Photo: Houdon, Statue of George Washington, 1785-1792
A Roman Dictator’s Resounding Impact
By Ryan Burns
Being from Cincinnati, Ohio, the story of Cincinnatus has inspired me since I learned it eight years ago. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer and a senator, and in the mid-5th century B.C, he was chosen to be dictator to rescue a surrounded army. Under his command, Roman troops defeated the enemy in just sixteen days, and his victory was celebrated in a triumph in Rome. After just sixteen days as dictator, Cincinnatus stepped down from his post and returned to the countryside. Cincinnatus’ resignation from dictatorship demonstrated his support of allowing the government to run as it was intended—by the people. From Cincinnatus’ actions, modern society can learn from Ancient Roman history about the significance of giving power to the people.
In Ancient Rome, a dictator was selected via nomination by one of the consuls based on a recommendation from the Senate.This person would be confirmed by the Comitia Curiata, an assembly of thirty people chosen from the class of the Patricians (those who held office in the Roman government).
Because the dictator was selected by the consuls and patricians, the dictator was not a position that the common people of Rome had much say in choosing. The Roman structure of government usually distributed power among many offices and along different levels, and in times of need, they felt that power had to be more centralized. Thus, electing a dictator was their solution to this problem.
Cincinnatus is a figure who understood the value in a republican system of government. He knew that his duty as a Roman dictator was to ameliorate the situation as quickly as possible. When order had been restored, his job was to allow the state to return to its normal operations: one without a dictator. Cincinnatus symbolized the will of the people, and his act represents the ideals of modern American democracy. When he took on the responsibility of holding the office of dictator, he knew his purpose was to protect his state, and he understood the importance of fulfilling that duty without abusing the power entrusted to him.
Cincinnatus’ attitude of representing the will of the people is what the American Constitution is built upon. The United States was founded upon revolutionary ideals, such as expelling tyranny and ensuring that the government protects its people. George Washington exemplified Cincinnatus’ actions by stepping down from the presidency after two terms. Washington thought it was important to set the precedent that the United States would not have the all-powerful monarchs or dictators reminiscent of England’s king. Cincinnatus’s actions inspired George Washington and the foundation of American democracy by relinquishing power when the job was done. In fact, the Society for the Cincinnati, founded in 1783 and named after Cincinnatus, was created to commemorate the Continental Army of the Revolutionary War. Its motto Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam (He gave up everything to serve the Republic) draws a direct reference to Cincinnatus’ influence on Washington. Since the inception of democracy in Athens in the 500s B.C., democracy’s will was to give power to the people. Cincinnatus’s resignation of power furthered democracy’s agenda.
Cincinnatus has the ultimate quality of an ideal American leader, which is the willingness to put one’s country before oneself. He understood the ideals on which Rome was founded, and he knew the purpose of being a dictator was to help the country, not himself.
There are several modern examples of depictions of George Washington representing Cincinnatus. First, Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Statue of George Washington depicts Washington holding the fasces and a plow. These objects draw allusions to Washington and Cincinnatus’ military and farming expertise. Additionally, the Roman sculptor Antonio Canova depicts George Washington, clothed in Roman military attire, drafting his farewell address to the nation, which again connects to Cincinnatus. These depictions of Washington as Cincinnatus demonstrate their shared actions and values of expelling tyranny and promoting democracy. Cincinnatus remains an inspiration to the American government and people, reminding us of the American rights and freedom from absolute power that we celebrate today.
Houdon, Statue of George Washington, 1785-1792
Canova, George Washington, 1820
Ryan Burns (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and Neuroscience.