Throughout his life, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus wore many hats. He was a humble farmer, an aristocrat, and a member of the patrician class. He was given absolute power over the people of ancient Rome on two occasions and voluntarily gave it up each time. What made Cincinnatus famous in his time – and a legend in ours – is the fact that he was an honorable man.
He was also a man of great wealth. However, Cincinnatus thought of himself as a humble farmer. His greatest joy in life came from cultivating his land. As an aristocrat, he never sought or asked for the power to which he was entitled. He reluctantly accepted leadership when asked by the Senate.
The Roman custom in times of strife was for the Senate to appoint a single man as dictator. The dictator would have absolute authority over the people and army of Rome. Cincinnatus was named dictator when the Romans were losing a war against two of their neighbors. He was ploughing a field when his call to arms came after the city fell into a panic.
Cincinnatus successfully led the Roman army to a swift victory. After the battle was won Cincinnatus was given a parade – called a triumph – through the streets of Rome. The people wanted Cincinnatus to remain dictator and some wanted to make him King. Cincinnatus refused the offers and after only two weeks gave up his power and returned to his farm. Cincinnatus was called upon to become dictator for a second time 19 years later. Once again the great man gave up his power as soon as his task was complete.
Cincinnatus lived out the remainder of his life living modestly on his farm. His bravery and honorable character became the standard by which Roman leaders would be measured for centuries. His actions are still considered the gold standard for leadership around the world.
George Washington is often compared to Cincinnatus. Like his predecessor, he was a farmer and was reluctant to retain power for any longer than necessary. Washington was also asked to be king and like Cincinnatus refused. Immediately after his service as president he returned to his farm.
Nearly 2,500 years after his death the name Cincinnatus lives on in the form of place names in Europe and the United States. The most famous of these is Cincinnati, Ohio.