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Eighteenth-century Depictions of Cincinnatus

At its inception in 1783, the Society of the Cincinnati took its name from the Roman general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. That the Society would look to ancient Rome for inspiration was hardly unusual; the culture of the classical world served as a foundation for American mores in the eighteenth century. As such, the Society’s collections hold many depictions of the Society’s namesake, demonstrating how prevalent the principles represented by Cincinnatus were in eighteenth-century American life. These collections illustrate the significance of Cincinnatus not only as the Society’s lodestar but also as what he represents in the context of early American history—an affirmation of a new nation’s values by linking them with the long respected principles of ancient Rome.

Who was Cincinnatus? A well-respected soldier and landowner from the patrician class, he served as consul in 460 BCE and as dictator in 458 and 439. Consuls were the chief military and civil magistrates in the Roman republic; two were elected annually to serve a year-long term. Dictators, on the other hand, were given absolute magistracy during military or domestic crises. Dictators were appointed to accomplish a particular task, usually to lead an army into battle, and were expected to resign once the task was completed.

During the reign of Caesar Augustus (63 BCE-14CE), the historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus used Cincinnatus in their works as an early model of civic virtue. In 458 BCE, Roman troops led by the consul L. Minucius Esquilinus were under siege by the Aequi tribe on Mount Algidus. According to Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, Cincinnatus was called from his modest farm and appointed dictator, charged with the task of breaking the siege on Esquilinus. Within a fortnight Cincinnatus had assembled an army, defeated the Aequi, and surrendered his office, returning to his farm. Livy contrasted Cincinnatus with the cautionary tale of Appius Claudius, whose reign Livy saw as a historical example of excess and abuse of power. Read More<

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