A painting of Cincinnatus being summoned back to Rome byJuan Antonio Riberta, Public Domain
A few posts back I wrote about Columbus Day and the...complications that go with that day off. I mentioned that I would be offering a candidate to replace Columbus. The time has arrived (meaning I've stopped stalling and finished the post) and here it is. Ladies and gentlemen, I nominate Cincinnatus.
So, who was Cincinnatus? His full name was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In brief, he was a Roman soldier who was installed with dictatorial powers to save Rome from an invasion. He did. Now, unlike other military leaders who performed well on the battlefield and then hung around in the palace indefinitely, Cincinnatus was not one of them. He did what he was asked to do and then, sixteen days later resigned. Sixteen days, in a time when most rulers were still deciding between designs for busts of their statues. And what did he do when he hung up his sword? he picked up his plow.
Yup, he was a farmer. He was behind his plow (as the story goes) when the boys from Rome showed up at his farm and offered him absolute power. In 458 B.C., Rome was in a heap of trouble. Seems as if the Aeqvian tribe was hell-bent on destroying the city. The Romans turned to Cincinnatus for help. He obliged. He was given "Imperium," or pretty much supreme powers for six months. He used them to his full ability and saved Rome. And he did it in a one day battle. As James Morford writes, " In a day’s battle named Mons Algidus, Rome’s victory was absolute, the entire Aequian army either killed or surrendered" (http://www.hackwriters.com/Cinncinatus.htm)
I offer him as a candidate for a couple of reasons. True, the fact he gave up power is laudable. However, let's not forget that he also got the job done. He was brought in to handle a situation and he handled it. He won the battle. This was not a case of "every kid gets a trophy." Either he defeated the enemy, or they would have annihilated Rome. Results matter and he delivered.
Cincinnatus treated his foes better than he and his men likely would have been treated. After he defeated the Aequians, he made those who survived march through Rome as part of a Roman triumph. This was the Roman equivalent of a ticker-tape parade, and no doubt humiliating. he spared their lives. This is no small thing considering that the Romans perfected crucifixion as a preferred method of execution. While he gave his men the right of plunder of the enemy's possession, Cincinnatus took nothing for himself. He was a stoic in the tradition of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
After the parade, Cincinnatus wrapped up the duties assigned to him and went back home. He voluntarily relinquished the powers that had been handed to him to return to his plot of ground. Could you see a Julius Caesar or Napoleon doing this? Neither can I. I should also point out that even though he had been given power for a six-month period, does anyone really think he could have been forced out of power? He was wildly popular and had the army at his back. He could have, with a flick of his wrist, turned this temporary emergency into the status quo with him large and in charge.
|Statute of Cincinnatus, Sawyer Point, Cininnati, use authorized as this is a non-commercial blog per the owner's terms, http://www.everystockphoto.com/photo.php?imageId=652663|
This was a modest man. A proficient soldier, a leader and yet still a man. Surely, he must have been tempted by the offer of absolute power. Yet he demurred. This story, at least to me, is even more impressive when you consider that he had been striped of his previous position for no other reason that he dared to speak truth to power. Again, James Morford, above citation:
"It must be reported Cincinnatus had not always been a farmer. Three years previous he had been one of two Consuls of the young Roman Republic. He was much admired for his leadership mainly because he prevented Rome from falling under a code of Laws giving aristocrats more rights than commoners. In retaliation, the aristocrats drove him from office."If ever there was a chance for a payback, here it was. Cincinnatus could have summoned those who had done him wrong and "settled up." He declined. His sword was only unsheathed to battle an enemy on the field, not a political foe in the palace.
George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus when he declined to be made king by his officers after the revolutionary war. After two terms as president, he voluntarily declined what would have been a lock on years 9, 10, 11, and 12. (Who was going to run against him?) Perhaps it was the fact that there was no opponent who could best him at the ballot box that caused him to step aside. Like Cincinnatus, he too returned to his farm.
Recently, I read a piece from George Freidman, the publisher of Stratfor. He wrote on October 15, 2013, speaking of the Founders opinions on political leaders of the new Republic:
“The founders needed to bridge the gaps between the need to govern, the fear of tyranny and the uncertainty of the future. Their solution was not in law but in personal virtue. The founders were fascinated by Rome and its notion of governance. Their Senate was both a Roman name and venue for the Roman vision of the statesman, particularly Cincinnatus, who left his farm to serve (not rule) and then returned to it when his service was over. The Romans, at least in the eyes of the founders if not always in reality, did not see government as a profession but rather as a burden and obligation. The founders wanted reluctant rulers.”
Here's another quote from the article I really like:
“They (the Founders) did not want philosopher-kings; they wanted citizens of simple, clear virtues, who served reluctantly and left gladly,…”
Cincinnatus was the model for the Founders. He was someone Washington admired and emulated in his actions. As I look around at the action (or lack thereof) in our nation's capitol, I think Cincinnatus' story is worth telling now. Now more than ever.
So why bump Columbus? Simply put, Cincinnatus is a better hero. He also accomplished great things and did so without all the other acts that Columbus did. I recognize that for some Italian Americans, Columbus is a source of pride. Columbus day is a a celebration of Italian pride. I am half Hungarian and Irish. Cultural pride matters to me and I hope it does to everyone else. However, with that pride comes the responsibility to own the not so great aspects of one's culture. What Cincinntus offers is someone whose accomplishments are significant, whose moral compass pointed straight north and who has a connection to the early days of our Republic. He also was an Italian before there was Italy. One could claim him as the first Italian hero if they wished. He certainly was heroic. Not taking away from Columbus' accomplishments, I cannot hang the "hero" label on him. There is simply too much blood on him, the sign would slide right off.
So that is my nomination. I'm curious if you agree and especially if you disagree. Please log in a comment and tell me why. If you've got another suggestion, please share it. Thanks.
Be well my friends,
(Citation for the painting at the beginning of this blog post: