Latin Lessons for Turtles: Cincinnatus and the ability to give up power

Tim Beasley-Murray, Associate Professor of European Thought and Culture, UCL, draws on the mythical tale of the virtuous Roman dictator, Cincinnatus, to highlight an important lesson about losing for Donald Trump.


As Donald Trump skulks in the White House, refusing to concede the election that he has patently lost – flailing on his back like an obese turtle in the hot sun, failing to realise it is all over, as the CNN anchor put it last week – it is worth reflecting on the civic myths of Rome and what they could tell him and us.  For, while it is apt that the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, is likely to deal the final blow to this sower of hatred, we might also think of the city of Cincinnati, over the border in Ohio, and the man after whom its founders – surely lovers of republican virtues and of liberty – named it.

The mythical story of the Roman patrician and statesman, Cincinnatus, offers a pertinent lesson about civic virtue and public service.

In 458 BC, Rome faced a military emergency. Its allies, the Aequi, broke the treaty that they had made a year earlier and attempted to retake Tusculum. The consuls for the year — L. Minucius Esquilinus Augurinus and G. Nautius Rutilus – led out two armies, one to Tusculum’s relief and another to strike against the lands of the Aequi and their Sabine Allies. The Aequi successfully besieged one army, with only five horsemen escaping to tell the Roman Senate what had happened.  With the army of the second consul unable to help, the senators fell into a panic and nominated Cincinnatus as dictator for a term of six months, with the explicit purpose of dealing with the emergency.  

A group of senators was sent to Cincinnatus to inform him of his appointment, famously finding him busy on his farm, working at his plough. Livy describes the scene as follow:

After mutual salutations he was requested to put on his toga that he might hear the mandate of the senate, and they expressed the hope that it might turn out well for him and for the State. He asked them, in surprise, if all was well, and bade his wife, Racilia, bring him his toga quickly from the cottage. Wiping off the dust and perspiration, he put it on and came forward, on which the deputation saluted him as Dictator and congratulated him, invited him to the City and explained the state of apprehension in which the army were.

(Livy, History of Rome, Bk 3, Ch. 26)

Cincinnatus hurried to Rome, assembled an army and marched it to the relief of his compatriots. At the Battle of Mount Algidus, Cincinnatus carried off a spectacular victory against the Aequi and forced them to surrender. Rather than slaughter them, however, Cincinnatus accepted the Aequi’s pleas for mercy and offered a conditional amnesty. Cincinnatus then disbanded his army and returned to his farm, abandoning his dictatorial control a mere fifteen days after it had been granted to him.

So, why does this myth make Cincinnatus a model of Roman and republican virtue? Well, not for the glory of his feats on the field of battle, not for the mercy that he showed towards the city’s defeated enemies, and not even for the sense of duty that left him to abandon his private affairs, leaving his fields untilled, in order to serve his city and the common good, but rather this: once his job was done, Cincinnatus chose to set aside his all-powerful command and returned to his plough. 

This is the Latin Lesson for Trump and for today. Cincinnatus shows us that, in republics, the courage and self-abnegation required to take up the reins of power and to serve one’s country are equalled, if not surpassed, by the courage and self-abnegation required to relinquish them.  Or to put it into an electoral vocabulary that Trump might understand: for democratic politics to work properly, the ability to lose is just as important as the ability to win.  Now, this is a Latin lesson that Trump is unlikely to listen to, a man to whom all concepts of virtue, Roman or not, are alien.  But it is a lesson that the United States must pay heed to and must force into action.  If not, instead of the good dictatorship of Republican Rome and of Cincinnatus, we might end up with a more modern and darker form of dictatorial power.  

Cabanel, Alexandre. Cincinnatus receiving Deputies of the Senate. 1844, Museé Fabre, Montpelier (Source: Public Domain)

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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