Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris
Very far back in time, more than twenty-six hundred years ago, on the banks of a small Italian river, known as the Tiber, were laid the foundations of a city which was in time to become the conqueror of the civilized world. Of the early days of this renowned city of Rome we know very little. What is called its history is really only legend,—stories invented by poets, or ancient facts which became gradually changed into romances. The Romans believed them, but that is no reason why we should. They believed many things which we doubt. And yet these romantic stories are the only existing foundation-stones of actual Roman history, and we can do no better than give them for what little kernel of fact they may contain.
In our tales from Greek history it has been told how the city of Troy was destroyed, and how Æneas, one of its warrior chiefs, escaped. After many adventures this fugitive Trojan prince reached Italy and founded there a new kingdom. His son Ascanius afterwards built the city of Alba Longa (the long white city) not far from the site of the later city of Rome. Three hundred years passed away, many kings came and went, and then Numitor, a descendant of Æneas, came to the throne. But Numitor had an ambitious brother, Amulius, who robbed him of his crown, and, while letting him live, killed his only son and shut up his daughter Silvia in the temple of the goddess Vesta, to guard the ever-burning fire of that deity.
Here Silvia had twin sons, whose father was said, in the old superstitious fashion, to be Mars, the God of War. The usurper, fearing that these sons of Mars might grow up and deprive him of his throne, ordered that they and their mother should be flung into the Tiber, then swollen with recent rains. The mother was drowned, but destiny, or Mars, preserved the sons. Borne onward in their basket cradle, they were at length swept ashore where the river had overflown its banks at the foot of the afterwards famous Palatine Hill. Here the cradle was overturned near the roots of a wild fig-tree, and the infants left at the edge of the shallow waters.
What follows sounds still more like fable. A she-wolf that came to the water to drink chanced to see the helpless children, and carried them to her cave, where she fed them with her milk. As they grew older a woodpecker brought them food, flying in and out of the cave. At length Faustulus, a herdsman of the king, found these lusty infants in the wolf's den, took them home, and gave them to his wife Laurentia to bring up with her own children. He gave them the names of Romulus and Remus.
Years went by, and the river waifs grew to be strong, handsome, and brave young men. They became leaders among the shepherds and herdsmen, and helped them to fight the wild animals that troubled their flocks. Their home was on the Palatine Hill, and the cattle and sheep for which they cared were those of the wicked king Amulius. Near by was another hill, called the Aventine, and on this the deposed king Numitor fed his flocks. In course of time a quarrel arose between the herdsmen on the two hills, and Numitor's men, having laid an ambush, took Remus prisoner and carried him to Alba, where their master dwelt. This no sooner became known to Romulus than he gathered the young men of the Palatine Hill, and set out in all haste to the rescue of his brother.
Meanwhile, Remus had been taken before Numitor, who gazed on him with surprise. His face and bearing were rather those of a prince than of a shepherd, and there was something in his aspect familiar to the old king. Numitor questioned him closely, and Remus told him the story of the river, the wolf, and the herdsman. Numitor listened intently. The story took him back to the day, many years before, when his daughter Silvia and her twin sons had been thrown into the swollen stream. Could the children have escaped? Could this handsome youth be his grandson? It must be so, for his age and his story agreed.
But while they talked, Romulus and his followers reached the city, and, being forbidden entrance, made an assault on the gates. In the conflict that ensued Amulius took part and was killed, and thus Numitor and his daughter were at last revenged. Seeking Remus, the victorious shepherd prince found him with Numitor, who now fully recognized in the twin youths his long-lost grandsons. Romulus, who was now master of the city, restored his royal grandfather to the throne.
As for Romulus and Remus, their life as shepherds was at an end. It was not for youths of royal blood and warlike aspirations to spend their lives in keeping sheep. But Numitor had been restored to the throne of Alba, and they decided to build a city of their own on those hills where all their lives had been passed and on which they preferred to dwell. The land belonged to Numitor, but he willingly granted it to them, and they led their followers to the spot.
Here a dispute arose between the brothers. The story goes that Romulus wished to have the city built on the Palatine Hill, Remus on the Aventine Hill; and that, as they could not agree, they referred the matter to their grandfather, who advised them to settle it by augury,—or by watching and forming conclusions from the flight of birds. This long continued the favorite Roman mode of settling difficult questions. It was easier than the Greek plan of going to Delphi to consult the oracle.
The two brothers now stationed themselves on the opposite hills, each with a portion of their followers, and waited patiently for what the heavens might send. The day slowly waned, and they waited in vain. Night came and deepened, and still their vigil lasted. At length, just as the sun of a new day rose in the east, Remus saw a flight of vultures, six in all. He exulted at the sight, for the vulture, as a bird which was seldom seen and did no harm to cattle or crops, was looked upon as an excellent augury. Word of his success was sent to Romulus, but he capped the story with a better one, saying that twelve vultures had just passed over his hill.
The dispute was still open. Remus had seen the birds first; Romulus had seen the most. Which had won? The question was offered to the decision of their followers, the majority of whom raised their voices in favor of Romulus. The Palatine Hill was therefore chosen as the city's site. This event took place, so Roman chronology tells us, in the year 753 B.C.
The day fixed for the beginning of the work on the new city—the 21st of April—was a day of religious ceremony and festival among the shepherds. On this day they offered sacrifices of cakes and milk to their god Pales, asked for blessings on the flocks and herds, and implored pardon for all offences against the dryads of the woods, the nymphs of the streams, and other deities. They purified themselves by flame and their flocks by smoke, and afterwards indulged in rustic feasts and games. This day of religious consecration was deemed by Romulus the fittest one for the important ceremony of founding his projected city.
Far back in time as it was when this took place, Italy seems to have already possessed numerous cities, many of which were to become enemies of Rome in later days. The most civilized of the Italian peoples were the Etruscans, a nation dwelling north of the Tiber, and whose many cities displayed a higher degree of civilization than those around them. From these the Romans in later days borrowed many of their religious customs, and to them Romulus sent to learn what were the proper ceremonies to use in founding a city.
The ceremonies he used were the following. At the centre of the chosen area he dug a circular pit through the soil to the hard clay beneath, and cast into this, with solemn observances, some of the first fruits of the season. Each of his men also threw in a handful of earth brought from his native land. Then the pit was filled up, an altar erected upon it, and a fire kindled on the altar. In this way was the city consecrated to the gods.
Then, having harnessed a cow and a bull of snow-white color to a plough whose share was made of brass, Romulus ploughed a furrow along the line of the future walls. He took care that the earth of the furrow should fall inward towards the city, and also to lift the plough and carry it over the places where gates were to be made. As he ploughed he uttered a prayer to Jupiter, Mars, Vesta, and other deities, invoking their favor, and praying that the new city should long endure and become an all-ruling power upon the earth.
The Romans tell us that his prayer was answered by Jupiter, who sent thunder from one side of the heavens and lightning from the other. These omens encouraged the people, who went cheerfully to the work of building the walls. But the consecration of the city was not yet completed. Its walls were to be cemented by noble blood. There is reason to believe that in those days the line of a city's walls was held as sacred, and that it was desecration to enter the enclosure at any place except those left for the gates. This may be the reason that Romulus gave orders to a man named Celer, who had charge of the building of the walls, not to let any one pass over the furrow made by the plough. However this be, the story goes that Remus, who was still angry about his brother's victory, leaped scornfully over the furrow, exclaiming, "Shall such defences as these keep your city?"
Celer, who stood by, stirred to sudden fury by this disdain, raised the spade with which he had been working, and struck Remus a blow that laid him dead upon the ground. Then, fearing vengeance for his hasty act, he rushed away with such speed that his name has since been a synonyms for quickness. Our word "celerity" is derived from it. But Romulus seems to have borne the infliction with much of that spirit of fortitude which distinguished the Romans in aftertimes. At least, the only effect the death of his brother had upon him, so far as we know, was in the remark, "So let it happen to all who pass over my walls!" Thus were consecrated in the blood of a brother the walls of that city which in later years was to be bathed in the blood of the brotherhood of mankind, and from which was destined to outflow a torrent of desolation over the earth.