Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

The Story of Rome From the Earliest Times to the End of the Republic

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When the Greeks shivered in the cold north-wind, they thought that Boreas, one of their divinities who dwelt beyond the high mountains, had loosened the blast from a mysterious cave. The North was to them an unknown region. Far beyond the hills they thought there dwelt a nation known as Hyperboreans, or people beyond the region of Boreas, who lived in an atmosphere of feathers, enjoying Arcadian happiness, and stretching their peaceful lives out to a thousand years. That which is unknown is frightful to the ignorant or the superstitious, and so it was that the North was a land in which all that was alarming might be conjured up. The inhabitants of the Northern lands were called Gauls by the Romans. They lived in villages with no walls about them, and had no household furniture; they slept in straw, or leaves, or grass, and their business in life was either agriculture or war. They were hardy, tall, and rough in appearance; their hair was shaggy and light in color compared with that of the Italians, and their fierce appearance struck the dwellers under sunnier climes with dread.

These warlike people had come from the plains of Asia, and in Central and Northern Europe had increased to such an extent that they could at length find scarcely enough pasturage for their flocks. The mountains were full of them, and it was not strange that some looked down from their summits into the rich plains of Italy, and then went thither; and, tempted by the crops, so much more abundant than they had ever known, and by the wine, which gave them a new sensation, at last made their homes there. It was a part of their life to be on the move, and by degrees they slipped farther and farther into the pleasant land. They flocked from the Hercynian forests, away off in Bohemia or Hungary, and swarmed over the Alps; they followed the river Po in its course, and they came into the region of the Apennines too. [Footnote: No one knows exactly when the Gauls first entered Northern Italy. Some think that it was as long back as the time of the Tarquins, while others put it only ten or twenty years before the battle of the Allia-- 410-400 B.C.] It was they who had weakened the Etruscans and made it possible for the Romans to capture Veii. Afterwards they came before the city of Clusium (B.C. 391), and the people in distress begged for aid from Rome. No help was given, but ambassadors were sent to warn the invaders courteously not to attack the friends of the Roman people who had done them no harm. Such a request might have had an effect upon a nation that knew the Romans better, but the fierce Northerners who knew nothing of courtesy replied that if the Clusians would peaceably give up a portion of their lands, no harm should befall them; but that otherwise they should be attacked, and that in the presence of the Romans, who might thus take home an account of how the Gauls excelled all other mortals in bravery. Upon being asked by what right they proposed to take a part of the Clusian territory, Brennus, the leader of the barbarians, replied that all things belonged to the brave, and that their right lay in their trusty swords.

In the battle that ensued, the Roman ambassadors fought with the Clusians, and one of them killed a Gaul of great size and stature. This was made the basis for an onset upon Rome itself. Then the Romans must have remembered how just before the hero of Veii had gone into banishment, a good and respectable man reported to the military tribunes that one night as he was going along the street near the temple of Vesta, he heard a voice saying plainly to him: "Marcus Cædicius, the Gauls are coming!" Probably they remembered, too, how lightly they esteemed the information, and how even the tribunes made sport of it. Now the Northern scourge was actually rushing down upon them, and Camillus was gone! In great rage the invaders pushed on towards the city, alarming all who came in their way by their numbers, their fierceness, and the violence with which they swept away all opposition. There was little need of fear, however, for the rough men took nothing from the fields, and, as they passed the cities, cried out that they were on their way to Rome, and that they considered the inhabitants of all cities but Rome friends who should receive no harm.

The Romans had a proverb to the effect that whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad, and, according to their historian Livy, it was true in this case, for when the city was thus menaced by a new enemy, rushing in the intoxication of victory and impelled by the fury of wrath and the thirst for vengeance, they did not take any but the most ordinary precautions to protect themselves; leaving to the usual officers the direction of affairs, and not bestirring themselves as much as they did when threatened by the comparatively inferior forces of the neighboring states. They even neglected the prescribed religious customs and the simplest precautions of war. When they sent out their army they did not select a fit place for a camp, nor build ramparts behind which they might retreat, and they drew up the soldiers in such a way that the line was unusually weak in the parts it presented to the on-rushing enemy.

Under such unpropitious circumstances the impetuous Gauls were met on the banks of the river Allia, ten miles from Rome, on the very day on which the Fabii had been destroyed by the Etruscans the century before (July 16, 390). The result was that terror took possession of the soldiers, and the Gauls achieved an easy victory, so easy, indeed, that it left them in a state of stupefied surprise. A part of the Romans fled to the deserted stronghold of Veii, and others to their own city, but many were overtaken by the enemy and killed, or were swept away by the current of the Tiber. [Footnote: That this was a terrible defeat is proved by the fact that the sixteenth of July was afterward held unlucky (ater, black), and no business was transacted on it. Ovid mentions it as "the day to which calamitous Allia gives a name in the calendar," and on which "tearful Allia was stained with the blood of the Latian wounds."]

There was dire alarm in the city. The young and vigorous members of the senate, with their wives and children and other citizens, found refuge in the capitol, which they fortified; but the aged senators took their seats in the forum and solemnly awaited the coming of Brennus and his hosts. The barbarians found, of course, no difficulty in taking and burning the city, and for days they sacked and pillaged the houses. The venerable senators were immediately murdered, and the invaders put the capitol in a state of siege.

Then the curses of the ambassador of Veii and of Camillus found their fulfilment; and then also did the thoughts of the Romans turn to their once admired commander, who, they were now sure, could help them. The refugees at Veii, too, turned in their thoughts to Camillus, and messengers were sent to him at Ardea, where he was in exile, asking him to come to the assistance of his distressed countrymen. Camillus was too proud to accept a command to which he was not called by the senate, while he was under condemnation for an offence of which he did not feel guilty. The senate was shut up in the capitol, and hard to get at, but an ambitious youth offered to climb the precipitous hill, in spite of the besieging barbarians, and obtain the requisite order. The daring man crossed the Tiber, and scaled the hill by the help of shrubs and projecting stones. After obtaining for Camillus the appointment of dictator, he successfully returned to Veii, and then the banished leader accepted the supreme office for the second time.

The sharp watchers among the Gauls had, however, noticed in the broken shrubs and loosened stones the marks of the daring act of the messenger who had climbed the hill, and determined to take the hint and enter the capitol in that way themselves. In the dead of night, but by the bright light of the moon we may suppose, since the battle of Allia was fought at the full of the moon, the daring barbarians began slowly and with great difficulty to climb the rocky hill. They actually reached its summit, and, to their surprise, were not noisy enough to awaken the guards; but, alas for them, the sacred geese of the capitol, kept for use in the worship of Juno, were confined near the spot where the ascent had been made. Alarmed by the unusual occurrence, the geese uttered their natural noises and awakened Marcus Manlius, who quickly buckled on his armor and rushed to the edge of the cliff. He was just in time to meet the first Gaul as he came up, and to push him over on the others who were painfully following him. Down he fell backwards, striking his companions and sending them one after another to the foot of the precipice in promiscuous ruin. In the morning the captain of the watch was in turn cast down upon the heads of the enemies, to whom his neglect had given such an advantage.

Now there remained nothing for the Gauls to do but sit down and wait, to see if they could starve the Romans confined in the capitol. Months passed, and, indeed, they almost accomplished their object, but while they were listlessly waiting, the hot Roman autumn was having its natural effect upon them, accustomed as they were to an active life in those Northern woods where the cool winds of the mountains fanned them and the leafy shades screened their heads from the heat of the sun. The miasma of the low lands crept up into their camps, and the ashes of the ruins that they had made blew into their faces and affected their health. They might almost as well have been shut up on the hill. The result was that both Gaul and Roman felt at last that peace would be a boon no matter at how high a price purchased, and it was agreed by Brennus that if the Romans would weigh him out a thousand pounds of rich gold, he would take himself and his horde back to the more comfortable woods. The scales were prepared and the gold was brought out, but the Romans found that their enemies were cheating in the weight. When asked what it meant, Brennus pulled off his heavy sword, threw it into the balances and said: "What does it mean, but woe to the vanquished!" "_Væ victis!_"

It was very bad for the Romans, but the story goes on to tell us that at that very moment, the great Camillus was knocking at the gates, that he entered at the right instant with his army, took the gold out of the scales, threw the weights, and the scales themselves, indeed, to the Gauls, and told Brennus that it was the custom of the Romans to pay their debts in iron, not in gold. The Gauls immediately called their men together and hastened from the city, establishing a camp eight miles away on the road to Gabii, where Camillus overtook them the next day and defeated them with such great slaughter that they were able to do no further damage.


It seems a pity to spoil so good a story, but it is like many others that have grown up in the way that reminds one of the game of "scandal" that the children play. The Roman historians always wished to glorify their nation, and they took every opportunity to make the stories appear well for the old heroes. It seems that at this time some Gauls were really cut off by the people of Cære, or some neighboring place, and, to improve the story, it was at first said that they were the very ones that had taken Rome. Then, another writer added, that the gold given as a ransom for the city was retaken with the captives; and, as another improvement, it was said that Camillus was the one who accomplished the feat, but that it was a long time afterwards, when the Gauls were besieging another city. The last step in adding to the story was taken when some one, thinking that it could be improved still more, and the national pride satisfied, brought Camillus into the city at the very moment that the gold was in the scales, so that he could keep it from being delivered at all, and then proceed to cut off all the enemy, so that not a man should be left to take the terrible tale back over the northern mountains! The story is not all false, for there are good evidences that Rome was burned, but the heroic embellishments are doubtless the imaginative and patriotic additions of historians who thought more of national pride than historic accuracy.

Camillus now proceeded to rebuild the city, and came to be honored as the second founder of Rome. The suffering people rushed out of the capitol weeping for very joy; the inhabitants who had gone elsewhere came back; the priests brought the holy things from their hiding- places; the city was purified; a temple was speedily erected to Rumor or Voice on the spot where Cædicius had heard the voice announcing the coming barbarians; and there was a diligent digging among the ashes to find the sites of the other temples and streets. It was a tedious and almost hopeless task to rebuild the broken-down city, and the people began to look with longing to the strongly-built houses and temples still standing at Veii, wondering why they might not go thither in a body and live in comfort, instead of digging among ashes to rebuild a city simply to give Camillus, of whom they quickly began to be jealous, the honor that had been an attribute of Romulus only. Then the senate appealed to the memories of the olden time; the stories of the sacred places, and especially of the head that was found on the Capitoline Hill, were retold, and by dint of entreaty and expostulation the distressed inhabitants were led to go to work to patch up the ruins. They brought stones from Veii, and to the poor the authorities granted bricks, and gradually a new, but ill-built, city grew up among the ruins, with crooked streets and lanes, and with buildings, public and private, huddled together just as happened to be the most convenient for the immediate occasion.

Camillus lived twenty-five years longer, and was repeatedly called to the head of affairs, as the city found itself in danger from the Volscians, Æquians, Etruscans and other envious enemies. Six times was he made one of the tribunes, and five times did he hold the office of dictator. When the Gauls came again, in the year 367, Camillus was called upon to help his countrymen for the last time, and though he was some fourscore years of age, he did not hesitate, nor did victory desert him. The Gauls were defeated with great slaughter, and it was a long time before they again ventured to trouble the Romans. The second founder of Rome, after his long life of warfare, died of a plague that carried away many of the prominent citizens in the year 365. His victories had not all been of the same warlike sort, however. "Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war," and Camillus gained his share of them.

Marcus Manlius, the preserver of the capitol, was less fortunate, for when he saw that the plebeians were suffering because the laws concerning debtors were too severe, and came forward as patron of the poor, he received no recognition, and languished in private life, while Camillus was a favorite. He therefore turned to the plebeians, and devoted his large fortune to relieving suffering debtors. The patricians looking upon him as a deserter from their party, brought up charges against him, and though he showed the marks of distinction that he had won in battles for the country, and gained temporary respite from their enmity, they did not relent until his condemnation had been secured. He was hurled from the fatal Tarpeian Rock, and his house was razed to the ground in the year 384.

Eight years after the death of Manlius (B.C. 376), two tribunes of the plebeians, one of whom was Caius Licinius Stolo, proposed some new laws to protect poor debtors, whose grievances had been greatly increased by the havoc of the Gauls, and after nine more years of tedious discussion and effort, they were enacted (B.C. 367), and are known as the Licinian Laws, or rather, Rogations, for a law before it was finally passed was known as a rogation, and these were long discussed before they were agreed to. (Rogare, to ask, that is, to ask the opinion of one.) So great was the feeling aroused by this discussion, that Camillus was called upon to interfere, and he succeeded in pacifying the city; Lucius Sextius was chosen as the first plebeian consul, and Camillus, having thus a third time saved the state, dedicated a temple to Concord. As a plebeian had been made consul, the disturbing struggles between the two orders could not last much longer, and we find that the plebeians gradually gained ground, until at last the political distinction between them and the patricians was wiped out for generations. The laws that finally effected this were those of Publilius, in 339, and of Hortensius, the dictator, in 286.

The period of the death of Camillus is to be remembered on account of several facts connected with a plague that visited Rome in the year 365. The people, in their despair, for the third time in the history of the city, performed a peculiar sacrifice called the Lectisternium (lectus, a couch, sternere, to spread), to implore the favor of offended deities. They placed images of the gods upon cushions or couches and offered them viands, as if the images could really eat them. Naturally this did not effect any abatement of the ravaging disease, and under orders of the priests, stage plays were instituted as a means of appeasing the wrath of heaven. The first Roman play- writer, Plautus, did not live till a hundred years after this time, and these performances were trivial imitations of Etruscan acting, which thus came to Rome at second-hand from Greece; but, as the Romans did not particularly delight in intellectual efforts at that time, buffoonery sufficed instead of the wit which gave so much pleasure to the cultivated attendants at the theatre of Athens. Livy says that these plays neither relieved the minds nor the bodies of the Romans; and, in fact, when on one occasion the performances were interrupted by the overflowing waters of the Tiber which burst into the circus, the people turned from the theatre in terror, feeling that their efforts to soothe the gods had been despised. It was at this time that the earth is said to have been opened in the forum by an earthquake, and that Curtius cast himself into it as a sacrifice; but, as we have read of the occurrence before we shall not stop to consider it again. The young hero was called Mettus Curtius in the former instance, but now the name given to him is Marcus Curtius.

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