This painting, titled Cincinnatus Recevant Les Ambassadeurs De Rome (or Cincinnatus Receiving The Ambassadors From Rome), was created by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel (c. 1823-1889). Cabanel’s painting re-creates a famous legend from the days of the early Roman Republic. In particular, the scene is set in the year 458 BCE, when the Romans were facing a combined threat from Aequians and Sabines, who had managed to trap and besiege a Roman army led by Consul Minucius. Filled with fear and anxiety over the army’s dire predicament, the Romans decided to appoint a dictator to quickly pull together a new force to rescue Consul Minucius’ besieged forces. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was the man chosen for the job, but, as the story 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 Alexandre Cabanel re-creates in his painting. Shirtless Cincinnatus can be seen standing in front of his beasts of burden and speaking to a group of messengers from the city of Rome. His wife, Racilia, had perhaps just been sent off to fetch a toga for Cincinnatus, who was being told that he was now dictator of Rome.
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. After they reached their destination, Cincinnatus’ troops reportedly freed Consul 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.