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. And he's right. 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.
It's Truth in Television: not only did it happen with Cincinnatus, the knight we described above, 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. 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.
Some Evil Overlords gain their power by feigning this and crowning themselves emperor when the time is right. Some might even have arranged for the emergency to happen in the first place.
When played more cynically it may overlap with Honor Before Reason.
Subtrope of Reluctant Ruler.
Compare The Last DJ (the character has the same integrity but often far less power or freedom) and Abdicate the Throne (giving up power you're born into). Contrast Regent for Life, Unfit for Greatness.
- 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 YuYu 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.
- Rygart Arrow of Broken Blade can be considered this in a bizarre manner as when the Kingdom of Krisna is under impending invasion from the Athens Commonwealth, circumstances require Rygart to be summoned to the capital under King Hodr's orders.
- Superman. He's 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 Lex is egomaniacal and power-hungry, while Darkseid is the god of tyranny. 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: 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.
- Disscused in The Dark Knight, where Harvey Dent explicitly compares Batman to the Roman elected dictators and instantly gets called out by Rachel, who says that such a system eventually led to powerful men appointing themselves dictators and eventually Julius Caesar and the death of anything resembling representative government in Rome. Later in the movie Batman hands the power to tap into peoples' cell phones to Lucius Fox, knowing that his objections to the methodology would mean that it was ONLY used in dire emergencies.
- 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.
- Star Wars:
- 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 Separatists and the Republic into a massive Empire where he is the Emperor. The list goes on...
- Meanwhile, the Jedi while ruling their own, tend to act as advisors rather than rule themselves. When they start to grow wary of Palpatine, Ki-Adi-Mundi suggests removing him from office. Mace points out that the Jedi would have to take control of the Republic to ensure peace. Yoda is clearly not happy about the situation. In Legends, they had to do this when a previous Chancellor grew too corrupt. They did eventually return power to the people.
- Loki in Thor manages to be an evil version of this trope (though if anyone could make one of the most inherently noble tropes evil...). While at first it looks like he's aiming to be Regent for Life, his entire plan only fully formulates after he's been handed power on a plate — secretly create a crisis by making a deal with the enemies of Asgard, avert said crisis in a highly visible fashion by backstabbing said enemies and eliminating their entire planet, and then gracefully step down again with a new reputation as a devoted son and a hero of the realm when his father awakes. He gets a fall through a black hole and the subsequent destruction of his already fragile sanity in return for his trouble, leading to his return in The Avengers as a newly minted, glassy-eyed world conqueror.
- Despite being a violent idiot like everybody else, President Camacho from Idiocracy willingly steps aside and lets Joe Not Sure Bauers take over after he solved the famine crisis that plagued the nation.
- 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. At the same time, the new president's political opponents know of Theisman's preference for the rule of law and know that he would never act against them in an illegal manner.
- Invoked Trope 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.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire 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 and things only truly went to shit after Aerys fired Tywin, though he's not particularly honorable. The commoners have an appropriate saying in-universe about this: The king shits, and the Hand wipes.
- Also done by Ned's ancestor Lord Cregan Stark, who was the Hand for a days more then a century before the series began. At the end of the Targaryen civil war known as "The Dance of the Dragons" Cregan arrived in King's Landing just after Aegon II had been poisoned, meaning the throne passed to their nephew Aegon III, son of the claimant Cregan had been supporting. Cregan was named Hand by Aegon III and responded by punishing those responsible for Aegon II's death, feeling a King's murder must be punished even if it was a tyrant he was fighting against. Cregan's actions enabled a relatively stable reign for Aegon III, though the day after finishing the trials Cregan resigned the Handship and returned to the North, having been granted many rewards, and in exchange for pardoning Lord Corlys Velaryon he married Alysanne Blackwood.
- 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 note 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, 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. In Locked On, he runs again for President, disgusted with the way Ed Kealty had been running the country. And ultimately wins by a narrow margin, in spite of some Dirty Pool by his opponent.
- The title character in the Belisarius Series, who comments several times that all he ever really wanted to be was a blacksmith.
- 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.
- In Michael Flynn's Spiral Arm novel On the Razor's Edge, two characters argue about giving up power. One cites him, George Washington, and two fictional future characters, and then adds that others might be unable because they had done it.
- Dumbledore in Harry Potter. It is stated that Dumbledore was offered the post of Minister for Magic multiple times but refused it, preferring to remain the headmaster at Hogwarts. Only in the final book is it fully understood why: in his youth, Dumbledore was tempted into joining Gellert Grindelwald's quest to take over the world and find the Deathly Hallows. Afterward, Dumbledore realised that he could not be trusted with power.
- The Dresden Files
- The post of Blackstaff. The Blackstaff doesn't command the council, but he is immune to all its laws. Those laws mostly forbid using highly-addictive dark magic. The wizard assigned the post is entrusted to use powers the Council denies itself under all other circumstances, and to stop using them when the need is over, even though stopping means mentally wrestling with major supernatural evils. The blackstaff isn't just a title, incidentally: The post seems to be bound to an actual staff (which is white, and gradually turns black as the user uses dark magic). Whether the staff actually absorbs the bad mental impulses or just serves as a yardstick for 'how dark can you get right now and still bounce back' isn't revealed.
- The Knights of the Cross can be this trope. The Knights of the Cross wield three Holy Swords who have in their hilt one of Nails that was driven through Jesus Christ.note Being a Knight is, as they say, a Calling. However, it isn't a lifetime commitment with retirement only by a wooden box. The Knight can retire at any time. According to their long lived nemesis, most Knights in human history are men or women who picked up a Sword for one mission and when the mission was over let the Sword be assigned to another when it was needed. The Knight was simply in the Right Place, at the Right Time to make a difference.note
- In The Lost Fleet Captain Geary is promoted all the way to Fleet Admiral, a rank that existed but had never actually been held by a person, he accepts only on the condition he be allowed to be demoted back to captain after the mission he is given. Although he didn't object too strenuously when he got promoted back to regular Admiral soon afterwards, because he got a bit of Loophole Abuse of his own done in the brief interval when himself and his Love Interest were of equal rank and not in the same command structure...
- In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox notes that the President of the Universe election apparently involved scanning his brains for any actual desire to hold the position - and if found, would have dropped him on the curb with only the clothes on his back and two stumps where his heads used to be. Evidently they believe that anyone who actually want the job would be a great risk.
- Militia leader John Rumford in Victoria, who is a farmer primarily and The Hero only while he is needed. Even invoked in-story.
- Game of Thrones: When Jon Arryn dies, Robert seeks out Ned and asks him to be his new Hand of the King, thinking he is best suited to rule Westeros, despite Ned having no wish to take the job. Also, this was Ned's role during the rebellion. Basically, he won the rebellion for Robert, but never took advantage of this in any form and as soon as Robert sat on the throne, he missed the early stages of Robert's reign and went straight to Winterfell, bringing his sister's remains and his illegitimate son — baby Jon Snow — home with him. Ned never left the North since that, save for the Greyjoy rebellion. Arguably, his hurry of coming back to the North and reluctance to leave it may have something to do with hiding and raising Jon, who is actually Ned's nephew and the son of Ned's sister Lyanna Stark with Prince Rheagar Targaryen. Ned spends the rest of his life protecting Jon from Robert Baratheon, claiming Jon as his own son and raising him as his own child alongside his children with Catelyn.
- The page quote comes from Worf in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who, after killing Chancellor Gowron (who had been misusing his power and throwing away the war effort for his own political gain) in a death duel, had become Chancellor through rite of combat. As the other Klingons in the room start to hail Worf as the new Chancellor, Worf stops them and immediately abdicates power to General Martok, who he saw as the best military leader.
- Similarly, in Babylon 5, John J. Sheridan was elected President of the new "Interstellar Alliance" after he helped depose Morgan Clark, the fascist President of Earth. The new Earth president made him resign in exchange for amnesty, so the alien representatives voted him into office to keep him on the station.
G'Kar: [rapidly] Do you want to be President?
G'Kar: Then put your hand on the book and say I do.
John: I do.
G'Kar: Fine, done, let's eat.
- 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. Mostly Earth.
- In Death in Heaven, it's revealed that in the event of a worldwide invasion, one person may be elected as President of Earth by the UN and all the world's armed forces. Three guess who all the nations choose, and the first two don't count. Obviously, the Doctor doesn't like being President of Earth any more than he liked being President of Galifrey, and wants to get rid of the responsibility ASAP. However, he'll still take advantage of the position in order to get Obstructive Bureaucrats to do what he wants. And to ride the Cool Plane.
- In a non-political example, the Doctor's status as a time-traveller and occasional Chessmaster means that he could easily get the timeline to do what he wants, and manipulate people and even planets long-term. However, he firmly believes that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, and his companions provide helpful Morality Chains to stop him from believing that A God Am I. On the very rare occasions that he slips up...well, it's really not good.
- 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.
- In Andromeda, Dylan finally manages to re-create the Commonwealth (although much smaller than the original one, which spanned three galaxies). The representatives of the various member worlds immediately try to get him to run for a Triumvir position (which wouldn't leave him as a sole ruler, but, still, his popularity is at all-time high). Dylan refuses, saying he never wanted to be anything more than a High Guardsman. He later ends up regretting his decision, when the new leaders start making stupid decisions, and other characters point out several times that he had his chance to make sure things would go right this time and gave it up.
- Even earlier, when he finds a space station full of Nova bombs, capable of making stars explode, Tyr points out that Dylan could have his Commonwealth back... today. Dylan immediately rejects the idea, pointing out it would be nothing more than a dictatorship held in check only through fear.
- George Washington is a principal character in Hamilton. The song "One Last Time" centers around his decision to not seek a third term of office: he would beat any other candidate easily, so stepping down allowed the process to go forward fairly and demonstrate that the nation was strong enough to survive without him personally leading it. The song closes with lines from Washington's actual Farewell Address.
- Brütal Legend: After leading the Ironheade rebellion to victory and defeating the tyrant Doviculus in single combat, Eddie Riggs lets Lita, sister of the rebellion's late leader Lars, take the laurels for it and discretely slips away from the victory party, content to Walk the Earth.
- Suikoden 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.
- Suikoden Tactics/Rhapsodia, however, has Lino indicating that he plans to name Hero 4 as his permanent successor. Neither of them realize that the hero is actually Lino's son, who was presumed to have died at sea as a young child, and thus was always supposed to be his successor.
- 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. 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.
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. Plus, it's implied in the last cutscene that Lyon serves either as co-leader or second-in-command of the Queen's Knights and that she and the Prince either are or will end up married.
- 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".
- World of Warcraft:
- In the 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.
- And then, after Garrosh is deposed by combined efforts of the Alliance and the Horde (including Thrall, who realized that appointing Garrosh was not his brightest idea), Thrall's handpicked successor to Garrosh, Vol'jin, was reluctant to accept the title of Warchief, seeing himself as not worthy and only yielding when he saw all the Horde leaders acknowledge him.
- The quarian ship Captains and fleet Admiralty in the Mass Effect franchise exist to be this. The Migrant Fleet technically exists under a state of emergency martial law (as it has been for centuries) but in practice most decisions are handled by an elected civilian council, both on the level of individual ships and on the level of entire sectors of the fleet in a federal-type government known as the Conclave. However, the Admiralty can invoke a deliberate override of anything the Conclave chooses as an exercise of emergency powers, but are required to resign from their positions immediately after the emergency has passed, or face arrest and prosecution if they refuse to do so. This helps keep the otherwise unrestricted exercise of power in check. So far, the Admiralty override has only been invoked four times in the three centuries of the fleet's existence.
- Girl Genius: Boris Myshkin-Dolokhov is put in command of the empire when the Baron is out of commission and Gil is missing and he hates it.
- W.I.T.C.H. had the "Heart of Earth" aka Lillian appoint three "Regents of Earth" Matt, Mr. Huggles, and Napoleon the cat.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "Gauntlet of Fire", Spike manages to successfully win the title of Dragon Lord, making him one of the most politically powerful characters in the show. He uses this ultimate authority to give all of one (relatively unimportant) order note before abdicating and passing the title over to the previous Dragon Lord's daughter, who he had befriended. In fact, he initially showed up to the event to ask permission to leave because participation was mandatory, only deciding to stay upon realizing that a jerk could gain with the position and the power it confers if he didn't at least try to participate.
- Iroh of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a brilliant general, arguably the greatest firebender of his era, and a staunch leader in the fight against the Fire Nation and its lust for conquest. As brother of the tyrannical Ozai, he could fight Ozai and take the throne for himself. But he recognizes that fighting his brother will merely look like a familial power struggle, and leaves that task to the Avatar. And he has no desire to rule, letting his nephew take the throne instead, himself retiring to run a tea shop.
- Roman history:
- Named for Lucius Quinctius 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 sixteen days, 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 in the USA's state of Ohio is partly named for him, and then there's the Society of the Cincinnati (see below). A year later, Cincinnatus was appointed dictator for a second time, due to an alleged plot by Spurius Maelius to seize power and name himself king. This term was even shorter, as Maelius refused to answer a summons from Cincinnatus to defend himself against the allegations, and was killed by Roman soldiers. Cincinnatus immediately resigned and went back to his farm.
- 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. 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."
- 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. Sulla inspired much of the bloody tension between the optimates and the populares (essentially, the right wing and the left wing) which led to lots of brutal civil wars, and he died peacefully in his bed on a pretty farm.
- 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.
- Scipio Africanus. While he never actually had absolute power, it is arguable that he could havehe 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.
- Fittingly, Scipio's main political opponent (and the guy who kept Hannibal at bay until Scipio defeated him) Fabius: he was bestowed the title of dictator and used it to launch a guerrilla campaign that, in spite of being unpopular, kept Hannibal's army in check and at one point came close to destroying it. When his term expired and the Senate refused to renew it, he dutifully left. And after Cannae, he resumed the campaign and set things up so that Hannibal would be unable to march on Rome while slowly losing his support. He was never reappointed dictator, but he didn't need it.
- United States of America:
- Another historical example is George Washington, who was unanimously elected to two terms as U.S. president. Even though there was no law at the time limiting presidents to only two terms in office, he declined to run for election again (thereby establishing a custom that, in spite of attempts at a third term 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."
- President James K. 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 (so much the better; he died three months after leaving office). 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 sonote . 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.
- It's easy to forget due to the long line of historians with Southern sympathies smearing his presidency (which is currently reevaluated by historians as decent and even great in fields like race relations), but Ulysses S. Grant had a Popularity Polynomial going on during his own lifetime. He was immensely popular from emerging as a American Civil War commander to the end of his first term (he ran for reelection with only token opposition), but suffered greatly due to the economic downturn during his second term. Out of office he regained the favor of many Americans and wanted to give a third term a try, but the Republican Party bigwigs flatly refused citing the example of Washington. There being no meaningful primaries that was that.
- Oliver Cromwell pulled this more than a hundred years previously during the English Civil War. He also refused to become king after leading The Parliamentarians to victory (and the execution of King Charles I) and being outright offered the crown. Much like (and likely more so than) Washington, it's uncertain how much of his borderline-saintly reputation is historical fact and how much was propaganda. He subverted this trope in his last years ruling the Commonwealth of England (the republican regime that ruled the British Isles) as its "Lord Protector" (read: king in all but name) until his death. That being said, Cromwell seems to have been genuinely conflicted about this and hoped to establish a real republic; it's just that the various political factions in England were constantly at odds and basically could never agree on anything except that they liked Cromwell.
- 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 into submission the officers who attempted a coup to return to the good old Franco days. He was almost universally popular throughout much of his reign, but he ultimately stepped down in 2014 mostly due to age, but also because some people were outraged that he had gone big game hunting - pretty much the first "scandal" of his entire reign.
- 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 Atatürk (lit. "Father of Turks") was an officer in the Turkish military who parlayed his victories against Allied forces (especially at Gallipoli) and during the course of Turkey's post-war border clashes with The Etente (chiefly France, but also Britain) and her somewhat ruthless no-holds-barred war with Greece (which involved cheery ethnic cleansing like that seen in Smyrna) he became Turkey's Generalissimo. After the wars were concluded he made the country semi-democratic, making himself the first Prime Minister and first Speaker of Parliament - but he gave up those titles in just a few years. Though he remained President (a ceremonial role) for the rest of his life, his role in politics limited to a sort of 'oversight' function (to root out unconstitutional or corrupt politicians) that the Turkish Military continues to oversee to this day in the spirit of 'Kemalism'. The military has executed five coups to this end (1960, '71, '81,'97, and the failed 2016 coup), but they've always handed all power back to democratically-elected representatives within a few years and the idea of the military actually running the country would be unthinkable. Turkish votes very nearly made Atatürk the "Man of the Century" in a Time poll for the same title.
- It's also interesting to note that the cult of personality around Atatürk 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. On the other hand, when Atatürk made a law requiring every Turk to get a Western style surname, he could not resist the temptation of taking "Atatürk" - father of all Turks. Turkish surnames are mostly immodest, though "Özdemir" for example means "pure iron".
- 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 Sherman took Atlanta, he became the Union's new darling and the sentiment led to an offer to promote him to the same rank as General Grant. He replied with, "I will accept no commission that would tend to create a rivalry with Grant. I want him to hold what he has earned and got. I have all the rank I want."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. This, combined with his advanced age and his previous service to his country is the only reason why they didn't hang him with the rest of the senior collaborators in the French government once the war was over.
- 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. He did an alright job, but got drawn into party policies after the extremists blocked the parliament. He also wasn't particularly fond of participating in a democracynote , and wanted to retire after his term was over note . The former led to him being manipulated (by the even less competent Franz von Papen) into appointing Adolf Hitler as Chancellornote , the latter to Hitler being able to seize total power by combining the offices of President and Chancellor into that of "Führer" when Hindenburg died.
- In the last days of World War II, when the last defenses of Berlin were collapsing, Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz as the next head of state, who was one of the few remaining high ranking officers who still had his trust and who was still relatively safe in his faraway naval base in Northern Germany, where allied troops had not arrived yet. When Goebbels killed himself a day after Hitler, Dönitz was effectively the only remainder of a German political leadership and took it on himself to form a new government. Accepting that the war was lost, he spent the following days withdrawing the remaining troops to the west and surrendering to the Americans and British, to be safe from the Soviets and to coordinate a fast and orderly surrender. However he let the surrender be stalled to allow more refugees and dispersed units to escape the Red Army to territory under the control of the Western Allies. By his own claims, the night Hitler's right hand Himmler (who was the leader of the SS units and had tried to make a deal with the British on his own) visited him to talk about the future leadership of Germany was the only time he had a loaded gun in an open drawer of his desk, but fortunately Himmler accepted that he would not be the new leader and also would not get any position of power under Dönitz and gave up on his designs to become the head of postwar Germany without a fight.
- 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.
- Napoleon Bonaparte was originally supposed to be this, then subverted — he led a coup against the horribly inefficient semi-democratic government in 1799, then stepped back a little to have a new constitution for France drawn up. According to the Constitution of the Year VII, which was approved in an overwhelming referendum, he became First Consul of France, essentially dictator. However, he was still fully expected to step down — and, at this point, perhaps even intended to, though his term was all of ten years, more than enough time. Two years later, however, another referendum and the Constitution of the Year X made Napoleon Consul for Life as recognition for restoring order to France and ending the Revolutionary Wars. Since he pretty much had all the power he could wish for at this point, he wasn't all too keen on becoming hereditary Emperor of the French in 1804.
- Zeng Guofan was a Hunanese official, who raised a massive army from his home province that was completely loyal to him in order to crush the Taiping Rebellion. By the end of the war, the Qing Dynasty had almost no military force left, and had relied entirely on Zeng Guofan and the foreign-led Ever Victorious Army to fight the rebels; as the Qing were seen as outsiders by the Han Chinese, Zeng Guofan's brothers advised him to march north to Beijing, expel the Qing, and declare himself emperor. Horribly traumatized by the bloodiest civil war in history, Zeng Guofan declined, disbanded his army of 120,000, and was thereafter seen as a Category Traitor by his fellow Han Chinese for a century afterwards, although both the Republican and communist governments later praised Guofan as a hero.