This is a chapter of Stories from Roman History, by Ethel Mary Wilmot-Buxton.
Imperial Rome shall rise,Virgil’s Aeneid (translated by Conington)
extend her reign to utmost earth
her genius to the skies.
The Roman Empire, of whose growth we are going to read, began, like many other great things, in a very small way.
It grew up from a tiny settlement made upon one of the seven hills which lie around the river Tiber, about eighteen miles from its mouth, and this settlement was made by a little band of shepherds who had probably been drawn to the spot by the advantages offered by the river for the watering and the grassy hill for the feeding of their flocks.
After a while, as they saw that their high position would give them an advantage over the fierce tribes who surrounded the district, they spread themselves over the other hills and began to guard the mouth of the river and use it for purposes of trade.
Then, little by little, they conquered, first, their warlike neighbors, then the whole of Italy, and gradually extended their power far and wide until, in the course of eight hundred years, they had built up the greatest empire which the ancient world —that is, the world before the birth of Christ— ever knew.
Now about three hundred and fifty years after the founding of the city, Rome was burned by the Gauls, and with it were destroyed most of the old tablets and records which told the story of the city in its early days. But the Roman people, who were justly proud of what their forefathers had done, were very anxious that this early history should not be forgotten, although they had no longer any written accounts of it. So they put together the descriptions which their fathers had given them of the glories of those past days, and as a story seldom loses anything in the telling, the result soon became a legend.
Now a legend is a story which is founded on fact, but the events which it describes either did not all take place or did not happen exactly in the way they are there described. Sometimes they were put together by poets, whose imagination would naturally lead them to decorate the story by inserting a little here or exaggerating something there. But even those history writers who were not poets were quite content to tell these legends as though they were real history, for they naturally wanted to make the Roman people as important as possible in the eyes of all other nations.
This accounts, therefore, for the legends of the founding of the city; for the Romans did not care to trace their descent from a few poor shepherds, keeping their flocks upon the hillsides. They preferred to think that their first rulers were descended from the gods themselves.
Most civilized people who lived about the time these legends were made had heard of the story of the Trojan War, and so, in their account of the beginnings of Rome, they said that Eneas, the Trojan hero, fleeing from burning Troy, after many years of wanderings by sea and by land, had settled down in Latium, the district of which Rome, in after days, became the chief city. There he is said to have married the daughter of Latinus, its king, and to have set up a new kingdom, which his son Ascanius established more firmly at Alba Longa, at the foot of the Alban Mount.
The descendants of Ascanius were all kings of Alba, until at length the kingdom fell into the hands of Numitor. He was a just and gentle king, but his wicked brother Amulius, in jealousy of his position, drove him from the throne and shut up his daughter in a temple, that none of the descendants of Numitor might take from him his crown.
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Soon after this he heard, to his dismay, that twin boys, of whom the god Mars was said to be the father, had been born to the princess. They were immediately taken from her, and by the orders of Amulius were thrown into the river Tiber.
Now it happened that the river was in flood at the time, so that the servants who were carrying out the king’s commands could not get to the main stream. They, therefore, put the rough trough, on which the boys were laid, in the deepest pool they could find, and went their way. But, so says the legend, the water ebbed away, and the babes were left high and dry on land. Attracted by their cries a shewolf, which had come down to drink, approached them and suckled them as gently as if they had been her own cubs. She was found in the act of licking them affectionately by the master of the royal herd, who carried them home to his wife.
The boys, whom he called Romulus and Remus, grew up in the stables or on the hillsides and soon became as strong and daring as the wild beasts, whose dens they stormed.
Gradually they gathered about them a band of young shepherds from the country around, and with these at their back they became a terror to the robber bands who dwelt in the hills and woods of the district. One day, certain of these robbers, enraged at the loss of some booty, seized upon Remus and, dragging him before King Amulius, accused him of making raids upon the lands of Numitor, which were close to those of his usurping brother.
Amulius therefore sent Remus to Numitor to be punished; but the latter, puzzled by the lad’s royal air and still more by the news that he had a twin brother and that they were exactly the age his drowned grandsons would have been, kept him unharmed within his house, while he made inquiries as to who he really was. Meantime, Romulus had learned from the master of the royal herd, who had long guessed the truth, the whole secret of his birth and origin, and he now proceeded with a trusty band of herdsmen against the palace of the wicked Amulius. There he was joined by Remus, whose escape had been easily managed, and together the lads killed the usurper and hastened to put their grandfather once more upon the throne of Alba.
But this did not satisfy their energetic souls. They were seized with a desire to found a city in that region where they had been brought up. So they took with them their band of shepherds and set out for the seven hills lower down the course of the river. The difficulty now arose as to who should give his name to the new city, and who should rule over it when it was founded. So, as the gods were supposed to arrange all such things by giving a sign to mortals, Romulus took up his station on the Palatine, Remus on the Aventine Hill, and awaited the sign, or augury.
Unfortunately, it came in such a form that both could claim it. Remus was the first to see six vultures fly across the hill, but, just as he made this known, Romulus saw twelve. One band of followers claimed Remus, the other Romulus as their king, and during the noise and confusion the brothers met in such angry dispute that blows were struck on both sides, and Remus fell, smitten by the hand of one of the followers of Romulus.
Another form of this legend says that Romulus succeeded in establishing his right and began to build the walls of the city; whereupon Remus mocked him by jumping backward and forwards over them, until his brother’s wrath was roused, and he slew him with the words, “So perish whosoever shall leap over my walls!” Remus, at any rate, was slain, and Romulus became the founder of the new city, which probably took its name, Rome, from him.
So runs the legend of the founding of the city. There is certainly this amount of truth in it. The first settlers were shepherds, who knew how to hold the sword as well as the crook. They must have had a leader, whose name may or may not have been Romulus. They chose the Palatine Hill as being the most convenient for their flocks; and all this, as we have seen, is faithfully told us in the legend.