Stories from Ancient Rome - Alfred J. Church

The Beginnings of a State

About the middle of the eighth century before Christ, there was founded in Italy a new town which was to become the most famous in the world. The site of Rome, for that was the name of the new foundation, was very well chosen. A number of hills—they were reckoned as seven, though there were not so many separate heights—looked down upon a riverside meadow. The hills were steep enough to be easily defended, but not too steep to be built upon.

The river was navigable, and the distance from the sea was not so great as to cause inconvenience, but was enough to make the town safe from the attacks of pirates. The first settlers occupied two of the seven hills, one of the two being certainly the Palatine, the other probably the Quirinal. They seem to have been shepherds or herdsmen. So much we may gather from the oldest names, such, for instance, as that of one of the gates in the first city wall, Porta mugionis, "the gate of lowing."

One of the reasons which probably brought about the settlement at Rome was the fact that the country to the south was troubled by eruptions from a volcano. There is, it is true, no volcano now, but the lake of Alba, a town of which I shall soon have to speak, has evidently been at some time a crater. Some settlers may have been fugitives from neighbouring towns, men who had broken the laws and were flying from justice, or who had been driven out by civil strife.

Whoever the inhabitants of the new town may have been or wherever they may have come from, there very soon arose a difficulty which is felt in all young settlements, as in our own colonies in times past or even now—where were they to find wives? The chief of Rome sent envoys to the neighbouring towns, belonging to two peoples known as Latins and Sabines, and asked that the Roman townsfolk might be allowed to intermarry with them.

Rome was not, however, well liked among its neighbours. If its population was partly made up of people who had got into trouble at home, there was good reason why they should not be regarded with favour. At any rate the envoys were not well received, and their request was refused. The Romans then resolved to get by force what they could not persuade their neighbours to give them.

Romulus—who was their chief—proclaimed a great festival, to which, in the name of his people, he invited the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns, together with their wives and daughters. They came in great numbers.

While the guests were looking on at the games, which, as usual, were a part of the festival, the young men of Rome rushed in among them and carried off the unmarried women. The men, unprepared and unarmed as they were, could make no resistance. All that they were able to do was to make their own escape.

Of course the angry towns resolved to punish the Romans for this outrage; and if they had combined in an attack on the new State, they would very probably have conquered it. But they were too angry to wait. Even the three Latin towns which had suffered most did not act together. Separately they attacked the Roman territory, and separately they were beaten. One of them was glad to accept the terms which Romulus offered, and was united with Rome.

But when the great Sabine people, under its king, Titus Tatius, advanced to the attack, the danger became serious. The Romans did not venture to meet this powerful enemy in the field, but prepared to defend their walls. But the walls did not sufficiently protect them. The Sabines gained possession of the citadel, by the treachery of a woman, as the Romans declared—they were always ready to account for anything that was not to their credit. However this may have been, the invaders certainly made their way into the city. There the fighting was furious.

At first the Sabines had the best of it, and the Romans fled. Romulus vowed to build a temple to Jupiter the Stayer, if the flight was stopped. His prayer was answered—so runs the story—the Romans turned fiercely upon their pursuers, and these in their turn fell back. Then came another change; the Sabines rallied, and the Romans could do little more than hold their own.

sabine war


In a pause of the battle the Sabine women rushed between the hostile lines, some of them carrying in their arms the children whom they had borne to their Roman husbands. They begged of their fathers and brothers on the one side and their husbands on the other, to cease from a strife from which, however it might end, they were bound to suffer. Their entreaties were heard. The battle was stopped; terms of peace were discussed, and in the end the two nations were made into one, under the joint rule of Romulus and Tatius.

Before long Tatius met his death in a private quarrel, and Romulus reigned alone for the rest of his life. His successor, Numa, a Sabine, it would seem, by birth, was a man of peace. His long reign of forty-one years was given to the ordering of religion and law. The two peoples which had been brought together in so strange a way were made into one harmonious whole.

Much might be said of the things that go to prove this union, but it will suffice to mention, as long as the Roman State lasted its citizens were wont to be called by the name of Quirites, the very name which the Sabine kings of old had used in addressing their subjects.

The reign of Tullus Hostilius, the warrior-king who succeeded the peaceful Numa, brought another accession to the State of Rome. Some twelve miles to the south stood the ancient city of Alba Longa. Between this city and Rome there was a close tie of kindred. Romulus was the grandson of an Alban king, the son of a princess who had been ill-treated by a usurping uncle, and some at least of his subjects in the new city which he had founded had been of Alban birth.

But kinship does not always mean friendship. The Jews, for instance, owned the relationship of nations for which they felt the bitterest hatred, Edom, Midian, Moab and Ammon. So it was with Alba and Rome. There were often border wars between the two States. Out of these was developed in course of time a serious struggle which could but end in the overthrow of one or the other.

The army of Alba invaded the Roman territory under its king, this monarch fell in battle, and the army retreated within their own borders. The Romans followed them, and a great battle seemed certain, when the Alban general proposed that the quarrel should be fought out by champions chosen from the two sides. The champions of Rome were three brothers of the name of Horatius; those of Alba three Curiatii.

In the conflict that followed two of the Horatii were killed; the third remained unhurt. None of the Alban champions had fallen, but they were all wounded. The surviving Roman contrived to separate them, and was more than a match for each taken by himself. In the end they all fell by his hand.

The army of Alba was now, according to the agreement, at the disposal of the Roman king, and he had soon occasion for its services. One of the most powerful of the Latin cities, which had been for some time in subjection to Rome, made an alliance with the Etruscan city of Veii, and on the strength of it declared its independence.

The Roman king summoned the army of Alba to his help. It obeyed, so far as to appear on the field of battle, but it took no part in the struggle. It awaited the result. When victory declared for the Romans, the Alban general came up and offered his congratulations. But the Roman king was not disposed to submit to such treatment. He seized the Alban general, and ordered his body to be fastened to two chariots; they were then driven in different directions, and the unhappy man was torn asunder. This revenge was followed up by destroying the city of Alba and transferring the whole of its population to Rome. Thus did Rome within little more than a century from its foundation absorb two considerable peoples.

It is very likely that other great powers, such as the mighty monarchies of the East, have had much the same beginning. But there is an incident in the story of how Rome got the upper hand of Alba which seems to mark the character of the new State. When the victorious Horatius was coming back to Rome, escorted by his comrades, and carrying the spoils of the vanquished champions, the women went forth to meet him, and among them was his sister. She spied among the trophies of the victory a garment which she had made for her betrothed, an Alban youth, and she burst into loud cries of sorrow. This untimely grief stirred his wrath, and he struck her to the ground.

He was tried for the crime upon the spot, condemned—for, indeed, his guilt was obvious—and sentenced to death. As the officers of justice were binding him, that he might undergo his sentence to be scourged and then hanged, the young man cried: "I appeal to the people." And his cause was tried again before a general assembly. This remitted the penalty upon condition that certain rites of humiliation should be undergone.

It was a sign that the new power, which was to have so great an influence on the history of the world, was to be a rule of law administered by a free people.

alban lake