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 city of Corinth, in Greece, was one of the most wealthy and enterprising on the Mediterranean in its day, and at about the time that Rome is said to have been founded, it entered upon a new period of commercial activity and foreign colonization. So many Greeks went to live on the islands around Italy, and on the shores of Italy itself, indeed, that that region was known as Magna Græcia, or Great Greece, just as in our day we speak of Great Britain, when we wish to include not England only, but also the whole circle of lands under British rule. At this time of commercial activity there came into power in Corinth a family noted for its wealth and force no less than for the luxury in which it lived, and the oppression, too, with which it ruled the people. One of the daughters of the sovereign married out of the family, because she was so ill-favored that no one in her circle was willing to have her as wife.

In due time the princess became the mother of a boy, of whom the oracle at Delphi prophesied that he should be a formidable opponent of the ruling dynasty. Whenever the oracle made such a prophecy about a child, it was customary for the ruler to try to make away with it, and that the ruler of Corinth did in this case. All efforts were unsuccessful, however, because his homely mother hid him in a chest when the spies came to the house. Now the Greek word for chest is kupsele, and therefore this boy was called Cypselus. He grew up to be a fine young man, and entered political life as champion of the people--the demos, as the Greeks would say, and was therefore a democratic politician. [Footnote: A politician is a person versed in the science of government, from the Greek words polis, a city, polites, a citizen. Though a very honorable title, it has been debased in familiar usage until it has come to mean in turn a partisan, a dabbler in public affairs, and even an artful trickster.]

He opposed the aristocratic rulers, and at last succeeded in overturning their government and getting into the position of supreme ruler himself. He ruled thirty years in peace, and was so much loved by the Corinthians that he went about among them in safety without any body-guard.

When Cypselus came into power the citizens of Corinth who belonged to the aristocratic family were obliged to go elsewhere, somewhat as those princes called émigrès (emigrants) left France during the Revolution, in 1789. One of them, whose name was Demaratus, a wealthy and intelligent merchant, concluded to go westward, to Magna Græcia, into the part of the world from which his ships had brought him his revenues. Accordingly, accompanied by his family, a great retinue, and some artists and sculptors, he sailed away for Italy and settled at the Etruscan town of Tarquinii. He did not go more than five or six hundred miles from home, but his enterprise was as marked as that of our fathers was considered when, in the last generation, they removed from New York to Chicago, though the distance was not nearly so great. No wonder Demaratus thought that it would be a comfort to have with him some of the artists and sculptors whose genius had made his Corinthian home beautiful.

As he had come to Tarquinii to spend all his days, Demaratus married a lady of the place, and she became the mother of a son, Lucomo. When this young man grew up, he found that, though a native of the city, he was looked upon as a foreigner on his father's account, and that, though he belonged to a family of the highest rank and wealth through his mother's connections, he was excluded from political power and influence. He had inherited the love of authority that had possessed his father's ancestors, and as his father had migrated from home to gain peace, he felt no reluctance in leaving Tarquinii in the hope of gaining the power he thought his wealth and pedigree entitled him to. There was no more attractive field for his ambition than Rome presented, and Lucomo probably knew that that city had been from its very foundation an asylum for strangers. Thither, therefore, he decided to take himself.

We can imagine the removal, as the long procession of chariots and footmen slowly passed over the fifty miles that separated Tarquinii from Rome. Just above Civita Vecchia you may see on your modern map of Italy a town called Corneto, and a mile from that, perhaps, another named Turchina, which is all that remains of the old town in which Lucomo lived. Even now relics of the Tarquinians are found there, and there are many in the museums of Europe that illustrate the ancient civilization of the Etruscans, which was greater at this time than that of the Romans. On his journey Lucomo was himself seated in a chariot with his wife Tanaquil, whom he seems to have honored very highly, and the long train of followers stretched behind them. It represented all that great wealth directed by considerable cultivation could purchase, and must have formed an imposing sight. Rome was approached from the south side of the Tiber, by the way of the Janiculum Hill and over the wooden bridge.

When the emigrants reached the Janiculum, and saw the hills and the modest temples of Rome before them, an eagle, symbol of royalty, flew down, and gently stooping, took off Lucomo's cap. Then, after having flown around the chariot with loud screams, it replaced it, and was soon lost again in the blue heavens. It was as though it had been sent by the gods to encourage the strangers to expect good fortune in their new home. Tanaquil, who was well versed in the augury of her countrymen, embraced her husband; told him from what divinity the eagle had come, and from what auspicious quarter of the heavens; and said that it had performed its message about the highest part of the body, which was in itself prophetic of good.

Considerable impression must have been made upon the subjects of Ancus Martius as the distinguished stranger and his long suite entered the city over the bridge, and when Lucomo bought a fine house, and showed himself affable and courteous, he was received with a cordial welcome, and soon admitted to the rights of a Roman citizen. Seldom had the town received so acceptable an addition to its population. Lucomo soon changed his name to Lucius Tarquinius, and to this, in after years, when there were two of the same family name, the word Priscus, or Elder, was added. Tarquinius, as we may now call him, flattered the Romans by invitations to his hospitable mansion, where his entertainments added greatly to his popularity, and in time Ancus himself heard of his acts of kindness, and added his name to the list of the new citizen's intimate friends. Tarquinius was admitted by the king to private as well as public deliberations about matters of foreign and domestic importance, and doubtless his knowledge of other countries stood him in good stead on these occasions.

The stranger had taken the king and people by storm, and when Ancus died, he left his sons to the guardianship of Tarquinius, and the Populus Romanus chose him to be their king. Thus Rome came to have at the head of its affairs a man not a Roman nor a Sabine, but a citizen of Greek extraction, who was familiar with a much higher state of civilization than was known on the banks of the Tiber. The result is seen in the great strides in advance that the city took during his reign. The architectural grandeur of Rome dates its beginning from this time. Tarquinius laid out vast drains to draw away the water that stood in the Lacus Curtius, between the Capitoline and the Palatine hills, and these remain to this day, as any one who has visited Rome remembers--the mouth of the Cloaca Maxima (the great sewer) being one of the remarkable sights there. The king also drained other parts of the city; vowed to build, and perhaps began, the temple on the Capitoline; built a wall about the city, and erected the permanent buildings on the great forum. These works involved vast labor and expense, and must have been very burdensome to the people. Like other oppressive monarchs, Tarquinius planned games and festivities to amuse them. He enlarged the Circus Maximus, and imported boxers and horses from his native country to perform at games there, which were afterwards celebrated annually. Besides these victories of peace, this king conquered the people about him, and greatly added to the number of his subjects. He for the first time instituted the formal "triumph," as it was afterwards celebrated, riding into the city after a victory in a chariot drawn by four white horses, and wearing a robe bespangled with gold. He brought in also the augural science of his country, which had been only partially known before.


While Tarquinius was thus adding to the greatness of Rome, there appeared in the palace one of those marvels that the early historians delighted to relate, such as, indeed, mankind in all ages has been pleased with. A boy was asleep in the portico when a flame was seen encircling his little head, and the attendants were about to throw water upon it, when the queen interfered, forbidding the boy to be disturbed. She then brought the matter to the notice of her husband, saying: "Do you see this boy whom we are so meanly bringing up? He is destined to be a light in our adversity, and a help in our distress. Let us care for him, for he will become a great ornament to us and to the state." Tarquinius knew well the importance of his wife's advice, and educated the boy, whose name was Servius Tullius, in a way befitting a royal prince. In the course of time he married the king's daughter, and found himself in favor with the people as well as with his royal father-in-law.

For all the forty years of the prosperous reign of Tarquinius, the traditions would have us believe, the two sons of Ancus had been nursing their wrath and inwardly boiling over with indignation because they had been deprived of the kingship, and now, as they saw the popularity of young Servius, they determined to wrench the crown from him after destroying the king. They therefore sent two shepherds into his presence, who pretended to wish advice about a matter in dispute. While one engaged Tarquin's attention, the other struck him a fatal blow with his axe. The queen was, however, quick-witted enough to keep them from enjoying the fruit of their perfidy, for she assured the people from a window that the king was not killed but only stunned, and that for the present he desired them to obey the directions of Servius Tullius. She then called upon the young man to let the celestial flame with which the gods had surrounded his head in his youth arouse him to action. "The kingdom is yours!" she exclaimed; "if you have no plans of your own, then follow mine!" For several days the king's death was concealed, and Servius took his place on the throne, deciding some cases, and in regard to others pretending that he would consult Tarquinius (B.C. 578). Thus he made the senate and the people accustomed to seeing him at the head of affairs, and when the actual fact was allowed to transpire, Servius took possession of the kingdom with the consent of the senate, but without that of the people, which he did not ask. This was the first king who ascended the throne without the suffrages of the Populus Romanus. The sons of Ancus went into banishment, and the royal power, which had passed from the Romans to the Etruscans, now fell into the hands of a man of unknown citizenship, though he has been described as a native of Corniculum, one of the mountain towns to the northeast of Rome, which is never heard of excepting in connection with this reign.

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