Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus: State before Self

Author: Miles Kauffmann

During the Republican period of Rome (509-27 BC), many ambitious patricians would change or seek out loopholes in Roman law that would allow them to be as close to an absolute ruler as possible.  While in power they would accumulate massive amounts of wealth and construct monuments to themselves portraying, and often exaggerating, the legacy they hoped to leave behind.  Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was not one of these men.  Instead, he was a man that respected the checks and balances put in place to prevent a return to the monarchy that existed in Rome between (753-509 BC).  In fact, he so greatly respected laws such as the power to veto, given to the tribunes, and the proper elections required after magistrate terms concluded, that twice he refused to remain in office, even though it was the will of his fellow patricians.  The first time came when he laid down his consulship upon its completion when they wanted him to remain Consul for a second term.  The second came when he forfeited the over 5 months remaining of his term as Dictator when after only 16 days he resolved the conflict.  His choice to maintain a humble lifestyle commanded him great respect from his fellow patricians and established him as one of the leading examples of Roman humbleness and civic virtue.  The following paper will discuss the circumstances that placed Cincinnatus in power as well as analyzing how his time in office set him apart as an unselfish man who always had the state’s best interest in mind.


The Quincti family was well known for their opposition of the plebs.  Lucius’ son Caeso took the opposition to the extreme, and often drove the Tribunal leaders out of the Forum (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.11).  This type of action was only tolerated for so long and he was eventually brought to trial on false charges.  Although no concrete evidence was brought against him, the court would likely find his reputation sufficient enough to sentence him to death.  Through the pleading of Cincinnatus, who was already a man held in high esteem, Caeso was granted bail.  In order to reach the substantial sum that was set, Cincinnatus was forced to sell the vast majority of his estate.  Caeso then went into voluntary exile to Etruria, and Cincinnatus forfeited the sum posted with the tribunal as bond. (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.13) The selling of his estate left Cincinnatus to live a very humble life, even when compared to the current standard of the plebs.

With the main leader and instigator of their opposition now in Etruria, the Tribunes pressed harder for the legislation to be passed involving the advancement of the lower class Romans they represented (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.19). With a vacancy in the consulship, the senate saw a much-needed opportunity to elect someone known for his success in dealing with the plebs.  The man they chose, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, was at the time plowing his own fields in order to provide for his family.  A crowd arrived and hailed him as consul dressing him in the purple-bordered tunic and presented him with the axes and other symbols that were custom with this magistracy (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.17).  At first, he was rather reluctant to leave his wife and fields, but seeing that he was needed, Cincinnatus accepted the consulship and followed the crowd to Rome.

Soon after taking office, Cincinnatus gathered the masses for a series of powerful speeches intending to publicly denounce the Tribunes, as well as rebuke the Senate for its lack of defiance and severity against them.  One of the main points he discussed was the assembly of the army for a conquest against the Volscians and the Aequians.  He explained his reasoning for war by stating that “God seems to smile more kindly upon this country of ours when we are at war” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.19).  The proposal was a tactic meant to discontinue the uprising of the Tribunes, who hoped to prolong the current state of peace.  The Tribunes were at the time unfazed by the threat, knowing that the raising of the army must be approved, and that they had the power to veto.  Cincinnatus was prepared for this response from the Tribunes.  He stated that an army was already bound to him by the vow they made when a slave uprising occupied the Roman capital.  In the vow, the soldiers pledged themselves to the previous consul Valarius (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.20). The Tribunes, knowing they had been outwitted, replaced their focus on legislation to concentrate on delaying the troops from leaving Rome.  Eventually, both sides were able to reach an agreement in which the Tribunes would submit to the authority of the Senate, and not push to pass their law for the remainder of the year.  In return, the consuls would not take the troops to war during their terms (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.20).

By the time elections came around, legislation had been passed giving the Senate the power to veto or approve consecutive terms in office.  However, despite the requiring of the Senate’s approval, the Tribunes had somehow managed to retain their offices for a third term.  Their reelection ensured that that following year would bring along the same problems.  Hoping to counteract the Tribunes, the Senate proposed that Cincinnatus remain in office, and force the Tribunes to lay down their positions (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.19).  Cincinnatus refused to be reinstated for a second term, proclaiming that he would not stoop to the levels of the tribunes, and would set a date for the proper elections to occur.  He took his refusal one step further by issuing an edict between the two counsels that any vote cast for him would be discarded (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.22).  On the designated day after the votes were cast, Cincinnatus named the newly elected consuls and returned to work himself on his far (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.19).

The next time Cincinnatus was recruited it was for the position of Dictator under the consuls Lucius Minucius and Gauis Nautius.  Both consuls were overseeing different wars, Nautius sending out raiding parties against the Sabines in Eretum, and Minucius engaging in battles with the Aequians (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.26). Minucius was led by the leader of the Aequians, Gracchus into land that was very unfavorable for the fighting style of the Romans.  After having his camp attacked then surrounded on all sides by earth and enemies, he was in desperate need of help (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.23).  In Rome, it was decided thatNautius was not the man capable of delivering Minucius, and that Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus would be named dictator (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.26)

Again, an unsuspecting Cincinnatus was approached on his modest three-acre farm and presented with the purple toga, rods, and axes signifying his magistracy.  And again, though willing to serve, he was hesitant to leave the land that he himself worked hard on (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.24).  Once in Rome, Cincinnatus wasted no time appointing a poor, but brilliant warrior, Lucius Tarquitius, Master of Horse and prepared all capable men in Rome to aid Minucius (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.27).  After observing the enemy forces, Cincinnatus mounted an attack that would force Gracchus and his army to retreat into their camp.  Once inside the camp, Minucius and his forces joined Cincinnatus and they attached the Aequians from both sides.  Seeing the inevitability of defeat the Aequians resorted to negotiating with Cincinnatus.  Within the terms of the treaty was the handing over of Gracchus in chains and the peaceful surrender of their city Corbio (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.24).  The city of Corbio was plundered and the best treasures were sent home to Rome.  Cincinnatus chose not to divide any of the remaining spoils with Minucius and his unit and maintained that they should be satisfied with their rescue from certain death (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.29). Cincinnatus returned to Rome as a conquering general and was celebrated for the rapid resolution to the conflict that he was selected for.  For the second time the senate tried to prolong the reign of Cincinnatus, enticing him with the prosecution of the men who falsely accused Caeso years before.  Although remaining in office had this element of self-interest, the Senate’s efforts fell on deaf ears and for the second time, he refused.  A dictator that was not only allowed, but begged to serve the entire six months, resolved the conflict and laid down his powers in only sixteen days (Dionysius Roman Antiquities 10.25). The senate wished to repay him for his honor and achievements by offering him any amount of the conquered land, spoils, or slaves that by defeating the Aequians he was entitled to.  Cincinnatus was grateful, but refused.  His friends presented him with gifts and promises of favors for which Cincinnatus thanked them, but in the end refused their gifts.  He would rather return and live the humble life of a farmer than to live like a king with vast amounts of wealth (Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 10.26).

The way that Roman historians choose to portray Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus makes him a prime example of Roman virtue and provides him as an example for future leaders to follow.  The beginning of Cincinnatus’ account shows him bailing his son out of trouble by selling off most of his estate.  In Roman culture wealth is the great divider and determines both your social status and military rank.  Cincinnatus shows his dedication to his family by sacrificing his wealth for a son who was falsely accused so that the Tribunes could conduct themselves unopposed.  Livy and Dionysius choose to show how hardworking and humble he is by including in their accounts that both times he was approached for office he was himself working in his fields to provide for his family.  They further promote his character by showing his remorse for having to leave his fields even though he had just been given a great honor.  How Cincinnatus really sets himself apart as a leading example of virtue is by laying down his office extremely early once, and by refusing to improperly remain in office.  He could have stayed in office to exact revenge on the men who falsely accused his son, but again put the interest and integrity of the state ahead of his personal interests.  Often magistrates would find any reason to remain in power or while in power accumulate as much wealth through whatever means they could.  Examples of these men include Pompey, who was improperly made consul, or Gauis Marius who brought the state into a civil war while competing with Sulla for the Consulship.  Cincinnatus breaks the mold, and goes as far as refusing the wealth that he deserved by rescuing Minucius and defeating the Aequians.  Another detail of his career that sets him apart is the appointing of Lucius Tarquitius Master of Horse.  This aspect of his career can be overlooked as a minor detail, but it is included in both texts for a reason.  Like Cincinnatus, Tarquitius is great at what he does despite not having mass amounts of wealth.  Other dictators may have ignored him due to his poverty, but Cincinnatus saw the value that the highly skilled soldier would bring to his rescue of Minucius.

Through the retelling of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus’ career, a new way to be remembered is shown.  The civic virtue he displays more than once is reason enough to admire him.  Instead of monuments and statues, Cincinnatus chooses what is best for Rome and humbles himself even in times of great triumph.


Works Cited

            Livy. Ab Urbe Condita (The Early History of Rome) 3. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt 1960. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Dionysius. Roman Antiquities X. Translated by Earnest Cary 1937. Harvard University Press: 1937.