There was a people near Rome named the Æqui, who were at one time friends and allies of the Romans. But they broke the treaty of peace they had made with Rome, and marched an army towards Tusculum. They burnt the villages, and plundered the people, and then pitched their camp on Mount Algidus. The Romans sent ambassadors to the camp of the Æqui, to complain of their having broken the treaty, and to ask that all the plunder should be given back to the people to whom it belonged.
The general of the Æqui only laughed at the Roman ambassadors, and bade them tell the message of the Senate to a great oak tree which grew near the camp, and not to him. The ambassadors were very angry at this, and called upon the gods to punish the Æqui, who had so broken their promises of friendship.
When the Senate heard of the way in which their messengers had been treated, they collected an army, and sent it against the Æqui, under the command of one of the consuls, Minucius. Unfortunately Minucius was a timid man, and though he marched towards Algidus, and pitched his camp not far from that of the Æqui, he was afraid to fight a battle with them. The Æqui soon found out that the Roman general was afraid of them, and they grew bold, and attacked the Roman camp. Although they could not take it by storm, they dug ditches, and built mounds all round it, so that the Roman army was closely shut up, and could not get out. But before he was quite shut up, Minucius sent five soldiers out of his camp. These men managed to get through the enemy's guards, and made all the haste they could to Rome.
They went at once to the Senate, and told them that the consul and his army were besieged in their camp by the Æqui. Great was the sorrow in Rome when this bad news was heard. The Senate resolved to choose a dictator, and no man seemed to them so fit for their chief as Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus.
A dictator of Rome was like a king in most ways. He could do what he pleased, and all men were bound to obey him—but this only lasted for six months. After that time he was no longer dictator, and he could be punished if he had done any wrong in his time of power.
Messengers were sent at once to tell Cincinnatus what was fixed. He did not live in Rome, but in a little cottage outside the walls where he had a small piece of land; for though he was of noble family he was a very poor man. The messengers found him hard at work, ploughing his little field. When they had greeted him, they bade him "put on his gown and hear what message the Senate sent him."
Cincinnatus was greatly surprised, and asked if all were well at Rome. Then he called to his wife Racilia to fetch him his gown out of the cottage, and having washed himself and put it on, he stood before the messengers. They told him that he was chosen to be dictator, and wished him joy.
"You must come at once to Rome," they said. "You are much wanted there, for the Consul Minucius and his troops are besieged in their camp by the Æqui, and you must lead an army to set them free."
So Cincinnatus went to Rome. His relations and friends and most of the senators came to the gates to meet him, and led him into the town. Next day he came into the Forum or market place before it was light. He chose for his Master of the Knights, Lucius Tarquitius, who was said to be the bravest of all the young men in Rome. Then he commanded that the shops should be shut, and that no work should be done in the town; but that all men who were of fit age to fight should come together before sunset in a field close to the walls called the Campus Martius, or Field of Mars. Each man was to bring with him his arms, food for five days, and twelve wooden stakes. The men who were too old or not strong enough to fight, were to collect the food for the soldiers.
All was done as the dictator ordered, and when the soldiers were met together, he came to them and spoke to them in these words—
"Soldiers, we must make all the haste we can, that we may attack the enemy this very night. For the consul and his army have been besieged for three days, and we know not what may happen. Make haste, standard-bearer. March on, soldiers!"
The troops were eager to obey, and shouted as their general had done,—
"Make haste, standard-bearer. March on, soldiers!"
So they departed from Rome, and in the middle of the night they got to Mount Algidus, where the consul was still surrounded by the army of the Æqui.
Then Cincinnatus rode all round the enemy's camp to see, as well as he could in the night-time, how it was placed. Next he drew all his army in a long train quite round the camp, and commanded that when he gave a signal each man should shout as loud as he could, and then set to work to make a ditch in front of himself, and set up his twelve stakes as a paling to defend it. When all was ready the dictator gave the signal, and the Romans shouted so loud that the noise they made was heard not only in the enemy's camp, but by the Consul Minucius and his soldiers. Glad enough were the imprisoned army to hear the shouts of their countrymen and to find that help was so near. Minucius called his men together—
"Let us lose no time," he cried; "these shouts not only tell us that our friends have come to help us; they show that the Romans have already begun the battle. Stand to your arms, then, and follow me."
By this time the Æqui were doing their best to stop the soldiers of Cincinnatus from fencing them in; but while they were fighting the dictator's men on one side, they were attacked on the other by Minucius and his followers, who now rushed out of their camp, eager to set themselves free. So the Æqui were between two Roman armies. They fought well, and the battle went on all night, but when day came they were forced to yield and to beg for peace from Cincinnatus.
The camp of the Æqui was full of provisions and spoil, and the Romans took possession of it when the battle was over. But Cincinnatus gave all the plunder to the soldiers of his own army, for he was still angry with the consul and his troops.
"You soldiers," he said to them, "were very nearly made prisoners yourselves, and the spoils of the enemy are not for you. And you, Minucius, shall only command your army under my orders, till you have learned to be as brave as a consul ought to be."
So Minucius had to give up being consul, but stayed with the army as the dictator had commanded.
Although Cincinnatus was a severe general, he was so brave a man and so good a soldier that the army loved and admired him, and to show him their gratitude for his having saved them they presented him with a golden crown.
When he came back to Rome he was met with great joy by the people and entered the city in triumph. He then gave up his power, after having been dictator for only sixteen days.