While the Romans were at war with the Volscians, another tribe, called the Æquians, poured down from their mountain fastnesses and plundered and destroyed their land.
In 459 b.c. peace was made with these fierce mountaineers, and Rome hoped that her borders would no longer be disturbed.
But the Æquians were a restless people. They soon broke the treaty, and, led by their chief Clœlius, pitched their camp on one of the spurs of the Alban hills, and began to burn and plunder as of old.
The Romans, furious at this breach of faith, sent an embassy to demand redress.
But Clœlius mocked at the Roman ambassadors, and laughingly bade them lay their complaints before the oak-tree, under which his tent was pitched.
The angry ambassadors took the oak and all the gods to witness that it was not they but the Æquians who had broken the treaty and begun the war. Then hastening back to Rome, they told how insolently they had been treated.
An army, with the Consul Minucius at its head, was at once dispatched to punish the Æquians.
Clœlius was a skilful general, and as the Roman army advanced he slowly retreated into a narrow valley. The Romans foolishly followed the retreating Æquians, as Clœlius intended that they should.
When the enemy was in the midst of the valley, hemmed in by steep hills on either side, Clœlius ordered a band of soldiers to guard the end by which the Romans had entered. Minucius was caught in a trap.
But before the Æquian general had secured the end of the valley, five Roman soldiers had escaped, and these, putting spurs to their horses, rode swiftly to Rome to tell how the Consul and his army were ensnared.
As the terrible news spread, Rome was stricken with panic. She feared the enemy would soon be at her very gates, and their second Consul was far away, fighting against the Sabines.
In their dismay, the Senate determined to appoint a Dictator, who would have supreme authority as long as the country was in danger.
Neither the Senate nor the people had any doubt as to whom they should turn to in their trouble. There was one man only who could save the country. He was a noble patrician who had already held positions of trust in the State, and he was, too, a proved and experienced general.
Cincinnatus, or the Crisp-Haired, was the name of the man to whom the Senate now determined to send. This strange name had been given to him because his hair clustered in curls around his head. The family of the Cæsars also received their name from their curls.
When the messengers from Rome reached the home of the patrician it was still early morning, but Cincinnatus was already at work in his fields. For he, as many a noble Roman in the olden days, cultivated his own estate. As the heat was great, Cincinnatus had thrown aside his toga, and was digging with bare arms.
One of this household ran to the fields to tell that messengers had arrived from Rome and wished to speak with him.
So, putting on his toga that he might receive the messengers of the State in suitable guise, the simple-minded patrician hastened to the house.
No sooner did he hear that his country was in danger, and that he had been chosen Dictator, than he speedily went to Rome, where the people greeted him with shouts of joy.
Cincinnatus lost no time in assembling a new army. Going to the Forum, he ordered that the shops should be closed, and all business cease until Rome was safe.
All who could bear arms were told to assemble without delay on the Field of Mars, bringing with them twelve stakes for ramparts and food for five days.
That same evening, before the sun sank to rest, the new army had left Rome, and by midnight it was close to the valley in which Minucius, with his legions, lay entrapped.
Here the Dictator commanded his men to halt and throw their baggage in a heap. Then he ordered trenches to be dug round the enemy's camp, as noiselessly as might be, and the stakes they had brought with them to be driven into the ground.
When this was done, Cincinnatus bade his soldiers shout with all their strength. The noise aroused the Æquians, who sprang to their feet, and in terror seized their arms.
But the legions of Minucius also heard the shouts, and recognizing their own war-cry, they also grasped their weapons and attacked the Æquians.
They, seeing that they were surrounded by the enemy, with no way of escape possible, surrendered to the Dictator, begging him to be merciful.
Cincinnatus spared the lives of Clœlius and his soldiers, but he made the men pass under the yoke, after which they were allowed to find their way back to their mountain retreats.
The yoke was formed of three spears, and as the soldiers stooped to pass beneath this rough erection they had to lay aside their cloaks and surrender their arms.
Clœlius and the other leaders of the Æquians were kept prisoners.
Then the Dictator having freed his country from danger, returned in triumph to Rome. At the end of sixteen days he resigned the Dictatorship, and went back to his home, honoured by the people and crowned with glory.
Soon he was again to be seen digging or ploughing in his fields, contented as of yore.