature of the show as a competition, a place to compete in terms of skill and ability, feels as if it would strike a chord. It might not be in the spheres of military prowess or public speaking, for which Rome had a number of venues for public competition, but Bake Off values the shared pursuit of excellence and inspires its viewers to aim for similar levels of achievement. The increased sales of baking ingredients supermarkets have annually recorded around this time of year speak to that.
Cameraderie: given the friendly nature of the competition, I suspect Cato would have approved of the general attitude of the competitors. They help each other out, they are honest about when things go wrong, they don’t cheat in the competition – generally they portray positive moral values on the screen. Cato himself tried to live according to the highest moral principles, although one gets the sense that he couldn’t resist winding up Scipio Africanus if given the opportunity.
Where are the soldiers?: for a country where military service and activity was so deeply embedded into aspects of everyday life, one suspects Cato would have been rather confused about why a show held in such high national esteem seemed to have no relationship to the military. Camping out in a tent in the garden is all very well, but there’s no real transferable application to being on campaign unless you’re over a primus stove, never mind the luxurious kitchen that pops up for Bake Off contestants.
Where are the orators?: Cato’s civilian career was marked by an active legal career, so the lack of importance the country places on oratory and public speaking may have felt similarly perplexing. That said, he may have gained some small comfort from the jokes of Mel and Sue, once he’d got over the shock of women speaking in public. Cato was also known for his memorable bon mots, some of which even involved humour. He claimed that he never embraced his wife except when a loud peal of thunder occurred, and joked he was a happy man whenever Jove decided to thunder (Life 17). One dreads to think what he’d have come up with when presented with the possibilities for innuendo presented by baking ingredients.
Luxuria: here, I think, we come to the biggest potential problem Cato would have had with Bake Off. He was a notoriously frugal man – he dined on a meal of three boiled turnips with sufficient content to turn down a bribe of gold (Life 2), and declined an invitation to dinner with an epicure by saying he couldn’t spend time with a man whose palate was more developed than his heart (Life 9). He also instituted an unpopular tax on the value of property people owned in an attempt to cut back on extravagant habits and possessions (Life 18).The amount of indulgence that goes into Bake Off – erecting the marquee, the secret army of washer-up-ers behind the scenes, the exoticness of the ingredients, the sheer frou-frou of some of the recipes – would have shocked and appalled him.
Food politics: the content and choice of the recipes might have concerned him too. When it came to the possibility that food could have political meanings, Cato was way ahead of the game. During one of his attempts to convince the Senate that they should destroy Carthage, he apparently managed to drop a Libyan fig onto the floor of the Senate house from his toga; when the senators admired how large and beautiful it was, he observed that it grew in a country only three days’ voyage from Rome (Life 27). He would have been very sensitive to the symbolism read into, for instance, the recipe choices of last season’s winner, Nadiya Hussein, and the wider political narrative into which they were fitted.
To sum up, I would guess that Cato would have found Bake Off a challenging blend of admirable industry and hardwork alongside deplorable indulgence. But even if he didn’t like it, I hope we can see a key to his behaviour in his great-grandson. When Cato the Younger was attending a performance as part of the festival of Flora, he realised that the audience was getting uncomfortable because he was present – and no wonder, as it was traditional for the mime to involve strip-tease, and the younger Cato had inherited his ancestor’s upright moral reputation. Rather than spoil the show for everybody else, Cato left the theatre (Valerius Maximus II.10.8). Let’s hope Cato the Elder would have reached for the remote control and changed the channel rather than writing angry letters to the BBC and his newspaper of choice.