This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), re-creates a famous legend from the days of the early Roman Republic. The scene painted above is set in the year 458 BCE, when the Romans were facing a combined threat from Aequians and Sabines. Rome had deployed its military to take on the threats, but during the campaign, Consul Minucius and his Roman army became trapped and besieged by their enemies. Minucius’ situation was reportedly quite dire, throwing Rome into a panic. In the fear and anxiety, the Romans decided to appoint a dictator to quickly pull together an army to rescue Consul Minucius’ besieged forces. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was the man they chose for the job, represented in Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s painting as the man dressed in grey with the blue sash. As the legend goes, Cincinnatus was not present when the government nominated him as dictator. Therefore, messengers had to go to Cincinnatus’ farm to tell him of his powerful appointment. The famous scene was described by the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE):
“Cincinnatus, the one man in Rome who reposed 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…” (Livy, History of Rome, 3.26).
Such is the scene that Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicted in his painting. As Cincinnatus was a figure of legend, it comes as no surprise that he produced legendary results during his short term in office. As the story goes, he quickly trained the remaining manpower in Rome into an elite fighting force and marched off to rescue Consul Minucius’ pinned down army. After they reached their destination, Cincinnatus’ forces reportedly freed Minucius’ army by attacking the besiegers at night, winning victory by dawn. When the victorious Cincinnatus returned to Rome, he reportedly resigned from his powerful position as quickly as possible. According to the aforementioned historian Livy, Cincinnatus held the office of dictator for fifteen days in 458 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.