The account of his service to his country was written of by the Roman historian, Livy, and is reproduced below.
Italy, 458 B.C.
The Senate, on the envoys’ return, instructed one consul to proceed against Gracchus and the other to direct an invasion of Aequian territory. The tribunes proved true to form by trying to obstruct the raising of troops—and might, indeed, have succeeded, had not a fresh cause for alarm presented itself in an unexpected move by the Sabines. A large force of these people penetrated nearly to the walls of Rome; crops in the countryside were ruined and everyone in the City felt this his safety seriously threatened.
In these circumstances the commons were willing enough to enlist and despite the tribunes’ protests two large armies were enrolled, one of which, under Nautius’s command, took the field against the Sabines. Nautius fortified a position at Eretum and proceeded to send out a series of raiding-parties, usually under cover of darkness, into enemy territory; these parties, none of which was numerically strong, did so much damage that the Sabine raids on Roman territory seemed to have been comparatively harmless. Minucius, on the other hand, whether by ill luck or lack of enterprise, was less successful, but quite minor, engagement he refused to take any further risks and stayed within the fortifications of his camp, not far from the enemy lines. Such timidity, naturally enough, was a fillip to the enemy’s confidence, and they boldly attacked Minucius’s camp during the night. The attack failed, but next day they set to work to wall him in with earthworks; before these were completed and every exit barred, five men were ordered out to ride through the enemy posts and carry to Rome the news that the consul and his army were under siege. Nothing could have been more unexpected. The city was thrown into a state of turmoil, and the general alarm was as great as if Rome herself were surrounded. Nautius was sent for, but it was quickly decided that he was not the man to inspire full confidence; the situation evidently called for a dictator, and, with no dissentient voice, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was named for the post.
Now I would solicit the particular attention of those numerous people who imagine that money is everything in the world, and that rank and ability are inseparable from wealth: let them observe that Cincinnatus, the one man in whom Rome repose all her hope of survival, was at that moment working a little three-acre farm (now known as the Quinctian meadows) west of the Tiber, just opposite the spot where the shipyards are today.
A mission from the city found him at work on his land—digging a ditch, maybe, or ploughing. Greetings were exchanged, and he was asked—with a prayer for God’s blessing on himself and his country—to put on his toga and hear the Senate’s instructions. This naturally surprised him, and, asking if all were well, he told his wife Racilia to run to their cottage and fetch his toga. The toga was brought, and wiping the grimy sweat from his hands and face he put it on; at once the envoys from the city saluted him, with congratulations, as Dictator, invited him to enter Rome, and informed him of the terrible danger of Minucius’s army.
A state vessel was waiting for him on the river, and on the city bank he was welcomed by his three sons who had come to meet him, then by other kinsmen and friends, and finally by nearly the whole body of senators. Closely attended by all these people and preceded by his lictors he was then escorted to his residence through streets lined with great crowds of common folk who, be it said, were by no means so pleased to see the new Dictator, as they thought his power excessive and dreaded the way in which he was likely to use it.
Next day, after a quiet night in which nothing was done beyond keeping careful watch, the Dictator was in the Forum before dawn. He appointed as his Master of Horse a patrician named Lucius Tarquitius—a man who had the reputation of being the best soldier in Rome, in spite of the fact that he was too poor to keep a horse and had served, in consequence, as an infantryman. Accompanied by Tarquitius, the Dictator then appeared before the assembled people, to issue his instructions: legal business was to be suspended, all shops closed and no private business of any kind transacted; all men of military age were to parade before sunset in the Campus Martius with their equipment, each man bringing with him a five days’ bread ration and twelve stakes. All men over military age were to prepare the food for their younger neighbors, who would employ themselves meanwhile in looking over their equipment and collecting their stakes.
The Dictator’s orders were promptly executed: stakes were hunted out by the soldiers and taken from wherever they were found, nobody objecting to their removal; every man presented himself punctually. Then column of march was formed, all prepared, should need arise, for instant action, and moved off with Cincinnatus at the head of the infantry and Tarquitius in command of the mounted troops.
In each division, infantry and cavalry, could be heard such words of command or encouragement as the occasion demanded: the men were urged to step out, reminded of their trench and palisade. The battle with Minucius lasted till dawn; by that time the circumvallation was completed, and Minucius’s men were beginning to get the upper hand. For the Aequians the moment was critical: the Dictator’s troops, their work finished, promptly began an assault on the outer defenses, thus forcing the Aequians to fight on a second front while still heavily engaged on the first. Caught as it were between the two fires, they soon gave up the struggle and begged both Cincinnatus and Minucius not to proceed to a general massacre but to disarm them and let them go with their lives. Minucius referred them to the Dictator, who accepted their surrender, but on humiliating terms: their commander Gracchus, with other leading men, was to be brought before him in chains; the town of Corbio was to be evacuated; the Aequian soldiers were to be allowed to go with their lives, but, to force a final confession of absolute defeat, they were to pass ‘under the yoke.’ A ‘yoke’ was made from three spears, two fixed upright in the ground and the third tied across them, and the Aequian soldiers were made to pass under it.
As the Aequians had been stripped before their dismissal, their camp, when it fell into the Dictator’s hands, was found to contain much valuable property. All this Cincinnatus turned over to his own men exclusively; Minucius’s men, and Minucius himself, got nothing. ‘You,’ the Dictator remarked severely, ‘shall have no share of the plunder taken from an enemy who nearly took you.’ Then, turning to Minucius, he added: ‘Until, Lucius Minucius, you learn to behave like a consul and commander, you will act as my lieutenant and take your instructions from me.’
Minucius resigned the consulship and remained with his troops as second in command; he men were quick to appreciate the military qualities of the Dictator, and gave him implicit obedience; they forgot their disgrace in the memory of the service he had done them, and voted him a gold circlet of a pound in weight, and when he left them saluted him as their protector.
In Rome the Senate was convened by Quintus Fabius the City Prefect, and a decree was passed inviting Cincinnatus to enter in triumph with his troops. The chariot he rode in was preceded by the enemy commanders and the military standards, and followed by his army loaded with its spoils. We read in accounts of this great day that there was not a house in Rome but had a table spread with food before its door, for the entertainment of the soldiers who regaled themselves as they followed the triumphal chariot, singing and joking as befitted the occasion, like men out to enjoy themselves. The same day Mamilius of Tusculum by universal consent was granted Roman citizenship.
Only the impending trial of Volscius for perjury prevented Cincinnatus from resigning immediately. The tribunes who were thoroughly in awe of him made no attempt to interfere with the proceedings, and Volscius was found guilty and went into exile at Lanuvium. Cincinnatus finally resigned after holding office for fifteen days, having originally accepted it for a period of six months.