The story of Rome is the most splendid romance in all history. A few shepherds tend their flocks among volcanic hills, listening by day and night to the awful warnings of the subterranean voice,—born in danger, reared in peril, living their lives under perpetual menace of destruction, from generation to generation. Then, at last, the deep voice swells to thunder, roaring up from the earth's heart, the lightning shoots madly round the mountain top, the ground rocks, and the air is darkened with ashes. The moment has come. One man is a leader, but not all will follow him. He leads his small band swiftly down from the heights, and they drive a flock and a little herd before them, while each man carries his few belongings as best he can, and there are few women in the company. The rest would not be saved, and they perish among their huts before another day is over.
Down, always downwards, march the wanderers, rough, rugged, young with the terrible youth of those days, and wise only with the wisdom of nature. Down the steep mountain they go, down over the rich, rolling land, down through the deep forests, unhewn of man, down at last to the river, where seven low hills rise out of the wide plain. One of those hills the leader chooses, rounded and grassy; there they encamp, and they dig a trench and build huts. Pales, protectress of flocks, gives her name to the Palatine Hill. Rumon, the flowing river, names the village Rome, and Rome names the leader Romulus, the Man of the River, the Man of the Village by the River; and to our own time the twenty-first of April is kept and remembered, and even now honoured, for the very day on which the shepherds began to dig their trench on the Palatine, the date of the Foundation of Rome, from which seven hundred and fifty-four years were reckoned to the birth of Christ.
And the shepherds called their leader King, though his kingship was over but few men. Yet they were such men as begin history, and in the scant company there were all the seeds of empire. First the profound faith of natural mankind, unquestioning, immovable, inseparable from every daily thought and action; then fierce strength, and courage, and love of life and of possession; last, obedience to the chosen leader, in clear liberty, when one should fail, to choose another. So the Romans began to win the world, and won it in about six hundred years.
By their camp-fires, by their firesides in their little huts, they told old tales of their race, and round the truth grew up romantic legend, ever dear to the fighting man and to the husbandman alike, with strange tales of their first leader's birth, fit for poets, and woven to stir young hearts to daring, and young hands to smiting. Truth there was under their stories, but how much of it no man can tell: how Amulius of Alba Longa slew his sons, and slew also his daughter, loved of Mars, mother of twin sons left to die in the forest, like Œdipus, father-slayers, as Œdipus was, wolf-suckled, of whom one was born to kill the other and be the first King, and be taken up to Jupiter in storm and lightning at the last. The legend of wise Numa, next, taught by Egeria; her stony image still weeps trickling tears for her royal adept, and his earthen cup, jealously guarded, was worshipped for more than a thousand years; legends of the first Arval brotherhood, dim as the story of Melchisedec, King and priest, but lasting as Rome itself. Tales of King Tullus, when the three Horatii fought for Rome against the three Curiatii, who smote for Alba and lost the day—Tullus Hostilius, grandson of that first Hostus who had fought against the Sabines; and always more legend, and more, and more, sometimes misty, sometimes clear and direct in action as a Greek tragedy. They hover upon the threshold of history, with faces of beauty or of terror, sublime, ridiculous, insignificant, some born of desperate, real deeds, many another, perhaps, first told by some black-haired shepherd mother to her wondering boys at evening, when the brazen pot simmered on the smouldering fire, and the father had not yet come home.
But down beneath the legend lies the fact, in hewn stones already far in the third thousand of their years. Digging for truth, searchers have come here and there upon the first walls and gates of the Palatine village, straight, strong and deeply founded. The men who made them meant to hold their own, and their own was whatsoever they were able to take from others by force. They built their walls round a four-sided space, wide enough for them, scarcely big enough a thousand years later for the houses of their children's rulers, the palaces of the Cæsars of which so much still stands today.
Then came the man who built the first bridge across the river, of wooden piles and beams, bolted with bronze, because the Romans had no iron yet, and ever afterwards repaired with wood and bronze, for its sanctity, in perpetual veneration of Ancus Martius, fourth King of Rome. That was the bridge Horatius kept against Porsena of Clusium, while the fathers hewed it down behind him.
Tarquin the first came next, a stranger of Greek blood, chosen, perhaps, because the factions in Rome could not agree. Then Servius, great and good, built his tremendous fortification, and the King of Italy today, driving through the streets in his carriage, may look upon the wall of the King who reigned in Rome more than two thousand and four hundred years ago.
Under those six rulers, from Romulus to Servius, from the man of the River Village to the man of walls, Rome had grown from a sheepfold to a town, from a town to a walled city, from a city to a little nation, matched against all mankind, to win or die, inch by inch, sword in hand. She was a kingdom now, and her men were subjects; and still the third law of great races was strong and waking. Romans obeyed their leader so long as he could lead them well—no longer. The twilight of the Kings gathered suddenly, and their names were darkened, and their sun went down in shame and hate. In the confusion, tragic legend rises to tell the story. For the first time in Rome, a woman, famous in all history, turned the scale. The King's son, passionate, terrible, false, steals upon her in the dark. 'I am Sextus Tarquin, and there is a sword in my hand.' Yet she yielded to no fear of steel, but to the horror of unearned shame beyond death. On the next day, when she lay before her husband and her father and the strong Brutus, her story told, her deed done, splendidly dead by her own hand, they swore the oath in which the Republic was born. While father, husband and friend were stunned with grief, Brutus held up the dripping knife before their eyes. 'By this most chaste blood, I swear—Gods be my witnesses—that I will hunt down Tarquin the Proud, himself, his infamous wife and every child of his, with fire and sword, and with all my might, and neither he nor any other man shall ever again be King in Rome.' So they all swore, and bore the dead woman out into the market-place, and called on all men to stand by them.
They kept their word, and the tale tells how the Tarquins were driven out to a perpetual exile, and by and by allied themselves with Porsena, and marched on Rome, and were stopped only at the Sublician bridge by brave Horatius.
Chaos next. Then all at once the Republic stands out, born full grown and ready armed, stern, organized and grasping, but having already within itself the quickened opposites that were to fight for power so long and so fiercely,—the rich and the poor, the patrician and the plebeian, the might and the right.
There is a wonder in that quick change from Kingdom to Commonwealth, which nothing can make clear, except, perhaps, modern history. Say that two thousand or more years hereafter men shall read of what our grandfathers, our fathers and ourselves have seen done in France within a hundred years, out of two or three old books founded mostly on tradition; they may be confused by the sudden disappearance of kings, by the chaos, the wild wars and the unforeseen birth of a lasting republic, just as we are puzzled when we read of the same sequence in ancient Rome. Men who come after us will have more documents, too. It is not possible that all books and traces of written history should be destroyed throughout the world, as the Gauls burned everything in Rome, except the Capitol itself, held by the handful of men who had taken refuge there.
So the Kingdom fell with a woman's death, and the Commonwealth was made by her avengers. Take the story as you will, for truth or truth's legend, it is for ever humanly true, and such deeds would rouse a nation today as they did then and as they set Rome on fire once more nearly sixty years later.
But all the time Rome was growing as if the very stones had life to put out shoots and blossoms and bear fruit. Round about the city the great Servian wall had wound like a vast finger, in and out, grasping the seven hills, and taking in what would be a fair-sized city even in our day. They were the last defences Rome built for herself, for nearly nine hundred years.
Nothing can give a larger idea of Rome's greatness than that; not all the temples, monuments, palaces, public buildings of later years can tell half the certainty of her power expressed by that one fact—Rome needed no walls when once she had won the world.
But it is very hard to guess at what the city was, in those grim times of the early fight for life. We know the walls, and there were nineteen gates in all, and there were paved roads; the wooden bridge, the Capitol with its first temple and first fortress, the first Forum with the Sacred Way, were all there, and the public fountain, called the Tullianum, and a few other sites are certain. The rest must be imagined.
Rome was a brown city in those days, when there was no marble and little stucco: a brown city teeming with men and women clothed mostly in grey and brown and black woollen cloaks, like those the hill shepherds wear today, caught up under one arm and thrown far over the shoulder in dark folds. The low houses without any outer windows, entered by one rough door, were built close together, and those near the Forum had shops outside them, low-browed places, dark but not deep, where the cloaked keeper sat behind a stone counter among his wares, waiting for custom, watching all that happened in the market-place, gathering in gossip from one buyer to exchange it for more with the next, altogether not unlike the small Eastern merchant of today.
Yet during more than half the time, there were few young men, or men in prime, in the streets of Rome. They were fighting more than half the year, while their fathers and their children stayed behind with the women. The women sat spinning and weaving wool in their little brown houses; the boys played, fought, ran races naked in the streets; the small girls had their quiet games and, surely, their dolls, made of rags, stuffed with the soft wool waste from their mothers' spindles and looms. The old men, scarred and seamed in the battles of an age when fighting was all hand to hand, kept the shops, or sunned themselves in the market-place, shelling and chewing lupins to pass the time, as the Romans have always done, and telling old tales, or boasting to each other of their half-grown grandchildren, and of their full-grown sons, fighting far away in the hills and the plains that Rome might have more possession. Meanwhile the maidens went in pairs to the springs to fetch water, or down to the river in small companies to wash the woollen clothes and dry them in the shade of the old wild trees, lest in the sun they should shrink and thicken; black-haired, black-eyed, dark-skinned maids, all of them, strong and light of foot, fit to be mothers of more soldiers, to slay more enemies, and bring back more spoil. Then, as in our own times, the flocks of goats were driven in from the pastures at early morning and milked from door to door, for each household, and driven out again to the grass before the sun was high. In the old wall there was the Cattle Gate, the Porta Mugonia, named, as the learned say, from the lowing of the herds. Then, as in the hill towns not long ago, the serving women, who were slaves, sat cross-legged on the ground in the narrow court within the house, with the hand-mill of two stones between them, and ground the wheat to flour for the day's meal. There have been wonderful survivals of the first age even to our own time.
But that which has not come down to us is the huge vitality of those men and women. The world's holders have never risen suddenly in hordes; they have always grown by degrees out of little nations, that could live through more than their neighbours. Calling up the vision of the first Rome, one must see, too, such human faces and figures of men as are hardly to be found among us nowadays,—the big features, the great, square, devouring jaws, the steadily bright eyes, the strongly built brows, coarse, shagged hair, big bones, iron muscles and starting sinews. There are savage countries that still breed such men. They may have their turn next, when we are worn out. Browning has made John the Smith a memorable type.
Rome was a clean city in those days. One of the Tarquins had built the great arched drain which still stands unshaken and in use, and smaller ones led to it, draining the Forum and all the low part of the town. The people were clean, far beyond our ordinary idea of them, as is plain enough from the contemptuous way in which the Latin authors use their strong words for uncleanliness. A dirty man was an object of pity, and men sometimes went about in soiled clothes to excite the public sympathy, as beggars do today in all countries. Dirt meant abject poverty, and in a grasping, getting race, poverty was the exception, even while simplicity was the rule. For all was simple with them, their dress, their homes, their lives, their motives, and if one could see the Rome of Tarquin the Proud, this simplicity would be of all characteristics the most striking, compared with what we know of later Rome, and with what we see about us in our own times. Simplicity is not strength, but the condition in which strength is least hampered in its full action.
It was easy to live simply in such a place and in such a climate, under a wise King. The check in the first straight run of Rome's history brought the Romans suddenly face to face with the first great complication of their career, which was the struggle between the rich and the poor; and again the half truth rises up to explain the fact. Men whose first instinct was to take and hold took from one another in peace when they could not take from their enemies in war, since they must needs be always taking from some one. So the few strong took all from the many weak, till the weak banded themselves together to resist the strong, and the struggle for life took a new direction.
The grim figure of Lucius Junius Brutus rises as the incarnation of that character which, at great times, made history, but in peace made trouble. The man who avenged Lucretia, who drove out the Tarquins, and founded the Republic, is most often remembered as the father who sat unmoved in judgment on his two traitor sons, and looked on with stony eyes while they paid the price of their treason in torment and death. That one deed stands out, and we forget how he himself fell fighting for Rome's freedom.
But still the evil grew at home, and the hideous law of creditor and debtor, which only fiercest avarice could have devised, ground the poor, who were obliged to borrow to pay the tax-gatherer, and made slaves of them almost to the ruin of the state.
Just then Etruria wakes, shadowy, half Greek, the central power of Italy, between Rome and Gaul. Porsena, the Lar of Clusium, comes against the city with a great host in gilded arms. Terror descends like a dark mist over the young nation. The rich fear for their riches, the poor for their lives. In haste the fathers gather great supplies of corn against a siege; credit and debt are forgotten; patrician and plebeian join hands as Porsena reaches Janiculum, and three heroic figures of romance stand forth from a host of heroes. Horatius keeps the bridge, first with two comrades, then, at the last, alone in the glory of single-handed fight against an army, sure of immortality whether he live or die. Scævola, sworn with the three hundred to slay the Lar, stabs the wrong man, and burns his hand to the wrist to show what tortures he can bear unmoved. Clœlia, the maiden hostage, rides her young steed at the yellow torrent, and swims the raging flood back to the Palatine. Clœlia and Horatius get statues in the Forum; Scævola is endowed with great lands, which his race holds for centuries, and leaves a name so great that two thousand years later, Sforza, greatest leader of the Middle Age, coveting long ancestry, makes himself descend from the man who burned off his own hand.
They are great figures, the two men and the noble girl, and real to us, in a way, because we can stand on the very ground they trod, where Horatius fought, where Scævola suffered and where Clœlia took the river. They are nearer to us than Romulus, nearer even than Lucretia, as each figure, following the city's quick life, has more of reality about it, and not less of heroism.
For two hundred years the Romans strove with each other in law making; the fathers for exclusive power and wealth, the plebeians for freedom, first, and then for office in the state; a time of fighting abroad for land, and of contention at home about its division. In fifty years the poor had their Tribunes, but it took them nearly three times as long, after that, to make themselves almost the fathers' equals in power.
Once they tried a new kind of government by a board of ten, and it held for a while, till again a woman's life turned the tide of Roman history, and fair young Virginia, stabbed by her father in the Forum, left a name as lasting as any of that day.
Romance again, but the true romance, above doubt, at last; not at all mythical, but full of fate's unanswerable logic, which makes dim stories clear to living eyes. You may see the actors in the Forum, where it all happened,—the lovely girl with frightened, wondering eyes; the father, desperate, white-lipped, shaking with the thing not yet done; Appius Claudius smiling among his friends and clients; the sullen crowd of strong plebeians, and the something in the chill autumn air that was a warning of fate and fateful change. Then the deed. A shriek at the edge of the throng; a long, thin knife, high in air, trembling before a thousand eyes; a harsh, heartbroken, vengeful voice; a confusion and a swaying of the multitude, and then the rising yell of men overlaid, ringing high in the air from the Capitol right across the Forum to the Palatine, and echoing back the doom of the Ten.
The deed is vivid still, and then there is sudden darkness. One thinks of how that man lived afterwards. Had Virginius a home, a wife, other children to mourn the dead one? Or was he a lonely man, ten times alone after that day, with the memory of one flashing moment always undimmed in a bright horror? Who knows? Did anyone care? Rome's story changed its course, turning aside at the river of Virginia's blood, and going on swiftly in another way.
To defeat this time, straight to Rome's first and greatest humiliation; to the coming of the Gauls, sweeping everything before them, Etruscans, Italians, Romans, up to the gates of the city and over the great moat and wall of Servius, burning, destroying, killing everything, to the foot of the central rock; baffled at the last stronghold on a dark night by a flock of cackling geese, but not caring for so small a thing when they had swallowed up the rest, or not liking the Latin land, perhaps, and so, taking ransom for peace and marching away northwards again through the starved and harried hills and valleys of Etruria to their own country. And six centuries passed away before an enemy entered Rome again.
But the Gauls left wreck and ruin and scarcely one stone upon another in the great desolation; they swept away all records of history, then and there, and the general destruction was absolute, so that the Rome of the Republic and of the Empire, the centre and capital of the world, began to exist from that day. Unwillingly the people bore back Juno's image from Veii, where they had taken refuge and would have stayed, and built houses, and would have called that place Rome. But the nobles had their own way, and the great construction began, of which there was to be no end for many hundreds of years, in peace and war, mostly while hard fighting was going on abroad.
They built hurriedly at first, for shelter, and as best they could, crowding their little houses in narrow streets with small care for symmetry or adornment. The second Rome must have seemed but a poor village compared with the solidly built city which the Gauls had burnt, and it was long before the present could compare with the past. In haste men seized on fragments of all sorts, blocks of stone, cracked and defaced in the flames, charred beams that could still serve, a door here, a window there, and such bits of metal as they could pick up. An irregular, crowded town sprang up, and a few rough temples, no doubt as pied and meanly pieced as many of those early churches built of odds and ends of ruin, which stand to this day.
It is not impossible that the motley character of Rome, of which all writers speak in one way or another, had its first cause in that second building of the city. Rome without ruins would hardly seem Rome at all, and all was ruined in that first inroad of the savage Gauls,—houses, temples, public places. When the Romans came back from Veii they must have found the Forum not altogether unlike what it is today, but blackened with smoke, half choked with mouldering humanity, strewn with charred timbers, broken roof tiles and the wreck of much household furniture; a sorrowful confusion reeking with vapours of death, and pestilential with decay. It was no wonder that the poor plebeians lost heart and would have chosen to go back to the clear streets and cleaner air of Veii. Their little houses were lost and untraceable in the universal chaos. But the rich man's ruins stood out in bolder relief; he had his lands still; he still had slaves; he could rebuild his home; and he had his way.
But ever afterwards, though the Republic and the Empire spent the wealth of nations in beautifying the city, the trace of that first defeat remained. Dark and narrow lanes wound in and out, round the great public squares, and within earshot of the broad white streets, and the time-blackened houses of the poor stood huddled out of sight behind the palaces of the rich, making perpetual contrast of wealth and poverty, splendour and squalor, just as one may see today in Rome, in London, in Paris, in Constantinople, in all the mistress cities of the world that have long histories of triumph and defeat behind them.
The first Rome sprang from the ashes of the Alban volcano, the second Rome rose from the ashes of herself, as she has risen again and again since then. But the Gauls had done Rome a service, too. In crushing her to the earth, they had crushed many of her enemies out of existence; and when she stood up to face the world once more, she fought not to beat the Æquians or the Etruscans at her gates, but to conquer Italy. And by steady fighting she won it all, and brought home the spoils and divided the lands; here and there a battle lost, as in the bloody Caudine pass, but always more battles won, and more, and more, sternly relentless to revolt. Brutus had seen his own sons' heads fall at his own word; should Caius Pontius, the Samnite, be spared, because he was the bravest of the brave? To her faithful friends Rome was just, and now and then half-contemptuously generous.
The idle Greek fine gentlemen of Tarentum sat in their theatre one day, overlooking the sea, shaded by dyed awnings from the afternoon sun, listening entranced to some grand play,—the Œdipus King, perhaps, or Alcestis, or Medea. Ten Roman trading ships came sailing round the point; and the wind failed, and they lay there with drooping sails, waiting for the land breeze that springs up at night. Perhaps some rough Latin sailor, as is the way today in calm weather when there is no work to be done, began to howl out one of those strange, endless songs which have been sung down to us, from ear to ear, out of the primeval Aryan darkness,—loud, long drawn out, exasperating in its unfinished cadence, jarring on the refined Greek ear, discordant with the actor's finely measured tones. In sudden rage at the noise—so it must have been—those delicate idlers sprang up and ran down to the harbour, and took the boats that lay there, and overwhelmed the unarmed Roman traders, slaying many of them. Foolish, cruel, almost comic. So a sensitive musician, driven half mad by a street organ, longs to rush out and break the thing to pieces, and kill the poor grinder for his barbarous noise.
But when there was blood in the harbour of Tarentum, and some of the ships had escaped on their oars, the Greeks were afraid; and when the message of war came swiftly down to them from inexorable Rome, their terror grew, and they sent to Pyrrhus of Epirus, who had set up to be a conqueror, to come and conquer Rome for the sake of certain æsthetic fine gentlemen who could not bear to be disturbed at a good play on a spring afternoon. He came with all the pomp and splendour of Eastern warfare; he won a battle, and a battle, and half a battle, and then the Romans beat him at Beneventum, famous again and again, and utterly destroyed his army, and took back with them his gold and his jewels, and the tusks of his elephants, and the mastery of all Italy to boot, but not yet beyond dispute.
Creeping down into Sicily, Rome met Carthage, both giants in those days, and the greatest and last struggle began, with half the known world and all the known sea for a battle-ground. Round and round the Mediterranean, by water and land, they fought for a hundred and eighteen years, through four generations of men, as we should reckon it, both grasping and strong, both relentless, both sworn to win or perish for ever, both doing great deeds that are remembered still. The mere name of Regulus is a legion of legends in itself; the name of Hannibal is in itself a history, that of Fabius Maximus a lesson; and while history lasts, Cornelius Scipio and Scipio the African will not be forgotten. It is the story of many and terrible defeats, from each of which Rome rose, fiercely young, to win a dozen terrible little victories. It is strange that we remember the lost days best; misty Thrasymene and Cannæ's fearful slaughter rise first in the memory. Then all at once, within ten years, the scale turns, and Caius Claudius Nero hurls Hasdrubal's disfigured head high over ditch and palisade into his brother's camp, right to his brother's feet. And five years later, the battle of Zama, won almost at the gates of Carthage; and then, almost the end, as great heartbroken Hannibal, defeated, ruined and exiled, drinks up the poison and rests at last, some forty years after he led his first army to victory. But he had been dead nearly forty years, when another Scipio at last tore down the walls of Carthage, and utterly destroyed the city to the foundations, for ever. And a dozen years later than that, Rome had conquered all the civilized world round about the Mediterranean sea, from Spain to Asia.
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