Byron’s ‘Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte’ (1814) contrasts the French Emperor’s attitude to power with the sole modern exemplum of the Cincinnatian ideal:
Where may the wearied eye reposeThis was something of a commonplace
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes—one—the first—the last—the best—
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeath'd the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!
The example of Cincinnatus, after a lapse of ages, has been revived or exceeded amid the forests of America, by the unassuming cultivator of the banks of the Patowmak. Washington, like the Roman sage, too rich in himself to be seduced by wealth or honours, to forsake the calm enjoyments of domestic life, obeyed again and again the summons of his country, to devote himself to the emergencies of the state.’ [Joseph Sansom, Travels from Paris through Switzerland and Italy: in the years 1801 and 1802 (1808), 125]In 1791 a certain ‘Mrs Pilkington’ asserted her preference for retirement over public life:
I envy not the proud their wealth,This loses some of its force from the reader wondering what opportunities for international statecraft were liable to have presented themselves to Mrs Pilkington in the first place. But the point is that Cincinnatus has become a perfectly conventionalised figure;
Their equipage and state:
Give me but innocence and health,
I ask not to be great.
I in this sweet retirement find
A joy unknown to kings,
For sceptres to a virtuous mind
Seem vain and empty things.
Great Cincinnatus at his plow
With brighter lustre shone,
Than guilty Cæsar e'er could know,
Though seated on a throne. [Vicesimus Knox (ed), Extracts, Elegant, Instructive, and Entertaining, in Poetry (1791), 5:360]
LINES ADDRESSED TO A YOUNG GENTLEMAN INTENDED FOR THE ARMY.Part of the point of this is to style power, and especially national or military power, as ineluctably corrupting.
See laurel'd Cincinnatus seek his home
Amid the thanks and praise of graceful Rome,
Well pleas'd war's cumbrous pageantry to yield,
Again he cultivates his native field. [Monthly magazine and British Register 9 (1800) 364]
A man long accustomed to power, is not happy in a private station’; power is a ‘corrupting habit.’ Reflect upon Cincinnatus, eminent among heroes for disinterested love to his country. Had he been a Briton, a seat in parliament would have gratified his ambition, as affording the best Opportunity of serving his country. In parliament he joins the party that appears the most zealous for the public Being deceived in his friends, patriots in name only, he goes over to the court; and after sighting the battles of the ministry for years, he is compelled by a shattered fortune to accept a post or a pension. Fortunate Cincinnatus! born at a time and in a country where virtue was the passport to power and glory. Cincinnatus, after serving with honour and reputation as chief magistrate, cheerfully retired to a private station, in obedience to the laws of his country:—nor was that change a hardship on a man who was not corrupted by a long habit of power. But wonderful was the change, when the republic by successful wars comprehended great kingdoms. Luxurious and sensual men, who composed the senate, could not maintain their authority over generals who commanded great armies, and were illustrious by conquest. In the civil wars accordingly that were carried on after the death of Julius Cæsar, the legions called from Spain and other distant provinces to defend the senate, deserted all to Antony, or to Lepidus, or to Octavius Cæsar. [Lord Henry Home Kames, Sketches of the History of Man (3rd edition 1779), 1:420]Cincinnatus is 'lucky', as well as embodying a crucial individual virtue. But the flipside to this was the anxiety that the Cincinnatean model might be used to justify ordinary people assuming positions of power. In other words, it is a question of whether the point of Cincinnatus story is all in its end, where he relinquishes power; or whether a more politically radical moral might not be drawn from it (hey! even humble farmers can be dictators!). This correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle [62:2 (1792), 1165] is keen to deny the latter:
Mr. Hey, in his excellent pamphlet, which you reviewed last month, in the just warmth of his argument against making a ploughman a minister of state, seems to have overshot himself in his assertion respecting the well-known history of Q. Cincinnatus, who was said to have been called from the plough to the consulship.* The fact is, that he had been a man of rank and prosperity, and borne a public character at Rome, till the usurpation of the tribunes, and their partisans the plebeians, reduced him by a heavy fine, unjustly imposed on his son, to sell his estate, and retire to a poor cottage on the other side the Tiber, where he cultivated with his own lands and those of his slaves five or six acres of land which were ail he had left to live on. In this retirement, overwhelmed with grief and poverty, he saw none of his friends, allowed himself no amusement, observed no festivals, nor even went to the city. He was found thus employed, following his plough, when he was sent for to repress the insolence of the people, and supply the, place of one of the consuls, who had been slain in retaking the capital from the Sabines. He left the care of the farm to his wife, and followed the messengers. He soon prevailed with the tribunes to desist from their demand; and having restored the public tranquillity, and assisted at the election of two new consuls, retired to his cottage and his labour as before. He had not been here much above a year before the critical situation, into which the Sabines had drawn the Roman army, made it necessary to appoint a dictator. Cincinnatus was the person pitched on, and was once more torn from his retreat, where he was found in similar circumstances as before. He held this office little more than a fortnight, and returned again to his farm, without accepting any of the handsome presents offered him by his country and his friends . Dionysius Halicarnassensis [X. c. 3 and 5. III.26. Victor de viris illustrib.] repeats the story of his being fetched from his labours at the farm on both occasions; but Livy applies it only to his advancement to the dictatorship. He was created dictator 20 years after, on the nomination of his brother T. Quint. Capitolinus, then consul the 6th time, being in his 80th year [Livy IV 13]. Dionysius apologises for his repeated detail of these circumstances, that he did it to shew the world the true chancier of the Roman magistrates at that time, that they worked with their own hands, lived frugally, were not ashamed of an upright and innocent poverty, and, so far from aspiring to or courting royalty, refused it when offered. How different, adds he, from the conduct of men in our own time! [* Cicero de Fin. II. 4. is the only person who seems to encourage the mistake. “The Epicureans pretend it is not necessary for a philosopher to be a learned man. As our ancestors fetched Cincinnatus from the plough to make him dictator, so you fetch all your good men out of Greece, but certainly not very learned."]This moral established, the letter goes on to elaborate a point about the wealth of nature as against the value of money, anticipating and perhaps influencing (it seems to me) Wordsworth's Michael.
The Spot where Cincinnatus lived was in the place called the Quintian Meadows, over-against the docks in the Tiber, near the city in the Vatican district, at present between the Vigna di Madama, the porta del popolo, and the castle of St. Angelo. Here, says Livy, those who account nothing preferable to riches, and think honour and virtue of no value without wealth, let them know that in this spot lived the only hope of Rome. … The circumstance which impaired Cincinnatus’s fortune was the heavy bail required for his son’s appearance. Nine securities were bound in 3000 asses of brass each, which Dr Arbuthnot puts at £9. 13s 9d each. The total amount of the bail therefore which the father was cruelly compelled to pay was £96. 17s. 6d. Livy remarks that it was the first instance of bail being demanded in public cases at Rome. … Valerius Maximus [IV. 4. 7] says, "Cincinnatus had at first seven acres, of which he forfeited three for a friend, for whom he was bound to the treasury (quae pro amico ad aerarium obsignaverat multa nomine amist), and with the produce of this little field he paid his son’s fine; yet, even when ploughing these four acres, he not only kept up the dignity of his family, but was appointed dictator. Men now think themselves confined if they have not houses that cover as many acres."