Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

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

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There is a long story connected with the young stripling who, at the battle of Lake Regillus received the oaken crown for saving the life of a Roman citizen. The century after that event was filled with wars with the neighboring peoples, and in one of them this same Caius Marcius fought so bravely at the taking of the Latin town of Corioli that he was ever after known as Coriolanus (B.C. 493). He was a proud patrician, and on one occasion when he was candidate for the office of consul, behaved with so much unnecessary haughtiness toward the plebeians that they refused him their votes. [Footnote: The whole interesting story is found in Plutarch's Lives, and in Shakespeare's play which bears the hero's name.] After a while a famine came to Rome,--famines often came there,--and though in a former emergency of the kind Coriolanus had himself obtained corn and beef for the people, he was now so irritated by his defeat that when a contribution of grain arrived from Syracuse, in Sicily (B.C. 491), he actually advocated that it should not be distributed among the people unless they would consent to give up their tribunes which had been assured to them by the laws of the Sacred Mount! This enraged the plebeians very much, and they caused Coriolanus to be summoned for trial before the comitia of the tribes, which body, in spite of his acknowledged services to the state, condemned him to exile. When he heard this sentence, Coriolanus angrily determined to cast in his lot with his old enemies the Volscians, and raised an army for them with which he marched victoriously towards Rome. As he went, he destroyed the property of the plebeians, but preserved that of the patricians. The people were in the direst state of anxious fear, and some of the senators were sent out to plead with the dreaded warrior for the safety of the city. These venerable ambassadors were repelled with scorn. Again, the sacred priests and augurs were deputed to make the petition, this time in the name of the gods of the people; but, alas, they too entreated in vain. Then it was remembered that the stern man had always reverenced his mother, and she with an array of matrons, accompanied by the little ones of Coriolanus, went out to add their efforts to those which had failed. As they appeared, Coriolanus exclaimed, as Shakespeare put it:

"I melt, and am not
Of stronger earth than others.--My mother bows; As if Olympus to a molehill should
In supplication nod; and my young boy Hath an aspect of intercession, which, Great Nature cries: 'Deny not.' Let the Volsces Plow Rome and harrow Italy; I'll never Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand, As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin!"*

The strong man is finally melted, however, by the soft influences of the women, and as he yields, says to them:

"Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you; all the swords In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace!"

A temple was accordingly built in memory of this event, and in honor of Feminine Fortune, at the request of the women of Rome, for the senate had decreed that any wish they might express should be gratified. As for Coriolanus, he is said to have lived long in banishment, bewailing his misfortune, and saying that exile bore heavily on an old man. The entire story, heroic and tragic as it is related to us, is not substantiated, and we do not really know whether if true it should be assigned to the year 488 B.C., or to a date a score of years later.

During all the century we are now considering, the plebeians were slowly gaining ground in their attempts to improve their political condition, though they did not fail to meet rebuffs, and though they were many times unjustly treated by their proud opponents. These efforts at home were complicated, too, by the fact that nearly all the time there was war with one or another of the adjoining nations. Treaties were made at this period with some of the neighboring peoples, by a good friend of the plebeians, Spurius Cassius, who was consul in the year 486, and these to a certain extent repaired the losses that had followed the war with Porsena after the fall of the Tarquins. Cassius tried to strengthen the state internally, too, by dividing certain lands among the people, and by requiring rents to be paid for other tracts, and setting the receipts aside to pay the commons when they should be called out as soldiers. This is known as the first of the many Agrarian Laws (ager, a meadow, a field) that are recorded in Roman history, though something of the same nature is said to have existed in the days of Servius Tullius.

There were public and private lands in Roman territory, just as there are in the territory of the United States, and in those days, just as in our own, there were "squatters," as they have been called in our history, who settled upon public lands without right, and without paying any thing to the government for the privileges they enjoyed. Laws regulating the use and ownership of the public lands were passed from time to time until Julius Cæsar (B.C. 59) enacted the last. They had for their object the relief of poverty and the stopping of the clamors of the poor, the settling of remote portions of territory, the rewarding of soldiers, or the extension of the popularity of some general or other leader. The plan was not efficient in developing the country, because those to whom the land was allotted were often not at all adapted to pursue agriculture successfully, and because the evils of poverty are not to be met in that way.

It was a sign of the power of the people that this proposition of Cassius should have been successful; but it irritated the patricians exceedingly, because they had derived large wealth from the improper use of the public lands. The following year consuls came into power who were more in sympathy with the patricians, and they accused Cassius of laying plans to be made king. His popularity was undermined, and his reputation blasted. Finally he was declared guilty of treason by his enemies, and condemned to be scourged and beheaded, while his house was razed to the ground. For seven years after this one of the consuls was always a member of the powerful family of the Fabii, which had been influential in thus overthrowing Cassius. The Fabians had opposed the laws dividing the lands, and they now refused to carry them out. The result was that the commons, deprived of their rights, again went to the extreme of refusing to fight for the state; and when on one occasion they were brought face to face with an enemy, they refused to conquer when they had victory in their hands. A little later they went one step further, and attempted to stop entirely the raising of an army. One of the patrician family just mentioned, Marcus Fabius, proved too noble willingly to permit such strife between the classes to interfere with the progress of the state, and determined to conciliate the commons. He succeeded, and led them to battle, and, though his army won victory, was himself killed in the combat (B.C. 481). The other members of the family took up the cause, cared kindly for the wounded, and thus still further ingratiated themselves with the army. The next year (B.C. 480) another Fabian was consul, and he too determined to stand up for the laws of Spurius Cassius. He was treated with scorn by his fellow patricians, and finding that he could not carry out his principles and live at peace in Rome, determined to exile himself. Going out with his followers, he established a camp on the side of the river Cremera, a few miles above Rome, and alone carried on a war against the fortified city of Veii. The unequal strife was continued for two years; but then the brave family was completely cut off. There was not a member left, excepting one who seems to have refused to renounce the former opinions of the family, and had remained at Rome [Footnote: The Fabii were cut off on the Cremera on the 16th of July, a day afterwards marked by a terrible battle on the Allia, in which the Gauls defeated the Romans.] (B.C. 477). He became the ancestor of the Fabii of after-history.

The support thus received from the aristocratic Fabii encouraged the commons, and the sacrifice of the family exasperated them. They felt anew that it was possible for them to exert some power in the state, and they promptly accused one of the consuls, Titus Menenius, of treason, because he had allowed his army to lie inactive near Cremera while the Fabii were cut off before him. Menenius was found guilty, and died of vexation and shame. The aristocrats now attempted to frighten the commons by treachery and assassination, and succeeded, until one, Volero Publilius, arose and took their part. He boldly proposed a law by which the tribunes of the people, instead of being chosen by the comitia of the centuries, in which, as we have seen, the aristocrats had the advantage, should be chosen by the comitia of the tribes, in which there was no such inferiority of the commons. Though violently opposed by the patricians, this law was passed, in the year 471 B.C. Other measures were, however, still necessary to give the plebeians a satisfactory position in the state.

In the year 458, the ancient tribe of the Æquians came down upon Rome, and taking up a position upon Mount Algidus, just beyond Alba Longa, repulsed an army sent against them, and surrounded its camp. We can imagine the clattering of the hoofs on the hard stones of the Via Latina as five anxious messengers, who had managed to escape before it was too late, hurried to Rome to carry the disheartening news. All eyes immediately turned in one direction for help. There lived just across the Tiber a member of an old aristocratic family, one Lucius Quintius, better known as Cincinnatus, because that name had been added to his others to show that he wore his hair long and in curls. Lucius was promptly appointed Dictator--that is, he was offered supreme authority over all the state,--and messengers were sent to ask him to accept the direction of affairs. He was found at work on his little farm, which comprised only four jugera, either digging or plowing, and after he had sent for his toga, or outer garment, which he had thrown off for convenience in working, and had put it on, he listened to the message, and accepted the responsibility. The next morning he appeared on the forum by daylight, like an early rising farmer, and issued orders that no one should attend to private business, but that all men of proper age should meet him on the field of Mars by sunset with food sufficient for five days. At the appointed hour the army was ready, and, so rapidly did it march, that before midnight the camp of the enemy was reached. The Æquians, not expecting such promptness, were astonished to hear a great shout, and to find themselves shut up between two Roman armies, both of which advanced and successfully hemmed them in. They were thus forced to surrender, and Cincinnatus obliged them to pass under the yoke, in token of subjugation. (Sub, under, jugum, a yoke.) The yoke in this case was made of two spears fastened upright in the ground with a third across them at the top. In the short space of twenty-four hours, Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus raised an army, defeated an enemy, and laid down his authority as dictator! It was decreed that he should enter the city in triumph. He rode in his chariot through the streets, the rejoicing inhabitants spreading tables in front of their houses, laden with meat and drink for the soldiers. The defeated chiefs walked before the victor, and after them followed the standards that had been won, while still farther behind were the soldiers, bearing the rich spoils. It was customary in those days for a conqueror to take every thing from the poor people whom he had vanquished,--homes, lands, cattle, wealth of every sort,--and then even to carry the men, women, and children away into slavery themselves. Thus a subjugated country became a desolation, unless the conquerors sent settlers to occupy the vacant homes and cultivate the neglected farms. Bad and frightful as war is now, it is not conducted on such terrible principles as were followed in early times.

Though from time to time concessions were made to the commons, they continued to feel that they were deprived of many of their just political rights, and the antagonism remained lively between them and the patricians. The distresses that they suffered were real, and endured even for two centuries after the time assigned to Coriolanus. We have now, indeed, arrived at a period of their sore trial, though it was preceded by some events that seemed to promise them good. In the year 454, Lucius Icilius, one of the tribunes of the people, managed to have the whole of the Aventine Hill given up to them, and as it was, after the Capitoline, the strongest of all the seven, their political importance was of course increased. It was but a few years later (B.C. 451) when, according to tradition, after long and violent debates it was decided that a commission should be sent to Athens, or to some colony of the Greeks, to learn what they could from the principles of government adopted by that ancient and wise people, which was then at the very height of its prosperity and fame. After this commission had made its report (in the year B.C. 450), all the important magistrates, including the consuls, tribunes, and ædiles, were replaced by ten patricians, known as Decemvirs (decem, ten, vir, a man), appointed to prepare a new code of laws.

The chief of this body was an Appius Claudius, son of the haughty patrician of the same name, and equally as haughty as he ever was. The laws of Rome before this time had been in a mixed condition, partly written and partly unwritten and traditional; but now all were to be reduced to order, and incorporated with those two laws that could not be touched--that giving the Aventine to the plebeians, and the sacred law settled on the Roman Runnymede after the first secession to the Sacred Mount. After a few months the ten men produced ten laws, which were written out and set up in public places for the people to read and criticise. Suggestions for alterations might be made, and if the ten men approved them, they made them a part of their report, after which all was submitted to the senate and the curiæ, and finally approved. The whole code of laws was then engraved on ten tables of enduring brass and put up in the comitium, where all might see them and have no excuse for not obeying them.

We do not know exactly what all these laws were, but enough has come down to us to make it clear that they were drawn up with great fairness, because they met the expectations of the people; and this shows, of course, that the political power of the plebeians was now considerable, because ten patricians would not have made the laws fair, unless there had been a strong influence exerted over them, obliging them to be careful in their action. The ten had acted so well, indeed, that it was thought safe and advisable to continue the government in the same form for another year. This proved a mistake, for Appius managed to gain so much influence that he was the only one of the original ten who was re-elected, and he was able also to cause nine others to be chosen with him who were weak men, whom he felt sure that he could control. When the new decemvirs came into power, they soon added two new laws to the original ten, and the whole are now known, therefore, as the "Twelve Tables." The additional laws proved so distasteful to the people that they were much irritated, and seemed ready to revolt against the government on the slightest provocation. The decemvirs became exceedingly ostentatious and haughty, too, in their bearing, as well as tyrannical in their acts, so that the city was all excitement and opposition to the government that a few weeks before had been liked so well. Nothing was needed to bring about an outbreak except a good excuse, and that was not long waited for. Nations do not often have to wait long for a cause for fighting, if they want to find one.

A war broke out with the Sabines and the Æquians at the same time, and armies were sent against them both, commanded by friends of the plebeians. Lucius Sicinius Dentatus, one of the bravest, was sent out at the head of one army with some traitors, who, under orders from the decemvirs, murdered him in a lonely place. The other commander was Lucius Virginius, who will be known as long as literature lasts as father of the beautiful but unfortunate Virginia. While Virginius was fighting the city's war against the Æquians, the tyrant Appius was plotting to snatch from him his beloved daughter, who was affianced to the tribune Lucius Icilius, the same who had caused the Aventine to be assigned to the plebeians. At first wicked Appius endeavored to entice the maiden from her noble lover, but without success; and he therefore determined to take her by an act of tyranny, under color of law. He caused one of his minions to claim her as his slave, intending to get her into his hands before her father could hear of the danger and return from the army. The attempt was not successful, for trusty friends carried the news quickly, and Virginius reached Rome in time to hear the cruel sentence by which the tyrant thought to gratify his evil intention. Before Virginia could be taken from the forum, Virginius drew her aside, suddenly snatched a sharp knife from a butcher's stall, and plunged it in her bosom, crying out: "This is the only way, my child, to keep thee free!" Then, turning to Appius, he held the bloody knife on high and cried: "On thy head be the curse of this blood." Vainly did Appius call upon the crowd to arrest the infuriated father; the people stood aside to allow him to pass, as though he had been something holy, and he rushed onward toward his portion of the army, which was soon joined by the troops that Dentatus had commanded. Meantime, Icilius held up the body of his loved one before the people in the forum, and bade them gaze on the work of their decemvir. A tumult was quickly stirred up, in the midst of which Appius fled to his house, and the senate, hastily summoned, cast about for means to stop the wild indignation of the exasperated populace; for the people were then, as they are now, always powerful in the strength of outraged feeling or righteous indignation.

All was vain. The two armies returned to the Aventine united, and from the other parts of the city the plebeians flocked to them. This was the second secession, and, like the first, it was successful. The decemvirs were compelled to resign, their places being filled by two consuls; Appius was thrown into prison, to await judgment, and took his life there; and ten tribunes of the people were chosen to look out for the interests of the commons, Virginius and Icilius being two of the number. Thus, for the first time since the days of Publius Valerius, the control of government was in the hands of men who wished to carry it on for the good of the country, rather than in the interest of a party. Thus good came out of evil.

Among the laws of the Twelve Tables, the particular one which had at this time excited the plebeians was a statute prohibiting marriages between members of their order and the patricians. There had been such marriages, and this made the opposition to the law all the more bitter, though no one was powerful enough to cause it to be abolished. There now arose a tribune of the people who possessed force and persistence, Caius Canuleius by name, and he urged the repeal of this law. For the third time the plebeians seceded, this time going over the Tiber to the Janiculum Hill, where it would have been possible for them to begin a new city, if they had not been propitiated. Canuleius argued with vigor against the consuls who stood up for the law, and at last he succeeded. In the year 445 the restriction was removed, and plebeian girls were at liberty to become the wives of patrician men, with the assurance that their children should enjoy the rank of their fathers. This right of intermarriage led in time to the entrance of plebeians upon the highest magistracies of the city, and it was, therefore, of great political importance.

It was agreed in 444 B.C. that the supreme authority should be centred in two magistrates, called Military Tribunes, who should have the power of consuls, and might be chosen from the two orders. The following year, however (443 B.C.), the patricians were allowed to choose from their own order two officers known as Censors, who were always considered to outrank all others, excepting the dictator, when there was one of those extraordinary magistrates. The censors wore rich robes of scarlet, and had almost kingly dignity. They made the register of the citizens at the time of the census, [Footnote: After the expulsion of the Tarquins, the consuls took the census, and this was the first appointment of special officers for the purpose.] administered the public finances, and chose the members of the senate, besides exercising many other important duties connected with public and private life. The term of office of the censors at first was a lustrum or five years, but ten years later it was limited to eighteen months. In 421, the plebeians made further progress, for the office of quæstor (paymaster) was opened to them, and they thus became eligible to the senate. A score of years passed, however, before any plebeian was actually chosen to the office of military tribune even, owing to the great influence of the patricians in the comitia centuriata.

All the time that these events were occurring, Rome was carrying on intermittent wars with the surrounding nations, and by her own efforts, as well as by the help of her allies, was adding to her warlike prestige. Nothing in all the story of war exceeds in interest the poetical narrative that relates to the siege and fall of the Etruscan city of Veii, with which, since the days of Romulus, Rome had so many times been involved in war.

Year after year the army besieged the strong place, and there seemed no hope that its walls would fall. It was allied with Fidenæ, another city halfway between it and Rome, which was taken by means of a mine in the year 426. A peace with Veii ensued, after which the incessant war began again, and fortune sometimes favored one side and sometimes the other. The siege of the city can be fittingly compared to that of Troy, Seven years had passed without result, when of a sudden, in the midst of an autumn drought, the waters of the Alban Lake, away off to the other side of Rome, began to rise. Higher and still higher they rose without any apparent cause, until the fields and houses were covered, and then they found a passage where the hills were lowest, and poured down in a great torrent upon the plains below. Unable to understand this portent, for such it was considered, the Romans called upon the oracle at Delphi for counsel, and were told that not until the waters should find their way into the lowlands by a new channel, should not rush so impetuously to the sea, but should water the country, could Veii be taken. It is hardly necessary to say that no one but an oracle or a poet could see the connection between the draining of a lake fifteen miles from Rome on one side, and the capture of a fortress ten miles away on the other. However, the lake was drained. With surprising skill, a tunnel was built directly through the rocky hills, and the waters allowed to flow over the fields below. The traveller may still see this ancient structure performing its old office. It is cut for a mile and a half, mainly through solid rock, four feet wide and from seven to ten in height. The lake is a thousand feet above the sea-level, and of very great depth.

Marcus Furius Camillus is the hero who now comes to the rescue. He was chosen dictator in order that he might push the war with the utmost vigor. The people of Veii sent messengers to him to sue for peace, but their appeal was in vain. Steadily the siege went on. We must not picture to ourselves the army of Camillus using the various engines of war that the Romans became acquainted with in later times through intercourse with the Greeks, but trusting more to their strong arms and their simple means of undermining the walls or breaking down the gates. Their bows and slings and ladders were weak instruments against strong stone walls, and the siege was a long and wearisome labor. It proved so long in this case, indeed, that the soldiers, unable to make visits to their homes to plant and reap their crops, were for the first time paid for their services.

As the unsuccessful ambassadors from Veii turned away from the senate- house, one of them uttered a fearful prophecy, saying that though the unmerciful Romans feared neither the wrath of the gods nor the vengeance of men, they should one day be rewarded for their hardness by the loss of their own country.

Summer and winter the Roman army camped before the doomed city, but it did not fall. At last, to ensure success, Camillus began a mine or tunnel under the city, which he completed to a spot just beneath the altar in the temple of Juno. When but a single stone remained to be taken away, he uttered a fervent prayer to the goddess, and made a vow to Apollo consecrating a tenth part of the spoil of the city to him. He then ordered an assault upon the walls, and at the moment when the king was making an offering on the altar of Juno, and the augur was telling him that victory in the contest was to fall to him who should burn the entrails then ready, the Romans burst from their tunnel, finished the sacrifice, and rushing to the gates, let their own army in. The city was sacked, and as Camillus looked on, he exclaimed: "What man's fortune was ever so great as mine?" A magnificent triumph was celebrated in Rome. Day after day the temples were crowded, and Camillus, hailed as a public benefactor, rode to the capitol in a chariot drawn by four white horses. The territory of the conquered city was divided among the patricians, but Camillus won their hatred after a time by calling upon them to give up a tenth part of their rich booty to found a temple to Apollo, in pursuance of his vow, which he claimed to have forgotten meanwhile. It was not long before he was accused of unfairness in distributing the spoils, some of which he was said to have retained himself, and when he saw that the people were so incensed at him that condemnation was inevitable, he went into banishment. As he went away, he added a malediction to the prophecy of the ambassador from Veii, and said that the republic might soon have cause to regret his loss. He was, as he had expected, condemned, a fine of one hundred and fifty thousand ases being laid upon him.

Thus was the territory of Rome greatly increased, after a hundred years of war and intrigue, and thus did the warrior to whom the city owed the most, and whom it had professed to honor, go from it with a malediction on his lips. Let us see how the ill omens were fulfilled.

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