Who was Cincinnatus, and why did Boris Johnson mention him in his speech?

The outgoing PM compared himself to Cincinnatus - depicted in a painting as he is recalled to Rome . Credit: PA

Boris Johnson's reference to an Ancient Roman leader in his final speech as prime minister has sparked speculation he is hinting at a future political comeback.

Mr Johnson returned to a long-favoured topic - the Classics- as he appeared to liken himself to Cincinnatus, a leader who "returned to his plough" at the end of his tenure.

In a speech in which the outgoing PM pledged his support to the incoming prime minister, historians were quick to catch the historical reference.

They pointed out how, according to legend, Cincinnatus left his retirement to serve once again as Rome's leader during a time of crisis.

A painting on display shows Cincinnatus receiving deputies from Rome Credit: PA

Who was Cincinnatus?

Cincinnatus served as a Consul of Rome in 460 BC: then the highest office in the land. He later quit the city, and went to live on a small farm.

But, according to legend, he returned to Rome as dictator some years later - supposedly to guide the Republic through a turbulent period of war.

This part of the story - though omitted from the speech - will not have been lost on Boris Johnson, who is a keen classicist.

He studied the subject at Oxford University and supposedly kept a bust of Pericles, an Athenian general and politician, in his room.

Leading historians are speculating Mr Johnson made the reference to signal his own return to high political office could be on the cards in future.

Historian Mary Beard - whom Mr Johnson once debated on the relative merits of Ancient Greece versus Ancient Rome - commented that Cincinnatus "was a 5th century BC Roman politician who saved the state from an invasion, then - job done - returned to his farm ('to his plough')."

"He was also an enemy of the people," she added.

Another historian, Tom Holland, pointed out that Cincinnatus had returned as 'dictator.'

But it could also have been a tongue-in-cheek reference, given Cinncinatus - who relinquished his power as soon as crisis had passed - has been described as embodying virtue and embracing civic responsibility.

Mr Johnson himself left office after a string of scandals.

Former Financial Times editor Lionel Barber tweeted that "Johnson forgot to mentioned that C was also viewed as a paragon of virtue".

Classics Professor Edith Mayhall tweeted that she hoped "there's not going to be a photoshoot of him topless," as she shared a painting of a shirtless Cincinnatus being recalled to Rome.