Cincinnatus – the hero who saved Rome

‘Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was at the plough when he was notified of his election to that dictatorship’

In his treatise on Old Age, the Roman politician and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero cites the potent semi-legendary figure of Cincinnatus as an example of the joys of agriculture. He talks of the Roman Senators of the age being modest farmers, who delighted in the peace of cultivation and only engaged in public business at the request of the state as opposed to from some higher ambition or longing for power.

Cincinnatus defends his son

CincinnatusLucius Quinctius Cincinnatus first appears in the historical narrative of Livy (59 B.C – A.D. 17) trying to defend his son from a charge of treason (461 B.C.). As an aristocrat in times of conflict between the patrician and plebeian factions at Rome, the dangers of this social strife had been turned on his son for his popularity and strength in the aristocratic party. Cincinnatus eventually went into a voluntary exile but despite this the trial went ahead in his absence and he was forced to pay the fine; near bankrupting him. (Pictured is Cincinnatus receiving the Deputies of the Senate by Alexandre Cabanel, painted 1843. Click to enlarge).

Cincinnatus in office

A year later the civil disturbances continued with the seizure of the Capitoline Hill in Rome by one Herdonius. The plebeian representatives, the Tribunes, neither condoned nor attacked these actions and called for a refusal to fight on behalf of the Senate. Eventually an attack, with the help of Rome’s allies the Tusculans, displaced Herdonius and he was killed. After peace was restored elections were called and Cincinnatus was returned to one of the two positions of Consul (the most powerful magistrate in Rome).

Once in power Cincinnatus proceeded to attack the Senate more vehemently than even the plebeians. He criticised his son’s banishment and the divided nature of the political scene. His time in office was spent fighting against Rome’s enemies; the Aequians, and attempting to avert yet more civil strife.

Cincinnatus retires to his farm

After his appointed year in office Cincinnatus retired to his farm. Rome continued to fight both internally and externally. Military disaster followed when a Roman invasion force against the Aequians, led by the Consul Mincius, was trapped and another enemy, the Sabines, were nearly at Rome’s walls. In such a time of emergency a Dictator with supreme power could be elected by the senate. This, in 458 B.C., was the course of action they took and it was unanimously decided to send for Cincinnatus.

The Senate sends for Cincinnatus

A party of senators arrived at his farm (as depicted by Juan Antonio Ribera, c1806, pictured) and told him of the dangers threatening Rome. He was asked to save his country from these perils, a request to which he acquiesced after some initial surprise. After being given command of an army he marched towards where the Consul had been trapped and quickly routed the enemy. For such an amazing feat of arms he was allowed to ride through the city in triumph.

Cincinnatus the hero

In the space of just two weeks he had raised an army, crushed his enemy and laid down his office to return to farming. It is these events that were canonized as a moral example of how a Roman nobleman ought to behave. Such austerity and modesty were looked upon as characteristics of the ideal Roman citizen. It was thought that a Roman should only serve his country; not wish to have it serve him. Cincinnatus was a hero who did his duty and no more.

John B. Knight
See also The Fall of Rome and Marcus Tullius Cicero – a life in letters