That Time a Farmer was Given Ultimate Power Twice and Changed the World Forever By Walking Away Both Times


June 18, 2021

Author: Gilles Messier

Reprinted from Today I Found Out


The subject of what a political leader in a democracy does after his term has ended and the merits of gracefully resigning from power have 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 democratic 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 a 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 than 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 power, but also was returning to 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 B.C., 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 imminent 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’s tale.

Nineteen years later, in 439 B.C., 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.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy: