Biography of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, Roman Statesman

Statue of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

Lucas Lenci Photo/Getty Images

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (c. 519–430 BCE) was a farmer, statesman, and military leader who lived in early Rome. He considered himself a farmer above all, but when he was called to serve his country he did so well, efficiently, and without question, even though a prolonged absence from his farm could mean starvation for his family. When he served his country, he made his stint as dictator as brief as possible. For his faithful service, he became a model of Roman virtue.

Fast Facts: Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

  • Known For: Cincinnatus was a Roman statesman who served as the kingdom's dictator during at least one time of crisis; he later became a model of Roman virtue and public service.
  • Also Known As: Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus
  • Born: c. 519 BCE in the Kingdom of Rome
  • Died: c. 430 BCE in the Roman Republic
  • Spouse: Racilla
  • Children: Caeso

Early Life

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was born around 519 BCE in Rome. At the time, Rome was still a small kingdom made up of the city and its surrounding territory. Lucius was a member of the Quinctia, a patrician family that produced numerous state officials. Lucius was given the name Cincinnatus, meaning "the curly-haired." Historians believe that Cincinnatus's family was wealthy; however, little else is known about his family or his early life.

Consul

By 462 BCE, the Roman kingdom was in trouble. Conflicts had escalated between the wealthy, powerful patricians and the lesser plebeians, who were fighting for constitutional reforms that would have placed limits on patrician authority. Dissension between these two groups eventually turned violent, weakening Roman power in the region.

According to legend, Cincinnatus's son Caeso was one of the most violent offenders in the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians. To prevent the plebeians from assembling in the Roman Forum, Caeso would apparently organize gangs to push them out. Caeso's activities eventually led to charges being brought against him. Rather than face justice, however, he fled to Tuscany.

In 460 BCE, the Roman consul Publius Valerius Poplicola was killed by rebel plebeians. Cincinnatus was called in to take his place; in this new position, however, he apparently had only moderate success in quelling the rebellion. He eventually stepped down and returned to his farm.

At the same time, the Romans were at war with the Aequi, an Italic tribe about whom historians know very little. After losing several battles, the Aequi managed to trick and trap the Romans. A few Roman horsemen then escaped to Rome to warn the Senate of their army's plight.

Dictator

Cincinnatus was apparently plowing his field when he learned he had been appointed dictator, a position the Romans had created strictly for emergencies, for six months. He was asked to help defend the Romans against the neighboring Aequi, who had surrounded the Roman army and the consul Minucius in the Alban Hills. A group of Senators was sent to bring Cincinnatus the news. He accepted the appointment and dressed in his white toga before traveling to Rome, where he was given several bodyguards for protection.

Cincinnatus quickly organized an army, calling together all the Roman men who were old enough to serve. He commanded them against the Aequi at the Battle of Mount Algidus, which took place in the region of Latium. Although the Romans were expected to lose, they quickly defeated the Aequi under the leadership of Cincinnatus and his Master of the Horse, Lucius Tarquitius. Cincinnatus made the defeated Aequi pass under a "yoke" of spears to show their subjugation. He took the Aequi leaders as prisoners and brought them to Rome for punishment.

After this great victory, Cincinnatus gave up the title of dictator 16 days after it had been granted and promptly returned to his farm.​ His faithful service and lack of ambition made him a hero in the eyes of his countrymen.

According to some accounts, Cincinnatus was appointed dictator again for a later Roman crisis in the wake of a grain distribution scandal. This time, a plebeian named Spurius Maelius was allegedly planning to bribe the poor as part of a plot to make himself king. There was a famine going at the time but Maelius, who was in possession of a large store of wheat, was allegedly selling it to other plebeians at a low price to curry favor with them. This worried the Roman patricians, who feared he had ulterior motives for his generosity.

Once again, Cincinnatus—now 80 years old, according to Livy— was appointed dictator. He made Gaius Servilius Structus Ahala his Master of the Horse. Cincinnatus issued orders for Maelius to appear before him but Maelius fled. During the ensuing manhunt, Ahala ended up killing Maelius. A hero again, Cincinnatus resigned his post after 21 days.

Death

There is little information about Cincinnatus's life after his second term as dictator. He is reported to have died around 430 BCE.

Legacy

The life and accomplishments of Cincinnatus—whether true or merely legendary—were an important part of early Roman history. The farmer-turned-dictator became a model of Roman virtue; he was celebrated by later Romans for his loyalty and brave service. Unlike some other Roman leaders, who plotted and schemed to build their own power and wealth, Cincinnatus did not exploit his authority. After he had performed the duties required of him, he swiftly resigned and returned to his quiet life in the country.

Cincinnatus is the subject of several notable artworks, including Ribera's "Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome." Many places are named in his honor, including Cincinnatti, Ohio, and Cincinnatus, New York. A statue of the Roman leader stands in Tuileries Garden in France.

Sources

  • Hillyard, Michael J. "Cincinnatus and the Citizen-Servant Ideal: the Roman Legend's Life, Times, and Legacy." Xlibris, 2001.
  • Livy. "Rome and Italy: the History of Rome from Its Foundation." Edited by R. M. Ogilvie, Penguin, 2004.
  • Neel, Jaclyn. "Early Rome: Myth and Society." John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2017.