Illiteracy of Roman history isn’t a crime; but it should be | Tom Jones


‘On the subject of bouncing around and on future careers, let me say that I am now like one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled it’s function, and I will now be gently reentering the atmosphere and splashing down, invisibly, in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific. Like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough’

In his last speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson returned to give us a pleasing stream of classic, tried and tested BoJo material, as unable to resist a joke and as unable to resist a classics reference as ever. Not for him the simpering sobriety of a humbled leader; he was equally as bombastic, equally as colourful as the day he entered office. Perhaps his pride has yet to sink to the level of his fortune.

The comparison to Cincinnatus was, inevitably, picked up by an uncomprehending media who initially reported he was ‘An Emperor who came back to help the Empire’. They crowed over this reference, claiming that the reference meant that Johnson ‘had left the door open’ to his return, as their frantic Wikipedia searches revealed that Cincinnatus had returned to power as Dictator.

Not just Andrew Neil but professional historian Sir Anthony Seldon made the mistake of thinking the point of the references was that Cincinnatus returned, whilst Twitter historians wilfully twisted the story of Cincinnatus’ second Dictatorship, claiming that it was given ‘to suppress the revolt of the plebs’ (Mary Beard, whilst telling the correct story, claims that Cincinnatus was ‘an enemy of the people’ despite the formal hostis publicus first being issued in AD 68). BBC News even reported that the public were so confused by the reference many thought he was moving to Cincinnati (the city is, of course, named after him). Given the low level of public understanding of Roman history, the fundamental misreading of the reference was sadly inevitable.

Johnson’s reference was not designed to insinuate that he wishes to return to power. That is merely the interpretation of tangential parts of the Cincinnatus story by journalists after a quick Wikipedia search, unencumbered by prior knowledge or understanding of the relevant Roman interpretation.

Not just Andrew Neil but professional historian Sir Anthony Seldon made the mistake of thinking the point of the references was that Cincinnatus returned, whilst Twitter historians wilfully twisted the story of Cincinnatus’ second Dictatorship.

As Tom Holland points out, the Romans – and after them the early American Republic – valued the story for Cincinnatus’ willingness to surrender the powers of dictator once the crisis was over. After the supposed death of his son and failure of his political career (which was largely concerned with the protection of patrician power), Cincinnatus retired from public life and left Rome to retire to his country estate.

However in 458 BC, the Aequi – an Italic tribe to the east of Rome –  attempted to retake Tusculum, formerly Aequiatian territory now controlled by Rome. Two Consular armies were sent to deal with this threat – one to attack the besieging Aequites, another to threaten Aequi territory. The army tasked with relieving the siege chose, on reaching Tusculum, to encamp rather than deploy for battle. The Aequi, seizing their chance, immediately turned their siege efforts on the camp.

When new of this spread to Rome, the frenzy was immediate, sustained and saturnine. As the froth and frenzy swirled, the Romans reached for a most familiar – and un Roman – weapon in times of crisis. The Senate appointed Cincinnatus – one of Rome’s most distinguished generals – as Dictator, granting him almost unlimited power. Representatives from the Senate found him ploughing his fields. On hearing of his country’s plight he left his plough where it was, donned his toga and headed back to Rome.

The efforts of Roman despair, as they would so often prove to be, were formidable. Cincinnatus formed a huge army, marched to the relief of the consular army and besieged the besieging Aequi army. Rather than slaughter them against the two armies, he accepted their humble submissions for peace on Roman terms.

A mere 15 days after he had been appointed Cincinnatus returned to Rome, left the post of Dictator and returned home to pick up his plough once again. The reason the Romans remembered, idolised and retold the story of Cincinnatus was that he was a model of Roman virtue, selflessly girding his loins when his country came calling, only to willingly give up ultimate power to return to his acres, his stock, his trees and his crops.  As the historian Charles Rollin wrote, ‘The conduct of Quinctius [Cincinnatus] during his Consulship… [shows] us what a noble nature, what constancy, and what greatness of soul, inhabited a poor wretched cottage.’

This is the accurate meaning of Boris Johnson’s meaning. That he sees himself as having selflessly fought and now wanders back to his acres and his plough. It is for the reader to decide the accuracy of his comparison. If I had to compare Boris to a Roman, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen Cincinnatus. I would probably have chosen the Emperor Septimus Severus.

The general Severus came to power by killing the hated Didius Julianus, who had bought the Empire at an auction held by the Praetorian Guard. Julianus, left abandoned by friends, Praetorians and even his slaves, reportedly spent his last days before being executed by Severus’ soldiers wandering his palace crying aloud; ‘What evil have I done?’

Severus then dispatched two rival claimants; but the glory of his reign was over as soon as he had established his hold on power. As Gibbon writes; ‘The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers: but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind. This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by Severus. Fortune and merit had, from an humble station, elevated him to the first place among mankind. ‘He had been all things,’ as he said himself, ‘and all was of little value.’


Photo Credit.

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