Rus in urbe

We think of Ancient Rome, if we think of it at all, as a built environment, a grand urban landscape largely generated by the military success of its generals, temples vowed in battle and thereafter a memorial of the glorious event embedded in the city’s fabric.

But some of the monuments of Rome that I find most fascinating are also its least elaborate, for example the hut of the first king Romulus, of which there appear to have been two, one on the Palatine hill and one on the Capitoline. In each case, though, the power of the memorial is paradoxical, deriving from its very lack of grandeur, a tiny thatched hut, compared to the magnificent buildings that surrounded it, the religious foundations on the Capitoline and the palatial structures on the Palatine. The latter hill would give us the word “palace” when later emperors converted ever more of it into their luxurious living space, but Augustus, with the comparatively modest house that started it all, clearly felt the presence of Romulus nearby. Romans were ambivalent about their city, a pride in its wealth and grandeur jostling with an anxiety that the values that had made them great, the humility and self-denial represented by Romulus’ hut, had been lost to them with all their successes in the intervening centuries.

A similar kind of monument, deriving power precisely from its lack of embellishment, is the subject here. In this case it’s a field. The historian Livy mentions an open space within the city, the Prata Quinctia, “Fields of Quinctius”, which lay across the Tiber from main part of the city. As Livy explains, these were believed to represent the tiny four-iugera (one hectare, 2.5 acres) smallholding tilled by one of the greatest heroes of early Rome, L. Quinctius Cincinnatus, dictator for the first time in 458 BC (though everything about Cincinnatus is effectively myth). As such, the Prata Quinctia were the site of a celebrated encounter when Roman officials, in a moment of crisis for the city, came to offer Cincinnatus the dictatorship, an all-powerful but temporary magistracy awarded in emergencies. They found him stripped for farming, and insisted that he don a toga, the Roman equivalent of a suit and tie, before receiving their order. Cincinnatus, now suitably dressed, proceeded to defeat the enemy in sixteen days, resign the dictatorship, and return to planting the spuds, and that made him a shining example of selfless service to the res publica. The urban glories of Rome were made, the implication of the legend was, by the virtues of the countryside.

The Prata Quinctia are named in a couple of other sources, the ancient dictionary of Festus (p.256) and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (18.20), neither of which add very much information, although Pliny (cf. Cicero, De Senectute 55-6) does associate with Cincinnatus the memorable assertion by Manius Curius Dentatus in the third century BC , another famously frugal Roman hero, that “the citizen unsatisfied with seven iugera should be considered dangerous” (Natural History 18.18). There’s some inscriptional evidence from the vicinity of the Prata Quinctia relating to Cincinnatus’ wife Racilia, too, explained by Platner & Ashby. Meanwhile the story of Cincinnatus’ investment at his farm features in Dionysius of Halicarnassus with varying detail and some nice embellishment (“he had no tunic on, wore a small loin-cloth, and had a cap on his head”, Roman Antiquities 10.17.4), and in the Cicero passage mentioned. None of this is to suggest that anyone really believes that the “Quinctian Fields” went back to a semi-mythical figure in the fifth century–more likely the Quinctian Fields helped to generate the story of Cincinnatus and his toga. But the Romans could be persuaded to believe it, it seems, and it had become an extremely powerful national myth, and no one told the story better than Livy (3.26, in Luce’s translation, very lightly adapted), in whose hands it has an explicit moral force:

“Let those hearken to the following tale who prize money above any worldly things and think that great honour and merit fall to none save the extravagantly rich. Lucius Quinctius, the sole hope of his country, was at that moment toiling on his four-iugera farm across the Tiber, which was opposite the present-day dockyards and is now known as the Quinctian Fields. The delegation from the senate found him there–possibly spading out a ditch or ploughing (whatever it was, all agree it was some simple farming chore). After an exchange of greetings they requested he don a toga to hear the senate’s decree, which they prayed might prove auspicious for himself and for his country. “Is everything alright?” he asked in wonderment, as he bade his wife Racilia fetch his toga quickly from the farmhouse. After he had wiped off the dust and sweat from his person and stepped forth clad in the toga, the delegation saluted him as dictator and gave their congratulations. They explained the dire straits into which the army had been plunged and summoned him to the city.”

Cincinnatus is presented by Livy as a man at a remove from the Rome of his day, existing in a kind of self-imposed exile after the disgrace of his son, who has to be informed of the desperate turn of events that required his return to Rome. It’s a reminder from the historian that Rome was a small and vulnerable place in the fifth century, but by Livy’s day this hectare of open ground lay within the built city (in Regio XIV of Augustus’ demarcation of Rome), amidst plush houses alongside other structures, and sat just across the Tiber from the glorious cityscape of central Rome. That must have made this empty space at least as evocative as any building, a surviving piece of countryside offering silent reproach to the proud city all about it. Are your values still those of the hardy peasants who created this city?

The tension between Rome’s wealthy present and its humble mythical origins is a very live one in Augustan Rome. Virgil will test it with Aeneas’ stroll through the pre-urban site of Rome with king Evander, gorgeous effects like passimque armenta videbant/ Romanoque foro et lautis mugire Carinis (Aen. 8.360-1), “and everywhere [Evander and Aeneas] saw cattle/ mooing in the Roman Forum and the chic Carinae.” The Carinae, a cow paddock in Aeneas’ day, was an exclusive residential district in Virgil’s, and there’s a lot of Cincinnatus about Evander and his simple hut, and about Aeneas when he spends a night in it. George Washington was another Cincinnatus, of course.

The essence of the greatest city on earth (as the Romans confidently regarded it) is a patch of open ground. That’s a very Roman paradox, but any park, rus in urbe, communicates some kind of ambivalence about the human structures surrounding it, I suppose. Sefton Park in Liverpool, around which I used to have to run, was designed so that, when anyone was in the middle of it, they couldn’t see the city beyond.

Nevertheless, has there ever been a park as intrinsically meaningful as Rome’s Prata Quinctia?

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

One response to “Rus in urbe”

  1. Mary Molitiermo says :

    A favorite story in my childhood (so hope a tiny morsel is true😃)

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