Where’s our Cincinnatus when we need him?
In a prior post I promised to tell the story of Cincinnatus, a famous Roman politician and leader. He had a distinguished political career, serving as consul of Rome when he was 59. He was admired for preventing a code of laws being enacted that would have given the Roman aristocracy a separate legal code than that which applied to commoners. And while this made him popular and respected, the rich and powerful were frustrated by him and basically forced him out of office and into retirement and exile. Cincinnatus remained a respected figure though, and people often came to him on his small farm on the far side of the Tiber to ask his advice.
This was early in Rome’s history, 457 BC to be exact, and Rome was just a small but ambitious city state in central Italy. Now Rome had gotten itself in a war with a hill tribe called the Aequians, and a Roman army and one of the two Roman consuls marched off to do battle. They walked into a trap though, and before they were completely surrounded a few horsemen managed to escape and get word to Rome. This grim news was not well received, in fact this was one of those situations in history where things were so bad that no one wanted to take charge. The army was trapped, Rome was defenceless. What to do? So the Senate instructed the remaining consul to appoint a dictator, since he apparently wasn’t up to the job. He appointed Cincinnatus…who conveniently wasn’t around to be asked what he thought of the idea.
A delegation from the Senate headed out to see Cincinnatus. He was literally ploughing his fields when they arrived. He was a bit surprised to say the least, and when they asked him to put on his toga and hear the proclamation of the Senate, Cincinnatus was reported to have cried out “Is everything all right?” He called for his wife to bring him his toga, and then heard the request of the Senate. He wasn’t required to accept, in fact accepting might mean starvation for his family if his fields weren’t ploughed and planted, but he didn’t hesitate. He went back with the delegation, and crossed the Tiber and entered Rome. Several lictors (bodyguards) were assigned to him.
The next morning he went to the forum, the central square of Rome, and nominated Lucius Tarquitius as Master of the Horse, or second in command. Lucius Tarquitius was so poor he didn’t even own his own horse, but he was widely regarded as one of the finest soldiers in Rome. Then Cincinnatus went to the popular assembly and ordered that every man of military age present himself the next day with five days food and twelve stakes, a well as what weapons and armour they had. People all set out to do what he had asked, though it should be mentioned that a lot of folks had doubts about the wisdom of giving anyone absolute power.
He then marched off to war, and caught the Aequians completely by surprise with a two pronged attack. It was so devastating that the enemy general, Gracchus Cloelius, begged for mercy. Cincinnatus, not being inclined to slaughter people unnecessarily, said he would spare them if they submitted to Rome’s rule. A yoke or arch was set up with three spears, and the Aequian’s leaders passed under it while swearing fealty to Rome.
Then Cincinnatus and the army went home to Rome and were greeted as heroes. At this point Cincinnatus could have made himself King or dictator for life, as his word was law. And many would have welcomed and supported him as King. He didn’t, and after just sixteen days as dictator Cincinnatus resigned from the job and returned home to his little farm.
It’s an amazing story. How much is true and how much is legend is subject to debate, in fact purists may note I have used a bit of poetic licence here and there. In any event, the basic facts of the story are believed to be true, and here is no doubt that Cincinnatus was a remarkable man, and a true leader who put the needs of his people ahead of his own. I’d vote for him.
The original story can be read here.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, it’s a low resolution copy of the original, and the original artist artist died in 1860. Credit: Juan-Antonio Ribera-y-Fernandez. The original is hanging in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. And yes, he was at least 60 when these events transpired, some say 80, so the artist has used a little artistic license here. Or Cincinnatus was one remarkably youthful looking old man.)