The Society of the Cincinnati took its name from the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a hero of the Roman Republic. In the fifth century BC, the Roman Senate called on Cincinnatus to lead the army of the republic against foreign invaders and granted him dictatorial powers to deal with the crisis facing Rome. After leading the army to victory, he resigned his commission, returned power to the Senate, and retired to his farm, refusing rewards for serving the republic. For the classical world, Cincinnatus was the embodiment of civic virtue—characterized by a willingness to sacrifice private interest and private gain for the good of the public.

Cincinnatus and the characteristics he demonstrated—humility, unselfish personal sacrifice, commitment to the public welfare, and the subordination of the military to civilian rule—were admired and emulated by the leaders of the American Revolution. They believed that these characteristics were essential to the survival of republican government. George Washington, who refused to accept a salary for leading the Continental Army and conducted himself with humility and in strict subordination to the will of Congress, was widely celebrated as an American Cincinnatus. The founders of the Society referred to themselves as "Cincinnati"—a plural form of the name Cincinnatus—to indicate their commitment to the virtues of the Roman hero.

The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, also took its name from Cincinnatus and the Society of the Cincinnati. In 1790 Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory (which included present-day Ohio) and president of the State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, gave the town its current name. The name Cincinnati honored the Society and its members, who settled in large numbers in the towns of the Northwest Territory.