Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Where’s our Cincinnatus when we need him?

with 8 comments


In a prior post I promised to tell the story of Cincinnatus, a famous Roman politician and leader. He had a distinguished political career, serving as consul of Rome when he was 59. He was admired for preventing a code of laws being enacted that would have given the Roman aristocracy a separate legal code than that which applied to commoners. And while this made him popular and respected, the rich and powerful were frustrated by him and basically forced him out of office and into retirement and exile. Cincinnatus remained a respected figure though, and people often came to him on his small farm on the far side of the Tiber to ask his advice.

This was early in Rome’s history, 457 BC to be exact, and Rome was just a small but ambitious city state in central Italy. Now Rome had gotten itself in a war with a hill tribe called the Aequians, and a Roman army and one of the two Roman consuls marched off to do battle. They walked into a trap though, and before they were completely surrounded a few horsemen managed to escape and get word to Rome. This grim news was not well received, in fact this was one of those situations in history where things were so bad that no one wanted to take charge. The army was trapped, Rome was defenceless. What to do? So the Senate instructed the remaining consul to appoint a dictator, since he apparently wasn’t up to the job. He appointed Cincinnatus…who conveniently wasn’t around to be asked what he thought of the idea.

A delegation from the Senate headed out to see Cincinnatus. He was literally ploughing his fields when they arrived. He was a bit surprised to say the least, and when they asked him to put on his toga and hear the proclamation of the Senate, Cincinnatus was reported to have cried out “Is everything all right?” He called for his wife to bring him his toga, and then heard the request of the Senate. He wasn’t required to accept, in fact accepting might mean starvation for his family if his fields weren’t ploughed and planted, but he didn’t hesitate. He went back with the delegation, and crossed the Tiber and entered Rome. Several lictors (bodyguards) were assigned to him.

The next morning he went to the forum, the central square of Rome, and nominated Lucius Tarquitius as Master of the Horse, or second in command. Lucius Tarquitius was so poor he didn’t even own his own horse, but he was widely regarded as one of the finest soldiers in Rome. Then Cincinnatus went to the popular assembly and ordered that every man of military age present himself the next day with five days food and twelve stakes, a well as what weapons and armour they had. People all set out to do what he had asked, though it should be mentioned that a lot of folks had doubts about the wisdom of giving anyone absolute power.

He then marched off to war, and caught the Aequians completely by surprise with a two pronged attack. It was so devastating that the enemy general, Gracchus Cloelius, begged for mercy. Cincinnatus, not being inclined to slaughter people unnecessarily, said he would spare them if they submitted to Rome’s rule. A yoke or arch was set up with three spears, and the Aequian’s leaders passed under it while swearing fealty to Rome.

Then Cincinnatus and the army went home to Rome and were greeted as heroes. At this point Cincinnatus could have made himself King or dictator for life, as his word was law. And many would have welcomed and supported him as King. He didn’t, and after just sixteen days as dictator Cincinnatus resigned from the job and returned home to his little farm.

It’s an amazing story. How much is true and how much is legend is subject to debate, in fact purists may note I have used a bit of poetic licence here and there. In any event, the basic facts of the story are believed to be true, and here is no doubt that Cincinnatus was a remarkable man, and a true leader who put the needs of his people ahead of his own. I’d vote for him.

The original story can be read here.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, it’s a low resolution copy of the original, and the original artist artist died in 1860. Credit: Juan-Antonio Ribera-y-Fernandez. The original is hanging in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. And yes, he was at least 60 when these events transpired, some say 80, so the artist has used a little artistic license here. Or Cincinnatus was one remarkably youthful looking old man.)

Written by unitedcats

February 22, 2008 at 9:24 am

Posted in History

8 Responses

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  1. A leader who transcends — I just blogged about Nietzsche’s superman, and I’ve always thought a king like Cincinnatus was what he had in mind. A god without a god complex.

    What is it about the aristocratic mindset that makes them feel so very special, anyway? It’s the same throughout history — they make rules for others, but refuse to follow the rules themselves. And their agenda is invariably something boring, self-serving, and uninspiring. I’ve always thought of the aristocracy’s agenda like the orgy club in Eyes Wide Shut: all this secrecy, all these lies, all these elaborate rituals, just for the sake of maintaining a special clubhouse full of high-class hookers.

    Whatever happened to master morality? The nobles aren’t very noble anymore . . .


    February 23, 2008 at 6:44 am

  2. I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while now. Thanks for writing it! Sadly I think the odds of an incredible person like Cincinnatus rising up and saving us from our present quagmire hopelessly narrow. One can dream though.

    In regards to aristocrats and their lack of nobility… what amazes me is that anyone is in any way surprised. There are very few humans who work tirelessly to elevate the lives of those around them and actualize the ideals that they espouse. 99.9% of us are pretty damned selfish when it comes down to it (including me).

    Who among us wouldn’t take advantage of immunity (whether it be legal, social, or economic)? It’s easy to sit back and “intellectually” tear the hell out of the ruling class… so what? What have you accomplished? Are you taking your judgement of others to heart and living YOUR life independent of these very sins for which you condemn others? Would someone in a lower economic strata with fewer options in life look up to you and say, “Wow, that person really made an effort to ensure that we little people enjoyed the same luxuries that they do.”?

    I for one criticize our corrupt government, the power of megacorporations, and the liberties that our leaders are allowed… but would I be all that different if I were in their shoes? You know, I probably wouldn’t be. I’d take the money, and swallow my ideals. Just like almost every other human on this planet. Human nature. It sucks.


    February 24, 2008 at 12:52 pm

  3. Interesting, thanks for posting it.

    Now, Manik Sarkar, the Chief Minster of the state of Tripura in India, is an honest, decent, hard-working man. He has $400 in his bank account. But, unemployment in his state is very high. This may lead to civil unrest.

    Mr Sarkar doesn’t probably understand what most people in his state want – namely, pay their bills. When I read his re-election manifesto, I got the feeling that he has no clue about bringing prosperity to his state.

    Would Cincinnatus make a good leader during peaceful times? I’d love to know your thoughts.

    Priya Raju

    February 26, 2008 at 10:39 pm

  4. Good story, I’m reminded of when I had to take Latin in 7th and 8th grade and we had to learn about the Romans.

    This guy made me think of Marcus Aurelius.


    February 27, 2008 at 6:43 pm

  5. Actually, there is a Cincinnatus in a peaceful time, a nice old Senator nodding off in the back row was grabbed and crowned Caesar by an adoring mob before he could even say “What?” It started well but ended badly, I’ll write about him soon. :)


    February 28, 2008 at 10:30 am

  6. I think Cincinnatus would have made a pretty frickin awsome leader during peace.


    February 10, 2009 at 8:24 am

  7. This is the right website for anyone who wants to understand this topic.
    You understand so much its almost hard to argue with you (not
    that I really will need to…HaHa). You certainly put
    a fresh spin on a topic that’s been discussed for many years. Excellent stuff, just great!


    April 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm

  8. […] Where’s our Cincinnatus when we need him […]

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