Text #9237"Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus", in .
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519–430 BC) was a Roman aristocrat and statesman whose service as consul in 460 BC and dictator in 458 BC and 439 BC made him a model of civic virtue.
Cincinnatus was regarded by the Romans, especially the aristocratic patrician class, as one of the heroes of early Rome and as a model of Roman virtue and simplicity.
Politically, Cincinnatus was a persistent opponent of attempts to improve the legal situation of the plebeians. His son Caeso Quinctius often drove the tribunes of the plebeians out from the forum, the heart of Roman political life, preventing them from reaching a formal decision. In 461 BC, these actions finally resulted in a capital charge against Caeso. After Caeso was released on bail and escaped to the Etruscans, he was condemned to death in absentia and his father had to pay an immense fine, forcing him to sell most of his lands and retire to a small farm, where he and his family were able to subsist on the work of his hands.
The following year (460), Cincinnatus was elected suffect consul. During his consulship, his main adversary was the Plebeian Tribune Gaius Terentilius Harsa. During this time period, the Roman senate was preoccupied with a war against the Volsci, a neighbouring Italic people. Cincinnatus was initially able to prevent the enactment of reforms proposed by Terentilius, who attempted to use the upheaval associated with the war effort to push them through. This was a series of reforms which were specifically to benefit the proletarii and peasantry, including a proposal to draw up a code of written laws applicable equally to patricians and plebeians — an early push for what would eventually become the Ten or Twelve Tables.
In 458 BC, the Romans were fighting the Aequi and the Sabines. The consul Minucius Esquilinus had led an army against them, but had been trapped by the Aequians in the Alban Hills and was attempting to fight off a siege. A few Roman horsemen escaped and returned to Rome to tell the senate what had happened. The senate fell into a panic and authorized the other consul for the year, Horatius Pulvillus, to nominate a dictator. Horatius nominated Cincinnatus for a dictatorial term (also known as Magister Populi or “Master of the People”) for six months.
A group of senators were sent to tell Cincinnatus that he had been nominated dictator. According to Livy, the senators found Cincinnatus while he was plowing on his farm. Cincinnatus cried out “Is everything all right?” They said to Cincinnatus that they hoped “it might turn out well for both him and his country,” and then they asked him to put on his senatorial toga and hear the mandate of the senate. He called to his wife, Racilia, telling her to bring out his toga from their cottage.
When he put on his toga, the senatorial delegation hailed him as dictator, and told him to come to the city. He then crossed the Tiber river in a boat provided by the senate, as his farm was on the far side of the river. When he reached the other side of the Tiber, he was greeted by his three sons and most of the senators. Several lictors were given to him for protection.
The next morning, Cincinnatus went to the Roman forum and nominated as his Master of the Horse (his second in command) Lucius Tarquitius, who was considered one of the finest soldiers in Rome. Cincinnatus then went to the Roman popular assembly and issued an order to the effect that every man of military age should report to the Campus Martius—the Field of Mars, god of war—by the end of the day.
Once the army assembled, Cincinnatus took them to fight the Aequi at the Battle of Mons Algidus. Cincinnatus led the infantry in person, while Tarquitius led the cavalry. The Aequi were surprised by the double attack and were soon cut to pieces. The commanders of the Aequi begged Cincinnatus not to slaughter them all.
Cincinnatus did not want to cause any unnecessary bloodshed, and told the Aequi that he would let them live if they killed three major people for him and brought their leader, Gracchus Cloelius, and his officers to him in chains. A yoke was set up, made up of three spears, and the Aequi had to pass under it in an act of submission, bowing down while confessing that they had been conquered. After this, the war ended and Cincinnatus disbanded his army. He then resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm, a mere fifteen days after he had been nominated dictator.
He came out of retirement again for a second term as dictator (439 BC) to put down a conspiracy of Spurius Maelius, who supposedly was planning to become king. He was nominated by his old friend and relative, Titus Quinctius Capitolinus Barbatus, consul of the year. Maelius was killed immediately when the Master of the Horse was sent to bring him to trial and the incipient coup perished with him. With the crisis resolved, Cincinnatus again resigned his commission.
Within his lifetime Cincinnatus became a legend to the Romans. Twice granted supreme power, he held onto it for not a day longer than absolutely necessary. The high esteem in which he was held by his compatriots is illustrated with an anecdote from the end of his life: one of his sons was tried for military incompetence. The great Capitolinus defended him by asking the jury who would go to tell the aged Cincinnatus the news in the event of a conviction. The son was acquitted because the jury could not bring itself to break the old man’s heart.
The towns of Cincinnato, in Lazio, Italy and Cincinnatus, New York and Cincinnati, Ohio in the United States, were named in his honor.
George Washington was often compared to Cincinnatus for his willingness to give up his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and decline offers of near-monarchical power after the crisis of the American Revolution had passed and victory had been won, instead retiring to his farm at Mount Vernon. The Society of the Cincinnati is a historical association founded in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, by officers of the Continental Army, to preserve the ideals of the military officer’s role in the new American Republic. Washington was its first president. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio was named in honor of this society.