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The International Writers Magazine: History - From Our Archives

• James Morford
In 5th Century B.C. Rome lived a farmer named Cincinnatus. In 458 BC Cincinnatus was suddenly elevated to Dictator of Rome, and asked to save the city-state from foreign conquest. He did just that, refused public honors and material awards for his accomplishment, and l6 days after becoming Dictator resigned and returned to his farm.


When contrasted with today’s politics, this story sounds not only wonderfully odd, but too good to be true. The difference between Cincinnatus and politicians that clutter our contemporary talk show media 24/7 is profound: Cincinnatus gave no “exclusive interviews,” and hawked no slanted memoirs. Wading through turgid five volume biographies written by power-worshiping authors is not required for efficacy. There is no daily spin that limits our concentration and stretches our deciphering (Difficult to imagine a modern government without spin. To understand what is really going happening is like viewing photographs of the old Kremlin Politburo on the reviewing podium. If in the photo, the third bureaucrat standing from Stalin used to stand in fourth position, he has moved up in the Byzantine Soviet world. But how far up? An interpreter’s art). Cincinnatus did his duty and returned to the plough.

Admittedly, reality makes the tale hard to swallow. We are asked to believe that twenty-five hundred years ago a man volunteered and successfully completed a difficult and dangerous governmental task, accepted no reward, and then resigned to continue operating a small farm. Is it possible? Or has exaggeration manufactured a myth?

Ancient historians believe it true. They say in 5th Century BC there lived West of the river Tiber, a Roman citizen named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (Cincinnatus, denoting curly hair, his nickname) who owned and worked a small 3 acre farm (now known as Quinitian Meadows). On a day In 458 BC a mission from the Roman Senate journeyed to the farm to ask Cincinnatus become dictator of the state. (A Roman Dictator had complete control of government functions and could command an army). The mission found him laboring in the field. They informed a sweat soaked Cincinnatus that a Roman Consul Army had been surrounded by a hill tribe named Aeqvian, and soon faced extinction. Would Cincinnatus take command and exercise “imperium”? “Imperium” meant total power and, of course, responsibility for a state military defeat.

Without hesitating, Cincinnatus told Racilia, his wife, to go to their house and bring back his toga. Accompanied by his fellow Romans, Cincinnatus sailed the Tiber to Rome to take command of the government and defeat the Aequians. He knew his absence meant nobody would work his farm, and that it could be his ruin.

It must be reported Cincinnatus had not always been a farmer. Three years previous he had been one of two Consuls of the young Roman Republic. He was much admired for his leadership mainly because he prevented Rome from falling under a code of Laws giving aristocrats more rights than commoners. In retaliation, the aristocrats drove him from office. But after leaving office, Cincinnatus was far from shunned by his countrymen. From every economic and political class in Rome, men traveled to his farm seeking advice and judgment. Now the mission delegates told him he needed to save the city-state of Rome, and of course, thereby, themselves.

Arriving in Rome, Cincinnatus quickly began organizing his army. He chose Master of the Horse, his second in command, Lucius Tarquitius, a patrician considered the finest soldier in Rome, but himself so poor he didn’t own a horse and had been reduced to an average infantryman.

That next day Cincinnatus arrived at the Forum before dawn. He issued public instructions that all legal business be suspended, all shops closed with no private business transacted, and all men of military age parade before sunset in the Campus Martius with their equipment, each having 5 days bread rations and 5 stakes with them.

The soldiers scurried around Rome to find the stakes needed. They found citizens more than willing to offer them (although many dubious of giving Cincinnatus so much power). The men were then assembled into an Army, and with Tarquitius heading the cavalry and Cincinnatus the infantry, marched off to confront the Aequians. In a day’s battle named Mons Algidus, Rome’s victory was absolute, the entire Aequian army either killed or surrendered. Their commander, Gracchus, begged Cincinnatus spare his life and the lives of his remaining troops. Cincinnatus agreed, but on the condition the Aequian army be brought before him in chains and pass under a yoke (constructed like a crossbar in American football) and confess their defeat. Following the confessions, Cincinnatus let his army plunder the enemy’s camp, taking nothing for himself.
Quintus Fabius, Rome’s City Prefect, decreed Cincinnatus enter Rome in a “Triumph” (a victory parade and high honor).

At the Triumph, first came the enemy commander, followed by their military standards, and then the Roman Army loaded by spoils. Cincinnatus, riding in a chariot, was the last member of the Triumph.
That day in in the entire city not one house failed to offer a table of food for the conquering heroes. A grateful Rome lay prostrate before Cincinnatus.

The Romans may have admired their Dictator but they didn’t understand the true quality of the man. His job completed, after finishing administrative duties, Cincinnatus surprised everyone by returning to his farm just 16 days from the date of his acceptance of the Dictatorship.

Cincinnatus has come down through the ages as a name symbolizing what true leadership is all about. George Washington considered him a role model, and although marrying money (Martha’s), and therefore thought the first American millionaire, Washington’s leadership had something of the Cincinnatus about it. He refused to become king, and giving up civic affairs at the end of his Presidency, retired and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. A large expensive farm it is true, but a farm all the same.

So as to the historical veracity of deeds done by a Roman named Cincinnatus, where are we? Perhaps it’s best we not be too analytical. Let us believe what ancient historians report as fact, and move on. History is nightmarish enough to disbelieve such a singularly moral tale.

© James Morford November 2012
jamesmorford at hotmail.com

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