The Roman Dictator Cincinnatus: Model of an Honest Politician?
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is a figure from the Early Republican period of Rome’s history. Cincinnatus (a nickname given to him due to his curly hair) was an aristocrat who belonged to the patrician class . His primary job was that of a farmer, though he also served, with great efficiency, as consul and, later on, as dictator (on two separate occasions, to be precise).
In this latter office, Cincinnatus was given near-absolute authority. Nevertheless, due to his conduct while occupying this post, especially his immediate resignation once the crises that elevated him to such a position of power had passed, Cincinnatus is remembered as a model of civic virtue. While he was granted great power and accepted it, he only kept it as long as necessary to serve his country.
Cincinnatus’ Early Days and Troubles with His Son
It is unclear when Cincinnatus was born, though we may assume that he lived during the 5th century BC, as we know that he was appointed as a consul of the Roman Republic in 460 BC. In Livy’s History of Rome , Cincinnatus is first introduced in relation to his son, Caeso Quinctius. Livy describes Caeso as such:
“Caeso was a member of the Quinctian house, and his noble descent and great bodily strength and stature made him a daring and intrepid young man. To these gifts of the gods he added brilliant military qualities and eloquence as a public speaker, so that no one in the State was held to surpass him either in speech or action. When he took his stand in the middle of a group of patricians, conspicuous amongst them all, carrying as it were in his voice and personal strength all dictatorships and consulships combined, he was the one to withstand the attacks of the tribunes and the storms of popular indignation.”
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Cincinnatus leaves the plow for the Roman dictatorship – Juan Antonio Ribera, c. 1806. ( Public Domain )
Livy goes on to say that Caeso and his men frequently chased the tribunes of the plebeians from the Forum, thus making it difficult for them to partake in the political life of the republic: “Under his leadership the tribunes were often driven from the Forum, the plebeians routed and chased away, anybody who stood in his way went off stripped and beaten.”
Caeso’s behavior was seen as a threat to the Law , and he was finally impeached on a capital charge by Aulus Verginius. One of the people recorded by Livy to have spoken on Caeso’s behalf on the day of his trial was his father, Cincinnatus:
“Among those who spoke for him was his father, L. Quinctius Cincinnatus. He did not go over all his merits again, for fear of aggravating the feeling against him, but he pleaded for indulgence to the errors of youth; he himself had never injured any one either by word or deed, and for his own sake he implored them to pardon his son.”
Caeso was then released on bail, and “went the following night into exile amongst the Tuscans.” The trial, nevertheless, continued, and as Caeso was absent, Cincinnatus was forced to pay up: “The money was unmercifully extorted from the father, who had to sell all his property and live for some time like a banished man in an out-of-the-way hut on the other side of the Tiber.”
Statue of Cincinnatus by Denis Foyatier, in the Tuileries Garden, Paris. (CC BY-SA 2.0 FR )
Rome’s Appointed Saver
A year after Caeso’s trial, Cincinnatus was elected as consul to replace Publius Valerius Poplicola, who was murdered by rebel plebeians. He held this office for the appointed year. After his tenure had ended, he returned to his farm.
Shortly after this, in 458 BC, Rome was at war with its Latin neighbors, namely the Sabines and the Aequi. Rome was losing the war, as an army under the command of Consul Minucius, which was sent against the Aequi, was trapped by them instead. Furthermore, the Sabines were fast approaching the walls of Rome. It was during this emergency that Cincinnatus was appointed as a dictator to save Rome from destruction.
Cincinnatus, the Reluctant Dictator
According to the ancient sources, the senators who were sent to inform Cincinnatus of his appointment found him working in the field. In Florus’ The Epitome of Rome History , for example, it is written that: “It happened to be the middle of the season of sowing, when the lictor found the patrician actually at work bending over the plough.”
This can also be seen in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities : “Fabius, the prefect of the city, sent men to invite Quintius to come and assume his magistracy. It chanced that Quintius was on this occasion also engaged in some work of husbandry.”
Dionysius of Halicarnassus. ( Public Domain )
Livy too provides the same story: “There he was found by the deputation from the senate either digging out a ditch or ploughing, at all events, as is generally agreed, intent on his husbandry.”
Rather than feeling pleased that he was given such an honor, it seemed that Cincinnatus was annoyed with the appointment. Dionysius, for instance, had these words put into Cincinnatus’ mouth upon hearing the request:
“This year's crop too will be ruined, then, because of my official duties, and we shall all go dreadfully hungry.”
Without wasting any time, Cincinnatus began and concluded his campaign against Rome’s enemies in just 15 days, after which he resigned from his position of power and returned to his fields. Florus, for example, wrote this of the event:
“Setting out thence to the battle-field, in order that he might keep up the tradition of his rustic employment, he made his conquered enemies pass like cattle under the yoke. The campaign being concluded, this farmer who had enjoyed a triumph returned to his oxen, and, ye Heavens, with what speed! For the war was begun and finished within fifteen days, so that it seemed for all the world as if the dictator had hurried back to finish the work which he had left.”
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Ahala, master of the horse, presents the dead Maelius to Cincinnatus, fresco by Beccafumi at the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. ( Public Domain )
What is Cincinnatus Best Known For?
Cincinnatus was once again appointed as dictator in 439 BC to solve another crisis that Rome was facing. Like his first dictatorship, Cincinnatus held on to his position only as long as it was required to resolve the problem. It is due to such virtues – modesty, leadership, selfless service to Rome, and the lack of personal ambition, that Cincinnatus became a model of civic virtue.
Little is known about Cincinnatus’ death other than he died around 430 BC. And, if you’ve been wondering, it is worth mentioning that yes, the town of Cincinnatus, New York, and the city of Cincinnati, Ohio are named after this unique Roman statesman.
Statue of Cincinnatus, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Rick Dikeman, 2004. (Lucas/ CC BY 2.0 )
Top Image: Cincinnatus Receiving Deputies of the Senate. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities [Online]
[Cary, E. (trans.), 1937-50. Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities .]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/home.html
Florus, Epitome of Roman History [Online]
[Forster, E. S. (trans.), 1929. Florus’ Epitome of Roman History .]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Florus/Epitome/home.html
Gill, N., 2014. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/rulersleaderskings/p/Cincinnatus.htm
Knight, J. B., 2010. Cincinnatus – the hero who saved Rome. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2010/07/06/cincinnatus-summary/
Livy, History of Rome [Online]
[Roberts, W. M., (trans.), 1905. Livy’s History of Rome .]
Available at: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/
No, Our first and greatest President, George Washington, did precisely the same. He served two terms, reluctantly, and refused not only the offer of a kingship but to consider a third term. We have no actual words from Cincinnatus himself. We do have those of Washington, including his most telling: his Farewell Address. These remarks, drafted by both Jefferson and Hamilton who were about to begin the partisan strife still embroiling our nation, were finalized and delivered by Washington to Congress as he left office to return to his own version of husbandry at Mount Vernon. Don't prate to me about being a slave owner, he was a good, honorable man who refused absolute power and warned us to avoid political parties and their destructive partisanship as being fatal to the Republic. An honest politician and a prescient man.
An honest politician? Probably the last one as well.