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 Kahless said: "Great men do not seek power, they have power thrust upon them."

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Tacking into the Wind


There is an emergency, threatening the entire kingdom. Even the king admits he is not capable of dealing with it, so he finds his wisest and most able knight and grants that knight total power.

Why? Because the king knows this knight is a man of honor and also loves his family more than he loves power. He will use this power only for when it is needed, and no longer. It is true. Once the kingdom is saved, that knight abdicates his power and goes home to his family.

Often overlaps with Call to Agriculture, when the retired character decides to raise cabbages in manly obscurity.

Partly because this is a highly idealistic trope, it's extremely rare in fiction, but notable for when it happens. However, it's Truth in Television: not only did it happen with Cincinnatus, but all succeeding Roman dictators ("he who dictates [orders]") also willingly gave up power before or at the end of the prescribed six months, up to and throughout the Punic Wars. It is only with Sulla, after the office had not been used for over a hundred years, that any Roman attempted to abuse the dictatorship. And even Sulla, while abusing his dictatorial power in many ways and having arranged to not have a time limit on his dictatorship, still stepped down after a year. The first successful attempt to defy this tradition came without the actual (specific) title of dictator, and resulted in the creation of The Roman Empire.

Of course some Evil Overlords gain their power by feigning this and crowning themselves emperor when the time is right (that is if they are not already in power). Some even arrange for the emergency they're being appointed to deal with themselves.

When played more cynically it may overlap with Honor Before Reason.

Subtrope of Reluctant Ruler.

Of course Cincinnatus has to be extremely careful that he doesn't end up as Titus Andronicus instead...

Compare The Last DJ (the character has the same integrity but often far less power or freedom).

Contrast Regent for Life, Unfit for Greatness.

Examples of Cincinnatus include:

Anime and Manga

  • Tylor in Irresponsible Captain Tylor is given full control of Earth's fleet at one point, but he doesn't even use it to fight the battle he's supposed to fight.
  • In Yu Yu Hakusho, after Yuusuke inherits one-third of the Makai from his ancestor Raizen, the first thing he does is talk the other two world leaders into agreeing to a tournament-style election system to replace the warring monarchies. He participates because he's required to, does not win, and promptly goes home to his girlfriend.
  • Lelouch vi Britannia from Code Geass, in a way. Soon after he conquered the entire world, he organized his own Suicide by Cop and gracefully left the scene. While he was on it, he also ensured that nobody would ever be able to do what he did, which is a good thing if you think about it. Of course, in this case, only a few people on Earth knew his real intentions, while the rest saw him as just another Diabolical Mastermind.
  • Lord Gekkei from The Twelve Kingdoms leads the revolts against the Knight Templar King of Hou, but doesn't take over as temporary ruler until the kirin of Hou is reborn and then able to choose a new king. The noblemen have to insist a lot to convince him to start re-organizing the ravished lands as de-facto ruler.
  • Roy Mustang of Fullmetal Alchemist plans to take this to an extreme: he wants to become Fuhrer of Amestris in order to restore power to the civilian Parliament, after which he intends to step down and put himself on trial for war crimes.


  • Superman. He's arguably the single most powerful man on Earth, and in various alternate universes (and on Superman: The Animated Series) the writers have shown that he could take over the world...if he wanted to. However, Superman, being raised as an idealist by the Kents, believes in using his powers to help the little guy. On multiple occasions, Lex Luthor and Darkseid have both expressed a complete inability to understand this ideal, as they are both power-hungry. Arguably, Superman's decision to use his powers to help others and his refusal to seize power is the reason why the Justice League members pretty universally consider Clark to be someone they can all believe in, and the reason why most citizens of the DCU Earth consider Superman to be their world's greatest hero.
    • Batman once noted, "It is a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then he shoots fire from the skies, and it is difficult not to think of him as a god... and how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him."


  • Maximus in Gladiator. After long years of slogging through the north, conquering for Rome, he just wanted to go home to his family and farm, even when he realized he was being offered total power in Rome. That, Aurelius said, was why it had to be him to steward the Empire until it could be a Republic again.
  • Lampshaded in The Dark Knight, where Harvey Dent explicitly compares Batman to the Roman dictators and instantly gets called out by Rachel, who says that such a system led to Julius Caesar and the death of anything resembling representative government in Rome.
    • Then the creators Did Not Do the Research. Cincinnatus and those after him were elected dictators; they were just extremely powerful officials with fixed terms of office. Sulla and Caesar appointed themselves dictators; they weren't elected to the position. Comparing those situations is like comparing somebody who's elected President to somebody who appoints himself President without being elected.
    • Which was probably why this conversation followed a debate on whether Batman was appointed by the people or self-elected.
  • In Cat City (Macskafogó, one of the best animation movies ever, for Hungarians) Grabovsky, the Bond-Mouse was called back from retirement like Cincinnatus. The evil cat boss, spying on the meeting of mice leaders, heard the reference and thought that Cincinnatus was a new secret agent (in Hungarian, "Cincin" is the onomatopoeia for the sound mice make), so he sent his assistant, Safranek, to look him up. This led to Safranek being tortured, as he unwisely told his boss that Cincinnatus was a historical figure, which is common knowledge.
  • The Evil Overlord section describes Senator Palpatine to a T. Not only does he create a lack of confidence in Chancellor Velorum (positioning himself as his replacement), he also organizes the entire Clones Wars (orchestrating the manufacture of both droids and clones for their respective sides), empowering himself with the power to enact Martial Law eventually merging the Imperials and the Republic into a massive Empire where he is the Emperor. The list goes on...


  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga series, Aral Vorkosigan was appointed regent for the child emperor, and a lot of people expected him to appoint himself emperor at some point. Instead, he ceded power to the emperor when he came of age and even donated a small fortune out of his own pocket to charity, so he'd leave the position of regent with the same level as wealth as he had when he was appointed. He did subsequently become Prime Minister rather than just going home, but not to keep power, only in order to have something to do (because retirement and Aral Vorkosigan Do Not Mix).
  • In the Honor Harrington novels, the Worthy Opponent Admiral Theisman overthrows the tyrannical government and kills the dictator as soon as he gets a chance, effectively giving himself absolute power. The admiral then ensures that elections are held and eventually joins the new government as Secretary of War.
    • He's also Chief of Naval Operations. He's noble, not an idiot. Being both the civilian and military head of the Navy means he can make sure there isn't another coup.
  • Mildly subverted in War and Peace, in that the Russian emperor Alexander did not want Kutuzov to become Field Marshal during Napoleon's invasion, and many aristocrats in his court maneuvered behind Kutuzov's back to have him ousted after the danger was past. Kutuzov just liked to read novels though.
  • This can be how the position of Hand of the King operates: the king technically retains his authority, but for practical purposes it's given to the Hand. This was why Robert Baratheon made Ned Stark his Hand, because he himself is a terrible ruler, and Ned definitely fits the honorable criteria. Lord Tywin Lannister also effectively ran the kingdom for years, while the actual king indulged his madness, though he's not particularly honorable.
    • The commoners have an appropriate saying in-universe about this: The king eats, and the Hand takes the shit.
  • In The Warlord Chronicles, rather than being a King, Arthur is a warlord sworn to safeguard the realm and the throne until his nephew Mordred comes of age and becomes King. Arthur is just fine with this, since he just wants to live a normal life and is happy to step aside. The series takes a dark route with this. Although most of the world's misery is caused by the overly ambitious types like Cerdic, Sansum, Lancelot, and multiple other kings and princes, the fact that Arthur never takes the throne for himself (even after seeing how Ax Crazy Mordred is) undoes all of his efforts.
  • These people are called Ubars on Gor. Because of the extreme Gorean devotion to their honor codes Ubars almost always step down and those who fail to do so are usually killed by the army.
    • With one exception, Marlenus of Ar, who was loved by his army and people and remained Ubar perpetually.
  • In the Tom Clancy books, Jack Ryan is appointed Vice President, and soon after becomes President after Durling and most of the Congress are assassinated. He served out the remainder of Durling's term (who, in turn, was serving out Fowler's. Politicians in the Clancy-verse drop like flies, though Fowler resigned, he wasn't killed) and was then reelected to a full term of his own. Halfway through his term, though, he resigned. Both to allow his best friend, Robby Jackson, to become the nation's first black President, and because he's accomplished all he wanted to do in office and wants to retire. After Jackson's own assassination (see?), Ryan is approached about running again but he declines, both for the same reasons that he left office in the first place and because he's been honestly heartbroken at his best friend's death and can't bring himself to go back to the position that was indirectly responsible.
    • As of the latest book, Ryan is running for President again.
  • The title character in the Belisarius Series.
  • Alusius, the main character of the first trilogy of the Corean Chronicles. Despite all of his martial skill, both as a soldier in his own right and as a commander of soldiers, all he really wants to do is serve out his tour of duty, go home, and raise sheep. What's more, the people who are trying to kill him in the second book know this and actually understand it. They figure that if he fails to complete the insanely dangerous assignment they send him on, he'll die, and they'll be rid of him. If he succeeds, he resolves a serious problem they had, after which they can give him a medal and let him go back to his backwater farm and raise sheep, at which point he'll be too far away to interfere with their plans.
  • George Powhatan in David Brin's The Postman. After defending his own territory from the violent, survivalist Holnists, all he wants to do is live as a country squire, growing his own crops and making his own beer. Later, protagonist Gordon thinks he pities anyone who would try to make Powhatan a king.

Live Action Television

  • In Doctor Who, the Doctor ran away from the position of President of Gallifrey at least twice. Of course, the life to which he was returning wasn't exactly peaceful, but he preferred Walking the Earth... Er, universe.
  • Mark Anthony promised to follow the example of Cincinnatus when his term as Consul ended in Rome, while negotiating with Caesar's killers to preserve all their titles (and legitimizing Ceasar's will as not that of a tyrant). Unsurprisingly he never planned or had to abide by it after a certain famous speech at Caesar's funeral changed the political landscape to his favour.
  • In the season 4 finale of The West Wing, Zoey, President Bartlet's youngest daughter, is kidnapped. In response, the President acknowledges that he has to step down for the good of the nation. However, they've just lost their Vice President to a sex scandal, so they have to hand over power to House Speaker Glenallen Walken, a die-hard political opponent. And it's held true to form, as Glenallen and his staff do absolutely nothing non-essential with their power, basically leading the country long enough to find Zoey and then giving it back. And of course, he was rewarded for his patriotism by losing his job as Speaker, too, since he had to resign before he became President.

Video Games

  • Suikoden I and II are both examples of this. In the first, the Hero leads a popular uprising to overthrow The Empire, and after it succeeds, he's offered the position of President of the newly formed Republic. In the sequel, you can find him in a small border town... fishing. One of his lieutenants has taken the role of President of Toran. Hero 2 potentially follows his example: I believe one of the possible endings actually has him taking up the mantle of the reformed Jowston Alliance, but the Best Ending has him turn away from the power, instead leaving power to his strategist and heading off to go Walking the Earth with his sister and best friend.
    • In Suikoden IV, the ruler of Obel, Lino En Kuldes, gives your hero a seal proving his authority and willingly serves under your command. This gets thrown in his face during the events at Na-Nal, where their chief mocks Lino and flat-out states he has no power anymore. However, he doesn't take back the seal until you're ready to liberate Obel, at which point he breaks out the kingly robes and gives the enemy fleet his 'I'm Back, Bitches' speech.
    • Interestingly enough, in Suikoden V, it's the other way around. The 'Bad' ending has you leaving the kingdom you just helped save, while the Best Ending has you staying there to take up the mantle of Supreme General of the Armies, to protect the kingdom from any future dangers. (That's weirdly creepy if you think about it too much, since that position generally belongs to the queen's husband, and she just so happens to be your younger sister...)
      • The queen was also a 10-year old girl who had no intentions of getting married any time soon, especially after she was forcibly married to the enemy general that pretty much controlled everything himself, effectively making her a ruler in name only. This troper's guess is that her older brother commanded the army until she found a proper husband, then pulled a Cincinnatus himself, retiring and maybe going on a journey of his own.
        • Or having a family and kids of his own. Or something...
      • The practice of making the Queen's husband the commander of the Queen's Knights was abolished. From that point onward the position is to be filled on the basis of merit, and the Prince was established by this point as both a great military leader and absolutely loyal to Falena, both qualities that seem to be in short supply.
  • Dynasty Warriors 6 portrayed the Wei leader Cao Cao this way in his, Dian Wei's, and Xiahou Dun's endings. Feeling that the newly-unified Chinese nation did not need a bloodstained conqueror as its leader, Cao Cao abdicated to go off on a journey, leaving administration and governance of the land to specifically-trusted advisors.
    • Koei seem to like this trope, in fact; before that, they pulled something similar in the spin-off series Samurai Warriors, in the PSP port of the first game to be precise, where at the end of Oda Nobunaga's 'good' storyline, he vanishes without a trace along with his wife, leaving instructions that his top generals are to divide the land up equally between them (and that his by-then-former manservant was to kill them if they ever came to blows); in his monologue to his wife afterwards where he explains his reasoning, he explicitly states that "the people don't need a king; what they need are options".
  • In the World of Warcraft expansion Cataclysm, Thrall steps down as Warchief of the Horde in order to resume his shaman studies and figure out what's going with Azeroth's elementals, and he names Garrosh Hellscream in his place. This was a very controversial move, since Thrall is very well-liked, both by in-game politicians and by players, while Garrosh is the complete opposite.

Web Original

  • In The Gamers Alliance, when Gerard comes of age, his advisor Leon willingly abdicates the throne of Maar Sul to him. However, some people, most notably Geraden, see Leon as an usurper who only abdicated the throne in order to control the throne from behind the scenes.

Western Animation

  • WITCH had the "Heart of Earth" aka Lillian appoint three "Regents of Earth" Matt, Mr. Huggles, and Napoleon the cat.

Real Life

  • Named for Cincinnatus, a legendary Roman general, who, sometime after he retired to his farm, was given total power in Rome to fight off an invasion. Cincinnatus' status as a dictator afforded him six months of total power over Rome by Roman law. His fame comes from the fact that he repulsed the invasion and conquered the invaders in three months, then handed power right back to Rome even though he was legally entitled to continue ruling for the rest of his "term" as dictator. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, is partly named for him, and then there's the Order of Cincinnatus (see below).
    • And exploited by Augustus, who made sure to abstain from all the flashy titles, while keeping the less impressive-sounding ones (and all the power that came with them).
      • For most of the time, Augustus's strategy was to get the Roman Senate to grant him new titles such as tribunicia potestas, since he was governor of lots of frontier provinces and therefore loads and loads of legions, since most of the Roman Army was in the outer provinces of The Roman Republic. One of the ways he ensured his power was to use his legions to threaten the Senate to give him governorship of even more provinces, so that he'd get control of even more legions.
  • The Roman emperor Diocletian was born to a lower-class family and worked his way upward to the Imperium. He brought a fifty-year round of civil war to an end and stabilized the economy, giving the Roman Empire a new lease on life. He set up an elaborate system of co-emperors to prevent a return to civil war and, when the time came, voluntarily retired. When his political order started to collapse, he was begged to retake the throne. His response was, "If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed."
  • Yet another example of Roman history: Lucius Cornelius Sulla (or Sylla), who became dictator after two civil wars and was, for many decades, reviled by Roman memory as the epitome of a tyrant. He ordered many political purges and made several reforms in order to re-establish the aristocratic supremacy in the republic, then retired from political life, and died two years later.
  • According to some historians, Julius Caesar actually would have fit this trope if he had lived. There are sources stating that he was in the process of returning full power to the senate when he was murdered. Though the documents that this theory is based on cannot be proven genuine or fake, so at least at this point it's anyone's guess whether it's true.
    • Not to mention that earlier in his career, he took the position of dictator, got everything sorted out, and handed control back to the senate in nine days.
    • It was in fact accepted Roman practice to install a Dictator to oversee elections or conduct ceremonies that required a Consul when no Consul was available, with the expectation that he would resign the moment the job was done. Attempting to parlay that remit into any kind of lasting political power would have been a pretty efficient way to get yourself killed a la the Gracchi. Caesar's appointment to that station was well-precedented and, by the standards of the time, uncontroversial. (The office of dictator was the only one in the Roman constitution that could be held by a single man: usually the supreme power was held by two consuls, who could veto each other's decisions and generally did. In peacetime, this meant rule by consensus; in war, it generally meant your leaderless legions were about to be wiped out. Hence the need to have one supreme authority in times of crisis.)
      • Somewhat uncontroversial, as he was a candidate in the election in question (and not surprisingly, won).
  • Scipio Africanus. While he never actually had absolute power, it is arguable that he could have - he was a four-star badass who actually defeated Hannibal, thus gaining more prestige then any Roman had ever had. Instead of attempting to take power, he retired to his villa to get away from the Obstructive Bureaucrats of the Senate.
  • Another historical example is George Washington, who was unanimously elected to two terms as U.S. president. When there was no law or even a custom about serving only that many, he declined to run for election again (in fact, he started the custom, which in spite of attempts at third terms by some presidents, wasn't actually broken until Franklin D Roosevelt). He could have served even longer, but is considered a modern Cincinnatus for not doing so. Cincinnati is partly named in his honor also. Washington pulled this off once prior when he resigned his commission in the army and went back to private life for years before becoming president. On hearing that Washington planned to invoke this trope, King George III said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
    • Polk was before the two-term limit was imposed, but he didn't run for a second term, saying that there was no need as he'd already accomplished everything he wanted to in his first term. Rutherford B. Hayes also declined to run for a second term, keeping a promise he'd made shortly after being elected in highly suspicious circumstances (he won by one electoral vote, with three states' electoral vote allocations being heavily disputed, and had lost the popular vote). Calvin Coolidge also declined to run again in 1928 despite having served for just under six years as President (similarly to Johnson, except that Coolidge had no term limits). All other one-term presidents (besides the ones that died in their first term) ran for a second term and either lost the election or were passed over by their party.
    • The city of Cincinnati, Ohio is specifically named after the Order of the Cincinnati, a military veterans' organization of which George Washington was a founding member. Many critics of the organization consider it ironic that despite ostensibly honoring the retirement of officers into private pursuits, the organization itself amassed a great deal of power after the Revolution and became the closest thing the country had to a landed gentry.
    • Many books written about US Presidents stretching the line feature military personnel discussing the Oath of Cincinnatus and the implications of the military betraying their oaths to defend the Constitution, rather than the government.
    • Washington's officers after the revolution offered to start a coup d'etat to destroy the incredibly inefficient and ineffective government of the Articles of Confederation and install him as King of America in the Newburgh Conspiracy, due mostly to not being paid for years in spite of Congressional promises to do so. Washington's answer was to the effect of "Do you think I expelled George III so that I could become George I?"
      • George Washington popped up unannounced in the middle of the conspiracy. Sources say that it wasn't his speech that actually broke the mutiny, but his putting on reading glasses for the first time in public, with the words, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." It's said there wasn't a dry eye left in the room.
  • Juan Carlos I of Spain. Handpicked by the infamous dictator Francisco Franco to succeed him. During Franco's rule he seemed to be a loyal supporter and destined to continue Franco's policies. All the insiders believed it would be business as usual after Franco was dead. Once Franco was in the ground and Juan had become King of Spain and received the absolute power of his predecessor, he voluntarily used that power to turn Spain into a constitutional monarchy with a Westminster style-Parliament, knowingly and willingly reducing himself to a figurehead in the process. And then, he personally browbeat the officers who attempted a coup to return to the good old Franco days into submission.
    • Similarly, when Venezuelan dictator Juan Vicente Gómez chose his War Minister Eleazar Lopez Contreras as his successor, people expected him to continue managing the country as his personal farm. Instead, he made a deep social reform and cut down the presidential term from seven years to five years and served only three or four years of it, quitting and abandoning politics altogether.
  • Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (lit. "Father of Turks") was an officer in the Turkish military who parlayed his victories against Allied forces (especially at Gallipoli) into becoming the first leader of the modern Turkish Republic. He made himself the first Prime Minister and first Speaker of Parliament, but he gave up those titles in a matter of years, though he remained President (a ceremonial role) for the rest of his life. Kemalism is so strong an influence in Turkey that coups are performed by the military (which is extremely popular as a political force) when their leaders perceive that the government is acting inappropriately to his spirit. Power is typically handed back to democratically-elected officials within years, peacefully. To date, this has happened approximately four times (1960, '71, '81, and '97), and the potential for another coup is credited by some for keeping the currently-ruling Islamic party from interfering with Turkey's tradition of secular government. Turkish votes very nearly made Ataturk the "Man of the Century" in a Time poll for the same title.
    • At least, the Turkish army thinks of itself as defending Turkey from the super-religious AK Parti. Since the big examples of Islamism include trying to lift a government ban on headscarves and the AKP has more female MPs & ministers than any previous parliament, we can take their claims with a pinch of salt.
    • It's also interesting to note that the cult of personality around Ataturk didn't really manifest until after his death. He certainly wanted to be admired and for Turkey to follow his example, but there's no indication that he wanted the quasi-religious level of worship that Kemalism has turned into.
  • When you think about it, a revealing definition of The Republic might simply be "A society organized for the purpose of reliably mass-producing a sufficient number of Cincinnati."
  • The Duke of Zhou is celebrated as a figure of "proper authority" in Chinese mythology as he served as regent for his nephew, Cheng Wang the King of Zhou, until Cheng Wang came of age and peacefully transferred authority to his nephew.
  • In 1976 Nigerian Military Head of State Gen. Murtala Muhammed was killed in a failed coup attempt, and his deputy, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo succeeded him. Obasanjo continued his predecessor's plan to return power to the civilians, and had a constitution drawn up. In 1979, he presided over general elections, and handed over the government to the winners, becoming a national hero and symbol of patriotism and duty. In 1999, after another military dictator had died in office and another transition was taking place, there was public clamor for "OBJ" to run for president (he had in fact been jailed by the previous regime, only being released upon Gen. Abacha's death). He won the vote, and reelection 4 years later, then it all got to his head and he subverted his own Cincinnatus status by trying to change the constitution to allow himself a third term. The senate checkmated him, and he left office one of the most unpopular men in the country.
  • General William Sherman was a successful Union general during the American Civil War. After retiring from the military, he was approached about the possibility of seeking the Presidency, to which he replied "If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.". To this day, a categorical and absolute refusal to seek a certain office is referred to as a "Shermanesque statement".
  • In 1940, faced with imminent defeat, the French Assembly voted to give full powers to Maréchal Philippe Pétain, the WWI hero. Yeah, that turned out well.
    • The only thing they managed to accomplish was to permanently ruin the reputation of a once-great man who by the time of his appointment was already in the early stages of senility.
    • It didn't work out any better for Germany when they elected their own WWI hero, Paul von Hindenburg, to the then very powerful office of President. Hindenburg proved far less skilled at running a government than at running an army, and had no inclination to leave office even when his health was failing. The former led to him being manipulated (by the even less competent Franz von Papen) into appointing Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, the latter to Hitler being able to seize near-total power (with the "near" soon to be removed from that description) by combining the offices of President and Chancellor into that of "Führer" when Hindenburg died.
  • The Marquis de Lafayette - helped win the American Revolutionary war, first disarmed the nobles during the (first) French Revolution, then was imprisoned, denounced Napoleon, turned down becoming the governor of the Louisiana territory, helped the revolution of 1830, turned down the title of dictator to instead bring a more moderate king to the throne.
    • Fittingly, he was a founding member of Cincinnati (mentioned above).