This is a chapter of Stories from Roman History, by Ethel Mary Wilmot-Buxton.
But who is he at distance seen,Virgil’s Aeneid
with priestly garb and olive green?
That reverend beard, that hoary hair,
the royal sage of Rome declare.
The legends do not describe exactly how the city of Rome was first built, but from what we know of the early story of other Italian cities we can tell very nearly all that happened.
A hole was dug in the ground on the Palatine Hill, offerings of fruit and corn were placed within it as a gift to the gods, and the stone laid upon it became the hearth of the central house of the new city.
Then, the founder, having thrown one end of his toga, or cloak, over his head, marked out the line of the boundary walls with a plow drawn by a white ox and a white cow. And, where the future gates were to be, he raised the plow share, so that no trench was made at those points.
This, the legend tells us, was first done by Romulus, who afterward extended the city in order to take in six other villages on the neighboring hills, so that all seven were gradually included within the boundary walls. The difficulty now was to get enough people to come and live there, and to defend it against the attacks of hostile neighbors.
To meet this demand, Romulus is said to have made in the city what was known as a refuge — a place where all who wanted a change, whether freemen or slaves, might meet together on equal terms, since no questions were asked about their former life. But though this brought many men to the new city, there were as yet no women within the walls. So Romulus sent messengers to the neighboring tribes, asking that their daughters and sisters might be given in marriage to the new inhabitants of Rome; but everywhere they went they were driven out with insult and reproach. The founder of the city determined to get hold of these maidens by force.
He proceeded to hold a great show of games at Rome to which he invited all the tribes of the surrounding district. Among them came the whole population of the Sabines, as well as many others from Latium. The guests were much interested in the growth of the new city, and, when the games had begun, became absorbed in watching them. Suddenly, on the signal being given, the Roman youths rushed into their midst and carried off all their unmarried women to their own homes. The show was broken up in terror, and the parents of the maidens fled to their own borders, breathing vengeance upon their crafty hosts.
Romulus soon managed to pacify the women, but meantime their fathers and brothers were preparing, under the leadership of the Sabine king, to avenge their loss on Rome.
Some of them, indeed, would not wait for the Sabines to act and themselves attacked the city. These were easily beaten by Romulus, and, while their lands were thus added to those of the Romans, many of them, by their own wish, came to live within the city walls. Thus the population grew still more.
Meantime, the Sabines had prepared a powerful force and advanced upon Rome. The story goes that the Sabine king persuaded the daughter of Tarpeius, the officer in charge of the Roman citadel, to admit them within its walls, promising to give her what his followers wore on their left hands. She hoped for the golden armlets and rings set with precious jewels that they generally wore, but, when they were admitted, they cast upon her the shields they carried on their left arms, and killed her beneath their weight.
Thus the Sabines got possession of the citadel, and in the battle that followed it looked as though the Romans would have been defeated. But just at the critical moment, when spears and darts were flying fast, the Sabine women who had married Romans rushed among the combatants, beseeching on one side their fathers, on the other their husbands, not to make them orphans or widows on that ill-fated day.
This appeal brought the armies to a standstill. Both sides laid down their arms, and before long a treaty was made by which the Sabine kingdom was joined on equal terms to that of Rome, and the two kings ruled together over the united people, until the death of the Sabine left Romulus supreme over all.
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Many of the tribes of the neighboring cities of Latium felt the might of the founder’s warlike arm and were subdued or joined to Rome by treaties of alliance. At last, one day when, as the legend goes on to tell, he was reviewing his troops, a great thunderstorm suddenly arose, in the midst of which Romulus vanished from the earth. When the people of Rome were troubled as to what should be their future fate without him for their leader, one of the chief men came forward with the story that he had met the father of the city at early dawn, and that Romulus had said to him, “Go, tell the Romans that the powers of heaven so will it that my Rome shall be the capital of the world. Let them, therefore, cultivate the art of war, and let them know that no human power can resist the Roman arms.” With these words, he is said to have vanished into the sky.
We see quite clearly from this legend that the first chieftain of the little Roman settlement was a man of war, who managed to get the upper hand among the neighboring tribes of shepherds during his period of rule. One of the tribes at least, that of the Sabines, evidently joined the Roman settlers on friendly terms and proceeded to grow up with them.
The legend goes on to speak of seven kings of Rome, of whom Romulus was the first; but, as far as we can tell, these kings were chieftains, sometimes chosen by the people, sometimes strong enough to make themselves rulers in their own way, and each one seems to represent some special kind of growth in the Roman city. The position they held was of great importance, for they were at the same time the lawgivers, the high priests, and the chief magistrates of the people.
The people themselves were divided into two great classes — the patricians, or nobility, who were the “fathers” of the city, the first settlers with their descendants; and the plebeians, who, in somewhat later days, fled to the city for protection or settled there for trade purposes, and so became the middle and lower classes of the Roman people.
At the death of Romulus, there were said to be a hundred patricians in Rome, and these for a time ruled over it in parties of ten at a time. With this arrangement, the people were so discontented that a just and gentle Sabine chieftain named Numa Pompilius was made king. He was very learned as well as very religious, and all his interests lay in the keeping of peace, instead of making war upon his neighbors. He it was who built the temple of Janus in Rome, which was always kept open in time of war and shut in time of peace.
This temple was closed throughout his reign, so that he had plenty of time to improve the social and religious condition of the people. The legend tells that he was the first to divide the year into twelve months with thirty days in each. He also arranged all religious matters, with a regular band of priests to instruct the people in their duties towards the many gods and goddesses whom they worshipped.
Most of these gods and goddesses represented the things with which the Romans were most familiar in their everyday life.
Thus Flora was the goddess of flowers, and Saturn the god of seed sowing; Ceres was the goddess of corn, and Bacchus the god of wine. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, ruled over the olive groves, and Apollo, the sun god, was worshipped side by side with his sister Diana, goddess of the moon.
Near the hearth of every home stood an altar where the penates, or special gods of the family, were worshipped, and another to the lares, or spirits of the dead. Every fire upon the hearthstone was lighted in honor of these household gods, so that the people were constantly reminded of their presence.
No undertaking of any importance was ever begun without prayers and sacrifices to the gods, or without taking the omens as to whether it would end in failure or success.
We have seen how Romulus and Remus did this. A still more usual way was to open a collection of verses called the Sibylline books at haphazard, and to act according to what was read on the first page on which the eye happened to fall, or to kill a bird or animal and to judge of the result of the undertaking by the appearance of the entrails. For instance, when years later Julius Caesar took an omen as to whether he should go to the forum on the Ides of March, the wise men brought answer back that they could not find a heart within the animal they had killed, which would have prevented any less courageous man from going outdoors that day.
All these matters were arranged and established by Numa, according to the legend.