How to Be a Good Dictator

How many people would hand over supreme power to return to life as a farmer, tilling fields? How many would trade leading armies for herding animals? Imagine returning home from war as a hero, crowds of people cheering your name, calling you a great conqueror, a savior, throwing flowers at the wheels of your chariot, and resigning a few days later.

So, what is it that causes a hero to hand in their laurel wreath? It is through one of the most difficult virtues to embrace, the virtue of humility. Today we will look at the story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a man granted supreme authority to solve a national emergency, and could have held onto that power for himself. But after solving the crisis at hand, returned home and resumed his life as a citizen.

The story of Cincinnatus is from our book, Famous Men of Rome, a collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth. It’s a perfect addition to the collection of any students and teachers of classical history, from fourth to sixth grade.

Cincinnatus lived a simple life on a small farm as a retired soldier from the Roman army and a former consul, living in a cottage with his wife and sons. During Cincinnatus’ time, in Rome’s early days, the city was fighting off raids from a neighboring tribe known as the Aequians. Although Rome and the Aqui had made a treaty for peace only a year before, the Aequians went back on their word and began to plunder Roman farms and villages. When the Roman senate heard of this, they sent messengers to speak with the Aequian king, who they found lounging by a towering oak tree. When the Roman messengers spoke to the king, he refused to listen, and told them, The king mocked the messengers’ complaint, and dismissed them.

The story goes that the messengers did complain to the oak tree, and every tree around, saying, “We shall tell it to the oak, but also the gods above, and call them to witness how you have broken the peace! They shall be on our side when Rome returns to punish you for the crimes you have committed against us.” The messengers returned to the senate and relayed their encounter with the king, and how he had refused to negotiate.

The fighting began with the Aequian incursion into the city of Tusculum, about 30 miles south of Rome. Two divisions of Roman soldiers and their commanding consuls made for Mount Algidas to engage the invading forces. Unfortunately, the inexperience of the consuls in command led one of the divisions to commit a crucial tactical error that opened a door of opportunity for the Aequians to encircle the Roman encampment. The bulk of Romes forces was now trapped against the menacing face of Mount Algidus. However, hope was not yet gone. A few Roman horsemen managed to slip out of the valley before the entrance was blocked. They
rode hard for Rome all through the night, and gave a breathless report to the Senate. The Roman army was trapped with no hope, and no way out.

Enter Cincinnatus!

The senate knew of Cincinnatus’ military experience and his integrity, and declared that he was the only one who could liberate the Romans. They called on him to serve as dictator. Now, “dictator” at this point in time was a little different than we know it today. It was a state-sanctioned office held by a capable and willing leader during times of crisis. A dictator was more powerful than the senate or the consuls, and his commands were to be obeyed as if he were a king. Messengers were dispatched immediately to tell Cincinnatus of his new role. They found him plowing in his field. Upon hearing the news, Cincinnatus called to his wife
to retrieve his senatorial toga from their home, and abandoned his plow where it stood. After he was dressed, he hastened to Rome.

When Cincinnatus arrived at the senate, he ordered a suspension of all civil business, ordered all the shops in the city to be closed, and he forbade any one to attend to any private affairs. He called out to every man of military age to rally to the Campus Martius, and to bring with them 12 valli, a stake the Roman legionnaires carried. With his army rallied he marched his army to the mountains where the Romans were trapped. He led them in a long column toward the enemy, and on his signal, the soldiers raised a war shout and descended on the Aequians and besieged them. The Romans surrounded the Aequian forces on all sides, greatly overpowering them, and soon the Aequians were defeated. Cincinnatus spared their lives, but forced them to “pass under the yoke”, the greatest disgrace endured by a Roman soldier. The yoke was formed by two spears stuck upright in the ground, with a third laid across, and defeated soldiers were made to bend underneath them as Roman citizens taunted them. When the freed Romans ran out of the valley, they shouted for joy and crowded around Cincinnatus, thanking him for saving their lives.

Cincinnatus’ bravery and willingness to serve his country was greatly commended by the people of Rome as well. At his return, they sang his praises and insisted a parade be held to celebrate such a victory.  Cincinnatus rode through the city in a beautiful chariot with a laurel wreath on his head as crowds of people threw flowers and shouted his name, with the Aequian king trudging behind in defeat. When the revelry died down, Cincinnatus disbanded his army and resigned as dictator. A few days later, he returned to his family, picked up his plow where he left it, and returned to his quiet life on his humble farm.

Now it is surprising that any one man granted ineffable power would resign it away so quickly. It’s even more surprising that a man would do it twice in his lifetime. Not but a few years later Rome called upon  Cincinnatus to return as dictator to quell an uprising that would have subjected Rome to an even greater tyranny. After resolving the issue, he resigned again.

Cincinnatus was the perfect Roman citizen, he lived a quiet life away from the spotlight, but when called to protect his city and rescue his fellow countrymen, he stepped into the role of the military leader without hesitation, and without one thought for how it may serve himself. Cincinnatus’ leadership has been an example to other historical heroes, such as George Washington. Similarly to Cincinnatus, he relinquished his time in office as the first president after two terms, even though the American people wanted him to stay in office and effectively become a king. He set the example for the office of the president, that they should serve at most two terms, as a humble servant to the American people.

But why is humility so hard to embrace in our own lives? Because pride is corrosive. When we start to seek our own selfish desires, we’re looking inward, which means we are blind to everything else. It taints our successes, and as C. S. Lewis says in his work, Mere Christianity, “As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” Pride separates us from God, and blinds us to the needs of others. But humility is the antidote to pride, and Cincinnatus knew this. His legacy and his integrity are untainted by pride, because he used his opportunity to lead to help his fellow countrymen, and then returned to his old life when the celebration was over. While we can’t all be war heroes, we
can learn to look beyond ourselves and do all things in humility.

So what do you think of Cincinnatus’ story? Let us know in the comments below.

If you want to hear more about heroes like Cincinnatus, check out Famous Men of Rome by Memoria Press.