Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Cincinnatus, The Man From The Plough

The Romans dwelt on the plain of La'ti-um, and the ∆'qui-ans lived farther up among the hills. If the two peoples could have met face to face and fought an open battle, there is little doubt that the Romans would have won; but the mountaineers could easily slip down from their hiding places, burn the farmhouses, raid the cornfields, and be off again before the Romans were fully aware of what they were about. A treaty was made between the two peoples, and for a while there was peace. Then the ∆quians began again their old tricks of burning and plundering. The Romans sent envoys to complain that they had not kept the treaty. The envoys climbed up among the hills to the summit of Mount Al'gi-dus, and there was the ∆quian camp. Grac'chus, the commander, was sitting in his tent, which was pitched under a great oak tree. He well knew why the envoys had come; but he had been so successful that he was beginning to despise the Romans. He said scornfully, "I am busy with other matters, and I cannot hear you. You would better tell your message to the oak tree." Then one of the envoys burst out, "Yes, the sacred oak shall hear, and the gods shall hear how treacherously you have broken the peace; and they will avenge it, for you have broken the laws of gods and men."

When the envoys told the story in Rome of the insolence of Gracchus, the Roman consul Mi-nu'ci-us set off at once with his soldiers to overpower this treacherous foe. Gracchus was a skillful commander. He pretended to be retreating, and the Romans pursued. They were so angry and indignant that they hardly heeded where they were going; and before they realized it, the wily ∆quians had led them into a long, narrow valley. The hills were in front and on both sides of them; and on these hills were the hardy mountaineers. Moreover, Gracchus sent some of his men around to close up the pass through which they had entered the valley. The mountains were bleak and desolate, and the valley was bare of food for either horses or men. Gracchus quietly waited. The Romans were trapped, and when they were hungry enough, they would surrender; there was no need of his doing anything.

Gracchus was a keen, shrewd soldier, but he did not know that before the Romans were completely shut in, five horsemen had slipped out and had galloped away to Rome as fast as their horses could carry them. They told the story of the terrible condition of the consul Minucius and his soldiers. The other consul was with his army some little distance from Rome. He was sent for in haste, and he came at full speed to consult with the senate and decide what was the best thing to do.

Roman in a toga


When the Romans were in great difficulties and some one must do something on the instant, they had a custom of choosing the man whom they thought wisest and naming him dictator. So long as the danger lasted, he could give what orders he chose, and even the highest magistrates must obey him. Now was certainly the time for a dictator. The consul and the senators talked together through the night. They agreed that the man who would be most likely to think of a way to help them was one Lu'ci-us Quin'ti-us, and they decided to make him dictator. Then the consul mounted his horse and hastened away so as to be with his army again before the sun should rise. This Lucius Quintius was called Cin-cin-na'tus, or the curly-haired. He was a man held in much respect in Rome, but some time before this he had left the city and gone to live on his little farm of four acres just across the Tiber. It is possible that he did this because of being obliged to pay a large fine for his son, who got into some political trouble; and it is possible that he merely wished to go away from the turmoil of the city into the quiet of the country. However that may be, he and his wife dwelt contentedly on their little farm. Cincinnatus was a patrician, that is, one of the nobles of Rome; but he was satisfied to till his own ground and live like any countryman.

On the morning after the meeting of the consul and the senate, Cincinnatus was at work in his field ploughing, when he saw some of the principal men of the city coming toward him. He gave them a friendly greeting; but he must have seen from their faces that business of moment was on foot, for he asked anxiously if any evil had befallen the state. Then one of the men spoke formally and said, "Listen to the commands of the senate, for we are its ambassadors." A message from the senate could not be delivered to a man in a tunic; so Cincinnatus called to his wife to bring him his toga. When he had put it on, the ambassadors told him what had happened, and that he had been appointed dictator. He left his plough in the furrow and went down to the bank of the Tiber. A boat was waiting to carry him across; and on the farther shore stood his three sons, his kinsmen, and nearly all the chief men of Rome. He was escorted up the street by twenty-four officers called lictors, each bearing a bundle of rods with an axe in its centre, to show that he had power to punish and even to inflict death if it was deserved.

Cincinnatus was a man who could think fast. He went straight to the forum and ordered every shop to be shut up and even the courts to be closed. Every man in Rome who was able to bear arms was commanded to take food for five days, and with that and twelve long sharp stakes to meet on the Cam'pus Mar'ti-us before sunset. The dictator had acted so promptly and the Romans had obeyed with such good will that as the sun went down, they were ready to set out, and before the night was half gone, they had come to Mount Algidus. He led his men entirely around the camp of Gracchus. Then he gave a signal; and at this signal every man shouted with all his might, then set to work to dig a ditch in front of him and drive down his twelve sharp stakes. The ∆quians heard this shout, and they were alarmed, because it came from all sides, and they knew that they were surrounded. The consul and his men, shut up in the valley, heard it also. "It is the shout of the Romans," they cried, and they sent back a ringing answer. They burst out upon the enemy with fresh courage, and they fought so savagely that Gracchus had all he could do to oppose then. This gave Cincinnatus just the chance that he wanted; and in the morning Gracchus found his troops surrounded by a palisade, a ditch, and a line of valiant soldiers. There was nothing to do but to surrender and beg for mercy. Cincinnatus first ordered that Gracchus and the other chiefs should be brought to him in bonds. Then he set two spears upright in the ground and bound a third across their tops. The ∆quians were forced to give up their arms and cloaks and all the spoil of their camp and march under this yoke, as it was called. This was the greatest shame that could befall an army; and the conquered mountaineers went home bowed down with disgrace.

Claudine Fork


The men who had been shut up in the valley could not do enough to show their gratitude to Cincinnatus. They voted to present him with a golden crown, and on the march back to Rome they were continually bursting out with shouts of "Hail, hail, our father and our protector!" The senate decreed that so brilliant a victory as this deserved a triumph, that is, a grand procession of the victors and their spoils; and so Cincinnatus and his soldiers entered the city in great glory. First came the ∆quian chiefs, walking in their bonds, then the captured standards. After them rode Cincinnatus in his chariot, followed by his men, who were singing a song of triumph and displaying their loads of spoils from the camp and the conquered enemy. The citizens spread tables in front of their doors with meat and drink for the soldiers in great abundance, and the whole city was full of feasting and songs of rejoicing. Cincinnatus must have been happy in the knowledge that he had saved his fellow citizens and had brought honor and spoils to Rome; but as soon as he was free to go home again, he went quietly across the Tiber and probably set to work to finish his ploughing.


Trouble between Romans and ∆quians. — The visit to the camp of Gracchus. — The entrapping of Minucius. — The anxiety in Rome. — Choosing a dictator. — Cincinnatus. — The coming of the ambassadors. — The orders of Cincinnatus. — The capture of the ∆quians. — The honors shown to Cincinnatus.