A statue of Cincinnatus in Cincinnati, Ohio, US. The dedication reads: "With one hand he returns the fasces, a symbol of power as appointed dictator of Rome. His other hand holds the plow, as he resumes the life of a citizen and farmer."

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC) was an aristocrat and political figure of the Roman Republic, serving as consul in 460 BC and Roman dictator in 458 BC and 439 BC.[1]

Cincinnatus was regarded by the Romans, especially the aristocratic patrician class, as one of the heroes of early Rome and as a model of Roman virtue and simplicity. A persistent opponent of the plebeians, when his son was convicted in absentia and condemned to death, Cincinnatus was forced to live in humble circumstances, working on his own small farm, until an invasion caused him to be called to serve Rome as dictator, an office which he immediately resigned after completing his task of defeating the rivaling tribes of the Aequians, Sabines and Volscians.

His abandoning of his work to serve Rome, and especially his immediate resignation of his absolute authority with the end of the crisis, has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, and modesty. As a result, he has inspired a number of organizations and other entities, a number of which are named for him.



Early career

Racilia, a wife of Cincinnatus.

Politically, Cincinnatus was a persistent opponent of attempts to improve the legal situation of the plebeians. His son Caeso Quinctius often drove the tribunes of the plebeians from the forum, preventing them from reaching a formal decision. In 461 BC, these actions finally resulted in a capital charge against Caeso. After Caeso was released on bail and escaped to the Etrurians, he was condemned to death in absentia and his father had to pay an immense fine, forcing him to sell most of his lands and retire to a small farm, where he and his family were able to subsist on the work of his hands.[2]

The following year, Cincinnatus was elected suffect consul. During his consulship, Cincinnatus' main adversary was the Plebeian Tribune Gaius Terentilius Harsa. During this time period, the Roman senate was preoccupied with a war against the Volsci, a neighbouring Italic people. Though Cincinnatus was initially able to prevent their enactment, Terentilius attempted to use the upheaval associated with the war effort to push through a series of reforms which were specifically to benefit the proletarii and peasantry, including a proposal to draw up a code of written laws applicable equally to patricians and plebeians — an early push for what would eventually become the Ten or Twelve Tables, which would not become readily accessible in public display for several generations.[3]


Cincinnatus leaves the plow for the Roman dictatorship, Juan Antonio Ribera, c. 1806.

In 458 BC, the Romans were fighting the Aequians and the Sabines. The consul Minucius Esquilinus had led an army to fight the Sabines and Aequians. However, Minucius's army had been trapped by the Aequians in the Alban Hills, and was attempting to fight off a siege. A few Roman horsemen escaped, and returned to Rome to tell the senate what had happened. The senate fell into a panic and authorized the other consul for the year, Horatius Pulvillus, to nominate a dictator. Horatius nominated Cincinnatus for a dictatorial term (also known as Magister Populi or "Master of the People") for six months.[4]

A group of senators was sent to tell Cincinnatus that he had been nominated dictator. According to Livy, the senators found Cincinnatus while he was plowing on his farm. Cincinnatus cried out "Is everything all right?" They said to Cincinnatus that they hoped "it might turn out well for both him and his country," and then they asked him to put on his senatorial toga and hear the mandate of the senate. He called to his wife, telling her to bring out his toga from their cottage.[4]

When he put on his toga, the senatorial delegation hailed him as dictator, and told him to come to the city. He then crossed the Tiber river in a boat provided by the senate, as his farm was on the far side of the river. When he reached the other side of the Tiber, he was greeted by his three sons and most of the senators. Several lictors were given to him for protection.

The next morning, Cincinnatus went to the Roman forum, and nominated as his Master of the Horse (his second in command) Lucius Tarquitius, who was considered one of the finest soldiers in Rome. Cincinnatus then went to the Roman popular assembly and issued an order to the effect that every man of military age should report to the Campus Martius—the Field of Mars, god of war—by the end of the day.[5]

Once the army assembled, Cincinnatus took them to fight the Aequi at the Battle of Mons Algidus. Cincinnatus led the infantry in person, while Tarquitius led the cavalry. The Aequi were surprised by the double attack and were soon cut to pieces. The commanders of the Aequi begged Cincinnatus not to slaughter them all.[6]

Cincinnatus did not want to cause any unnecessary bloodshed, and told the Aequi that he would let them live if they submitted to him and brought their leader, Gracchus Cloelius, and his officers to him in chains. A yoke was set up, made up of three spears, and the Aequi had to pass under it, bowing down while confessing that they had been conquered. After this, the war ended and Cincinnatus disbanded his army. He then resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm, a mere sixteen days after he had been nominated dictator.[7]

Later events

He came out of retirement again during his second term as dictator (439 BC) to put down a conspiracy of Spurius Maelius, who supposedly was planning to become King. He was nominated by his old friend and relative, Titus Quinctius Capitolinus Barbatus, consul of the year. Maelius was killed immediately when the Master of the Horse was sent to bring him to trial and the incipient coup perished with him. Once more he resigned his commission.

Within his lifetime Cincinnatus became a legend to the Romans. Twice granted supreme power, he held onto it not for a day longer than absolutely necessary. The high esteem in which Cincinnatus was held by his compatriots is best illustrated with an anecdote towards the very end of his life. One of Cincinnatus' sons was tried for military incompetence. He was defended by none other than the great Capitolinus, who simply asked, if the accused was convicted, who would go to tell the aged Cincinnatus the news. The son was acquitted. The jury couldn’t bring itself to break the old man’s heart.


Named in his honor are the towns of Cincinnato, in Lazio, Italy; the United States town of Cincinnatus, New York; and the Society of the Cincinnati which, in turn, lent its name to the U.S. city of Cincinnati, Ohio. George Washington was often compared to Cincinnatus for his willingness to give up near-absolute power once the crisis of the American Revolution had passed and victory had been won, and the Society of the Cincinnati is a historical association founded in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War to preserve the ideals of the military officer's role in the new American Republic.


  1. ^ N.S. Gill. "Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus". Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  2. ^ Livy, Book 3, sect 14, Project Gutenberg.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.26
  5. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.27
  6. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.28-9
  7. ^ Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 3.29


Primary sources

  • Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, iii. 26-29
"…it was determined that a dictator should be appointed to retrieve their shattered fortunes, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was appointed by universal consent.
It is worthwhile for those persons who despise all things human in comparison with riches, and who suppose that there is no room either for exalted honour, or for virtue, except where riches abound in great profusion, to listen to the following…"
Project Gutenberg version of Ab Urbe Condita

Secondary material

  • W. Ihne, History of Rome, i.
  • Dante, Paradiso, canto 15, line 127
  • E. Pais, Storia di Roma, i. ch. 4 (1898)
  • Schwegler, Römische Geschichte, bk. xxviii. 12
  • Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Credibility of early Roman History, ch. xii. 40
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
Preceded by
Publius Valerius Publicola and Gaius Claudius Inregillensis Sabinus
Consul (Suffect) of the Roman Republic
with Gaius Claudius Inregillensis Sabinus
460 BC
Succeeded by
Quintus Fabius Vibulanus and Lucius Cornelius Maluginensis Uritinus

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