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Birth of the Republic: The Legend of Cincinnatus

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

The birth of the republic

The birth of the republic

Chaos in the Fifth Century

At the top of the fifth century, Rome was in the throes of escaping the supreme rule of monarchy and dispatching the power of the king as the sole guardian of the people's rights. The people of Rome replaced the king with a Senate and assemblies of the people. This new system was not established easily.

Throughout the fifth century, Rome was perpetually at war with its neighbors. Chiefly engaged with other Latins during this period, Rome also sought to establish itself as the protector of weaker Latin cities. This saw the Republic engage in wars with the Etruscan city of Veii, the Italic Aequi, and the Osco-Umbrian tribe of the Volsci. These wars saw the militarization of the Roman mindset and the integration of several local warrior clans into the city's nobility.

In addition to these external threats, Rome was rocked by a series of internal disasters. When the Roman Kings were cast out the Patricians seized most of the political power of the state, and in the wake of several wars to prevent the return of Tarquin the Proud the Patricians led the armies that saved the Republic.

In Rome, the general of the army had a good deal of leeway in how the rewards of battles was distributed, and this influx of wealth allowed the Patricians to secure their political supremacy for a time. By the middle of the century, however, the Plebeians began a series of social revolts in the Conflict of Orders that shifted some political power away from the Patricians.

The Conflict of Orders greatly weakened the ability of the Roman state to project its influence away from the city itself. Throughout the century the citizen-soldiers were increasingly hostile to their Patrician commanders, and on several occasions outright refused to fight when outside of the Roman territory. This internal strife began to change shape at the start of the fourth century, and while many of the primary sources were lost for this period, we can attribute some of the change to the story of Cincinnatus.

The legend of Cincinnatus

The legend of Cincinnatus

The Legend of Cincinnatus

Cincinnatus was both a real, historical personage and a fictional creature codified by the historian Livy as the exemplar of virtue in a time of chaos. Cincinnatus was born before the fall of the Roman Kingdom and lived well into the fifth century, holding his second dictatorship in 439 BC before leaving the historical record and presumably dying. He was a patrician and we can assume from his family name that he was well off or rich.

Cincinnatus held the dictatorship twice throughout his life, first during a war with the Aequi and the second time during the early stages of a plebian revolt. In the first event, Cincinnatus was called upon to lead Rome's armies against the Aequi when the consuls were trapped by armies of the Aequi when they were on campaign. The second event occurred during a grain shortage in Rome.

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A wealthy plebian was buying up the grain supply and distributing it to the poor by his own hand. The established elites saw this as an attempt to grow support to overthrow the Senate and lacking a legal reply they summoned Cincinnatus back as Dictator who promptly summoned the man, Spurius Maelius, and during the attempt to take Spurius into custody he was killed.

These events are probably based on some amount of truth, but that is where the historical Cincinnatus ends and the fictional Cincinnatus begins. Livy records that Cincinnatus was driven to poverty by the actions of his sons. This is a common occurrence in Roman history, wherein the youth—lacking the wisdom of age—buck traditional values, and their fathers suffer because of it.

Livy states that Spurius Maelius was trying to restore the monarchy solely because he opposed the Patricians, without any supporting evidence, which was also a common theme of casting political outsiders as monarchists in Roman history.

An Exemplar of Dictatorship

Livy made Cincinnatus into an exemplar of good government, of a good dictator. Livy created a character of good civic pride, noble intent, and a man of unquestioned integrity. In effect, Livy wrote about a person he wished existed because the dictators that existed in his time brought the Republic into war after war, destabilizing Rome and terrorizing the Senate.

Early dictators of the Roman Republic were not bound by many laws. They were free to do whatever was necessary to protect the Roman state, and often this included overseeing a rapid change in Roman policy or dangerous military situations. Their existence in the early Republic was bound not by a legal challenge, but by social and religious expectations. Simply put, they had different opinions on what they could or should do. When the dictatorship was revived after the Social Wars this all changed.

Livy's Cincinnatus did everything a good Roman would, and he represents everything that the dictators of the early republic were expected to be. Cincinnatus gave up his dictatorship when the crisis abated, and Caesar and Sulla took dictatorships for life. Cincinnatus lost his wealth and prestige for his family, and Caesar and Sulla became insanely rich off the spoils of war against fellow Romans.

Cincinnatus came back a second time to save the Senate, and Caesar and Sulla proscribed their enemies. Livy created a Cincinnatus to serve his belief that the Romans of old would never have done the things that the Romans of his today were doing.

The historical Cincinnatus lived through a period of turmoil in Rome. He held office during tenuous times of war and peace. and his example, even when inflated, helps us to understand the troubles that the Roman Republic went through during the early period of expansion in Latium.

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, J. (2016). Early Roman warfare: From the regal period to the First Punic War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military.
  • Livy, and Betty Radice. Rome and Italy: Books I-V. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1982.
  • Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: a Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Penrose, Jane. Rome and Her Enemies: an Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.
  • Wilde, Marc de. “THE DICTATOR’S TRUST: REGULATING AND CONSTRAINING EMERGENCY POWERS IN THE ROMAN REPUBLIC.” History of Political Thought 33, no. 4 (2012): 555–77.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 A Anders

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