The subject of what a political leader in a democracy does after his term has ended and the merits of gracefully resigning from power has been on the news recently.
Enter the subject of today’s story which takes place in ancient Rome, at the dawn of the Republic Era. The person in question was Cincinnatus, whose actions in terms of political ethics not only shaped the political life of generations to come, but was linked with the essence of what democratical thinking is, so much so that founders of the American nation dubbed Washington with Cincinnatus’ name. So who was Cincinnatus and what made him rather unique compared to the vast majority of his political leader compatriots throughout history?
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was born to the noble house Quinctii possibly around 519 B.C during the last years of the Kingdom of Rome. This means he belonged to the first generation to be raised within the just recently established grand experiment that was the Roman Republic.
In the 460s, Rome was in turmoil, with the main issue being the representation of the plebeians in government – those of its citizens not born to noble families. At one of the violent clashes, one of the two serving consuls, Publius Valerius Publicola, was killed. Cincinnatus rose to his position as replacement via a system vaguely similar to how a vice president can replace the president in the United States.
Cincinnatus therefore served a term in the highest political office in Rome. Ultimately, however, rather try to cling to power like so many others, he eventually chose to return to his private life. This was at the least unusual for various reasons. For one thing, he did not step down because he was fed up with politics. Far from it: He was highly opinionated regarding the issues of his day, with a strong stance against the plebeian demands for constitutional changes that would allow them to circumscribe the decisions of the consuls.
Furthermore, he was in a very difficult financial situation because of a fine he had to pay on account of his son Caeso, who – after causing political turmoil and violence – left the city before the court had reached a sentence. In the end, Cincinnatus had to pay a rather large fine in his stead, for which he had to sell his estate and instead live on a small farm across the Tiber (possibly around the Trastevere Region of Rome today). Thus, by stepping away he not only gave up incredible powe, but also was returning to the life, not so much as a wealthy noble as he had been before his term in office, but rather the life of a simple farmer.
While this all did nothing to advance his personal fortunes, his choice not to use his term as consul as means to broaden his political career, change his economic fortune or even to recall his son whom the republic had condemned, gained him the respect of his fellow Romans.
But the story of Cincinnatus was just beginning. Two years later, around 458 BC, Rome was once more in peril, as the army of the neighbouring nation of Aequi broke towards Rome, defeating one consular army while the other was far from the action.
To respond to this eminent threat, the senate decided to elect a dictator, which at that time was a title provided by the senate to a person who would have king-like powers for a fixed term: six months, after which the power would be returned to the senate. This enabled the appointed dictator to act swiftly, without asking for permission or waiting for the conclusion of further – and often extended – senatorial debates.
Naturally the person chosen for this role had to not only be imminently capable, but also trusted to actually step away when the term was finished. Thus, for this role, the senate chose Cincinnatus.
The historian Livy illustrates the scene. A group of senators approached the farm where Cincinnatus was working. He greeted them and asked if everything was in order. “It might turn out well for both you and your country,” they replied, and asked him to wear his senatorial toga before they spoke further. After he donned the garb of the office, they informed him of the senate’s mandate, hailed him as dictator and took him with them back to Rome.
Cincinnatus then got right to work mobilising the army, besieged the enemy at the Battle of Mount Algidus and returned victorious to Rome- all this in a span of two weeks.
After this huge success, all possible political exploits could have been available to him, especially as he was constitutionally allowed to stay in power for five and a half more months. Despite this, upon his return, he immediately abdicated and returned to his farm. The task at hand was complete, thus he saw no reason power shouldn’t be returned to the Senate.
Twice he could have used his position for his own gain, and twice he had not only chosen not to, but stepped away when his work was complete. But this isn’t the end of Cincinnatus’ tale.
Nineteen years later, in 439 BC, Cincinnatus was around 80 years old and once again asked to become dictator, this time to deal with inner political intrigue, as a certain Maelius was using his money to try to be crowned king – the ultimate threat against any republic. The episode ended with the death of the would-be king and again, his work done, Cincinnatus resigned after having served less than a month as dictator in this instance.
As you might expect from all of this, these practically unprecedented actions by a leader granted infinite power made his name synonymous with civic virtue, humility, and modesty. And they serve as an example of caring about the greater good.
To understand the importance of these actions one needs to zoom out and evaluate the time period in which they happened.
At the time, the system ‘republic’ was a novel occurrence in world history, to outsiders not necessarily different from a weird type of oligarchy. Furthermore, except for some initial reactions from the Etruscans directly after the founding of the Republic, the system, which dictates that the city leads itself, was not really put to the test. It would have been completely understandable if given the first opportunity, the city had turned back to a typical king-like government. The existence of a charismatic leader like Cincinnatus could easily be the catalyst to usher in the return to the era of kings, if the incredibly popular Cincinnatus was inclined to take the power. Yet he chose not to even after being granted ultimate authority twice.
This was crucial, as these events happened during the second generation of the Republic. And it was the deeds of the second and third generation after the founding of the Republic that were the ones that truly solidified the belief and generational tradition of the system which would come to be one of the most influential in human history. One can easily see how had Cincinnatus chosen to exploit his position and his popularity as the vast majority of world leaders have done throughout history, history itself as we know it might have been vastly different.
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Cincinnatus as a role model had many imitators throughout time – some more successful than others.
Continuing with Rome, during the Late Republic, the political Sulla was, let’s say… controversial to say the least. You know that retired authoritarian navy seals commander from any movie? Well, multiply this by ten, add some crazy slaughtering frenzies and there you have it. However, in 79 BC, after putting order to the Roman empire, and having been dictator since 81 BC, he resigned.
His supporters would like to compare this to Cincinnatus, but it is a rather different situation, seeing as he did not step down to resume a simple life, but rather to write his memoirs in a fancy resort. Plutarch states that he retired to a life of luxury, where, “He consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long”. So rather than stepping down to a simple life, more of a retirement package filled with partying and bliss without the cares, intrigue, and dangers that come with being dictator of Rome.
In another contrast, his reforms did not ultimately make the impact he had hoped and their results were completely thrown over after his death, with the Empire being founded just a few decades after.
Another controversial Roman leader – now in the not-so-brand-new empire edition – marks Diocletian. Ruling as emperor from 284 to 305 AD, Diocletian achieved what few did during the so-called ‘Crisis of the Third Century’; he not only survived long enough to establish political reforms, but actually managed to stabilize the empire for the time being. In 305, he did what no Roman emperor had done before; he abdicated voluntarily and retreated to his palace on the Dalmatian coast – now the historic core of modern day Croatia’s city Split – where he famously tended to his vegetable gardens.
Not even lasting the duration of his retirement until his death in 311 AD, Diocletian’s established tetrarchy – the splitting of the empire among four rulers – collapsed into renewed chaos, and in 308, he was asked to return to power to help fix it. To this, he replied, “If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.”
While at first, this may seem like the perfect comparison to Cincinnatus, it should also be stated that the reason for his retirement was first and foremost Diocletian’s failing health and wish to live out his last days peacefully rather than dealing with the political intrigue of the day. In fact, in contrast to Cincinnatus, Diocletian’s attitude can be seen more as abandoning the empire in a time of great need, something even the 80 year old Cincinnatus was unwilling to do.
Skipping ahead hundreds of years and a vast number of governing changes in the old world, the American nation appeared in the world scene with a tempo. One of the most peculiar characteristics of it was the idea of a blend of republic and democracy with a small hint of dictator thrown in, but all carefully balanced to try to produce a system of government blending the best of human governing systems, while mitigating the downsides. Today it might seem trivial, but with very few exceptions – like say the Netherlands – at the time western countries had a king figurehead, with varying degrees of authority, even in cases where parliamentarism had had a long tradition, as was the case in England.
For many, this experiment of reviving a political system based on ancient Rome was seen as weird, even eccentric. One of the many concerns was the stability of the system. Would Washington – the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army – and someone vastly popular with the general public and politicians alike, step down after victory?
Well, no. No, of course he wouldn’t, he would become a king or something amounting to the same position, just using a different title and… what? He… he actually left office? But wasn’t he very popular?
Yes. Yes, he was. And paralleling Cincinnatus, he left office because he respected the constitution and the experiment that was this new form of government, a fact that demonstrated – among other qualities – civic virtue and modesty of character.
In a final appearance in uniform he gave a statement to Congress: “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.”
It is difficult to imagine today, but stepping down after his presidential term was a sensation. See the counterexample of, say Napoleon crowning himself emperor or other personalities who would do anything to remain in power. Washington’s resignation was acclaimed at home and abroad, and showed a skeptical world that the new republic might just not degenerate into chaos or something completely different and more familiar to the world at the time.
The parallels with Cincinnatus are obvious and were made even then. After the fact, a society of veterans of the American Revolutionary War, the ‘Society of the Cincinnati’ was founded, with the motto Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam (“He relinquished everything to save the republic”). The first major city to be founded after the war was then aptly named Cincinnati, which is the genitive case of Cincinnatus, meaning ‘belonging to / that of Cincinnatus’.
Expand for References
Chernow, Ron (2010). Washington: A Life
Klaus Bringmann, A History of the Roman Republic 2007
https://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/the_history_of_rome/page/5/ (The history of Rome podcast (part 7)