Who is Cincinnatus from Boris Johnson’s last speech as Prime Minister?


LONDON — “Like Cincinnatus, I’m going back to my plow,” Boris Johnson said Tuesday from a lectern outside 10 Downing Street during his final speech as British Prime Minister before traveling to Scotland to tender his resignation to the Queen.

The comparison caused many confusion on social mediawith Google searches for “Cincinnatus” immediately peaking around 7:34 a.m. local time in the middle of Johnson’s speech, before reverting to a level more commonly expected for a Roman statesman from over 2,500 years ago year.

So who is Cincinnatus, and why does Johnson, a 21st-century politician and student of the classics, compare himself to him?

In the 5th century BC, the Roman Republic was in conflict with the Aequi tribe of Italy. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a former Roman consul, a sort of temporary elected leader, who turned to farming after his time in politics.

In “History of Rome”, historian Livy writes that the rulers of Rome approached Cincinnatus and begged him to save the city from invasion. Legend has it that he stopped plowing his field, put on a toga and returned to town. He was appointed sole dictator of Rome in 458 BC – a rare position with emergency powers – and led an effort to rescue Roman soldiers trapped by forces of Aequi on Mount Algidus.

He defeated Aequi’s forces, then lost power after only 15 days and returned to his farm. For this reason, he is held up as a model of political restraint and virtue. George Washington has been compared to Cincinnatus because he also answered the call to serve and defeated the British, before voluntarily relinquishing power after two terms as president.

The city of Cincinnati Ohio is – indirectly – named after Cincinnatus. In 1790, the governor of what is now Ohio named the city Cincinnati Society, formed by officers of the Continental Army to commemorate the American Revolutionary War. Members of the society called themselves “Cincinnati”, the plural form of Cincinnatus.

While the details of Cincinnatus’ history are disputed by historians and classics, many argue that it is the message that is important – good leaders are willing to relinquish power for the sake of the republic.

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Johnson has referred to Cincinnatus more than once during his political career. In 2009, when he was mayor of London, Johnson said in an interview that he could not “foresee the circumstances” in which he would be called upon 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.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Johnson’s time at No. 10 – a term marred by many scandals and official inquiries – earns him a place on the same executive bench as Washington, Cincinnatus “is an extremely bad example that Boris chose” in this 2009 interview, argued Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s cultural editor, in an article at the time.

“The point of Cincinnatus is that he is not a career politician charming his way around Rome dinner parties at night and making deals with the big and the good by day,” Higgins wrote. “He’s a hands-on man with an honest, back-breaking job outside of politics who gets down to business with minimal fuss.”

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The statesman’s story does not end with his victory over the Aequi and his subsequent resignation. Cincinnatus is said to have returned to Rome in 439 BC, when he was asked to serve as dictator for the second time to address concerns that the wealthy Roman Spurius Maëlius prepared the ground to become king by hoarding wheat to secure the support of the plebeians, or common people. While historians believe it’s the stuff of legendssome political observers interpreted Johnson’s reference to Cincinnatus in his farewell speech as a sign that he would one day return.

“It’s not the rhetoric of an outgoing prime minister who necessarily thinks he’s gone forever. And he’s classic enough to know, comparing himself to Cincinnatus leaving for his farm, that when the ‘call came, Cincinnatus went back to Rome,’ said Scottish journalist Andrew Neil. tweeted.

On social networks, some have put forward a less rosy aspect of Cincinnatus history – his opposition to the expansion of plebeian rights.

“One thing you should know about Cincinnatus is that he was a well-known enemy of the people,” said Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. says Times Radio tuesday. “He didn’t want to give people their rights. He was an absolute elitist Roman patrician – in our terms, he was dead right.

“That’s where I wonder how far Johnson had thought about all the implications of the Cincinnatus story,” Beard added.

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