This is a chapter of Stories from Roman History, by Ethel Mary Wilmot-Buxton.
You may as wellShakespeare, Coriolanus
strike at the heavens with your staves as lift them
against at the Roman State.
The first step to take in the making of the Republic was to replace the king by a chief magistrate. But lest he should be tempted to seize the royal power for himself, a second was created to be a check upon him. These magistrates were called consuls, from a Latin word which means ‘to take counsel with one another.’
You could always tell a consul from the other city magistrates in three ways. He wore a toga or cloak with a broad purple stripe around the hem. When he walked through the streets on business, a band of lictors, who were much the same as our policemen, carried before him the curule, or ivory chair, from which judgments were given; and others bore the fasces, or twelve bundles of rods containing an axe, which signified that the consul had power to flog or behead those who committed crimes.
These consuls were elected for one year only, so that they had no chance of keeping the government in their own hands like a king.
During the first year of the Republic, when Brutus was one of the consuls, he was obliged to exercise his authority in a very terrible way. A plot was made within the city to restore the banished Tarquins, and in this the two sons of Brutus took part.
But one day a slave who had overheard all the talk of the conspirators came to the consul and told him the whole matter. Then Brutus, although he loved his sons most dearly, commanded the lictors to slay all those who had thought to betray their country, and thus condemned his own flesh and blood to die before his eyes. The Romans loved to tell their children this story as an illustration of what they held most firmly, that duty to the State is above all ties of kinship or affection. And on this firm foundation of loyal patriotism the Republic of Rome began to grow and flourish.
Tarquin, however, had by no means given up the hope of regaining his throne. He stirred Porsena, the lord of twelve Etruscan cities, to raise a great army and advance upon Rome.
The Romans had always had cause to dread the Etruscan power, and now it seemed as though it would easily win its way into the city itself. Porsena had seized the heights above the town and had almost gained the wooden bridge over the Tiber, when amidst all the uproar and confusion within the walls, a certain brave young soldier, named Horatius, stood forth to save the city.
The ballad of Lord Macaulay, which every British boy and girl should know, tells the story in stirring words —
Then out spake brave Horatius,
the captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
death cometh soon or late;
and how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
for the ashes of his fathers
and the temple of his gods?
“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
with all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
may well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
and keep the bridge with me?”
Then the bold Spurius Lartius cried:
“Lo, I will stand at thy right hand
and keep the bridge with thee.”
And scarcely had he spoken when strong Herminius echoed:
“I will abide on thy left side
and keep the bridge with thee.”
So the dauntless three took their stand at the further end of the bridge, and meantime the Romans within the city seized their axes and smote their hardest upon its planks and props.
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Then the vast army of the Etruscan host rolled slowly towards them, and a great shout of laughter rose from its ranks when the foemen saw these three figures at the entrance to the bridge —
And forth three chiefs came spurring
before that deep array,
to earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
and lifted high their shields and flew
to win the narrow way.
But it was not won by them, nor by those who took their place, for not an inch was lost by the three wardens of the bridge, even in the dread encounter with Astur, the great lord of Luna,
Upon whose ample shoulders
clangs loud the fourfold shield,
and in his hand he shakes the brand
which none but he can wield.
But he too was laid low, with all the flower of the Etruscan army, until no man would venture to measure swords with those three dauntless Romans.
Then suddenly the bridge began to totter and fall, and a shout arose from the Roman bank. “Come back, come back, Horatius! Back, Lartius! Back Herminius! Back, ere the ruin fall!” Two out of the three had just time to dash across the cracking timbers, but Horatius yet held to his post,
Constant still in mind
thrice thirty thousand foes before
and the broad flood behind.
The foemen shouted to him to yield, but he paid no heed to them. Turning his face to the foaming, swollen river he cried:
“Oh, Tiber, father Tiber!,
to whom the Romans pray,
a Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms,
take thou in charge this day!”
and then plunged headlong in the tide.
But he was wounded sorely, and his heavy armor dragged him down, for the current was fierce and strong. But still he struggled on, till even the foemen were ready to cheer him for his bravery.
“Curse on him!” quoth false Sextus,
“Will not the villain drown?
But for this stay, ere close of day,
we should have sacked the town!”
“Heaven help him!” quoth Lars Porsena,
“And bring him safe to shore,
for such a gallant feat of arms
was never seen before.”
Thus did Horatius prevent the Etruscans from entering the city, but he could not hinder them from besieging it for many a long day, to the great discomfort of his fellow citizens.
One of these, called Mucius, determined at length to go into the camp of the foemen and there to kill Lars Porsena. He dressed himself as an Etruscan and mingled with the rest with a dagger hidden under his cloak, until he found himself, as he thought, in the presence of that chieftain. Then he struck a mortal blow. But Mucius had mistaken another man for Lars Porsena, before whom he was quickly dragged by hostile hands.
Lars Porsena felt sure that he had been sent to do this deed by those in authority at Rome and told the youth that, if he would not at once give up the names, he should be cruelly tortured.
On this, Mucius calmly thrust his hand into a burning flame that stood near upon an altar, crying, “See how weak is torture to wring a secret from a Roman!”
Porsena, in admiration of his courage, forgave him and set him free; whereupon he warned the king that three hundred youths like himself had sworn to take his life if he failed.
At length, the Romans were obliged to agree to submit to Porsena and to acknowledge his supremacy in Latium, on condition that he would leave the city unhurt. Hostages had to be given by Rome — that is, ten boys and ten girls, the noblest born in the town, were sent to the Etruscan chief as a pledge that the Romans would keep their word. But one of these, a girl named Cloelia, when she was brought into the camp of the foemen, flung herself into the Tiber and, calling on her companions to follow, swam back to Rome. The Romans kept their faith and sent her back, but Lars Porsena, who seems to have been indeed a generous enemy, sent her home and allowed her to take with her the youngest of the boys. Then the Etruscans left the city in peace.
All these legends, as we have seen, are stories of heroes and heroines, so that we might call this period the Heroic Age of Rome. You will notice that they all illustrate the same point: the devotion of Roman citizens, and even of the boys and girls of Rome to their city. But as far as her power and high position were concerned, that city had sunk very low among the tribes of Latium, in the early days of the Republic.