Cincinnatus was regarded by the Romans as one of the heroes of early Rome and as a model of Roman virtue and simplicity. As a persistent opponent of the plebeians, he resisted the proposal of Terentilius to draw up a code of written laws applicable equally to patricians and plebeians. He lived in humble circumstances, working on his own small farm, after having been driven into exile among the Etrurians for supporting his son Caeso Quinctius.
Cincinnatus served as consul in 460 BC. During his consulship, Cincinnatus fought the Plebeian Tribune Gaius Terentilius Harsa. During this time period, the Roman senate was preoccupied with a war against a people called the Volsci, from a neighboring Italian city. Terentilius attempted to use this opening to push for a series of laws that would benefit the plebeians at the expense of the aristocracy. Cincinnatus was able to stop Terentilius from enacting his laws.
When the year 460 BC ended, Cincinnatus retired from politics, and went home to his farm.
In 457 BC, the Romans were fighting a tribe known as the Aequians, who lived near Rome. The consul Minucius Esquilinus had led an army to fight the Aequians. However, Minucius' army had been trapped by the Aequians in the Alban Hills, and was attempting to fight off a siege. A few Roman horsemen escaped, and returned to Rome to tell the senate what had happened. The senate fell into a panic. As such, they authorized the other consul for the year, Horatius Pulvillus, to nominate a dictator. Horatius nominated Cincinnatus for a dictatorial term of six months.
A group of senators was sent to tell Cincinnatus that he had been nominated dictator. According to Livy, the senators found Cincinnatus while he was plowing on his farm. Cincinnatus cried out "Is everything all right?" They said to Cincinnatus that they hoped "It might turn out well for both him and his country", and then they asked him to put on his senatorial toga and hear the mandate of the senate. He called to his wife, telling her to bring out his toga from their cottage.
When he put on his toga, the senatorial delegation hailed him as dictator, and told him to come to the city. The delegation told him of the situation. Cincinnatus knew that his departure might mean starvation for his family if the crops went unsown in his absence. But he assented to the request anyway. He then crossed the Tiber river in a boat provided by the senate, as his farm was on the far side of the river. When he reached the other side of the Tiber, he was greeted by his three sons and most of the senators. Several lictors were given to him for protection.
The next morning, Cincinnatus went to the forum, and nominated Lucius Tarquitius Master of the Horse (his chief deputy). Tarquitius was considered to be one of the finest soldiers in Rome. Cincinnatus then went to the popular assembly, and issued an order. He ordered everyone of military age to report to the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) by the end of the day.
Once the army assembled, Cincinnatus took them to fight the Aequi. Cincinnatus led the infantry in person, while Tarquitius led the cavalry. The Aequi were surprised by the double attack, and were soon cut to pieces. The commanders of the Aequi begged Cincinnatus not to slaughter them all.
Cincinnatus did not want to cause any unnecessary bloodshed, and told the Aequi that he would let them live if they submitted to him. He said that their general, Gracchus Cloelius, as well as his officers, would have to be brought to him in chains. A yoke was set up, made up of three spears, and the Aequi had to pass under it, bowing down while confessing that they had been conquered. After this, the war ended and Cincinnatus disbanded his army. He then resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm, a mere sixteen days after he had been nominated dictator.
His immediate resignation of his absolute authority with the end of the crisis has often been cited as an example of good leadership, service to the public good, civic virtue, and modesty. He came out of retirement again during his second term as dictator (439 BC) to put down a revolt by the plebeians. After the war Cincinnatus left the job and picked back up where he left off, working at a farm.