Cincinnatus and the Myth of Amateur Rule

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

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

Blogpost by Thomas F. Ranieri, Federalist Society

The tale of Cincinnatus is a popular one --- particularly among those of a republican (small “r”) bent. 

In the story, the Roman Republic was under attack by a coalition of enemies from Northern Italy. One of the consuls of that year, 458 B.C., was given an army and the mission of defeating the enemy army. Unfortunately, he became trapped by the enemy force, and Rome was open to attack. In a panic, the Senate met and called for a dictator to be named to repel the invaders. Cincinnatus was nominated and elected even though he was not in attendance, but rather was staying at his farm far from Rome. When the delegation brought Cincinnatus back to Rome, he organized an army, appointed commanders, rode out to defeat his enemies, returned to Rome, and then relinquished his absolute governmental authority. The competence and humility of Cincinnatus in viewing his dictatorship as a service to be relinquished immediately upon success made him a hero in the eyes of the republic and cemented his legend firmly in the Western imagination. 

The image suggested in this re-telling of the tale is that of a simple Roman farmer, called to the service of his city, who, in a short time, goes on to achieve more than the politicians and soldiers did. It is a seductive narrative to those with a native distrust of government and the political class. Surely, the reasoning goes, this is what American government needs. Amateurs, elected by their peers, who go to Congress (or the presidency), get things done promptly, and then returns to the farm (so to speak). 

Unfortunately, this romantic narrative gets a very basic fact wrong. Cincinnatus, as a senator and patrician, was a member of the political ruling class. He spent his youth working his way through the cursus honorum, which is the series of offices (both civil and military) designed to prepare senators for the rank of consul and give them the experience needed to wield imperium, the Roman Republic’s official grant of power. In essence, the entire Roman political system was designed to train young patricians in the skills they needed to govern effectively---to turn them from amateurs into professionals. Cincinnatus completed the cursus honorum, achieving the rank of Consul some years before being called back to be the dictator. (He was so successful, in fact, that the Roman people tried to re-elect him Consul in violation of what may anachronistically be called the Roman constitution. He refused, and seems to have left the city, which explains why he was not in Rome at the time of crisis.)

Cincinnatus, thus, does not stand for the savant-like genius and saintly humility of the amateur in government. He was competent because he was trained and virtuous. What, then, separates the good dictatorship of Cincinnatus from those of Sulla and Ceaser, whose dictatorships undermined the “constitutional” order and lead to the fall of the empire? Civic-mindedness and pride in Roman institutions. Cincinnatus was a good dictator because he saw the office as a duty to his city, the love of which he placed above his own self-aggrandizement. 

Sulla and Caesar, on the other hand, viewed the dictatorship as a way to serve themselves, regardless of the cost to the state. The republic ultimately fell, in short, because public service ceased to be viewed as a duty and heavy burden, as it was in the early days of the republic. Public service had become a cover for greed and self-glory.  It was not the professionalism of the senators that brought about that deleterious change, but instead the failure of the society to properly foster virtue and self-sacrifice among the patricians.

Thomas F. Ranieri is Deputy Director, Article I Initiative at the Federalist Society. The views expressed in this post are the authors’ alone and should not be attributed to the Federalist Society.