Republic in Crisis
The Roman republic was on the ropes in 458 BC. A slave rebellion had captured Capitoline Hill itself, and gangsters were calling the tune in the Temple of Jupiter. Foreign raiders brought trade and supply to a standstill, and negotiated with compromised rich merchants to fund the invasion. A neighboring rival, Aequi, had broken its truce with Rome, and was running roughshod over Rome’s demoralized army.
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus had already washed his hands of the political hardball in Rome that had taken his son’s life, and retired to family property west of the Tiber River. He was at the plow when a delegation from the Roman Senate came out to speak to him.
“Is everything all right?” he asked the worried visitors. They requested he dress in his ceremonial Senate toga, to receive an official communication from the supreme council of the Roman state. Cincinnatus sent his wife to their house to bring back his toga, then received the unwelcome news that the Senate had appointed him Dictator of the crumbling republic.
He moved quickly. Step one was universal conscription. On the morning after he crossed the river back into Rome, he ordered all men of military age to assemble on the Field of Mars that very day. The draftees were ordered to pack five days’ rations, although many felt they were marching to their death far sooner than five days.
Roman soldiers customarily brought a vallum, a sharpened pole or stake used to fortify camps during campaigns in hostile territory. But Cincinnatus told his cavalry commander to order the men to bring 12 stakes apiece instead of one.
There was grumbling, and despair. But they came. While other Roman generals dithered and procrastinated, Cincinnatus marched hard, directly at the Aequi invaders on Mount Algidus where they had cornered a desperate Roman army. After his forces located the Aequi army and evening came, their work was just beginning.
Cincinnatus besieged the besiegers. He ordered his men to drive in their 12 stakes overnight to constrict the enemy’s movement and prevent their escape. The Aequi invaders would have to fight for their lives, or surrender. They tried to break out, but the drafted Romans repeatedly beat them back.
With the surrendered Aequi men at their mercy, the Romans plundered their belongings but there was no mass slaughter. As a condition of amnesty, Cincinnatus required that they execute three of their worst instigators, and that they surrender their leaders to the Romans. These surely wished they had been fortunate enough to be be executed with the others.
The vanquished Aequi invaders were required to march under a long row of crossed swords held by the triumphant Roman draftees, held low enough that the warlike Aequi men had to stoop in unmistakable submission to the shopkeepers and laborers who had defeated them against all odds.
There were triumphal parades through Rome, with captured Aequi leaders on display before their penalties were executed. And I like to think the Romans had something special for those rich merchants who were willing to help the invaders destroy their republic.
Fifteen days after the unsmiling Senate delegation waved to Cincinnatus across his field, he disbanded his army, sent his men home to their families and resigned as Dictator. On the 16th day, he was back at his plow.
It goes without saying that there are revisionist scholars who dispute some of the specifics of this story. Some deny it in its entirety. It’s the nature of social science scholarship, especially history, that you need to make bold claims contradicting conventional beliefs. It’s how you get job stability (academic tenure), how you avoid academic oblivion.
I don’t pretend to have any special expertise on ancient Rome, and so I offer no opinion on any of the revisionism. All I can say is that it’s a very hopeful story 2,478 years later. It suggests that even when the cause appears to be lost, purposeful citizens in a republic can mobilize under the right plan to reclaim their sovereignty, repel their invaders and overcome the sloth of their allies to subdue evil-doers. That’s great news in 2020.