What Did Boris Johnson's 'Spooky' Reference To Cincinnatus Mean In His Goodbye Speech?

The soon-to-be-ex prime minister could not resist one last classical mention.
Boris Johnson's final speech as prime minister on the steps of 10 Downing Street, September 6
Boris Johnson's final speech as prime minister on the steps of 10 Downing Street, September 6
Pool via Getty Images

Boris Johnson included a “spooky” classical reference to an ancient figure called Cincinnatus during his goodbye speech on Tuesday.

The outgoing prime minister alluded to the mystery surrounding what he is going to do next, comparing himself to a “booster rockets that has fulfilled its function”.

In typical fashion, he then added in a reference to ancient history, which he studied at Oxford University, saying: “And, like Cincinnatus, I am returning to my plough.”

So, what is the story behind Cincinnatus – and what did Johnson mean by including it?

Professor Mary Beard, a scholar of ancient Rome, told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “There’s a simple story about Cincinnatus with a sting in the tail.

“He was an old Roman politician in 5th Century BC who was in retirement, and when Rome was threatened with military invasion, Cincinnatus took up dictatorship – took up sole power – he defeated the enemy.

“Then he beautifully when back to his farm, went back to his plough, and did not take sole control for longer than 15 days.”

However Beard explained that wasn’t the full story behind Cincinnatus.

“He’s often treated as an absolute hero – the man who comes in, saves the state but doesn’t take power for himself long term, but goes back to his plough.

“It’s not so simple – one thing you need to know about Cincinnatus is that he was absolutely, resolutely anti-populist. He completely opposed the rights of the poor and the unprivileged in Rome – he was, in our terms, extremely right-wing.

“There is also an even worse sting in the tail.”

She said another story, from around a decade of so later, “he does come back to power again, very briefly” – but just to suppress a “popular uprising by the underprivileged”.

“So it’s a risky analogy, I think,” Beard commented.

It’s worth noting that there is a cost of living crisis tightening its grip around the UK right now, threatening to push millions into fuel poverty, along with a looming recession. Johnson was accused of washing his hands of all of these problems from the moment he resigned in July.

Today programme’s Nick Robinson replied: “It may be risky but he’s sending a very clear signal – he said, ‘I’m going away for now, but I may be back’ – it’s a classic version of Hasta La Vista Baby, which he said in the Commons.”

During his final speech in the Commons earlier this summer, Johnson said goodbye to his colleagues by signing off with this phrase popularised by The Terminator films.

Beard replied: “It is, but you have to know the myth of Cincinnatus very well, because he has this glossy, virtuous exterior. He’s the guy who gave the name to the city of Cincinnati.

“He’s the man who doesn’t take power but actually, there’s always the hint that he might.”

She summarised it as, “brilliant but spooky”.

Johnson’s future seems quite uncertain right now, with widespread speculation about whether he will attempt to stage a return to frontline politics or if he will return to his previous journalism career in some shape or form.

Will Walden, Johnson’s former director of communications back in 2019, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Monday that there was no “coming back” for the outgoing prime minister, after almost 60 ministers resigned from his government in July.

He also told LBC: “I think the idea that he’s coming back, which he has lent tacit support to, is very very deliberate, it’s about rewriting the historical narrative and setting his own narrative in going forward.”

Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss, attempted to praise his legacy during her victory speech on Monday – only for an awkward silence to settle across the audience of Conservative MPs, before there were a few reluctant claps.


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