Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus
Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus (519 – 430 BC) was one of the Roman Republic’s most admired figures, elected Rome’s consul in 460 BC, and twice appointed dictator, in 458 and 439 BC. He became legendary for his selfless devotion to the Republic during crises, assuming power when thrust upon him to deal with grave problems, then surrendering it when the crises were over.
Cincinnatus was a conservative patrician and a capable general who opposed the plebeians’ demands for a greater share of power. He ended up on the losing side of that fight, and when his son killed a plebeian and fled Rome, Cincinnatus’ opponents held him accountable and impoverished him with a huge fine. His possessions were reduced to a small farm, and he was reduced to manual labor at an advanced age, forced to toil in his fields with his own hands.
However, a military emergency in 458 BC led to his appointment as dictator – a constitutional office of absolute power to which Romans appointed a leader during crises for a 6 month period. When a delegation arrived to let him know, they found Cincinnatus toiling in his farm. He put aside the plow and took up the sword, and led the Romans to a swift victory. He then resigned the dictatorship and went back to working his small farm.
He was appointed dictator again in 439 BC when Rome was threatened with an internal conspiracy, which he put down, and again laid down his power as soon as the crisis was over and returned to his farm. He went down as one of the most revered figures of the Roman Republic, and as an exemplar of civic virtue, modesty, and outstanding leadership.
George Washington consciously sought to model his career after that of Cincinnatus – a comparison that resonated with contemporaries during the Age of the Enlightenment, who knew their Roman history well, when America’s first president and first great general voluntarily laid down his power at the end of his second term and went into retirement.