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 proverbs says that Rome was not built in a day. It was no easy task for the twins to agree just where they should even begin the city. Romulus thought that the Palatine Hill, on which he and his brother had lived, was the most favorable spot for the purpose, while Remus inclined no less decidedly in favor of the Aventine, on which Numitor had fed his flocks. In this emergency, they seem to have asked counsel of their grandfather, and he advised them to settle the question by recourse to augury, [Footnote: Augury was at first a system of divining by birds, but in time the observation of other signs was included. At first no plebeians could take the auspices, as they seem to have had no share in the divinities whose will was sought, but in the year 300, B.C., the college of augurs, then comprising four patricians, was enlarged by the admission of five plebeians. The augurs were elected for life.] a practice of the Etrurians with which they were probably quite familiar, for they had been educated, we are told, at Gabii, the largest of the towns of Latium, where all the knowledge of the region was known to the teachers.

Following this advice, the brothers took up positions at a given time on the respective hills, surrounded by their followers; those of Romulus being known as the Quintilii, and those of Remus as the Fabii. Thus, in anxious expectation, they waited for the passage of certain birds which was to settle the question between them. We can imagine them as they waited. The two hills are still to be seen in the city, and probably the two groups were about half a mile apart. On one side of them rolled the muddy waters of the Tiber, from which they had been snatched when infants, and around them rose the other elevations over which the "seven-hilled" city of the future was destined to spread. From morning to evening they patiently watched, but in vain. Through the long April night, too, they held their posts, and as the sun of the second day rose over the Coelian Hill, Remus beheld with exultation six vultures swiftly flying through the air, and thought that surely fortune had decided in his favor. The vulture was a bird seldom seen, and one that never did damage to crops or cattle, and for this reason its appearance was looked upon as a good augury. The passage of the six vultures did not, however, settle this dispute, as Numitor expected it would, for Romulus, when he heard that Remus had seen six, asserted that twelve had flown by him. His followers supported this claim, and determined that the city should be begun on the Palatine Hill. It is said that this hill, from which our word palace has come, received its name from the town of Pallantium, in Arcadia, from which Evander came to Italy.

The twenty-first of April was a festal day among the shepherds, and it was chosen as the one on which the new city should be begun (753 B.C.). In the morning of the day, it was customary, so they say, for the country people to purify themselves by fire and smoke, by sprinkling themselves with spring water, by formal washing of their hands, and by drinking milk mixed with grape-juice. During the day they offered sacrifices, consisting of cakes, milk, and other eatables, to Pales, the god of the shepherds. Three times, with faces turned to the east, a long prayer was repeated to Pales, asking blessings upon the flocks and herds, and pardon for any offences committed against the nymphs of the streams, the dryads of the woods, and the other deities of the Italian Olympus. This over, bonfires of hay and straw were lighted, music was made with cymbal and flute, and shepherds and sheep were purified by passing through the flames. A feast followed, the simple folk lying on benches of turf, and indulging in generous draughts of their homely wines, such, probably, as the visitor to-day may regale himself with in the same region. Towards evening, the flocks were fed, the stables were cleansed and sprinkled with water with laurel brooms, and laurel boughs were hung about them as adornments. Sulphur, incense, rosemary, and fir-wood were burned, and the smoke made to pass through the stalls to purify them, and even the flocks themselves were submitted to the same cleansing fumes.

The beginning of a city in the olden time was a serious matter, and Romulus felt the solemnity of the acts in which he was about to engage. He sent men to Etruria, from which land the religious customs of the Romans largely came, to obtain for him the minute details of the rites suitable for the occasion.

At the proper moment he began the Etrurian ceremonies, by digging a circular pit down to the hard clay, into which were cast with great solemnity some of the first-fruits of the season, and also handfuls of earth, each man throwing in a little from the country from which he had come. The pit was then filled up, and over it an altar was erected, upon the hearth of which a fire was kindled. Thus the centre of the new city was settled and consecrated. Romulus then harnessed a white cow and a snow-white bull to a plow with a brazen share, and holding the handle himself, traced the line of the future walls with a furrow (called the pomoerium [Footnote: Pomoerium is composed of post, behind, and murus, a wall. The word is often used as meaning simply a boundary or limit of jurisdiction. The pomoerium of Rome was several times enlarged.]), carrying the plow over the places where gates were to be left, and causing those who followed to see that every furrow as it fell was turned inwards toward the city. As he plowed, Romulus uttered the following prayer:

Do thou, Jupiter, aid me as I found this city; and Mavors [that is, Mars, the god of war and protector of agriculture], my father, and Vesta, my mother, and all other, ye deities, whom it is a religious duty to invoke, attend; let this work of mine rise under your auspices. Long may be its duration; may its sway be that of an all-ruling land; and under it may be both the rising and the setting of the day.

It is said that Jupiter sent thunder from one side of the heavens and lightnings from the other, and that the people rejoiced in the omens as good and went on cheerfully building the walls. The poet Ovid says that the work of superintending the building was given to one Celer, who was told by Romulus to let no one pass over the furrow of the plow. Remus, ignorant of this, began to scoff at the lowly beginning, and was immediately struck down by Celer with a spade. Romulus bore the death of his brother "like a Roman," with great fortitude, and, swallowing down his rising tears, exclaimed: "So let it happen to all who pass over my walls!"

Plutarch, who is very fond of tracing the origin of words, says that Celer rushed away from Rome, fearing vengeance, and did not rest until he had reached the limits of Etruria, and that his name became the synonym for quickness, so that men swift of foot were called Celeres by the Romans, just as we still speak of "celerity," meaning rapidity of motion. Thus the walls of the new city were laid in blood.

In one respect early Rome was like our own country, for Plutarch says that it was proclaimed an asylum to which any who were oppressed might resort and be safe; but it was more, for all who had incurred the vengeance of the law were also taken in and protected from punishment. Romulus is said to have erected in a wood a temple to a god called Asylæus, where he "received and protected all, delivering none back-- neither the servant to his master, the debtor to his creditor, nor the murderer into the hands of the magistrate; saying it was a privileged place, and they could so maintain it by an order of the holy oracle; insomuch that the city grew presently very populous." It was men, of course, who took advantage of this asylum, for who ever heard of women who would rush in great numbers to such a place? Rome was a colony of bachelors, and some of them pretty poor characters too, so that there did not seem to be a very good chance that they could find women willing to become their wives. Romulus, like many an ardent lover since, evidently thought that all was fair in love and war, and, after failing in all his efforts to lead the neighboring peoples to allow the Roman men to marry their women, he gave it out that he had discovered the altar of the god Consus, who presided over secret deliberations,--a very suitable divinity to come up at the juncture,--and that he intended to celebrate his feast.

Consus was honored on the twenty-first of August, and this celebration would come, therefore, just four months after the foundation of the city. There were horse and chariot races, and libations which were poured into the flames that consumed the sacrifices. The people of the country around Rome were invited to take part in the novel festivities, and they were nothing loth to come, for they had considerable curiosity to see what sort of a city had so quickly grown up on the Palatine Hill. They felt no solicitude, though perhaps some might have thought of the haughtiness with which they had refused the offers of matrimony made to their maidens. Still, it was safe, they thought, to attend a fair under the protection of religion, and so they went,--they and their wives and their daughters.

At a signal from Romulus, when the games were at the most exciting stage, and the strangers were scattered about among the Romans, each follower of Romulus siezed the maiden that he had selected, and carried her off. It is said that as the men made the siezure, they cried out, "Talasia!" which means spinning, and that at all marriages in Rome afterwards, that word formed the refrain of a song, sung as the bride was approaching her husband's house. We cannot imagine the disturbance with which the festival broke up, as the distracted strangers found out that they were the victims of a trick, and that their loved daughters had been taken from them. They called in vain upon the god in whose honor they had come, and they listened with suppressed threats of vengeance to Romulus, as he boldly went about among them telling them that it was owing to their pride that this calamity had fallen upon them, but that all would now be well with their daughters. Each new husband would, he said, be the better guardian of his bride, because he would have to take the place with her of family and home as well as of husband.

The brides were soon comforted, but their parents put on mourning for them and went up and down through the neighborhood exciting the inhabitants against the city of Romulus. Success crowned their efforts, and it was not long before Titus Tatius, king of the Sabines, from among whose people most of the stolen virgins had been taken, found himself at the head of an army sufficient to attack the warlike citizens of the Palatine. He was not so prompt, however, as his neighbors, and two armies from Latin cities had been collected and sent against Romulus, and had been met and overcome by him, before his arrangements were completed; the people being admitted to Rome as citizens, and thus adding to the already increasing power of the community.


The Romans had a citadel on the Capitoline Hill, and Tatius desired to win it. The guardian was named Tarpeius, and he had a daughter, Tarpeia, who was so much attracted by the golden ornaments worn by the Sabines, that she promised to open the citadel to them if each soldier would give his bracelet to her. This was promised, and as each entered he threw his golden ornament upon the poor maiden, until she fell beneath the weight and died, for they wished to show that they hated treachery though willing to profit by it. Her name was fixed upon the steep rock of the Capitoline Hill from which traitors were in after years thrown.

We now have the Sabines on one hill and the Romans on another, with a swampy plain of small extent between them, where the forum was afterward built. The Romans wished to retake the Capitoline Hill (which was also called the Hill of Saturn), and a battle was fought the next day in the valley. It is said that two men began the fight, Mettus Curtius, representing the Sabines, and Hostus Hostilius, the Romans, and that though the Roman was killed, Curtius was chased into the swamp, where his horse was mired, and all his efforts with whip and spur to get him out proving ineffectual, he left the faithful beast and saved himself with difficulty. The swamp was ever after known as Lacus Curtius, and this story might be taken as the true origin of its name (for lacus in Latin meant a marsh as well as a lake), if it were not that there are two other accounts of the reason for it. One story is that in the year 362 B.C.--that is, some four centuries after the battle we have just related, the earth in the forum gave way, and all efforts to fill it proving unsuccessful, the oracles were appealed to. They replied that the spot could not be made firm until that on which Rome's greatness was based had been cast into the chasm, but that then the state would prosper. In the midst of the doubting that followed this announcement, the gallant youth, Curtius, came forward, declaring that the city had no greater treasure than a brave citizen in arms, upon which he immediately leaped into the abyss with his horse. Thereupon the earth closed over the sacrifice. This is the story that Livy prefers. The third is simply to the effect that while one Curtius was consul, in the year 445 B.C., the earth at the spot was struck by lightning, and was afterwards ceremoniously enclosed by him at the command of the senate. This is a good example of the sort of myth that the learned call ætiological--that is, myths that have grown up to account for certain facts or customs. The story of the carrying off of the Sabine women is one of this kind, for it seems to have originated in a desire to account for certain incidents in the marriage ceremonies of the Romans. We cannot believe either, though it is reasonable to suppose that some event occurred which was the basis of the tradition told in connection with the history of different periods. We shall find that, in the year 390, all the records of Roman history were destroyed by certain barbarians who burned the city, and that therefore we have tradition only upon which to base the history before that date. We may reasonably believe, however, that at some time the marshy ground in the forum gave way, as ground often does, and that there was difficulty in filling up the chasm. A grand opportunity was thus offered for a good story-teller to build up a romance, or to touch up the early history with an interesting tale of heroism. The temptation to do this would have been very strong to an imaginative writer.

The Sabines gained the first advantage in the present struggle, and it seemed as though fortune was about to desert the Romans, when Romulus commended their cause to Jupiter in a prayer in which he vowed to erect an altar to him as Jupiter Stator--that is, "Stayer," if he would stay the flight of the Romans. The strife was then begun with new vigor, and in the midst of the din and carnage the Sabine women, who had by this time become attached to their husbands, rushed between the fierce men and urged them not to make them widows or fatherless, which was the sad alternative presented to them. "Make us not twice captives!" they exclaimed. Their appeal resulted in peace, and the two peoples agreed to form one nation, the ruler of which should be alternately a Roman and a Sabine, though at first Romulus and Tatius ruled jointly. The women became thus dearer to the whole community, and the feast called Matronalia was established in their honor, when wives received presents from their husbands and girls from their lovers.

Romulus continued to live on the Palatine among the Romans, and Tatius on the Quirinal, where the Sabines also lived. Each people adopted some of the fashions and customs of the other, and they all met for the transaction of business in the Forum Romanum, which was in the valley of the Curtian Lake, between the hills. For a time this arrangement was carried on in peace, and the united nation grew in numbers and power. After five years, however, Tatius was slain by some of the inhabitants of Lavinium, and Romulus was left sole ruler until his death.

Under him the nation grew still more rapidly, and others were made subject to it, all of which good fortune was attributed to his prowess and skill. Romulus became after a while somewhat arrogant. He dressed in scarlet, received his people lying on a couch of state, and surrounded himself with a body of young soldiers called Celeres, from the swiftness with which they executed his orders. It was a suspicious fact that all at once, at a time when the people had become dissatisfied with his actions, Romulus disappeared (717 B.C.). Like Evander, he went, no one knew where, though one of his friends presented himself in the forum and assured the people under oath that one day, as he was going along the road, he met Romulus coming toward him, dressed in shining armor, and looking comelier than ever. Proculus, for that was the friend's name, was struck with awe and filled with religious dread, but asked the king why he had left the people to bereavement, endless sorrow, and wicked surmises, for it had been rumored that the senators had made away with him. Romulus replied that it pleased the gods that, after having built a city destined to be the greatest in the world for empire and glory, he should return to heaven, but that Proculus might tell the Romans that they would attain the height of power by exercising temperance and fortitude, in which effort he would sustain them and remain their propitious god Quirinus. An altar was accordingly erected to the king's honor, and a festival called the Quirinalia was annually celebrated on the seventeenth of February, the day on which he is said to have been received into the number of the gods.

Romulus left the people organized into two great divisions, Patricians and Clients: the former being the Populus Romanus, or Roman People, and possessing the only political rights; and the others being entirely dependent upon them. The Patricians were divided into three tribes—the Romans (Ramnes), the Etruscans (Luceres), and the Sabines (Tities, from Tatius). Another body, not yet organized, called Plebeians, or Plebs, was composed of inhabitants of conquered towns and refugees. These, though not slaves, had no political rights. Each tribe was divided into ten Curiae, and the thirty Curiae composed the Comitia Curiata, which was the sovereign assembly of the Patricians, authorized to choose the king and to decide all cases affecting the lives of the citizens. A number of men of mature age, known as the Patres, composed the Senate, which Romulus formed to assist him in the government. This body consisted of one hundred members until the union with the Sabines, when it was doubled, the Etruscans not being represented until a later time. The army was called a Legion, and was composed of a contribution of a thousand foot-soldiers and a hundred cavalry (Equites, Knights) from each tribe.

A year passed after the death of Romulus before another king was chosen, and the people complained that they had a hundred sovereigns instead of one, because the senate governed, and that not always with justness. It was finally agreed that the Romans should choose a king, but that he should be a Sabine. The choice fell upon Numa Pompilius, a man learned in all laws, human and divine, and two ambassadors were accordingly sent to him at his home at Cures, to offer the kingdom to him. The ambassadors were politely received by the good man, but he assured them that he did not wish to change his condition; that every alteration in life is dangerous to a man; that madness only could induce one who needed nothing to quit the life to which he was accustomed; that he, a man of peace, was not fitted to direct a people whose progress had been gained by war; and that he feared that he might prove a laughing-stock to the people if he were to go about teaching them the worship of the gods and the offices of peace when they wanted a king to lead them to war. The more he declined, the more the people wished him to accept, and at last his father argued with him that a martial people needed one who should teach them moderation and religion; that he ought to recognize the fact that the gods were calling him to a large sphere of usefulness. These arguments proved sufficient, and Numa accepted the crown. After making the appropriate offerings to the gods, he set out for Rome, and was met by the populace coming forth to receive him with joyful acclamations. Sacrifices were offered in the temples, and with impressive ceremonies the new authority was joyfully entrusted to him (715 B.C.).

As Romulus had given the Romans their warlike customs, so now Numa gave them the ceremonial laws of religion; but before entering upon this work, he divided among the people the public lands that Romulus had added to the property of the city by his conquests, by this movement showing that he was possessed of worldly as well as of heavenly wisdom. He next instituted the worship of the god Terminus, who seems to have been simply Jupiter in the capacity of guardian of boundaries. Numa ordered all persons to mark the limits of their lands by consecrated stones, and at these, when they celebrated the feast of Terminalia, sacrifices were to be offered of cakes, meal, and fruits. Moses had done something like this hundreds of years before, in the land of Palestine, when he wrote in his laws: "Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor's landmark, which they of old time have set, in thine inheritance which thou shalt inherit, in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee." He had impressed it upon the people, repeating in a solemn religious service the words: "Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor's landmark," to which all the people in those primitive times solemnly said "Amen!" You will find the same sentiment repeated in the Proverbs of Solomon. When Romulus had laid out the pomoerium, he made the outline something like a square, and called it Roma Quadrata, that is "Square Rome," but he did not direct the landmarks of the public domain to be distinctly indicated. The consecration of the boundaries undoubtedly made the people consider themselves more secure in their possessions, and consequently made the state itself more stable.

In order to make the people feel more like one body and think less of the fact that they comprised persons belonging to different nations, Numa instituted nine guilds among which the workmen were distributed. These were the pipers, carpenters, goldsmiths, tanners, leather- workers, dyers, potters, smiths, and one in which all other handicraftsmen were united. Thus these men spoke of each other as members of this or that guild, instead of as Etruscans, Romans, and Sabines.

[Illustration: A ROMAN ALTAR]

Human sacrifices were declared abolished at this time; the rites of prayer were established; the temple of Janus was founded (which was closed in time of peace and open in time of war); priests were ordained to conduct the public worship, the Pontifex Maximus [Footnote: Pontifex means bridge-builder (pons, a bridge, facere, to make), and the title is said to have been given to these magistrates because they built the wooden bridge over the Tiber, and kept it in repair, so that sacrifices might be made on both sides of the river. The building of this bridge is, however, ascribed to Ancus Martius at a later date, and so some think the name was originally pompifex (pompa, a solemn procession), and meant that the officers had charge of such celebrations.] being at the head of them, and the Flamens, Vestal Virgins, and Salii, being subordinate. Numa pretended that he met by night a nymph named Egeria, at a grotto under the Coelian Hill, not far from the present site of the Baths of Caracalla, and that from time to time she gave him directions as to what rites would be acceptable to the gods. Another nymph, whom Numa commended to the special veneration of the Romans, was named Tacita, or the silent. This was appropriate for one of such quiet and unobtrusive manners as this good king possessed.

Romulus is said to have made the year consist of but ten months, the first being March, named from Mars, the god whom he delighted to honor; but Numa saw that his division was faulty, and so he added two months, making the first one January, from Janus, the god who loved civil and social unity, whose temple he had built; and the second February, or the month of purification, from the Latin word februa. If he had put in his extra months at some other part of the year, he might have allowed it still to begin in the spring, as it naturally does, and we should not be obliged to explain to every generation why the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months are still called the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth. [Footnote: We shall find that in the course of time this arrangement of the year proved very faulty in its turn, and that Julius Cæsar made another effort to reform it. (See page 247.)]

The poets said in the peaceful days of Numa, Rust eats the pointed spear and double-edged sword. No more is heard the trumpet's brazen roar, Sweet sleep is banished from our eyes no more,

and that over the iron shields the spiders hung their threads, for it was a sort of golden age, when there was neither plot, nor envy, nor sedition in the state, for the love of virtue and the serenity of spirit of the king flowed down upon all the happy subjects. In due time, after a long reign and a peaceful and useful life, Numa died, not by disease or war, but by the natural decline of his faculties. The people mourned for him heartily and honored him with a costly burial.

After the death of this king an interregnum followed, during which the senate ruled again, but it was not long before the Sabines chose as king a Roman, Tullus Hostilius, grandson of that Hostus Hostilius who had won distinction in the war with the Sabines. The new sovereign thought that the nation was losing its noble prestige through the quietness with which it lived among its neighbors, and therefore he embraced every opportunity to stir up war with the surrounding peoples, and success followed his campaigns. The peasants between Rome and Alba [Footnote: Alba became the chief of a league of thirty Latin cities, lying in the southern part of the great basin through which the Tiber finds its way to the sea, between Etruria and Campania.] afforded him the first pretext, by plundering each other's lands. The Albans were ready to settle the difficulty in a peaceful manner, but Tullus, determined upon aggrandizement, refused all overtures. It was much like a civil war, for both nations were of Trojan origin, according to the traditions. The Albans pitched their tents within five miles of Rome, and built a trench about the city. The armies were drawn up ready for battle, when the Alban leader came out and made a speech, in which he said that as both Romans and Sabines were surrounded by strange nations who would like to see them weakened, as they would undoubtedly be by the war, he proposed that the question which should rule the other, ought to be decided in some less destructive way.


It happened that there were in the army of the Romans three brothers known as the Horatii, of the same age as three others in the Alban army called the Curiatii, and it was agreed that these six should fight in the place of the two armies. At the first clash of arms two of the Romans fell lifeless, though every one of the Curiatii was wounded. This caused the Sabines to exult, especially as they saw the remaining Roman apparently running away. The flight of Horatius was, however, merely feigned, in order to separate the opposing brothers, whom he met as they followed him, and killed in succession. As he struck his sword into the last of the Albans, he exclaimed: "Two have I offered to the shades of my brothers; the third will I offer to the cause of this war, that the Roman may rule over the Alban!" A triumph [Footnote: A "triumph" was a solemn rejoicing after a victory, and included a pompa, or procession of the general and soldiers on foot with their plunder. Triumphs seem to have been celebrated in some style in the earliest days of Rome. In later times they increased very much in splendor and costliness.] followed; but it appears that a sister of Horatius, named Horatia, [Footnote: The Romans seem in one respect to have had little ingenuity in the matter of names, though generally they had too many of them, and formed that of a woman from the name of a man by simply changing the end of it from the masculine form to the feminine.] was to have married one of the Curiatii, and when she met her victorious brother bearing as his plunder the military robe of her lover that she had wrought with her own hands, she tore her hair and uttered bitter exclamations. Horatius in his anger and impatience thrust her through with his sword, saying: "So perish every Roman woman who shall mourn an enemy?" For this act, the victorious young man was condemned to death, but he appealed to the people, and they mitigated his sentence in consequence of his services to the state.

Another war followed, with the Etruscans this time, and the Albans not behaving like true allies, their city was demolished and its inhabitants removed to Rome, where they were assigned to the Coelian Hill. Some of the more noble among them were enrolled among the Patricians, and the others were added to the Plebs, who then became for the first time an organic part of the social body, though not belonging to the Populus Romanus (or Roman People), so called. On another occasion Tullus made war upon the Sabines and conquered them, but finally he offended the gods, and in spite of the fact that he bethought himself of the good Numa and began to follow his example, Jupiter smote him with a thunder-bolt and destroyed him and his house.

Again an interregnum followed, and again a king was chosen, this time Ancus Marcius, a Sabine, grandson of the good Numa, a man who strove to emulate the virtues of his ancestor. It is to be noticed that the four kings of Rome thus far are of two classes, the warlike and peaceful alternating in the legends. The neighbors expected that Ancus would not be a forceful king, and some of them determined to take advantage of his supposed weakness. He set himself to repair the neglected religion, putting up tables in the forum on which were written the ceremonial law, so that all might know its demands, and seeking to lead the people to worship the gods in the right spirit. Ancus seems to have united with his religious character, however, a proper regard for the rights of the nation, and when the Latins who lived on the river Anio, made incursions into his domain, thinking that he would not notice it, in the ardor of his services at the temples and altars, he entered upon a vigorous and successful campaign, conquering several cities and removing their inhabitants, giving them homes on the Aventine Hill, thus increasing the lands that could be divided among the Romans and adding to the number of the Plebeians. Ancus founded a colony at Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, and built a fortress on the Janiculum Hill, across the river, connecting it with the other regions by means of the first Roman bridge, called the Pons Sublicius, or in simple English, the wooden bridge. This is the one that the Romans wanted to cut down at a later period, as we shall see, and had great difficulty in destroying. Another relic of Ancus is seen in a chamber of the damp Mamertine prison under the Capitoline Hill, the first prison in the city, rendered necessary by the increase of crime. After a reign of twenty-four years, Ancus Martius died, and a new dynasty, of Etruscan origin, began to control the fortunes of the now rapidly growing nation.

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