Livy, Cincinnatus

A great force of Aequians marched nearly to the walls of the city and despoiled the fields.  This greatly disturbed the people, and terror overtook the city.  Then, the plebs seized their arms, and two large armies were levied…one of which was led by the consul Nautius.  Pitching his camp at Eretrum, he led several small expeditions and night raids in which he laid such waste to the enemy’s fields that Rome’s lands seemed untouched by comparison. 

The other army was led by the consul Minucius, who did not have as much luck and did not wage the war with as much vigor.  He pitched his camp near the enemy, but feared to leave it, even before any misfortune had befallen him.  When the Aequians sensed this fear, they grew bolder.  One night, they surrounded the Roman camp and put it under siege, but not before five Roman knights managed to escape and bring the news to Rome, which received it with shock and dismay, almost as if the city itself was besieged.  Nautius was summoned home, but he did not seem to be the man to save the city, so the people elected Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus as dictator.1

You who care only for riches and think that great honor and virtue must be accompanied with great wealth should listen to this story, for Rome’s last hope was a poor farmer who had a mere three acres of land.  When the senate’s messengers came to him at his farm across the Tiber, he was hard at work, either plowing his fields or digging a ditch.

Salve,” he greeted them, “What service might I be to the republic?”

“Put your toga on,” they replied, “and come to the senate.  You have been named dictator.  Hopefully, this will turn out well for both you and the republic.”

Cincinnatus ordered his wife to fetch his toga quickly, and he cleaned his sweaty and grimy face.  When he was dressed, the messengers explained the dire situation, congratulated him on being named dictator, and summoned him to the city.  He was supplied with a vessel at the public expense, and when he entered Rome, he was greeted by his three sons, some neighbors and friends, and most of the senators.  Surrounded by this crowd, the lictors led him to his house.  There was also an immense crowd of plebs, who were not happy about the dictator, for they thought that the power granted to Cincinnatus was excessive, and they were afraid of what he might do with it. 

Nothing was done that night except keeping watch.

Shortly before dawn the next day, Cincinnatus appointed Lucius Tarquitius as Master of the Horse.  Tarquitius was a patrician, but had served as a foot soldier on account of his poverty.  Nevertheless, he was considered the best Roman soldier.  Cincinnatus entered the forum, proclaimed a cessation of public business, ordered the taverns closed, and forbid the conducting of any private business.  He ordered all men of military age to arm themselves, procure five days rations, find twelve large stakes and then come to the Campus Martius before sundown.2 The older men were to cook food for their younger comrades.  Everyone ran here and there, carrying out the dictator’s edict. 

Cincinnatus drew up his ranks so as to be able to both march and fight if need be, personally leading the legions while Tarquitius led the cavalry.  Cincinnatus urged both ranks to move quickly, so that the army might reach the enemy by nightfall.

“The consul and Roman army have been besieged for three days,” he warned the soldiers, “and we do not know what another day might bring, for great affairs often hinge on good timing.”

The soldiers thus urged each other on.  “Hurry, standard bearer,” they called. 

“Follow, soldiers,” he replied. 

 They reached the enemy in the middle of the night.  Then the dictator rode round the enemy camp to see its shape and size as well as he could in the dark.  He ordered that the baggage be thrown into one pile and the infantry ready their arms and stakes.  The Romans surrounded the enemy camp, then the dictator ordered everyone to make a big war cry, dig a ditch in front of themselves, and fix their stakes.  This war cry could be heard in both the enemy camp, where it created great fear, and Minucius’ camp, where it created great joy.  Seeing that help had come, the besieged Romans ventured out beyond their stations.  Minucius thought the battle had already begun, so he ordered his men to take up their arms and follow him.

Thus, a clamor arose from Minucius’ army, and the dictator realized that the fight was on.  The Aequians turned to fight Minucius’ army in order to prevent them from breaking out; this gave Cincinnatus a free hand, and by dawn, he had the enemy completely surrounded.  The Aequians could barely hold up against one army by this point, much less two.  At this moment, Cincinnatus attacked and started a second front.  Pressed hard on both their interior and exterior, the Aequians asked for terms from the consul, begging to be allowed to retreat.  Minucius told them to ask Cincinnatus.

The angry Cincinnatus wanted to shame them, so he ordered their commander and all the other leading men to be led to him in chains and the town of Corbio to be emptied.  He did not make the Aequians pay with their blood, but to show that they had been conquered, he made them retreat under a giant yoke constructed out of spears. 

The Aequians had left without their baggage, and the Romans found a rich booty in their camp.  Cincinnatus gave all the booty to his own soldiers, scolding the consul and his army with these words, “You will get none of this booty, soldiers.  You will not make prey of an enemy whose prey you nearly were.  And you, Lucius Minucius, until you start acting like a consul, you will command these legions as a staff officer.”  Minucius gave up his consulship, though Cincinnatus ordered him to remain with the army.

At that time, the Romans were more obedient to authority than they are today, and they valued what Cincinnatus had done for them more than they detested the shame he had imposed on them.  Thus, they decreed that the dictator should receive a one-pound crown of gold, and they saluted him as their patron when he left camp.  At Rome, Cincinnatus led his ranks in a triumph, with the enemy leaders and standards in front of the chariots and the booty-laden army behind.  People laid out suppers for the soldiers, and the suppers were followed by triumphal songs and solemn games.  By universal consent, the city gave freedom to Lucius Maximilius Tusculano.  The dictator would have immediately laid down his power if it were not for the need to try Marcus Volscius.  Fear of the dictator prevented the tribunes from impeding this trial, and Volscius was condemned and sent into exile in Lanuvium.   Cincinnatus had been granted dictatorial powers for sixth months, but after sixteen days, he gave up his powers and [returned to his farm].

  1. In Ancient Rome, the dictatorship was an office that gave the holder absolute power.  It was only supposed to be used during emergencies and only supposed to be held for a limited time.
  2. The Campus Martius was the field on the far side of the Tiber on which the Romans performed their military exercises.