Lucius Quinctius or Quintius Cincinnatus (519–430 BC) was a Roman patrician,
statesman, and military leader of the early Republic who became a legendary
figure of Roman virtues—particularly Roman manliness and civic virtue—by
the time of the Empire.
Supposedly, Cincinnatus was a conservative opponent of the rights of the
plebeians who fell into penury because of his son's violent opposition
to their desire for a written code of equitably-enforced laws. Despite
his old age, he worked his own small farm until an invasion prompted his
fellow citizens to call for his leadership. He came from his plough
to assume complete control over the state but, upon achieving a swift victory,
relinquished his power and its perquisites and returned to his farm.
His success and immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority with
the end of this crisis (traditionally dated to 458 BC) has often been cited
as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic
virtue, lack of personal ambition, and modesty. As a result, he has
inspired a number of organizations and other entities, some named in his
Modern historians question some particulars of the story recounted in Livy
and elsewhere but usually accept Cincinnatus as a historical figure who
served as suffect consul in 460 BC and as dictator in 458 BC and (possibly)
again in 439 BC, when the patricians called on him to suppress the feared
uprising of the plebs under Spurius Maelius.
According to the traditional accounts, Lucius would have been born about
519 BC, during the last decade of the Roman Kingdom. He would have
been a member of the lesser patrician clan (minor gens) Quinctia, whom
Tullus Hostilius supposedly moved to Rome from the Latian city of Alba
Longa. The clan's first consul was Titus Quinctius Capitolinus Barbatus,
elected in 471 BC. As both Titus and Lucius are recorded as the son
and grandson of men named Lucius Quinctius, Titus is sometimes thought
to have been Lucius's brother. This suggests Lucius was the first
of his cognomen Cincinnatus, meaning "the curly haired". The family
was relatively rich.
In the late 460s BC, Rome was fending off raiding by the Aequi to their
east and, beginning in 462 BC, the tribune G. Terentilius Harsa began pressing
for codification of the Roman laws in order to establish a kind of constitution
that would check the near-regal power of the patrician consuls. In
the years that followed, he and the other plebs were ignored, fended off,
rejected on procedural grounds, and finally beaten and driven from the
streets by gangs of patricians and their clients, supposedly including
Cincinnatus's son Caeso.
The violent resistance of the patricians to such a blameless request prompted
so much unrest that Appius Herdonius was able to seize the Capitoline Hill
and hold it against the city with a gang of outlaws and rebel slaves (in
Livy) or with an army of Sabines (in Dionysius). The consul Publius
Valerius Poplicola was killed in its recovery in 460 BC and Cincinnatus,
probably illegally, became the suffect ("replacement") consul for the remainder
of the year. Cincinnatus was himself a violent opponent of the plebs'
proposal, which made no progress during his administration. His son,
however, was supposedly driven from town and killed for his murder of a
plebeian. Cincinnatus quit the city and retired to an estate he held
to the west of the Tiber.
He served as dictator, a king-like figure appointed by the Republic in
times of extreme emergency, in 458 or 457 BC in order to lead reinforcements
to the defense of the Roman army under the consul L. Minucius Esquilinus
Augurinus at Mount Algidus. Many of the details of the story are
now assumed to be spurious and some consider the entire military account
ahistorical, believing its parallels with T. Quinctius Cincinnatus's 380
BC defeat of Praeneste and Fabius the Delayer's 217 BC rescue of M. Minucius
Rufus from Hannibal too great for chance. Cincinnatus is recorded,
however, having taken advantage of his position as dictator—however gained—to
ignore the objections of the tribunes and to charge his son's accuser Marcus
Volscius for perjury, driving him into exile.
During the decemvirate, he ran unsuccessfully for a position in their government
in 450 BC but Livy notes his involvement in the discussion about opening
the consulship to plebeians.
Possibly, he returned as dictator in 439 BC to defend Rome against the
conspiracy the prefect L. Minucius Augurinus alleged Spurius Maelius was
plotting against the Republic. When Spurius Maelius ignored his summons,
however, he was killed by Cincinnatus's master of horse and any plot collapsed.
He presumably died sometime soon afterward.
In the traditional accounts of the story, Cincinnatus's son Caeso was an
openly violent opponent of the attempts of the plebeians to enact the Terentilian
Law, which sought codifying the Roman legal tradition and circumscribing
the authority of the patrician consuls. Caeso would lead gangs to
drive the tribunes of the plebs from the forum, disrupting the procedures
necessary to approve it. He was brought up on capital charges in
461 BC but released on a large bail. A plebeian named Marcus Volscius
testified that his brother, while feeble from sickness, had been knocked
down and injured by Caeso with such force that he later died. Rather
than face his accusers in court, Caeso fled to the Etruscans. He
was then condemned to death in absentia and his father subjected to a huge
punitive fine, forcing him to sell most of his estates and to retire from
public life to personally work a small farm (some accounts say Caeso was
killed with Poplicola in the recovery of the Capitoline from Herdonius).
Modern historians particularly reject the fine as a later invention inserted
to explain the dictator's supposed poverty and heighten his virtues.
Some reject the story in its entirety.
In 458 BC, the Aequi to Rome's east broke their treaty of the year before
and attempted to retake Tusculum (Frascati). The consuls for the
year—L. Minucius Esquilinus Augurinus and G. Nautius Rutilus—led out two
armies, one to Tusculum's relief and another to strike against the lands
of the Aequi and their Sabine allies. Upon reaching Mount Algidus
in the Alban Hills, the army under L. Minucius Esquilinus Augurinus encamped
and rested instead of immediately attacking. The Aequi quickly deployed
around their position and successfully besieged them, with only a five
horsemen escaping to tell the Roman Senate what had happened. With
the army of the second consul unable to help, the senators fell into a
panic and authorized the nomination of a dictator. G. Nautius Rutilus or
Horatius Pulvillus named Cincinnatus for a term of six months.
A group of senators were sent to Cincinnatus to inform of him of his appointment,
finding him while he was ploughing his farm. He asked them, "Is everything
all right?" and they replied that they hoped "it might turn out well for
both him and his country", asking that he don his senatorial toga before
hearing the senate's mandate. He then called out to his wife Racilia,
telling her to bring his toga from their cottage. Once he was properly
dressed, the delegation hailed him as dictator and ordered him to come
to the city. He crossed the Tiber in one of the senate's boats and
was greeted on his return by his three sons and most of the senators.
Several lictors were given to him for protection and enforcement of his
The next morning, Cincinnatus went to the forum and named Lucius Tarquitius
as his master of the horse. He then went to the assembly of the people
and ordered every man of military age to appear on the Field of Mars (Campus
Martius) by the end of the day with twelve times the normal amount of encamping
spikes. They then marched to the relief of the consul's relieving
army. At the Battle of Mt Algidus, they used their spikes to quickly
besiege the besieging Aequi. Rather than slaughter them between the
two Roman camps, however, Cincinnatus accepted their pleas for mercy and
offered an amnesty provided that three principal offenders be executed
and Gracchus Cloelius and their other leaders be delivered to him in chains.
A "yoke" of three spears was then set up and the Aequi made to pass under
it as an act of submission, bowing and admitting their defeat. Cincinnatus
then disbanded his army and returned to his farm, abandoning his control
a mere fifteen days after it had been granted to him.
On the nomination of his brother or nephew Titus Quinctius Capitolinus
Barbatus, Cincinnatus came out of retirement for a second term as dictator
in 439 BC to deal with the feared plot of the wealthy plebeian Spurius
Maelius to buy the loyalty of the poor and establish himself as king over
Rome. Cincinnatus named C. Servilius Ahala his master of the horse
and directed him to bring Spurius Maelius before him. He and the
other patricians then garrisoned the Capitoline Hill and other strongholds
around the city. Maelius fended off Ahala's officer with a butcher's
knife and fled into a crowd. Ahala led a band of patricians into
the crowd and killed him during his flight. With the crisis resolved,
Cincinnatus again resigned his commission, having served 21 days (Ahala
was later brought to trial for exceeding his commission and accepted voluntary
exile). Various aspects of the story are connected with dubious etiological
legends and it may have no more connection to the dictator of 458 BC than
the fact that the consul for the year was a member of the same clan.
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 the later Romans is sometimes extended
to his compatriots. One legend from the end of his life claims a
Capitolinus defended one of his sons from a charge of military incompetence
by asking the jury who would go to tell the aged Cincinnatus the news in
the event of a conviction. The son was said to have been acquitted
because the jury could not bring itself to break the old man's heartstrings.
Many Italian cities have plazas, streets, or other locations named after
Cincinnatus (Italian: Cincinnato). The Cincinnato neighborhood in
Anzio, Italy, and Cincinnatus, New York, in the United States are named
in his honor.
The Society of the Cincinnati was established by Henry Knox in 1783 to
assist the officers of the Continental Army and Navy and their families;
to preserve the ideals of the American Revolution; and to maintain the
union of the former colonies. A French Society of the Cincinnati
was founded soon afterwards by King Louis XVI. Cincinnati, Ohio, long one
of the major cities of the United States, was named in its honor.
The legend of Cincinnatus's selfless service for his country has continued
to inspire admiration, including by Niccolò Machiavelli. It
has also been invoked to honor other political leaders, notably George
Washington. Washington's relinquishing of control of the Continental
Army, refusal to consider establishing a monarchy or assuming monarchical
powers, and voluntary retirement after two terms as president to return
to his farm at Mount Vernon have made allusions to Cincinnatus common in
historical and literary treatments of the era.
The legend has also inspired or influenced some fictional characters.
Maximus Decimus Meridius (played by Russell Crowe) in the year 2000 movie
Gladiator began as a portrayal of the wrestler Narcissus but the repeated
rewrites before the final script led some to compare him to Cincinnatus.
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