LONDON — “Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plow,” Boris Johnson said Tuesday from a lectern outside 10 Downing Street during his final speech as Britain’s prime minister before traveling to Scotland to tender his resignation to the queen.
So, who is Cincinnatus, and why is Johnson, a 21st-century politician and student of classics, comparing himself to him?
In the 5th century B.C., the Roman Republic was in conflict with the Aequi tribe of Italy. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a former Roman consul, a kind of temporary elected leader, who had turned to farming after his time in politics.
In “History of Rome,” the historian Livy writes that the leaders of Rome approached Cincinnatus and begged him to save the city from invasion. The legend goes that he stopped plowing his field, put on a toga and returned to the city. He was appointed sole dictator of Rome in 458 B.C. — a rare position with emergency powers — and led an effort to save Roman soldiers trapped by the forces of Aequi on Mount Algidus.
He defeated the forces of Aequi, then gave up power after just 15 days and returned to his farm. For this reason, he is held up as a model of political restraint and virtue. George Washington was compared to Cincinnatus because he also answered the call to serve, and defeated the British, before voluntarily giving up power after two terms as president.
The city of Cincinnati in Ohio is — indirectly — named after Cincinnatus. In 1790, the governor of the region that includes modern-day Ohio named the city after the Society of the Cincinnati, formed by officers from the Continental Army to commemorate the war for American independence. The society’s members called themselves “Cincinnati,” the plural form of Cincinnatus.
While details of the Cincinnatus story are disputed by historians and classicists, many argue that it is the message that is important — good leaders are prepared to give up power for the good of the republic.
Johnson has referred to Cincinnatus more than once over the course of his political career. In 2009, when he was mayor of London, Johnson said in an interview that he could not “foresee the circumstances” under which he would be called on to become prime minister. (He became prime minister 10 years later.) But, he said at the time, “if, like Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plow, then obviously it would be wrong of me not to help out.”
Leaving aside the question of whether Johnson’s time at No. 10 — a tenure marred by numerous scandals and official investigations — earns him a spot on the same leadership bench as Washington, Cincinnatus “is a supremely bad example for Boris to have chosen” in that 2009 interview, argued Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s chief culture writer, in a piece at the time.
“The point of Cincinnatus is that he is not a career politician charming his way around the dinner parties of Rome by night and cutting deals with the great and the good by day,” Higgins wrote. “He is a practical man with an honest, backbreaking job outside politics who just gets on with the task in hand with minimum fuss.”
The statesman’s story doesn’t end with his victory over the Aequi and subsequent resignation. Cincinnatus is said to have returned to Rome in 439 B.C., when he was asked to serve as dictator for a second time to address concerns that the wealthy Roman Spurius Maelius was laying the groundwork to become king by hoarding wheat to secure the support of the plebeians, or common people. While historians largely believe this is the stuff of legends, some political observers interpreted Johnson’s reference to Cincinnatus in his farewell speech as a sign that he would one day be back.
“This is not the speech of a departing prime minister who necessarily thinks he’s going away forever. And he’s enough of a classics scholar to know, in comparing himself with Cincinnatus leaving for his farm, that when the call came Cincinnatus returned to Rome,” Scottish journalist Andrew Neil tweeted.
“One thing you have to know about Cincinnatus is that he was a well-known enemy of the people,” Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, told Times Radio on Tuesday. “He did not wish to give people their due rights. He was an absolute elitist Roman patrician — in our terms, he was dead right-wing.”
“That’s where I wonder how far Johnson had thought through all the implications of the story of Cincinnatus,” Beard added.