Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

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

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Once upon a time, there lived in a city of Asia Minor, not far from Mount Ida, as old Homer tells us in his grand and beautiful poem, a king who had fifty sons and many daughters. How large his family was, indeed, we cannot say, for the storytellers of the olden time were not very careful to set down the actual and exact truth, their chief object being to give the people something to interest them. That they succeeded well in this respect we know, because the story of this old king and his great family of sons and daughters has been told and retold thousands of times since it was first related, and that was so long ago that the bard himself has sometimes been said never to have lived at all. Still; somebody must have existed who told the wondrous story, and it has always been attributed to a blind poet, to whom the name Homer has been given.

The place in which the old king and his great family lived was Ilium, though it is better known as Troja or Troy, because that is the name that the Roman people used for it in later times. One of the sons of Priam, for that was the name of this king, was Paris, who, though very handsome, was a wayward and troublesome youth. He once journeyed to Greece to find a wife, and there fell in love with a beautiful daughter of Jupiter, named Helen. She was already married to Menelaus, the Prince of Lacedæmonia (brother of another famous hero, Agamemnon), who had most hospitably entertained young Paris, but this did not interfere with his carrying her off to Troy. The wedding journey was made by the roundabout way of Phoenicia and Egypt, but at last the couple reached home with a large amount of treasure taken from the hospitable Menelaus.

This wild adventure led to a war of ten years between the Greeks and King Priam, for the rescue of the beautiful Helen. Menelaus and some of his countrymen at last contrived to conceal themselves in a hollow wooden horse, in which they were taken into Troy. Once inside, it was an easy task to open the gates and let the whole army in also. The city was then taken and burned. Menelaus was naturally one of the first to hasten from the smoking ruins, though he was almost the last to reach his home. He lived afterwards for years in peace, health, and happiness with the beautiful wife who had cost him so much suffering and so many trials to regain.


Among the relatives of King Priam was one Anchises, a descendant of Jupiter, who was very old at the time of the war. He had a valiant son, however, who fought well in the struggle, and the story of his deeds was ever afterwards treasured up among the most precious narratives of all time. This son was named Æneas, and he was not only a descendant of Jupiter, but also a son of the beautiful goddess Venus. He did not take an active part in the war at its beginning, but in the course of time he and Hector, who was one of the sons of the king, became the most prominent among the defenders of Troy. After the destruction of the city, he went out of it, carrying on his shoulders his aged father, Anchises, and leading by the hand his young son, Ascanius, or Iulus, as he was also called. He bore in his hands his household gods, called the Penates, and began his now celebrated wanderings over the earth. He found a resting-place at last on the farther coast of the Italian peninsula, and there one day he marvellously disappeared in a battle on the banks of the little brook Numicius, where a monument was erected to his memory as "The Father and the Native God." According to the best accounts, the war of Troy took place nearly twelve hundred years before Christ, and that is some three thousand years ago now. It was before the time of the prophet Eli, of whom we read in the Bible, and long before the ancient days of Samuel and Saul and David and Solomon, who seem so very far removed from our times. There had been long lines of kings and princes in China and India before that time, however, and in the hoary land of Egypt as many as twenty dynasties of sovereigns had reigned and passed away, and a certain sort of civilization had flourished for two or three thousand years, so that the great world was not so young at that time as one might at first think If only there had been books and newspapers in those olden days, what revelations they would make to us now! They would tell us exactly where Troy was, which some of the learned think we do not know, and we might, by their help, separate fact from fiction in the immortal poems and stories that are now our only source of information. It is not for us to say that that would be any better for us than to know merely what we do, for poetry is elevating and entertaining, and stirs the heart; and who could make poetry out of the columns of a newspaper, even though it were as old as the times of the Pharaohs? Let us, then, be thankful for what we have, and take the beginnings of history in the mixed form of truth and fiction, following the lead of learned historians who are and long have been trying to trace the true clue of fact in the labyrinth of poetic story with which it is involved.

When the poet Milton sat down to write the history of that part of Britain now called England, as he expressed it, he said: "The beginning of nations, those excepted of whom sacred books have spoken, is to this day unknown. Nor only the beginning, but the deeds also of many succeeding ages, yes, periods of ages, either wholly unknown or obscured or blemished with fables." Why this is so the great poet did not pretend to tell, but he thought that it might be because people did not know how to write in the first ages, or because their records had been lost in wars and by the sloth and ignorance that followed them. Perhaps men did not think that the records of their own times were worth preserving when they reflected how base and corrupt, how petty and perverse such deeds would appear to those who should come after them. For whatever reason, Milton said that it had come about that some of the stories that seemed to be the oldest were in his day regarded as fables; but that he did not intend to pass them over, because that which one antiquary admitted as true history, another exploded as mere fiction, and narratives that had been once called fables were afterward found to "contain in them many footsteps and reliques of something true," as what might be read in poets "of the flood and giants, little believed, till undoubted witnesses taught us that all was not feigned." For such reasons Milton determined to tell over the old stories, if for no other purpose than that they might be of service to the poets and romancers who knew how to use them judiciously. He said that he did not intend even to stop to argue and debate disputed questions, but, "imploring divine assistance," to relate, "with plain and lightsome brevity," those things worth noting.

After all this preparation Milton began his history of England at the Flood, hastily recounted the facts to the time of the great Trojan war, and then said that he had arrived at a period when the narrative could not be so hurriedly dispatched. He showed how the old historians had gone back to Troy for the beginnings of the English race, and had chosen a great-grandson of Æneas, named Brutus, as the one by whom it should be attached to the right royal heroes of Homer's poem. Thus we see how firm a hold upon the imagination of the world the tale of Troy had after twenty-seven hundred years.

Twenty-five or thirty years before the birth of Christ there was in Rome another poet, named Virgil, writing about the wanderings of Æneas. He began his beautiful story with these words: "Arms I sing, and the hero, who first, exiled by fate, came from the coast of Troy to Italy and the Lavinian shore." He then went on to tell in beautiful words the story of the wanderings of his hero,--a tale that has now been read and re-read for nearly two thousand years, by all who have wished to call themselves educated; generations of school-boys, and schoolgirls too, have slowly made their way through the Latin of its twelve books. This was another evidence of the strong hold that the story of Troy had upon men, as well as of the honor in which the heroes, and descent from them, were held.

In the generation after Virgil there arose a graphic writer named Livy, who wrote a long history of Rome, a large portion of which has been preserved to our own day. Like Virgil, Livy traced the origin of the Latin people to Æneas, and like Milton, he re-told the ancient stories, saying that he had no intention of affirming or refuting the traditions that had come down to his time of what had occurred before the building of the city, though he thought them rather suitable for the fictions of poetry than for the genuine records of the historian. He added, that it was an indulgence conceded to antiquity to blend human things with things divine, in such a way as to make the origin of cities appear more venerable. This principle is much the same as that on which Milton wrote his history, and it seems a very good one. Let us, therefore, follow it.

In the narrative of events for several hundred years after the city of Rome was founded, according to the early traditions, it is difficult to distinguish truth from fiction, though a skilful historian (and many such there have been) is able, by reading history backwards, to make up his mind as to what is probable and what seems to belong only to the realm of myth. It does not, for example, seem probable that Æneas was the son of the goddess Venus; and it seems clear that a great many of the stories that are mixed with the early history of Rome were written long after the events they pretend to record, in order to account for customs and observances of the later days. Some of these we shall notice as we go on with our pleasant story.

We must now return to Æneas. After long wanderings and many marvellous adventures, he arrived, as has been said, on the shores of Italy. He was not able to go rapidly about the whole country, as we are in these days by means of our good roads and other modes of communication, but if he could have done this, he would have found that he had fallen upon a land in which the inhabitants had come, as he had, from foreign shores. Some of them were of Greek origin, and others had emigrated from countries just north of Italy, though, as we now know that Asia was the cradle of our race, and especially of that portion of it that has peopled Europe, we suppose that all the dwellers on the boot-shaped peninsula had their origin on that mysterious continent at some early period.

If Æneas could have gone to the southern part of Italy,--to that part from which travellers now take the steamships for the East at Brindisi, he would have found some of the emigrants from the North. If he had gone to the north of the river Tiber, he would have seen a mixed population enjoying a greater civilization than the others, the aristocracy of which had come also from the northern mountains, though the common people were from Greece or its colonies. These people of Greek descent were called Etruscans, and it has been discovered that they had advanced so far in civilization, that they afterwards gave many of their customs to the city of Rome when it came to power. A confederacy known as the "Twelve Cities of Etruria" became famous afterwards, though no one knows exactly which the twelve were. Probably they changed from time to time; some that belonged to the union at one period, being out of it at another. It will be enough for us to remember that Veii, Clusium, Fidenæ, Volsinii, and Tarquinii were of the group of Etruscan cities at a later date.

The central portion of the country to which Æneas came is that known as Italia, the inhabitants of which were of the same origin as the Greeks. It is said that about sixty years before the Trojan war, King Evander (whose name meant good man and true) brought a company from the land of Arcadia, where the people were supposed to live in a state of ideal innocence and virtue, to Italia, and began a city on the banks of the Tiber, at the foot of the Palatine Hill. Evander was a son of Mercury, and he found that the king of the country he had come to was Turnus, who was also a relative of the immortal gods. Turnus and Evander became fast friends, and it is said that Turnus taught his neighbors the art of writing, which he had himself learned from Hercules, but this is one of the transparent fictions of the story. It may be that he taught them music and the arts of social life, and gave them good laws. What ever became of good Evander we do not know.

The king of the people among whom Æneas landed was one Latinus, who became a friend of his noble visitor, giving him his daughter Lavinia to wife, though he had previously promised her to Turnus. Æneas named the town in which he lived Lavinium, in honor of his wife. Turnus was naturally enraged at the loss of his expected bride, and made war upon both Æneas and Latinus. The Trojan came off victorious, both the other warriors being killed in the struggle. Thus for a short time, Æneas was left sole king of all those regions, with no one to dispute his title to the throne or his right to his wife; but the pleasure of ruling was not long to be his, for a short time after his accession to power, he was killed in battle on the banks of the Numicius, as has already been related. His son Ascanius left the low and unhealthy site of Lavinium, and founded a city on higher ground, which was called Alba Longa (the long, white city), and the mountain on the side of which it was, the Alban mountain. The new capital of Ascanius became the centre and principal one of thirty cities that arose in the plain, over all of which it seemed to have authority. Among these were Tusculum, Præneste, Lavinium, and Ardea, places of which subsequent history has much to say.

Ascanius was successful in founding a long line of sovereigns, who reigned in Alba for three hundred years, until there arose one Numitor who was dispossessed of his throne by a younger brother named Amulius. One bad act usually leads to another, and this case was no exception to the rule, for when Amulius had taken his brother's throne, he still feared that the rightful children might interfere with the enjoyment of his power. Though he supported Numitor in comfort, he cruelly killed his son and shut his daughter up in a temple. This daughter was called Silvia, or, sometimes, Rhea Silvia. Wicked men are not able generally to enjoy the fruits of their evil doings long, and, in the course of time, the daughter of the dethroned Numitor became the mother of a beautiful pair of twin boys, (their father being the god of war, Mars,) who proved the avengers of their grandfather. Not immediately, however. The detestable usurper determined to throw the mother and her babes into the river Tiber, and thus make an end of them, as well as of all danger to him from them. It happened that the river was at the time overflowing its banks, and though the poor mother was drowned, the cradle of the twins was caught on the shallow ground at the foot of the Palatine Hill, at the very place where the good Evander had begun his city so long before. There the waifs were found by one of the king's shepherds, after they had been, strangely enough, taken care of for a while by a she-wolf, which gave them milk, and a woodpecker, which supplied them with other food. Faustulus was the name of this shepherd, and he took them to his wife Laurentia, though she already had twelve others to care for. The brothers, who were named Romulus and Remus, grew up on the sides of the Palatine Hill to be strong and handsome men, and showed themselves born leaders among the other shepherds, as they attended to their daily duties or fought the wild animals that troubled the flocks.

The grandfather of the twins fed his herds on the Aventine Hill, nearer the river Tiber, just across a little valley, and a quarrel arose between his shepherds and those of Faustulus, in the course of which Remus was captured and taken before Numitor. The old man thus discovered the relationship that existed between him and the twins who had so long been lost. In consequence of the discovery of their origin, and the right to the throne that was their father's, they arose against their unworthy uncle, and with the aid of their followers, put him to death and placed Numitor in supreme authority, where he rightfully belonged. The twins had become attached to the place in which they had spent their youth, and preferred to live there rather than to go to Alba with their royal grandfather. He therefore granted to them that portion of his possessions, and there they determined to found a city.

Thus we have the origin of the Roman people. We see how the early traditions "mixed human things with things divine," as Livy said had been done to make the origin of the city more respectable; how Æneas, the far-back ancestor, was descended from Jupiter himself, and how he was a son of Venus, the goddess of love. How Romulus and Remus, the actual founders, were children of the god of war, and thus naturally fitted to be the builders of a nation that was to be strong and to conquer all known peoples on earth. The effort to ascribe to their nation an origin that should appear venerable to all who believed the stories of the gods and goddesses, was remarkably successful, and there is no doubt that it gave inspiration to the Roman people long after the worship of those divinities had become a matter of form, if not even of ridicule.

This was not all that was done, however, to establish the faith in the old stories in the minds of the people. In some way that it is not easy to explain, the names of the first heroes were fixed upon certain localities, just as those of the famous British hero, King Arthur, have long been fixed upon places in Brittany, Cornwall, and Southern Scotland. We find at a little place called Metapontem, the tools used by Epeus in making the wooden horse that was taken into Troy. The bow and arrows of Hercules were preserved at Thurii, near Sybaris; the tomb of Philoctetes, who inherited these weapons of the hero, was at Macalla, in Bruttium, not far from Crotona, where Pythagoras had lived; the head of the Calydonian Boar was at Beneventum, east of Capua, and the Erymanthian Boar's tusks were at Cumæ, celebrated for its Sibyl; the armor of Diomede, one of the Trojan heroes, was at Luceria, in the vicinity of Cannæ; the cup of Ulysses and the tomb of Elpenor were at Circei, on the coast; the ships of Æneas and his Penates were at Lavinium, fifteen miles south of Rome; and the tomb of the hero himself was at a spot between Ardea and Lavinium, on the banks of the brook Numicius. Most men are interested in relics of olden times, and these, so many and of such great attractiveness, were doubtless strong proofs to the average Roman, ready to think well of his ancestors, that tradition told a true story.

As we read the histories of other nations than our own, we are struck by the strangeness of many of the circumstances. They appear foreign (or "outlandish," as our great-grandparents used to say), and it is difficult to put ourselves in the places of the people we read of, especially if they belong to ancient times. Perhaps the names of persons and places give us as much trouble as any thing. It seems to us, perhaps, that the Romans gave their children too many names, and they often added to them themselves when they had grown up. They did not always write their names out in full; sometimes they called each other by only one of them, and at others by several. Marcus Tullius Cicero was sometimes addressed as "Tullius" and is often mentioned in old books as "Tully"; and he was also "M. Tullius Cicero." It was as if we were to write "G. Washington Tudela," and call Mr. Tudela familiarly "Washington." This would cause no confusion at the time, but it might be difficult for his descendants to identify "Washington" as Mr. Tudela, if, years after his death, they were to read of him under his middle name only. The Greeks were much more simple, and each of them had but one name, though they freely used nicknames to describe peculiarities or defects. The Latins and Etruscans seem to have had at first only one name apiece, but the Sabines had two, and in later times the Sabine system was generally followed. A Roman boy had, therefore, a given name and a family name, which were indispensable; but he might have two others, descriptive of some peculiarity or remarkable event in his life--as "Scævola," left-handed; "Cato," or "Sapiens," wise; "Coriolanus," of Corioli. "Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis" means Appius of the Claudian family of Regillum, in the country of the Sabines. "Lucius Cornelius Scipio Africanus" means Lucius, of the Cornelian family, and of the particular branch of the Scipios who won fame in Africa. These were called the prænomen (forename), nomen (name), cognomen (surname), and agnomen (added name).

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