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Boris Johnson is no Cincinnatus — but George Washington was

On Tuesday, outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave his final speech in front of 10 Downing Street and declared “like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plow.” 

But Johnson — and nearly all other politicians from around the world who pull the famed Roman, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, into their rhetoric are just trying to cast themselves as disinterested patriots rather than partisan officials.

Two thousand four hundred and eighty years earlier, Cincinnatus, an upper-class patrician and a retired consul (the top elected office) was tending his modest farm on the outskirts of Rome, when the Aequians threatened invasion. The Roman Senate, facing pestilence and war, feared the current consul was unfit and granted Cincinnatus dictatorial powers for six months. Many feared “the extent of his authority as too great.” But they were unfounded. After achieving victory at the Battle of Mount Algidus, the Roman dictator “laid down” his sword and returned home to his farm and plow. He could have legally held control for another five and half months (and who knows after that), but the Senate was restored within 16 days.

One politician literally saved Rome and went back to his four acre-farm, the other expanded gigabit broadband to British households and resigned in the shadow of partying during pandemic lockdowns. The comparison just doesn’t fit. Johnson is not a modern Cincinnatus. In resigning and being elected under pressure, the former prime minister was merely bending to the will of his party, the British people and an established parliamentary process.

Yet, in harkening back to Cincinnatus, Johnson was continuing a long legacy of comparing modern leaders to classical ones. He was also casting himself as exhibiting civic virtue, or devotion to the nation above the individual or party. Many in the United Kingdom and the world would disagree with his self-assessment. But all leaders should aspire to the title, their actions just have to match their words.

By surrendering power after being declared “the sole hope of the Roman people,” Cincinnatus became an ideal. He was an anti-Caesar, who would not cross the Rubicon and destroy the Roman Republic. Cincinnatus’ legend lasted over two and half millennia, was enshrined in ancient history and even manifested in Russell Crowe’s fictional Maximus Decimus Meridius and his desire to “go home,” his refusal to accept the title of emperor, and his promise to return Rome to the people in the Academy-Award winning Gladiator (he even throws down his sword twice … and an axe). But it’s the birth and expansion of the British Empire that linked Cincinnatus with Anglo-Americans. Cincinnatus was not just the anti-Caesar, but he was the anti-Oliver Cromwell, who had assumed dictatorial power after the English Civil War of the mid-17th century. 

Enlightenment Brits and Americans looked to themselves as the heirs of ancient Rome. And the story of Cincinnatus became a political measuring stick. Members of the House of Commons, who, according to the “Public Advertiser” newspaper, “leave like another Cincinnatus, his rural employments; and, when he is sent for, come to” London, were championed above those in the House of Lords (though Cincinnatus was actually a patrician). His name was also used as a pseudonym to voice anonymous political opinions in newspaper articles from a perceived moral high ground. The American Revolution’s rejection of monarchy only solidified the Cincinnatus model of the western side of the Atlantic.

There has only been one who can wear that mantle: George Washington.

Through the American Revolution, General Washington was able to ascend to these heights. He was proclaimed the “American Cincinnatus” for surrendering his military commission as commander in chief after victory in the American Revolution. Many around the world, especially those in Britain, expected Washington to retain power, which is why King George III was shocked and called him “the greatest man in the world” for his display unmatched since the classical age. It was these extraordinary circumstances that made Washington’s actions so profound when he returned to his own farm, Mount Vernon, in 1783 and again left the presidency in 1796 when he could have served for life. Washington reaffirmed the Cincinnatus example and set a modern precedent.

Since that time, history is filled with accounts of victorious military commanders turned authoritarians from Napoleon Bonaparte to Fidel Castro. That is why the Cincinnatus mantle remains so lofty and why Washington’s leadership is similarly heralded. It’s an idea that echoed through eternity or at least back to 458 BC.

Unlike Cincinnatus (or Washington), Johnson was not called out of retirement to save his country nor did he immediately give up power when the task was complete — he was (and may still be) a career politician. He even used the Cincinnatus metaphor back in 2009, while he was mayor of London. Johnson’s decision was driven by over 50 members of Parliament quitting in protest. This was hardly a display of his own civic virtue. His resignation was also hardly unique, 11 other PMs have done the same since the 20th century. 

There are many politicians, but few great leaders and even fewer who willingly put the nation first like Cincinnatus or Washington. Even while Johnson called on the “time for politics to be over” and to “deliver for the people of this country,” he was speaking only to other conservatives, not the United Kingdom.

Johnson will not retire to his farmhouse in Oxfordshire as a British Cincinnatus. Still, politicians should aspire to bring back the model of virtue and selfless patriotism, but they need to stop with the empty rhetoric. Cincinnatus’s and Washington’s greatness was in their actions. We need a new Cincinnatus and the values he represents more than ever on both sides of the Atlantic, but words are not enough.

Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of “American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.” All views are the author’s. Follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith.

Tags Boris Johnson British Prime Minister's Office George Washington Politics Politics of the United States Presidency of George Washington

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