This week we welcome back Dr. Jim Connors from the University of Idaho as the guest author of the Friday Footnote. Typically, we look back at our agricultural heritage in these Footnotes. Dr. Connors will take us way, way back in time. Take it away Dr. Connors.
Past Friday Footnotes have discussed the relationship of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to agriculture and the FFA. Both Washington and Jefferson were farmers and plantation owners who rose to military and political notoriety. President Washington has been the symbol of the FFA Treasurer’s office since the organization was established in 1928.
Today, I want to introduce the readers to another agricultural leader from ancient history. For those who have not studied Roman history, the name Cincinnatus may sound familiar. Hopefully anyone from the buckeye state of Ohio will recognize Cincinnatus as the namesake for the great city of Cincinnati. But who was Cincinnatus and what was his relationship to agriculture?
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was born around 519 BC in the early days of the Roman Republic. He was born into a wealthy landowning family that produced numerous state officials known as patricians. Patricians, which means “fathers” were the Roman empire’s political, religious, and military leaders.
Cincinnatus’ son Caeso became a violent opponent who sought to change the laws, traditions, and authority of the patrician consuls. As are result, Cincinnatus was subjected to a huge punitive fine which required him to sell most of his family’s estates. He was forced to retire from public life and return to a small 4-acre farm along the Tiber River. After his decisive victory, the land was named Quinctian Meadows in his honor.
Leaving the Plow
In 458 BC, Rome was being besieged by its neighbor to the east, Aequi. In a panic, the Roman Senate agreed to appoint Cincinnatus dictator for a term of six months. A delegation of senators traveled to Cincinnatus’ farm and approached him while he was plowing his fields. Tradition has it that Cincinnatus put on his toga to consider the request of the Roman Senate to become dictator and defend Rome from its enemies.
Figure 1: Painting of Cincinnatus “Leaving the Plow”
After taking control of Rome and organizing the army, Cincinnatus led the republic to a swift victory over Aequi. After a brief 15 days, Cincinnatus had left his farm, assumed leadership of the Roman Empire, organized an army, defeated an enemy, and given up power to return to his plow.
Figure 2: Calling of Cincinnatus from the Plough.
Painting by Brumidi in the U.S. Capitol Building Washington, DC.
A second myth has it that Cincinnatus was recruited again in 439 BC to return to power when Rome was experiencing a famine. Once again, Cincinnatus was appointed dictator to stop the corruption of Maelius who was manipulating the grain supply in order to establish himself in a monarchy over Rome. This time, Cincinnatus relinquished the position of dictator after 21 days to return to his humble farm.
Parallels to George Washington
Over the centuries, many historians have written about the parallels of Cincinnatus with George Washington. Washington was first and foremost a farmer who owned the Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia. He rose to become a military hero who led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War. After the war, he retired to Mount Vernon to continue his life as a farmer.
Just as Cincinnatus did millennia ago, Washington was called out of retirement to return to power as the first President of the new United States of America. He could have remained in power long after his two terms as President were finished. However, he put his civic duty above his quest for power and returned to Mount Vernon to live out the remainder of his life.
In contrast to the British monarchy from which it declared independence, Washington was seen as an “American Cincinnatus” who preferred the tranquil agriculture life on his plantation to the power, luxury and decadence of the political elite.
This comparison can be seen in two statues (see below). The statue of Cincinnatus shows him handing the fasces, a symbol of authority, back to the Roman Senate after his service to the empire. His other hand is on the plow as he returns to his agricultural life. The statue of George Washington was celebrated as the “American Cincinnatus.” It depicts Washington leaning on a fasces (without ax head) and standing before a plow (behind his feet). The original Jean-Antoine Houdon statue stands in the State Capitol of Virginia. This replica stands in front of the home of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, DC.
Figure 3: Lucius Qinctius Cincinnatus, Cincinnati, OH
The legendary Roman is seen here after he had defeated the Aequians and rescued the trapped Roman army. With one hand he returns the fasces, symbol of power as appointed dictator of Rome. His other hand holds the plow as he resumes the life of citizen and farmer.
Figure 4: George Washington, Washington, DC
The Society of the Cincinnati was founded in 1783 by the officers of the Continental Army…The Society is named after Cincinnatus, a hero of the Roman republic who refused rewards for serving his nation and returned to his plow after leading the armies of Rome to victory.
George Washington, portrayed in this statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon, returning home to Mount Vernon after the revolutionary war, was celebrated as the American Cincinnatus. He served as President General of the Society from 1783 until his death in 1799 and remains a model of patriotic virtue.
After visiting George Washington at Mount Vernon in 1788, French author Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville commented on the comparison between Washington and Cincinnatus when he wrote,
“The comparison is doubtless just. The celebrated General is nothing more at present than a good farmer, constantly occupied in the care of his farm and the improvement of cultivation.”
Both Cincinnatus and Washington were farmers who were called to serve their counties with honor and dignity. They both relinquished position and power for the good of society. Their dedication and service to their countries made them both heroes in the eyes of their countrymen.
In 2020, agriculture and society, in general, need outstanding leaders like Cincinnatus and Washington. Both historical figures were examples of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, humility, and modesty. Since the Future Farmers of America was established in 1928, FFA members have developed their leadership skills for the benefit of their chapters and communities. History has shown that former FFA members, farmers, and agriculturalists often serve their communities, states, and country in positions of leadership, then return to their normal lives after their time of service. Whether they know it or not, these agricultural leaders are following in the footsteps of Cincinnatus and Washington.
Identify former members of your FFA chapter who have assumed leadership roles in your community, county, or state. Interview these individuals or invite them to an FFA meeting to discuss their civic duty and service to society.
Discuss how leadership skills learned in the FFA can be utilized to serve your school, church, or community.
Identify agricultural leaders who are serving in your State Legislature. Arrange for a field trip to your state capitol to meet these agricultural leaders and discuss the need for future agricultural leaders to serve their state.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon (n.d.). Cincinnatus. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/cincinnatus/
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In Wikipedia. https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Quinctius_Cincinnatus
ThoughtCo. (n.d.). Biography of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, Roman Statesman. http://www.thoughtco.com/lucius-quinctius-cincinnatus-120832
Wasson, D. L. (2017). Cincinnatus. Ancient History Encyclopedia. http://www.ancient.eu/Cincinnatus/