Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Sabine Virgins

A tract of ground surrounded by walls does not make a city. Men are wanted, and of these the new city of Rome had but few. The band of shepherds who were sufficient to build a wall, or perhaps only a wooden palisade, were not enough to inhabit a city and defend it from its foes. The neighboring people had cities of their own, except bandits and fugitives, men who had shed blood, exiles driven from their homes by their enemies, or slaves who had fled from their lords and masters. These were the only people to be had, and Romulus invited them in by proclaiming that his city should be an asylum for all who were oppressed, a place of refuge to which any man might flee and be safe from his pursuers. He erected a temple to a god named Asylæus,—from whom comes the word asylum,—and in this 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 that 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 a quick and easy way of peopling a city. Doubtless the country held many such fugitives,—men lurking in woods or caves, hiding in mountain clefts, abiding wherever a place of safety offered,—hundreds of whom, no doubt, were glad to find a shelter among men and behind walls of defence. But it was probably a sorry population, made up of the waifs of mankind, many of whom had been slaves or murderers. There were certainly no women among this desperate horde, and Romulus appealed in vain to the neighboring cities to let his people obtain wives from among their maidens. It was not safe for the citizens of Rome to go abroad to seek wives for themselves; the surrounding peoples rejected the appeal of Romulus with scorn and disdain; unless something was done Rome bade fair to remain a city of bachelors.

In this dilemma Romulus conceived a plan to win wives for his people. He sent word abroad that he had discovered the altar of the god Consus, who presided over secret counsels, and he invited the citizens of the neighboring towns to come to Rome and take part in a feast with which he proposed to celebrate the festal day of the deity. This was the 21st of August, just four months after the founding of the city,—that is, if it was the same year.

There were to be sacrifices to Consus, where libations would be poured into the flames that consumed the victims. These would be followed by horse and chariot-races, banquets, and other festivities. The promise of merry-making brought numerous spectators from the nearer cities, some doubtless drawn by curiosity to see what sort of a commonwealth this was that had grown up so suddenly on the sheep pastures of the Palatine Hill; and they found their wives and daughters as curious and eager for enjoyment as themselves, and brought them along, ignoring the scorn with which they had lately rejected the Roman proposals for wives. It was a religious festival, and therefore safe; so visitors came from the cities of Cúnina, Crustumerium, and Antemna, and a multitude from the neighboring country of the Sabines.

The sacrifices over, the games began. The visitors, excited by the races, became scattered about among the Romans. But as the chariots, drawn by flying horses, sped swiftly over the ground, and the eyes of the visitors followed them in their flight, Romulus gave a preconcerted signal, and immediately each Roman seized a maiden whom he had managed to get near and carried her struggling and screaming from the ground. As they did so, each called out "Talasia," a word which means spinning, and which afterwards became the refrain of a Roman marriage song.

The games at once broke up in rage and confusion. But the visitors were unarmed and helpless. Their anger could be displayed only in words, and Romulus told them boldly that they owed their misfortune to their pride. But all would go well with their daughters, he said, since their new husbands would take the place with them of home and family.

This reasoning failed to satisfy the fathers who had been robbed so violently of their daughters, and they had no sooner reached home than many of them seized their arms and marched against their faithless hosts. First came the people of Cúnina; but the Romans defeated them, and Romulus killed their king. Then came the people of Crustumerium and Antemna, but they too were defeated. The prisoners were taken into Rome and made citizens of the new commonwealth.

But it was the Sabines who had most to deplore, for they had come in much the greatest number, and it was principally the Sabine virgins whom the Romans had borne off from the games. Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines, therefore resolved upon a signal revenge, and took time to gather a large army, with which he marched against Rome.

The war that followed was marked by two romantic incidents. Near the Tiber is a hill,—afterwards known as the Capitoline Hill,—which was divided from the Palatine Hill by a low and swampy valley. On this hill Romulus had built a fortress, as a sort of outwork of his new city. It happened that Tarpeius, the chief who held this fortress, had a daughter named Tarpeia, who was deeply affected by that love of finery which has caused abundant mischief since her day. When she saw the golden collars and bracelets which many of the Sabines wore, her soul was filled with longing, and she managed to let them know that she would betray the fortress into their hands if they would give her the bright things which they wore upon their arms.

They consented, and she secretly opened to them a gate of the fortress. But as they marched through the gate, and the traitress waited to receive her reward, the Sabine soldiers threw on her the bright shields which they wore on their arms, and she was crushed to death beneath their weight. The steep rock of the Capitoline Hill from which traitors were afterwards thrown was called, after her, the Tarpeian Rock.

The fortress thus captured, the valley between the hill and the city became the scene of battle. Here the Sabines repulsed the Romans, driving them back to one of their gates, through which the fugitives rushed in confusion, shutting it hastily behind them. But—if we may trust the legend—the gate refused to stay shut. It opened again of its own accord. They closed it twice more, and twice more it swung open. The victorious Sabines, who had now reached it, began to rush in; but just then, from the Temple of Janus, near by, there burst forth a mighty stream of water, which swept the Sabines away and saved Rome from capture. Therefore, in after-days, the gates of the Temple of Janus stood always wide open in time of war, that the god might go out, if he would, to fight for the Romans.

Another battle took place in the valley, and the Romans again began to flee. Romulus now prayed to Jupiter, and vowed to erect to him a temple as Jupiter Stator,—that is, the "stayer,"—if he would stay the Romans in their flight. Jupiter did so, or, at any rate, the Romans turned again to the fight, which now waxed furious. What would have been its result we cannot tell, for it was brought to an end by the other romantic incident of which we have spoken.



In fact, while the fathers of the Sabine virgins retained their anger against the Romans, the virgins themselves, who had now long been brides, had become comforted, most of them being as attached to their husbands as they had been to their parents before; and in the midst of the furious battle between their nearest relatives the lately abducted damsels were seen rushing down the Palatine Hill, and forcing their way, with appealing eyes and dishevelled hair, in between the combatants.

"Make us not twice captives!" they earnestly exclaimed, saying pathetically that if the war went on they would be widowed or fatherless, both of which sad alternatives they deplored.

The result of this appeal was a happy one. Both sides let fall their arms, and peace was declared upon the spot, it being recognized that there could be no closer bond of unity than that made by the daughters of the Sabines and wives of the Romans. The two people agreed to become one, the Sabines making their new home on the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills, and the Romans continuing to occupy the Palatine. As for the women, there was established in their honor the feast called Matronalia, in which husbands gave presents to their wives and lovers to their betrothed. Romulus and Tatius were to rule jointly, and afterwards the king of Rome should be alternately of Roman and Sabine birth.

After five years Tatius was killed in a quarrel, and Romulus became sole king. Under him Rome grew rapidly. He was successful in his wars, and enriched his people with the spoils of his enemies. In rule he was just and gentle, and punished those guilty of crime not by death, but by fines of sheep or oxen. It is said, though, that he grew somewhat arrogant, and was accustomed to receive his people dressed in scarlet and lying on a couch of state, where he was surrounded by a body of young men called Celeres, from the speed with which they flew to execute his orders.

For nearly forty years his reign continued, and then his end came strangely. One day he called the people together in the Field of Mars. But suddenly there arose a frightful storm, with such terrible thunder and lightning and such midnight darkness that the people fled homeward in affright through the drenching rain. That was the last of Romulus. He was never seen in life again. He may have been slain by enemies, but the popular belief was that Mars, his father, had carried him up to heaven in his chariot. All that the people knew was that one night, when Proculus Julius, a friend of the king, was on his way from Alba to Rome, he met Romulus by the way, his stature beyond that of man, and his face showing the beauty of the gods.

Proculus asked him why he had left the people to sorrow and wicked surmises, for some said that the senators had made away with him. Romulus replied that it was the wish of the gods that, after building a city that was destined to the greatest empire and glory, he should go to heaven and dwell with the gods.

"Go and tell my people that they must not weep for me any more," he said; "but bid them to be brave and warlike, and so shall they make my city the greatest on the earth."

This story satisfied the people that their king had been made a god; so they built a temple to him, and always afterwards worshipped him under the name of the god Quirinus. A festival called the Quirinalia was celebrated each year on the 17th of February, the day on which he had vanished from the eyes of men.