In the old days of Rome, not far from the time when Coriolanus yielded up his revenge at his mother's entreaty, the Roman state possessed a citizen as patriotic as Coriolanus was proud, and who did as much good as the other did evil to his native land. This citizen, Lucius Quinctius by name, was usually called Cincinnatus, or the "crisp-haired," from the fact that he let his hair grow long, and curled and crisped it so carefully as to gain as much fame for his hair as for his wisdom and valor.
Cincinnatus was the simplest and least ambitious of men. He cared nothing for wealth, and had no craving for city life, but dwelt on his small farm beyond the Tiber, which he worked with his own hands, content, so his crops grew well, to let the lovers of power and wealth pursue their own devices within the city walls. But he was soon to be drawn from the plough to the sword.
While Cincinnatus was busy ploughing his land, Rome kept at its old work of ploughing the nations. War at this time broke out with the Æquians, a neighboring people; but for this war the Æquians were to blame. They had plundered the lands of some of the allies of Rome, and when deputies were sent to complain of this wrong, Gracchus, their chief, received them with insulting mockery.
He was sitting in his tent, which was pitched in the shade of a great evergreen oak, when the deputies arrived.
"I am busy with other matters," he answered them; "I cannot hear you; you had better tell your message to the oak yonder."
"Yes," said one of the deputies, "let this sacred oak hear, and let all the gods hear also, how treacherously you have broken the peace. They shall hear it now, and shall soon avenge it; for you have scorned alike the laws of the gods and of men."
The deputies returned to Rome, and reported how they had been insulted. The senate at once declared war, and an army was sent towards Algidus, where the enemy lay. But Gracchus, who was a skilled soldier, cunningly pretended to be afraid of the Romans, and retreated before them, drawing them gradually into a narrow valley, on each side of which rose high, steep, and barren hills.
When he had lured them fairly into this trap, he sent a force to close up the entrance of the valley. The Romans suddenly found that they had been entrapped into a cul-de-sac, with impassable hills in front and on each side, and a strong body of Æquians guarding the entrance to the ravine. There was neither grass for the horses nor food for the men. Gracchus held not only the entrance, but the hilltops all round, so that escape in any direction was impossible. But before the road in the rear was quite closed up five horsemen had managed to break out; and these rode with all speed to Rome, where they told the senate of the imminent danger of the consul and his army.
These tidings threw the senate into dismay. What was to be done? The other consul was with his army in the country of the Sabines. He was at once sent for, and hastened with all speed to Rome. Here a consultation took place, which ended in the leading senators saying, "There is only one man who can deliver us. We must make Lucius Quinctius Master of the People." Master of the People meant in Rome what we now mean by Dictator,—that is, a man above the law, an autocrat supreme. What service this unambitious tiller of the ground had previously done for Rome to make him worthy this distinction we are not told, but it is evident that he was looked upon as the man of highest wisdom and soldiership in Rome.
Caius Nautius, the consul, appointed Cincinnatus to this high office, as he alone was privileged to do, and then hastened back to his army. Early the next morning deputies from the senate sought the farm of the new dictator, to apprise him of the honor conferred on him. Early as it was, Cincinnatus was already at work in his fields. He was without his toga, or cloak, and vigorously digging in the ground with his spade, never dreaming that he, a simple husbandman, had been chosen to save a state.
"We bring you a message from the senate," said the deputies. "You must put on your cloak to receive it with the fitting respect."
"Has evil befallen the state?" asked the farmer, as he bade his wife to bring him his cloak. When he had put it on he returned to the deputies.
"Hail to you, Lucius Quinctius!" they now said. The senate has declared you Master of the People, and have sent us to call you to the city; for the consul and the army in the country of the Æquians are in imminent danger."
Without further words, Cincinnatus accompanied them to the boat in which they had crossed the Tiber, and was rowed in it to the city. As he left the boat he was met by a deputation consisting of his three sons, his kinsmen and friends, and many of the senators of Rome. They received him with the highest honor, and led him in great state to his city residence, the twenty-four lictors walking before him, with their rods and axes, while a great multitude of the people crowded round with shouts of welcome. The presence of the lictors signified that this plain farmer had been invested with all the power of the former kings.
The new dictator quickly proved himself worthy of the trust that had been placed in him. He chose at once as his Master of the Horse Lucius Tarquitius, a brave man, of noble descent, but so poor that he had been forced to serve among the foot-soldiers instead of the horse. Then the two entered the Forum, where orders were given that all booths should be closed and all lawsuits stopped. All men were forbidden to look after their own affairs while a Roman army lay in peril of destruction.
Orders were next given that every man old enough to go to battle should appear before sunset with his arms and with five days' food in the Field of Mars, and should bring with him twelve stakes. These they were to cut where they chose, without hinderance from any person. While the soldiers occupied themselves in cutting these stakes, the women and older men dressed their food. Such haste was made, under the energetic orders of the dictator, that an army was ready, equipped as commanded, in the Field of Mars before the sun had set. The march was at once begun, and was continued with such rapidity that by midnight the vicinity of Algidus was reached. On the enemy being perceived, a halt was called.
Cincinnatus now rode forward and inspected the camp of the enemy, so far as it could be seen by night. He then ordered the soldiers to throw down their baggage, and to keep only their arms and stakes. Marching stealthily forward, they now extended their lines until they had completely surrounded the hostile camp. Then, upon a given signal, a simultaneous shout was raised, and each soldier began to dig a ditch where he stood and to plant his stakes in the ground.
The shout rang like a thunder-clap through the camp of the Æquians, waking them suddenly and filling them with dismay. It also reached the ears of the Romans who lay in the valley, and inspired them with hope, for they recognized the Roman war-cry. They raised their own battle-shout in response, and, seizing their arms, sallied out and made a fierce attack upon the foe, fighting so desperately that the Æquians were prevented from interrupting the work of the outer army. All the remainder of the night the battle went on, and when day broke the Æquians found that a ditch and a palisade of stakes had been made around their entire camp.
This work accomplished, Cincinnatus ordered his men to attack the foe, and thus aid their entrapped countrymen. The Æquians, finding themselves between two armies, and as closely walled in as the Romans in the valley had before been, fell into a panic of hopelessness, threw down their arms, and begged their foes for mercy. Cincinnatus now signalled for the fighting to cease, and, meeting those who came to ask on what terms he would spare their lives, said,—
"Give me Gracchus and your other chiefs bound. As for you, you can have your lives on one condition. I will set two spears upright in the ground, and put a third spear across, and every man of you, giving up your arms and your cloaks, shall pass under this yoke, and may then go away free."
To go under the yoke was accounted the greatest dishonor to a soldier. But the Æquians had no alternative and were obliged to submit. They delivered up to the Romans their king and their chiefs, left their camp with all its spoil to the foe, and passed without cloaks or arms under the crossed spears. Their heads bowed with shame. They then went home, leaving their chiefs as Roman prisoners. Thus was Gracchus punished for his pride.
In less than a day's time Cincinnatus had saved a Roman army and humiliated the Æquian foe. As for the battle-spoils, he distributed them among his own men, giving none to the consul's army, and degraded the consul, making him his under-officer. He then marched the two armies back to Rome, which he reached that same evening, and where he was received with as much astonishment as joy. The rescued army were too full of thankfulness at their escape to feel chagrin at their loss of spoil, and voted to give Cincinnatus a golden crown, calling him their protector and father.
The senate decreed that Cincinnatus should enter the city in triumph. He rode in his chariot through the gates, Gracchus and the chiefs of the Æquians being led in fetters before him. In front of all the standards were borne, while in the rear marched the soldiers, laden with their spoil. At the door of every house tables were set, with meat and drink for the soldiers, while the people, singing and rejoicing, danced with joy as they followed the conqueror's chariot, and all Rome was given up to feasting and merry-making.
As for Cincinnatus, he laid down his power and returned to his farm, glad to have rescued a Roman army, but caring nothing for the pomp and authority he might have gained. And for all we know, he lived and died thereafter a simple tiller of the ground.