How did Cincinnati, Ohio get its name? The story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

Who was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who inspired Cincinati's, Ohio city name?

How did Cincinnati, Ohio get its name? The story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus
The moment Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is appointed a dictator while ploughing his field. Illustration: Midjourney

Cincinnati, located in the southwestern region of Ohio in the United States, ranks as the third-largest city in the state. Its historical roots extend to the late 18th century. The name "Cincinnati" itself derives from an ancient Roman origin, reflecting a deep historical lineage.

How did the name Cincinnati come up?

On January 2, 1790, General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, renamed the town of Losantiville to Cincinnati. This new name was inspired by the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization established in 1783 by Henry Knox and other officers of the Continental Army to uphold the values of the American Revolution.

The Society itself was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a revered figure from the Roman Republic- (509–27 BCE), the ancient state centred on the city of Rome that began in 509 BCE, when the Romans replaced their monarchy with elected magistrates, and lasted until 27 BCE, when the Roman Empire was established- in the fifth century B.C., known for his exemplary civic virtue. After achieving victory in battle, Cincinnatus famously relinquished his power as dictator and returned to his farm, embodying the ideals of duty and service.

George Washington, who similarly renounced potential monarchical power in America, was often referred to as the American Cincinnatus. He served as the first president-general of the Society of the Cincinnati. Thus, the naming of the city of Cincinnati serves not only to honor the Roman statesman but also to commemorate Washington’s leadership and his dedication to republican principles.

A portrait of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.
A portrait of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Illustration: DALL-E

Who was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus?

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman patrician, statesman, and military leader from around 519 to 430 BC, emerged as an emblem of Roman virtue—especially civic virtue—by the late Republic era.

He has been a consul in 460 BCE and a dictator in 458 and 439 BCE, a legendary figure from the formative years of the Roman Republic. Called upon by the city's leaders, he abandoned his plough in the fields, put on his senatorial toga, and led the Roman army to defeat the invading Aequi, only to return to his modest farm just 15 days later. His actions made him a lasting symbol of loyalty and civic duty for Romans of all ages.

Cincinnatus had experienced hard times and was cultivating a modest four-acre plot along the right bank of the Tiber River, an area later named Quinctian Meadows (prata Quinctia) in his honor.

In 458 BCE, during these challenging times, the young Roman Republic faced threats from neighboring groups. The immediate threat came from the Aequi, a tribe located in central Italy, east of Rome. At this time, the Roman army, led by the less-than-adequate consul Lucius Minucius Esquilinus Augurinus, found itself encircled on Mt. Algidus in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome.

With limited options and another ineffectual consul, Gaius Nautius Rutilus, the Romans turned to the elderly Cincinnatus and bestowed upon him the role of dictator. A dictator, or magister populi, was typically appointed during severe crises and served for a maximum of six months, during which he wielded absolute authority.

“For here in this great peril of the Roman people there was no hope of safety but in one who was cultivating with his own hand a little plot of scarcely three acres of ground. For when the messengers of the people came to him they found him ploughing, or, as some say, digging a ditch. When they had greeted each the other, the messengers said, "May the Gods prosper this thing to the Roman people and to thee. Put on thy robe and hear the words of the people." Then said Cincinnatus, being not a little astonished, "Is all well?" and at the same time he called to his wife Racilia that she should bring forth his robe from the cottage. So she brought it forth, and the man wiped from him the dust and the sweat, and clad himself in his robe, and stood before the messengers. These said to him, "The people of Rome make thee Dictator, and bid thee come forthwith to the city."

Livy, The History of Rome

Juan Antonio Ribera's c. 1806 Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome.
Juan Antonio Ribera's c. 1806 Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome. Public domain

He was escorted to a boat that transported him across the river, where a large crowd, including three of his sons and most of the Senate, awaited his arrival.

Livy describes how this sizable assembly accompanied him to his official residence, with a group of lictors leading the way. Despite the grand welcome though, not all residents of the city were pleased with Cincinnatus's return to power as a dictator.

According to Livy:

“There was also an enormous gathering of the plebs, but they were by no means so pleased to see Cincinnatus; they regarded the power with which he was invested as excessive, and the man himself more dangerous than his power.”

According to the legend, Cincinnatus achieved a swift victory and negotiated a limited peace with the Aequi. Livy details the aftermath of the battle and the Aequi's plea: "… not to make their extermination the price of victory, but to allow them to surrender their arms and depart" (3.29). However, the return of the Aequi in 457 and 455 BCE casts doubt on the story's veracity for many.

Within a mere 15 days, Cincinnatus had departed his farm, secured a victory for the Roman army, and returned to his agricultural pursuits. However, his return was not without its due recognition.

The celebration began with a parade featuring the subdued enemy commanders, Cincinnatus’s victorious Roman troops, and the spoils of war. His chariot traversed the city, starting from the Campus Martius, moving past the Circus Maximus, and up the Via Sacra to the Temple of Jupiter, where sacrifices were duly offered.

The city marked the occasion with a grand Roman triumph. Livy captures the festive atmosphere, noting, "It is said that tables spread with provisions stood before all the houses, and the feasters followed the chariot with songs of triumph and the customary jests and lampoons" (3.29). After these celebrations, Cincinnatus relinquished his dictatorial powers and returned to his farm.

Homage to Cincinnatus

In a historical sense, George Washington's story earned comparisons to Cincinnatus due to his return from his farm at Mount Vernon to lead the fight for U.S. independence and his decision to step down after two terms as president.

Evening cruises down the Ohio River, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Evening cruises down the Ohio River, Cincinnati, OH, USA. Credits: Jake Blucker, Unsplash

The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, pays homage to its namesake in several meaningful ways, celebrating his legacy of civic virtue and leadership. One of the most prominent tributes is the statue of Cincinnatus located in Sawyer Point Park along the Ohio River. The statue depicts Cincinnatus in his moment of civic duty, leaving his plough to accept the call to leadership, symbolizing his commitment to the greater good over personal gain. This iconic statue serves as a constant reminder to the residents and visitors of Cincinnati of the values of service, humility, and dedication to community that Cincinnatus embodied.

Additionally, the city celebrates its historical connection to Cincinnatus through various civic and cultural events. The Society of the Cincinnati remains active and continues to promote the ideals of public service and leadership. Educational programs and historical reenactments often highlight the story of Cincinnatus, aiming to instill these values in new generations.

The city's rich history is further preserved through museums and historical societies that provide residents and tourists with insights into how the legacy of Cincinnatus has shaped the community’s identity and civic pride. Through these ongoing efforts, Cincinnati honors the enduring legacy of Cincinnatus, ensuring his story remains an integral part of the city’s cultural heritage.

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