Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

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

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The new king was a tyrant. He was elected by no general consent of the people he governed; he allowed himself to be bound by no laws; he recognized no limit to his authority; and he surrounded himself with a body-guard for protection from the attacks of any who might wish to take the crown from him in the way that he had snatched it from his predecessor. As soon as possible after coming to the throne, he swept away all privilege and right that had been conceded to the commons, commanded that there should no longer be any of those assemblages on the occasions of festivals and sacrifices that had before tended to unite the people and to break the monotony of their lives; he put the poor at taskwork, and mistrusted, banished, or murdered the rich. To strengthen the position of Rome as chief of the confederates cities, and his own position as the ruler of Rome, he gave his daughter to Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum to wife; and to beautify the capital he warred against other peoples, and with their spoil pushed forward the work on the great temple on the Capitoline Hill, [Footnote: This hill is said to have received its name from the fact that as the men were preparing for the foundation of the temple, they came upon a human head, fresh and bleeding, from which it was augured that the spot was to become the head of the world. (Caput, a head.)] a wonderful and massy structure.

It is said that Amalthea, the mysterious sibyl of Cumæ, one day came to Tarquin with nine sealed prophetical books (which, she said, contained the destiny of the Romans and the mode to bring it about), that she offered to sell. The king refused, naturally unwilling to pay for things that he could not examine; and thereupon the unreasonable being went away and destroyed three of the volumes that she had described as of inestimable value. Soon after she returned and offered the remaining six for the price that she had demanded for the nine. Once more, the tyrant declined the offer, and again the aged sibyl destroyed three, and demanded the original price for the remainder. The king's curiosity was now aroused, and he bought the three books, upon which the prophetess vanished. The volumes were placed under the new temple on the Capitoline, no one doubting that they actually contained precepts of the utmost importance. The wise-looking augurs came together, peered into the rolls, and told the king and the people that they were right, and age after age the books were appealed to for direction, though, as the people never were permitted even to peep into the sacred cell in which they were hidden, they never could be quite certain that the augurs who consulted them found any thing in them that they did not put there themselves.

While Tarquinius was going on with his great works, while he was oppressing his own people and conquering his neighbors uninterruptedly, he was suddenly startled by a dire portent. A serpent crawled out from beneath the altar in his palace and coolly ate the flesh of the royal sacrifice. The meaning of this appalling omen could not be allowed to remain uncertain, and as no one in Italy was able to explain it, Tarquin sent to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, to ask the signification. Delphi is a place situated in the midst of the most sublime scenery of Greece, just north of the Gulf of Corinth. Shut in on all sides by stupendous cliffs, among which flow the inspiring waters of the Castalian Spring, thousands of feet above which frowns the summit of Parnassus, on which Deucalion is said to have landed after the deluge, this romantic valley makes a deep impression on the mind of the visitor, and it is not strange that at an age when signs and wonders were looked for in every direction, it should have become the home of a sibyl.

[Illustration: THE RAVINE OF DELPHI]

The king's messengers to Delphi were his two sons and a nephew named Lucius Junius Brutus, a young man who had saved his life by taking advantage of the fact that a madman was esteemed sacred by the Romans, and assuming an appearance of stupidity [Footnote: Brutus in Latin means irrational, dull, stupid, brutish, which senses our word "brute" preserves.] at a time when his tyrannical uncle had put his brother to death that he might appropriate his wealth. Upon hearing the question of the king, the oracle said that the portent foretold the fall of Tarquin. The sons then asked who should take his throne, and the reply was: "He who shall first kiss his mother." Brutus had propitiated the oracle by the present of a hollow stick filled with gold, and learned the symbolical meaning of this reply. The sons decided to allow their remaining brother Sextus to know the answer, and to determine by lot which of them should rule; but Brutus kept his own counsel, and on reaching home, fell upon mother earth, as by accident, and kissed the ground, thus observing the terms of the oracle.

The prophecy now hastened to its fulfilment. As the army lay before the town of Ardea, belonging to the Rutulians, south of Rome, a dispute arose among the sons of the king and their cousin Collatinus, as to which had the most virtuous wife. There being nothing to keep them in camp, the young men arose from their cups and rode to Rome, where they found the princesses at a banquet revelling amid flowers and wine. Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, was found at Collatia among her maidens spinning, like the industrious wife described in the Proverbs. The evil passions of Sextus were aroused by the beauty of his cousin's wife, and he soon found an excuse to return to the home of Collatinus. He was hospitably entertained by Lucretia, who did not suspect the demon that he was, and one night he entered her apartment and with vile threats overcame her. In her terrible distress, Lucretia sent immediately for her father, Lucretius, and her husband, Collatinus. They came, each bringing a friend, Brutus being the companion of the outraged husband. To them, with bitter tears, Lucretia, clad in the garments of mourning and almost beside herself with sorrow, told the story of crime, and, saying that she could not survive dishonor, plunged a knife into her bosom and fell in the agony of shame and death!

At this juncture Brutus threw off the assumed stupidity that had veiled the strength of his spirit, and taking up the reeking knife, exclaimed: "By this blood most pure, I swear, and I call you, O gods, to witness my oath, that I shall pursue Lucius Tarquin the Proud, his wicked wife, and all the race, with fire and sword, nor shall I permit them or any other to reign in Rome!" So saying, the knife was handed to each of the others in turn, and they all took the same oath to revenge the innocent blood. The body of Lucretia was laid in the forum of Collatia, her home, and the populace, maddened by the sight, were easily persuaded to rise against the tyrant. A multitude was collected, and the march began to Rome, where a like excitement was stirred up; a gathering at the forum was addressed by Brutus, who recalled to memory not only the story of Lucretia's wrongs, but also the horrid murder of Servius, and the blood-thirstiness of Tullia. On the Campus Martius the citizens met and decreed that the dignity of king should be forever abolished and the Tarquins banished. Tullia fled, followed by the curses of men and women; Sextus found his way to Gabii, where he was slain; and the tyrant himself took refuge in Cære, a city of Etruria, the country of his father.

There is a tradition that it had been the intention of Servius to resign the kingly honor, and to institute in its stead the office of Consul, to be jointly held by two persons chosen annually. There seems to be some ground for this belief, because immediately after the banishment of the Tarquins, the republic was established with two consuls at its head. [Footnote: The custom of confiding the chief civil authority and the command of the army to two magistrates who were changed each year, was not given up as long as the republic endured, but towards its end, Cinna maintained himself in the office alone for almost a year, and Pompey was appointed sole consul to keep him from becoming dictator. The authority of consul was usurped by both Cinna and Marius. The consuls were elected by the comitia of the centuries. They could not appear in public without the protection of twelve lictors, who bore bundles of twigs (fasces) and walked in single file before their chiefs.] The first to hold the highest office were Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, husband of Lucretia.

Some time after Tarquin had fled to Cære, he found an asylum at Tarquinii, and from that city made an effort to stir up a conspiracy in his favor at Rome. He sent messengers ostensibly to plead for the restoration of his property, but really for the purpose of exciting treason. There were at Rome vicious persons who regretted that they were obliged to return to regular ways, and there were patricians who disliked to see the plebeians again enjoying their rights. Some of these were ready to take up the cause of the deposed tyrant. The conspirators met for consultation in one of the dark chambers of a Roman house, and their conference was overheard. They were brought before the consuls in the Comitium, and, to the dismay of Brutus, two of his own sons were found among the number. With the unswerving virtue of a Roman or a Spartan, he condemned them to death, and they were executed before his eyes. The discovery of the plot of Tarquin put an end to his efforts to regain any foothold at Rome by peaceable methods, and he made the appeal to arms. These plots led to the banishment of the whole Tarquinian house, even the consul whose troubles had brought the result about being obliged to lay down his office and leave the city. Publius Valerius was appointed in his stead. For a time he was in office alone, and several times he was re-chosen. He was afterwards known as Poplicola, "the people's friend," on account of certain laws that he passed, limiting the power of the aristocrats and alleviating the condition of the plebeians. [Footnote: When Valerius was consul alone he began to build a house for himself on the Velian Hill, and a cry was raised that he intended to make himself king, upon which he stopped building. The people were ashamed of their conduct and granted him land to build on. One of his laws enacted that whoever should attempt to make himself king should be devoted to the gods, and that any one might kill him. When Valerius died he was mourned by the matrons for ten months. See Plutarch, Poplicola.]

In pursuance of his new plans, Tarquin obtained the help of the people of Veii and Tarquinii and marched against Rome. He was met by an army under Brutus, and a bloody battle was fought near Arsia. Brutus was killed and the Etruscans were about to claim the victory, when, in the night, the voice of the god Silvanus was heard saying that the killed among the Etruscans outnumbered by one man those of the Romans. Upon this the Etruscans fled, knowing that ultimate victory would not be theirs. This is not the way that a modern army would have acted. Valerius returned to Rome in triumph, and the matrons mourned Brutus as the avenger of Lucretia, an entire year.

This is the time of heroes and of highly ornamented lays, and we are not surprised to find truth covered up beneath a mass of fulsome bombast. It is related that Tarquinius now obtained the help of Prince or Lars Porsena of Clusium in Etruria, and with a large army proceeded undisturbed quite up to the Janiculum Hill on his march to Rome. There he found himself separated from the object of his long struggle only by the wooden bridge. We may picture to ourselves the city stirred to its centre by the fearful prospect before it. The bridge that had been of so much use, that the pontifices had so carefully built and preserved, must be cut away, or all was lost. At this critical juncture, the brave Horatius Cocles, with one on either hand, kept the enemy at bay while willing arms swung the axes against the supports of the structure, and when it was just ready to fall uttered a prayer to Father Tiber, plunged into the muddy torrent, fully armed as he was, and swam to the opposite shore amid the plaudits of the rejoicing people, as related in the ballad of Lord Macaulay. Then it was, too, that the people determined to erect a bridge which could be more readily removed in case of necessity. Baffled in this attempt to enter Rome, the enemy laid siege to the city, and as it was unprepared, it soon suffered the distress of famine. Then another brave man arose, Caius Mucius by name, and offered to go to the camp of the invaders and kill the hated king. He was able to speak the Etruscan language, and felt that a little audacity was all that he needed to carry his mission out safely. Though he went boldly, he killed a secretary dressed in purple, instead of his master, and was caught and threatened with torture. Putting his right hand into the fire on the altar near by, he held it there until it was destroyed, [Footnote: Mucius was after this called Scævola, the left- handed.] and said that suffering had no terrors for him, nor for three hundred of his companions who had all vowed to kill the king. The Roman writers say that, thereupon Porsena took hostages from them and made peace. It is true that peace was made, but Rome was forced to agree not to use iron except in cultivating the earth, and she lost ten of her thirty "regions," being all the territory that the kings had conquered on the west bank of the Tiber. [Footnote: See Niebuhr's Lectures, chapter xxiv.]

Tarquin had been foiled in his attempts to regain his throne, but still he tried again, the last time having the aid of his son-in-law, Mamilius of Tusculum. It was a momentous juncture. The weakened Romans were to encounter the combined powers of the thirty Latin cities that had formerly been in league with them. They needed the guidance of one strong man; but they had decreed that there should never be a king again, and so they appointed a "dictator" with unlimited power, for a limited time. We shall find them resorting to this expedient on other occasions of sudden and great trouble. A fierce struggle followed at Lake Regillus, in which the Latins were turned to flight through the intervention of Castor and Pollux, who fought at the head of the Roman knights on foaming white steeds. There was no other quarter to which Tarquinius could turn for help, and he therefore fled to Cumæ, where he died after a wretched old age. A temple was erected on the field of the battle of Lake Regillus in honor of Castor and Pollux, and thither annually on the fifteenth of July the Roman knights were wont to pass in solemn procession, in memory of the fact that the twins had fought at the head of their columns in the day of distress when fortune seemed to be about to desert the national cause. At this battle Caius Marcius, a stripling descended from Ancus Marcius, afterwards known as Coriolanus, received the oaken crown awarded to the man who should save the life of a Roman citizen, because he struck down one of the Latins, in the presence of the commander, just as he was about to kill a Roman soldier.

In the year 504 B.C., there was in the town of Regillum, a man of wealth and importance, who, at the time of the war with the Sabines, had advocated peace, and as his fellow-citizens were firmly opposed to him, left them, accompanied by a long train of followers (much as we suppose the first Tarquin left Tarquinii), and took up his abode in Rome. The name of this man was Atta Clausus, or perhaps Atta Claudius, but, however that may be, he was known at Rome as Appius Claudius. He was received into the ranks of the patricians, ample lands were assigned to him and his followers, and he became the ancestor of one of the most important Roman families, that of Claudius, noted through a long history for its hatred of the plebeians. His line lasted some five centuries, as we shall have occasion to observe.

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