City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Victory of Cincinnatus

On the slopes of the mountains east of Rome, there lived a sturdy people called the Aequians. The Romans had to struggle with this people for many years after the driving out of their kings. As soon as one war with them was ended, another was sure to begin; and it was during one of these wars that a Roman named Cincinnatus made his name so famous that the Roman people loved to tell his story as long as their city lasted.

It happened once that a band of these Aequians marched into the Roman lands, and began to burn and plunder on every side. Now, a treaty of peace had been made between the Romans and the Aequians just the year before; so the Senate sent messengers to the intruders, to complain of their conduct.

When the messengers reached the camp of the Aequians, they found the chiefs of the band sitting in the shade of a great oak tree.

"Why do you come into our lands," the messengers asked, "making war in time of peace, and breaking the treaty which you have made with us? The Roman Senate demands that you make a return for what you have destroyed, and leave the country in peace."

The leader of the Aequians would hear no more than this.

"The Roman Senate!" he exclaimed in scorn. "Deliver to this oak tree whatever instructions you have brought from the Roman Senate, and in the meantime, I will attend to other matters!" And he turned away to leave them.

Then the Roman messengers also prepared to depart, for they saw that nothing could be done in the way of a peaceful settlement. But, as they turned to go, one of them cried:

"Let both this sacred oak and all the gods be witnesses that the treaty is broken by you; and so may they help our arms presently, when we shall seek to avenge ourselves."

Then they went away, and soon a Roman consul led an army against the Aequians. This consul was not a brave and ready man, as most of the Romans were, and the Aequians soon discovered that he was afraid to come to battle with them. Then they laid siege to his camp, and by throwing up earthworks around it, they had the army safe as if in a trap. Five of the Romans, however, succeeded in passing through the lines of the enemy, and hurried to the city with the news that the army was surrounded.

When the Romans heard this news, they were struck with dismay. The Senate was hurriedly called together, and they decided that a Dictator must be appointed; and Lucius Quintius, who was called "Cincinnatus, "on account of his crisp, curly hair, was the one whom they chose for that office.

Cincinnatus, though he was a good soldier and a patrician, was a poor man, and tilled his own little farm of four acres on the other side of the River Tiber. When the messengers of the Senate came, early in the morning, to announce to him that he had been appointed Dictator, they found him ploughing in the fields without his "toga," or gown. Before telling him their business, they bade him leave his work, and put on his toga, that he might listen with due respect to the commands of the Senate.

At this, Cincinnatus was astonished, and, asking frequently whether anything was the matter, he bade his wife bring his toga from his cottage. Then washing himself free from the dust and sweat of his work, he wrapped himself in his gown, as though he were in the Senate house, and listened to the messengers.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


They saluted him as Dictator, and, explaining the terror that ruled in the city, they bade him come to Rome and take the command. Cincinnatus obeyed, and went with them to the city, where he was met at the gates by his sons; and with twenty-four lictors marching on before him, he was escorted to his house in the city.

When the next day dawned, Cincinnatus went into the assembly of the people, and commanded all business to be stopped, and forbade any one from attending to his own affairs. Then he commanded that all who were of the age to act as soldiers should come together in the Field of Mars before sunset, with their arms, and with food for five days; and he ordered that each should bring with him twelve large wooden stakes. Those who were too old to act as soldiers he ordered to prepare the food for the other men, while these were busy cutting the stakes.

When the appointed time came, the men set out, with Cincinnatus marching before them, and bidding then hasten.

"The consul and his army have now been besieged three days," he said. "It is uncertain what each day and night may bring with it. You mist hasten, that we may reach the camp this very night, for often the gain of a moment will change defeat into victory."

And the men, to please their leader and encourage themselves, called to one another:

"Follow, soldiers! Hasten on!"

At midnight they reached the camp, where the Aequians were laying siege to the Romans. Cincinnatus first rode all around the place in order to discover, as well as he could in the darkness, how it was arranged. Then he drew his men silently in a long column around the camp, and directed that when the signal should be given, they should all raise a shout, and begin digging a trench and driving their stakes before it for defense.

When all was ready, the signal was given; and their shout rose through the silent night, terrifying the Aequians, and carrying joy to the hearts of the imprisoned consul and his army. These sprang to their feet, crying:

"That is the shout of our countrymen! Help is at hand! Let us also attack the enemy!"

Then the imprisoned Romans seized their arms, and rushed upon the Aequians just as they were turning to attack the soldiers of Cincinnatus. It was scarcely daylight before the Romans had conquered; for the Aequians were attacked from both sides at once, and were fighting unknown numbers in the darkness of the night.

After the battle was over, the enemies of the Romans were not destroyed, for Cincinnatus said:

"I want not the blood of the "Aequians. Let them depart in peace. But, before they go, we must have a confession that their nation is defeated and subdued. They must all pass under the yoke."

Then he ordered two spears to be driven into the earth, and a third one fastened across their tops; and under this all the Aequi were obliged to pass, without their arms, and with but one garment on their backs. This was meant to show to all the world that the Aequians were now as peaceful, and subdued as the patient oxen that ploughed the Roman fields with the yoke upon their necks.

Cincinnatus then prepared to return to Rome at once. He gave all the booty of the camp of the Aequians to his own soldiers, and punished the consul for his cowardice by giving him and his soldiers nothing.

When they reached the city, they found it full of joy at the rescue of its army. The Senate voted that Cincinnatus should enter Rome in triumph. So he marched into the city by the "Gate of Triumph," with the chiefs of the Aequians led before him, and the standards of the army carried around his car. The soldiers followed after, loaded down with their booty. Tables, covered with provisions, are said to have been laid out before the houses of all, and the soldiers were fed in abundance, as they followed the car of their general with shouts and rejoicing.

Cincinnatus, however, was not made over-proud by his great victory and by the honor that was shown him afterwards. On the sixteenth day after he had received the command, he laid down his power, and returned to his little farm and his ploughing; and he has been as much admired for this act as for his great success as a general.

At the close of the Revolutionary War, which made our country free from England, Washington and his companions did the same thing which you see Cincinnatus doing so many centuries before them. They gave up their places as generals and officers in the army, and went peacefully back to their farms and shops again. They thought of Cincinnatus at that time, and of how they were following his example; and they joined together and formed a society which they called the "Society of the Cincinnati," after this old Roman. This society, in its turn, gave its name to a city which bears it yet, the city of Cincinnati, in the state of Ohio. From this you can see how long a man's name may last in the world, if he is only strong and noble enough to do something which people will be glad to remember always.