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Pliny the Elder

by March 12, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Pliny the Elder was an author, philosopher, and commander in the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE. Throughout his life, Pliny the Elder wrote an encyclopedic work, the “Natural History,” that was often referred to even up to the modern period…indeed, it became the editorial model for encyclopedias. He cultivated a friendship with the Roman Emperor Vespasian, reached social prominence throughout Rome, and was remembered by his nephew’s, Pliny the Younger, letters and writings.

Pliny the Elder Portrait

Pliny the Elder’s Early life
He was born to a prosperous family circa 23 CE in Novum Comum, a colony founded in 59 BC by Caesar. Although we don’t know much about his family life, we do know he had a sister (Pliny the Younger’s mother) and that his father possessed enough wealth to be a part of the equestrian class. This relative wealth allowed Pliny to attend school throughout his youth and eventually live in Rome by his 30s. He was possibly educated in lawmaking and certainly took to literature and observation.
Como, Italy

City and Lake of Como, painted by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1834

Pliny the Elder’s Early Career and Writings
By the age of 23, Pliny began his army career as a junior officer. He was a commander in the campaign against Chauci in 47 CE and aided in the canal construction between the Maas and Rhine rivers. Another campaign was against the Chatti tribe in 50/51, during which he wrote his first treatise, a short piece on spear throwing from horseback, which has unfortunately been lost to history now.
Soon after the spear treatise, Pliny wrote both the Life of Pomponius Secundus and the History of the Germanic Wars (of which is separated into 20 different volumes) while he was still in the Rhine army. Upon his return to Rome, Pliny, now 36, had reached a certain level of respectability, notice, and wealth. A career in public life and politics could have been possible, however the changing political climate (Nero now in his 5th year of rule) discouraged him from pursuing it. Instead, Pliny retired from public life and began in earnest a life of literature.
Pliny the Elder Book

Natural History, by Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder’s Writing Career
As it often goes, a great deal of Pliny the Elder’s works are lost to us now. However, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, detailed several in his own writings: The Scholar, Problems in Grammar, and a Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus.
Of course, the most famed, and final, of Pliny the Elder’s writings was the Natural History. In this encyclopedic work, Pliny aimed to collect personal experiences, prior works, and extracts from other works in order to compile a broad range of knowledge of the time. It was divided into 37 different books and explained his title as in support of “the nature of things, that is, life.” Topics covered were cosmology and astronomy, physical and historical geography of major cities, zoology, biology, botany, horticulture, medicine, and drugs (to name a few).
The book was written in rather a plain style, but with elaborate vocabulary where it suited. Pliny also spent the entirety of Book 1 detailing his sources, which was quite novel for the time.
Death of Pliny the Elder

The Vesuvian eruption

Pliny the Elder’s Death
Having been stationed as a fleet commander in Misenum in August 79, Pliny was victim to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. As was his nature to observe and comment, Pliny had noticed the cloud above the mountain and wanted to explore it more. On his way crossing the Bay of Naples, he received a letter from his friend Rectina asking Pliny to come and rescue her. He left to do so, but never returned.
Most of Pliny the Elder’s life, and his death, comes down to us through his nephew. Pliny the Younger’s account of his uncle’s death and the Vesuvian eruption is a withstanding piece of writing that is quite haunting, though written in simple and plain style.
However, Pliny’s heroic death at the hands of volcanic ash was probably a romanticized fable spread by Pliny the Younger and family. It is more likely, then, that Pliny the Elder died of a heart attack, as recent examination points to the fact that Pliny was likely overweight, of ill health, and not as active in the navy as we’ve been led to think. Nevertheless, his works and contributions to ancient knowledge persevere, especially in the form of the encyclopedia.

Top 11 Most Famous People Who Studied the Classics

by March 11, 2019

For those who say an education in the Classics is worthless and won’t lead anywhere, we here at Classical Wisdom retort that clearly they are lacking in imagination!
Indeed, there are many examples of individuals who studied the words of Homer, Cicero and Plato and more… and yet did not end up living under a bridge, ala Diogenes the Dog. Instead, they have contributed significantly to society, whether through literature, music, politics or psychology. Here is a short top eleven list of the most famous people who studied the classics:

1. Thomas Jefferson
Arguably one of the most famous student of the classics, this founding father and 3rd president of the United States studied Greek at the College of William and Mary. He loved Roman literature and founded the University of Virginia, a school that encourages the classics.

Thomas Jefferson

2. J.R.R. Tolkien
This British writer studied Classics at Exeter College, Oxford before penning his famous series, “Lord of the Rings.”

3. J.K. Rowling
The creative mind behind “Harry Potter”, the Scottish writer received a B.A. in Classics from Exeter University.

J.K. Rowling

4. Boris Johnson
This former Mayor of London famously studied the Classics at Balliol College, Oxford University.

5. Sigmund Freud
This is no surprise to anyone who has read his works and catches the references… but this psychologist studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew at Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium.

6. Chris Martin
It’s evident in the song “Something just like this” when Chris Martin references Achilles and Heracles, that the Lead singer of the band Coldplay studied Latin and Greek from University College London.

Christ Martin

7. James Garfield
The 20th President of the United States graduated in 1856 with a degree in the Classics from Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

8. Jonathan Evans, Baron Evans of Weardale
Former Director General of the British Security Service (MI5) received a degree in Classical Studies from Bristol University.

9. Jane Addams
Known as the “Mother of Social Work”, this activist studied Greek and Latin at Rockford Female Seminary (Rockford College) in Indiana.

Jane Addams

10. Lynn Sherr
An American broadcast journalist and author, best known as a correspondent for the ABC news magazine 20/20, earned a B.A. in Classics from Wellesley College.

11. Chuck Geschke
Founder of Adobe Systems, the graphics and publishing software company, he studied the Classics at Xavier University.

Sources (and lists with more famous people):

Empedocles, the Eccentric Philosopher

by February 12, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Empedocles, born c. 490 BCE in Akragas, Sicily, is perhaps one of the more eccentric pre-Socratic philosophers. He himself claimed other-worldly powers, is credited by Aristotle as the inventor of rhetoric, and is thought to have originated the cosmogonic theory of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth.
Temple in Akragas

The temple of Hera at Akragas, built when Empedocles was a young man, c. 470 BC.

Empedocles’ Personal Life
While relatively little is known about Empedocles’ personal life, we do know he was born to a wealthy family who was involved in the overthrow of the Akragas tyrant in 470 BC.
Diogenes relates the ambiguity regarding exactly of whom Empedocles was a student. He offered the following options: that he was a student of Pythagoras himself, that he was a student of the Pythagorean school under the instruction of Huppasus and Brontinus, or that he could have originally been under the influence of Xenophanes and later “fell in with the Pythagoreans.” All of this confusion is due to the fact that Empedocles promoted his poetry at the start and the Pythagorean school had a law to admit no Epic poet. Indeed, he is generally considered the last Greek philosopher to have recorded his ideas in verse.
Papyrus fragment

A piece of the Strasbourg Empedocles papyrus in the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire, Strasbourg

Empedocles himself had one pupil mentioned, Gorgias, and his travels to the Peloponnese, Attica, and Thurii were mentioned by authors such as Timaeus and Dicaearchus.
Empedocles’ Philosophy
Empedocles’ philosophy and teachings are taken from the remaining fragments of his epics ‘On Nature’ and ‘Purifications.’ The core of Empedocles’ philosophy relied on the notion that all things are transformed and manipulated between the four worldly elements of fire, air, water, and earth, and that nothing is destroyed and nothing is created new. He believed that everything in the universe was made of these four root elements and was conscious.
Illustration of Empedocles

Empedocles as portrayed in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Combined with this attempt to simplify and organize the world, Empedocles’ doctrine promoted the idea that love was the unseen force holding things together, while strife was the force by which things were pulled apart. Love and Strife, then, were the ways in which the four elements were able to interact and mix together.
Empedocles’ philosophy about the universe was in response to the contemporary Eleatic School which was founded by Parmenides in southern Italy. The Eleatic School promoted the idea that “all is one” in the universe and everything existed in a single entity. Empedocles pushed back a little by saying all is composed of the same four elements. While this concept is similar at the root of the argument, it did differ enough to constitute a separate philosophical school.
Empedocles' philosophy

Empedocles cosmic cycle is based on the conflict between love and strife

Empedocles’ Science
Even though the line between Empedocles’ philosophy and Empedocles’ science is blurred to say the least, he did undertake what we would even recognize today as “scientific testing.”
Empedocles was (unsurprisingly) not very thorough. He did, though, prove that air was not empty space by using a clepsydra, which is a water clock or any timepiece by which time is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into or out from a vessel, and where the amount is then measured. He did this by filling the clepsydra with water while covering the hole at the top. This allowed for his element of air to be an active ‘ingredient’ in comparison with earth, water, and fire – all tangible and manipulative elements.
Water clock

Illustration of a water clock (clepsydra)

Another theory of Empedocles comes down to us through Aristotle in De Sensu. Empedocles thought that the light from the sun passed through intermediary space before being processed by our eyes, moving through space by whatever force. Indeed, Empedocles is credited with the first comprehensive theory of light and vision.
But perhaps one of the more advanced undertakings of Empedocles gives us what is thought to be the earliest extant attempt to discern the origin of species. He introduces zoogony, or generations of animals, in his attempts to explain the origin and development of biological life as a coming together and unfolding of birth. He uses examples of wild animals, humans, and plants as his proofs. This theory is strongly in line with his overarching philosophy of things in strife and things in love. Indeed, we see what Empedocles thought was the practical application of such rules.
Illustration of the Philosopher

Empedocles (of Acagras in Sicily) was a philosopher and poet: one of the most important of the philosophers working before Socrates (the Presocratics)

Empedocles’ Death and Legacy
Empedocles’ death is the stuff of legends, as he was mythologized by ancient writers. One story of which is where he died by throwing himself into Mount Etna, allowing him to turn into an immortal god. Another includes Empedocles being removed from the earth and his exact age at death is disputed anywhere between age 60 and age 109.
Painting of Empedocles' death

The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa (1615 – 1673), depicting the legendary alleged suicide of Empedocles jumping into Mount Etna in Sicily

Further descriptions of Empedocles and his ideas are recorded by Aristotle, Diogenes, Pliny, and Horace’s Ars Poetica. Aristotle called him the father of rhetoric and Lucretius speaks of him with enthusiasm, and evidently viewed him as his model. Much later his death is at the center of a 1826 play by Friedrich Holderlin, ‘Tod des Empedokles,’ and Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem titled ‘Empedocles on Etna.’ While this eccentric philosopher may not be a household name today, he was clearly very influential in the ancient world and thus deserves our attention.

Hypatia-The Last Academic (Part Two)

by February 4, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Under Christian rule, Alexandria, once the definitive center of learning throughout the empire, was fast becoming anti-intellectual and inhospitable to Hypatia and the academic circle in which she traveled. In fact, this burgeoning new religion was oftentimes suspicious of learning, equating it to the work of the devil. Faith in Christ replaced scholarship in this brave new world.
An example of this hatred for scholarship was demonstrated in 392 when Theophilus (384 CE-412 CE) Bishop of Alexandria, led a braying mob of Christian zealots in the pummeling of the Serapeum, the city’s premier temple and library complex. Elevated by one-hundred steps on the acropolis of Alexandria, the Serepeum was made of luminous marble and rose above all other structures commanding the city skyscape. Equally impressive, the library within the Serapeum was considered the daughter to the defunct Library of Alexandria housing hundreds of thousands of scrolls. After the extremists razed the Serapeum complex and set fire to the scrolls, the swarm went on a holy mission tearing down other temples, statuary and religious sites, when all was said and done destroying over twenty-five hundred structures in total.
Serapeum of Alexandria

Papyrus drawing of Pope Theophilus of Alexandria, gospel in hand, standing triumphantly atop the Serapeum in 391 (from the Alexandrian World Chronicle)

In 414 CE Theophilus died and was succeeded by his nephew, Cyril (378 CE- 444 CE) who made his uncle look conciliatory in comparison. Ruling with an iron-fist from the get-go, he made his wrath known against another enemy of the Christians—the Jews. When some Christians were killed in a skirmish that had broken out between Christians and Jews, Cyril organized an army of thousands called the parabalani. Typically, from the lower rungs of society and oftentimes illiterate, the parabalani were at his call to serve their god, or in this case god’s representative, Cyril. In addition, some in his army were Nitrian monks who traveled to Alexandria from the desert fired up in righteous religious indignation against non-Christians. Both groups had a flagrant reputation for violence.
At Cyril’s behest, they seized the synagogues converting them into churches. But defacing their places of worship was not enough for the iron-fisted bishop, he also exiled the Jews from Alexandria and encouraged his Christian disciples to occupy their now abandoned homes and to seize their possessions.
Cyril of Alexandria

St Cyril of Alexandria, Patriarch, Confessor, and Doctor of the Catholic Church

It is emblematic of the staggering influence wielded by religious authority that Orestes—the governor of Alexandria—could do little but stand by the sidelines in horror and despair at this gross injustice. Though a Christian himself, Orestes was a nonsectarian and like his good friend Hypatia appalled by Cyril’s barbaric actions against the Jews.
Though it did no good, Orestes reported the atrocious events to the emperor in Constantinople, which put him squarely in the crosshairs of Cyril’s band of thugs. One night while out in his chariot, Orestes was confronted by an angry mob of parabalani and Nitrian monks—which soon turned into a physical altercation when one of the monks gashed Orestes’ head open with a stone. If not for the help of nonsectarian bystanders, Orestes would have died.
Illustration of Constantinople

Ancient Constantinople reconstructed from 4th-13th century

When the stone-hurling monk was apprehended, Orestes had him publicly tortured and the monk ultimately died. In true form, Cyril used the monk’s death in a propaganda campaign against the governor further fueling the fire between the disparate factions.
Attempts at reconciliation between the two leaders ended in failure. Through it all, the governor sought counsel from the wisest person in the land who stood resolutely by his side. But Cyril’s supporters saw Hypatia’s advocacy on Orestes’ behalf not as uniting but as dividing. Alexandria’s most acclaimed pagan was an easy target who they blamed for the continuing rift between the two men.
Then the rumors began. She has an undue influence on Orestes, they blustered. She’s bewitched him with her sorcery, others moaned. She is teaching idolatry, they shrieked. Calling her a witch, they even used her famed astrolabe against her saying it was an instrument of Satan. The cacophony of outcries against her became deafening. Then it happened. Demonstrating once again how easy it is to harm those who have been dehumanized.
Orestes and Hypatia

Oscar Isaac and Rachel Weisz play Orestes and Hypatia – Agora (2009)

On her daily ride through the city on that bright and sunny day in March of 415, Hypatia had set off for school in her chariot. As was usual for her, her mind was a million miles away. Perhaps she was thinking about her next seminar; about some philosophical dictate or mathematical law she would discuss in class. Being an exemplary teacher, her fortunate students were never far from mind.
But her introspection was savagely broken when she found herself physically confronted by a howling mob under the leadership of Peter, a church magistrate. Because she was not a civil authority, she lacked the security detail that Orestes enjoyed. But up until then, no academic had needed such protection in Alexandria.
Hypatia Illustration

Illustration of Hypatia of Alexandria

From the beginning, it was violent. They ordered her off her chariot, then dragged her through the streets and into a church. She must have tried to reason with them, but her reasoning fell on the deafened ears of the righteous. After all, theirs is the will of god. They tore the clothes off of the “luminous child of reason” and in God’s house they flayed her with the jagged edges of roofing tiles.
As if that were not enough, while still alive and breathing, they gouged out her eyes. Once dead, they further violated her by cutting her body into pieces and parading the pieces throughout the streets of Alexandria. Finding rest, at long last, on a pyre. Violent criminals were treated with more forbearance than Alexandria’s most prominent intellectual.
Illustration of Hypatia's murder

Illustration by Louis Figuier in Vies des savants illustres, depuis l’antiquité jusqu’au dix-neuvième siècle from 1866, representing the author’s imagining of what the assault against Hypatia might have looked like.

From the farthest reaches of the empire to close by, both Christian and non-Christian alike were in an uproar about the abhorrent slaying of the greatest mathematician of the day. It was an outrage. Academics were considered inviolable because they enhanced the community with their scholarship and wisdom. But if being an academic was not enough to protect her, Hypatia was also an elite woman. A rank by itself deemed sacrosanct.
How could something of this magnitude happen to one as beloved as she? But the truth is that Hypatia was part of a dying breed, the last champion of a seven-hundred-year academic tradition vanishing under a tidal wave of anti-intellectual religious dogma. After Hypatia’s death, many pagan academics fled Alexandria in search of more tolerant cities. But eventually the tidal wave could be felt throughout the empire with religion replacing philosophy and clergy replacing academics.
Devastated, Orestes soon left public life. But Cyril’s star was still rising. Although never formally charged in Hypatia’s violent end, if not for the anti-pagan fervor he stirred up amongst his minions, such a horror would never have taken place. Following her death, Cyril was given the honorary moniker “the new Theophilus” by his jubilant followers for quashing the “last remnants of idolatry.” Under his continued leadership, Alexandria became an important Christian hub with Cyril eventually canonized as a saint. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches to this day.

Hypatia: The Last Academic – Part One

by February 1, 2019

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
They came to her by land. They came to her by sea. They came to her from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire and they came to her from close by. Amongst the literati, Hypatia (355-415 CE), acclaimed philosopher and leading mathematician, was a rock star.
She was bold, she was beautiful, but most of all, she was brilliant. Her students, many of them adherents in the burgeoning new religion, Christianity, adored her and flocked to hear her every word. Congregating not only in the classroom but in the public square and even at her home—just to hear her speak. Hers was the school all serious students throughout the empire wished to attend. But students weren’t the only ones who were captivated by her brilliance. Amongst academics from near and from far, she was the one with whom they sought council.
Portrait of Hypatia

This fictional portrait of Hypatia by Jules Maurice Gaspard, originally the illustration for Elbert Hubbard’s 1908 fictional biography, has now become, by far, the most iconic and widely reproduced image of her.

But how did Hypatia, a woman in a deeply misogynist society, earn such high acclaim? By the tender age of thirty, Hypatia had become a legend within academic circles for fusing the two apparently disparate disciples of mathematics and philosophy together in the classroom. Although well-versed in both disciplines, academics tended to be trained as either philosophers or mathematicians and had schools in one discipline or the other but not in both. Hypatia’s school was the exception.
Weaned on mathematics by her father, Theon (335 CE-405 CE), the foremost mathematician in Alexandria, Hypatia would become his best pupil even assisting him in the seminal writings of Euclid and Ptolemy. In fact, Hypatia was so gifted, that her father ceded his school to her—retiring at only fifty-five years of age—when it became apparent that she surpassed him in ability. But for all her mathematical acumen, Hypatia had a strong affinity for philosophy which she believed led to the highest truth. Her robust background in mathematics and philosophy made her school a perfect venue for students who wanted to learn how the two disciplines were unified.
Ptolemaic System

Hypatia is known to have edited at least Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, which supported the geocentric model of the universe shown in this diagram.

But it’s important to have an understanding of what was meant by mathematics and philosophy in ancient times. Today, what two disciplines are more at odds than mathematics and philosophy? Though one is considered practical and useful, the other is considered metaphysical and without merit in our highly technical world. While both were thought to be sacrosanct by the ancients, a debate ensued between scholars over which of the two disciplines led to the highest truth.
Mathematics, which encompassed arithmetic, geometry, algebra, as well as astronomy, was irrefutable and as such was considered sacred and a path to a higher being or what the ancients termed “the One.” Meanwhile philosophy, a less demonstrable field, was a study employed to instill honor, wisdom and integrity within an individual. The philosophical goal being that this moral code could impart a oneness with the divine. Thus, the goal of both mathematics and philosophy was a transcendent affinity with the sacred, making them both more akin to our notion of religion.
Conic Sections

Hypatia wrote a commentary on Apollonius of Perga’s treatise on conic sections, but this commentary is no longer extant.

Neoplatonism, the type of speculative philosophy that Hypatia taught, espoused a renunciation of the material world in favor of spirituality. Neoplatonists believed that the materiality of the body and the world in general are things to be overcome. Hypatia herself was exemplar of this creed, choosing to remain celibate so she could focus her energies on scholarship and the satisfaction of the incorporeal world. One famous vignette has her thwarting the unwelcome advances of a student by showing him one of her menstruation rags, quipping “Is this what you love, young man?” Unsurprisingly, his desire for her was quelled.
Hypatia’s severe rejection of his advances illustrates how fundamental repudiation of the material world was to Neoplatonism. In this way, it was a philosophy not inconsistent with the essential tenets of Christianity. On account of this compatibility, many of Hypatia’s students were both Neoplatonists and Christian. Although a pagan, Hypatia was nonpartisan and endowed all her students to honor and respect one another and others in the world, regardless of religious affiliation.
Hypatia illustration

The play Hypatia, performed at the Haymarket Theatre in January 1893, was based on the novel by Charles Kingsley.

Forasmuch as peaceful coexistence was the order of the day in Hypatia’s school, Alexandria was a tinderbox with disparate factions in conflict with one another; Christian against pagan and Jew, orthodox against heterodox, sectarian against non-sectarian and finally religious authority against civil authority.
To Be Continued….

The American Cincinnatus

by January 29, 2019

by Kayla Kane, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
If you want to study George Washington, then you should first know Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus of the early Roman republic. Rendered a cultural icon in his own era and indeed today as well, Cincinnatus achieved fame through unconventional means. Although he provided selfless service to his Republic during times of crisis, the classical hero is most storied for his tendency to surrender his power once the crisis had been eliminated.
Rome became a republic in 509 BC, however, at certain times a dictator was appointed in order to make quick decisions and defend the state at war. Livy reflects on Cincinnatus’ military service in his lengthy history of Rome Ab Urba Conditia. Livy recalls an iconic moment in his country’s history: “They sent for consul Nautius; in whom when there seemed to be insufficient protection, and they were determined that a dictator should be appointed to retrieve their embarrassed affairs, Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus is appointed by universal consent.”
Sculpture of Cincinnatus

The sculpture of Cincinnatus in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Garden

As a retiree, Cincinnatus lived at the bank of the Tiber river and tended to domestic duties on his farm. However, when twice Rome was called to fight against a foreign invasion (in 458 BC and 439 BC), Cincinnatus suspended his retirement to serve his treasured Republic.
The historian Rob Hardy describes the unique situation; “Cincinnatus was living in retirement on his four-acre farm outside of Rome and representatives found him in his field. When he learned of the emergency facing Rome, he left his plow standing in the field, bid farewell to his wife, and led the Romans to victory against the Aequians. Fifteen days after assuming the dictatorship, Cincinnatus resigned and returned to his plow.”
Painting of Cincinnatus

Juan Antonio Ribera’s c. 1806 Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome

While this selfless, self-sacrificing service was worthy of universal recognition, what rendered Cincinnatus a universal legend came after this military service. Having assumed victory over the Aequians, citizens wished to make Cincinnatus their king. Rather than accepting this famed title, Cincinnatus refused, and instead retreated to his farm. In so doing, Cincinnatus maintained Republican values rather than allowing Rome to descend back into a monarchy.
This brings us to our main point: the anti-monarchical leader of America’s infancy, George Washington, was lauded for his leadership tendencies similar to those of Cincinnatus.
Sculpture of Cincinnatus in Ohio

The statue of Cincinnatus at his plough in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The American public has long regarded George Washington as a champion of the common good. As the first American president, Washington became a pioneer in limiting the presidential reign to two terms, allowing the office to evolve with popular opinion.
He, like Cincinnatus, was renowned for his voluntary surrender of power, particularly in three incidences: his retirement from the British Army, the Continental Army, and the Presidency. Washington became a hero in both public service and in his ability to resign when the service had been fulfilled.
Illustration of Washington

Major Washington, 1754, Hadden, James, 1845-1923 – Washington’s expeditions (1753-1754) and Braddock’s expedition (1755) with history of Tom Fausett, the slayer of General Edward Braddock Page 9

With hindsight of the Roman Republic guiding politicians of the revolutionary era, many historians credit Washington’s devout public focus to Lucius Quinctus Cincinnatus, his classical counterpart. Having presided over the American Society of the Cincinnati, it is evident that Washington was knowledgeable of Cincinnatus’ history as a retired Roman consul and war hero. Due to this knowledge, Washington not only knew the Greco-Roman classics, but utilized them for the sake of political achievement, the common good, and personal reputation.
Like Cincinnatus, Washington’s most famed quality was not his accomplishments as a statesman, but rather, his refusal to accept further political honors beyond his targeted feats. It is thus fitting that Washington’s retirement became a symbol of his self-sacrificing virtue as a political figure.
1759 marked Washington’s first “retirement,” in which he left his military career from the French-Indian Wars and began his life as a planter in Mount Vernon. After serving as commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces, Washington first “retired” at the ripe age of 26. Seeing that a sustainable career in the British army was not open to him, he decided that he must make his way in private life.
Painting of Washington as a Soldier

“Washington the Soldier” Painting of Lt. Col. Washington on horseback during the Battle of the Monongahela — Reǵnier, 1834

It is critical to observe that Washington’s initial withdrawal from public service was uniquely unlike his penultimate and ultimate retirements. Therefore, it is perhaps logical to separate this young, uncharacteristic resignation from the collective narrative of Washington’s retirement. Washington’s initial retirement lacks the motives of Roman virtue that his other two embody, which brings into question whether historians should consider the end of Washington’s first career a “retirement” at all.
Washington’s second retirement seeks and deserves far more recognition than his first. This iconic resignation followed Washington’s role as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, from which he resigned, accepting no pay, prize, or office. The revolutionary historian W.W. Abbot states that, “this act of retirement was perhaps the single most important action of his career.” Washington’s exit with no reward shocked the American and European consciousness while giving America a symbol, one of unity, with which the nation could define itself.
Painting of Washington as a Colonel

Colonel George Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772

Through this retirement, Washington exemplified the quintessential, selfish selflessness of his political career. Washington accepted his role as a symbol, and furthermore sought not to overstep political necessity. As Abbot aptly states, “It made the Cincinnatus of the west a great man: great in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of his countrymen, and, in a very real sense, his own.”
Washington’s selfishness came from his satisfaction with his idealized image, an icon even in “his own” eyes. Despite the public benevolence with which he retired, Washington was playing a typical, self-righteous revolutionary role of classical emulation.
It is impossible to fully comprehend Washington’s final retirement without an understanding of his farewell address. He defines patriotism along the criteria of his own actions. The president stresses, “I have the consolation to believe that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.” Like his retirement itself, Washington’s farewell address was a highly-calculated testament to his noble reputation, one which, he hoped, his country would remember past his presidency.
Following his farewell address, Washington’s third retirement was an anxiety-ridden pursuit unlike any other American political undertaking. Although Washington left his eight year presidency to return to Mount Vernon, he remained politically engaged in the background. Ignorant to what the role of ex-president should entail, Washington requested the secretary of war, James McHenry, to notify him of developments in US international relations.
The ex-president, via a letter, pleaded, “Let me pray you have the goodness to communicate to me occasionally, such matters that are interesting, and not contrary to the rules of your official duty to disclose, we get so many details in the Gazettes, and of such different complexions, that it is impossible to know what credence to give any of them.”
Painting of Washington as Commander of the Army

General Washington Commander of the Continental Army

If Washington cared so deeply about America’s foreign policy, why did he retire from public office? The historian John H. Rhodehamel precisely answers, “[Washington] was well aware of the effect that his resignation would have. He was trying to live up to the age’s image of a classical disinterested patriot who devotes his life to his country, and he knew at once that he had acquired fame as a modern Cincinnatus.”
Seeing the positive effect of power withdrawal from Roman history and from his penultimate retirement, Washington set a noble precedent through his resignation. Thus, the two-term tradition was born out of Washington’s desire to become a symbol of American democracy, one in which leaders release the reins of power so that the office might evolve with public interests.
The precedential nature of Washington’s role in the revolutionary period called for a mentor, ancient and renowned, to guide his political decisions. Cincinnatus became just that: a moral compass and an exemplary reputation: a symbol of what Washington could become. Cincinnatus became the archetypal leader that Washington set out to emulate, and drawing on the Roman statesman, Washington took executive actions to benefit the common good.
Although Washington’s benevolent intentions were undoubtedly present, there existed a crucial self-interested nature to these acts. Washington believed that in order to reach a reputation of similar caliber to the classics, one must nearly become a classical figure… And clearly he did.