In 458 BCE the fledgeling Roman Republic was in some deep shit. The city was under attack on two fronts by a couple of her ancient enemies, and the vaunted Roman Legions were having difficulty defending the borders simultaneously against two powerful foes. One one side, the Sabines were advancing towards Rome, plundering the countryside and destroying settlements as they went. With the destruction being wrought by the Sabines, the Aequi decided they wanted to get in on the action and launched an invasion from another direction, steadily marching their army towards the City. Besieged on two sides and surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Romans knew they were in trouble.
But it's certainly not like Rome to give up without a fight. Two armies were raised by the Senate to deal with these threats; Roman consul Nauticus would take his men to battle the Sabines, while his colleague Minucius would face the Aequi. The men of Rome fought bravely, but while Nauticus was able to gain victories against the Sabines, Minucius did not fare as well. He didn't press his attacks when he had the opportunity, and before long the town Minucius' men were camped in was completely surrounded by the Aequi armies, who laid siege to the defenders in an effort to starve them out.
Knowing that half of Rome's standing army was in an engagement they had no chance of winning and were merely clinging to survival, the consul Minucius decided to send five of his fastest riders to Rome to ask for help. These brave men broke through the Aequi blockade and delivered the grim word to the Senate, who heard they were about to get fucked up for rizneal by the Aequi and all collectively crapped their togas.
Despite the bleak situation, the Senators knew they still had one hope. There was a provision in the Roman Law that allowed for the appointment of a position known as Dictator. This position could be filled by the Senate in times of extreme crisis, and the man selected to perform this duty would have absolute, unchecked, unquestioned power over all aspects of the Republic and her armies. It was a risky move, but desperate times called for desperate measures. And the Senate knew just the man for the job.
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was plowing the fields surrounding his humble farm, preparing another set of crops with which to feed his family, when he noticed a small group of riders approaching on the horizon. Cincinnatus recognized some of the men from when he served as consul a few years prior, but could not understand why these important Senators would be visiting him on his quaint farmstead unannounced on this particular day. When the men reached him, they informed him of the dire situation that lay before Rome. The Republic was in great peril, and Cincinnatus was their last hope. He was the only man with the experience and proficiency to lead the Romans to victory over their enemies, and the senate was willing to provide him with supreme power with which to do so.
Cincinnatus listened to the offer and quietly gazed back towards his home, where his wife had come outside to see what was going on and to tell him to pick up some orange juice the next time he went to the store. He knew that leaving the farm on this day would possibly mean death for him and his family, for they would surely perish from starvation if the crops were not sown this season. But he knew it was his duty to protect his people, and he could not turn his back on the Republic. With a heavy heart he kissed his wife and kids goodbye and headed for Rome.
"Dude, come wield supreme executive power"
"No way man, I'm retired now"
"Pretty Please? With sugar on top?"
"OK, FINE! GOD you senators are so irritating."
Cincinnatus arrived at Rome, assumed the mantle of Dictator and went to work immediately. He appointed his Master of the Horse (second in command), shut down all private business in the City and put the population on Terror Alert Red. He ordered all men of military age to put their weapons and armor together, collect twelve palisades and assemble on the Campus Martius parade ground at dawn the next morning. All the women and men not suited for military service were to get in the kitchen and bake him some fucking pies - preparing five rations for each soon-to-be-soldier in the city. The populace went into action immediately, since none of them are all that keen on having their town pillaged by the fucking Aequi douchebags; especially since that more than likely meant they'd all be either sold into slavery or slaughtered on the spot.
The following morning Cincinnatus rode out to the Campus Martius and addressed his ragtag group of citizen-soldiers. "Men," he said, "we are off to kill some motherfuckers." And with that they headed out to, well, kill some motherfuckers.
They marched all day, reaching the Aequi siege by nightfall. Cincinnatus instructed his men to encircle the Aequi positions and drive their palisades into the ground with a bigass barbarian yell, which served to intimidate the Aequi and announce the presence of Roman troops to the soldiers trapped in the town. All night and into the morning Cincinnatus' men built a huge wall encircling the Aequi camp, leaving them encircled and boxed in between two Roman forces. As soon as the wall was completed, Cincinnatus personally led the Roman charge and the battle was on. Minucius' men poured out the gates of the city and the Aequi, surrounded on two sides, were completely crushed. Within hours of fighting the surviving warriors and leaders threw down their arms at Cincinnatus' feet.
Cincinnatus didn't have any desire to execute these prisoners of war, but he did want to let them know that they couldn't get away with trying to start shit with Rome. He built a yoke out of spears, stripped the Aequi of everything except their clothing, and forced them to pass under the yoke. While it doesn't really sound like that big of a deal to us today, you should understand that passing under the yoke back in the day was sort of like letting yourself get teabagged by your arch-enemy. It was humiliating and degrading, and you only really allowed yourself to be subjected to it if you had been completely crushed and had no other option. It was a symbolic act of defeat and subjugation, and was basically like admitting that you were someone's bitch.
To further add insult to injury Cincinnatus then plundered all the shit that he forced the Aequi to leave behind, dividing all the loot up amongst his men, but not allowing Minucius or his soldiers to partake. Instead he stripped Minucius of his position as consul and gave his men a good old-fashioned ass-reaming, saying:
|"You, soldiers will go without your share of the spoil, for you all but fell a spoil yourselves to the enemy from whom it was taken; and you, Minucius, will command these legions as a staff officer, until you begin to show the spirit of a consul."
After this, Cincinnatus and his men returned home as heroes. They were greeted at the gates of Rome by a throng of cheering citizens and were given a triumphal ticker-tape procession through the streets of Rome like the one at the end of Star Wars Episode I. Cincinnatus was formally recognized as a hero who had saved Rome from the clutches of her enemies and near-certain defeat, slavery, and death.
With his work completed, Cincinnatus immediately resigned his post as Dictator and returned home to finish working his fields. He had been the supreme ruler of the Roman Republic for only sixteen days.
While this is the most popular story involving Quinctius, it wasn't the only time the people of Rome called on him to sort shit out for them. In 439 BCE a dude named Spurius Maelius attempted to incite a revolution amongst the plebians and overthrow the Roman government, so Cincinnatus (who was 80 years old at the time) was again brought in and given Dictatorial power to deal with this motherfucker. He had Maelius whacked, razed the guy's home to the ground and then effectively placated the populace with his oratory prowess. Within about a week of being appointed Dictator, he again resigned and returned home to his family.
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was the epitome of honor and personified the Roman ideal of duty to your country and your people above all else. He put aside his own personal needs to serve his homeland, and when absolute military and political authority was given to him, he didn't go the power-hungry jackass route and seize control of the government or set himself up as supreme ruler for life - he did his job, kicked some fucking asses and then went home to his family when his work was finished. He single-handedly saved the Roman Republic from falling into the hands of her enemies and his tale served as inspiration for generations of Romans who came after him, illustrating the Roman values of civic responsibility, integrity, and badassitude.
|"What was wanted was not only a strong man, but one who was free to act, unshackled by the laws. He should therefore nominate Lucius Quinctius as Dictator, for he had the courage and resolution which such great powers demanded."
- Livy 4.13
Cincinnatus at Wikipedia
Cincinnatus at About.com
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book III