Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Publicola's real name was Publius Valerius; but we shall see why the surname, which means "Protector of the People," was given to him. At an early age he was noted for his eloquence, which he used in defending the injured, and his father left him a large fortune, which was employed by Valerius in relieving the wants of the needy.

He was a young man when Tarquinius Superbus, by an illegal act, placed himself on the throne. The Romans groaned under the tyranny and brutality of Tarquinius; but they did not revolt until Lucretia, one of their matrons, killed herself because of the shameful treatment she had received from a member of the royal family. Then they rose in arms, and, with Lucius Brutus and Valerius to lead them, drove out the cruel king with his whole family.

Brutus succeeded to the throne, and Collatinus, husband of the injured Lucretia, was elected consul. Valerius was disappointed at not having the latter office himself; but the Romans were so much in fear lest the Tarquins might return, that they preferred one who could not help hating them.

Valerius then left the senate, and for a while took no part in public affairs. This gave rise to the suspicion that he might be induced to act in the interest of the banished royal family. There were others, besides, whom Brutus had cause to fear, so he appointed a day for solemn sacrifices, and when the people were assembled made them swear allegiance to the state. On that occasion Valerius was one of the first to take the oath to defend the Roman liberty with his sword.

Not long after, when ambassadors came from Tarquinius with proposals that sounded fair, it was Valerius who stood up against the senators, most of whom were disposed to favor them, for he feared the effect upon the populace should they hear what Tarquinius offered.

A second time ambassadors arrived at Rome to announce that Tarquinius was willing to give up his crown and lay down his arms if only he and his friends might have their money and estates restored to them. Many were inclined to consent, Collatinus being of the number; but Brutus would not hear of such a thing. He rushed into the Forum and pronounced the consul a traitor for so much as thinking of allowing supplies which might be used for war, to enemies who ought not even to be allowed means of subsistence in their exile. All the citizens were assembled, and great excitement prevailed. At last it was decided that Brutus was too harsh, and that it was better, since they had secured the liberty for which they had fought, to let the treasures go to the tyrants who owned them.

Now, Tarquinius had not sent his ambassadors because he set any particular store by his effects; what he wanted was to sound the people, and to prepare for an act of treachery that he had planned. After it was decided that he should have his property his men took their time about collecting it, pretending that some was to be sold and the rest to be sent away. This gave them an opportunity to move about freely among the people, and to carry their scheme into effect.

They took pains to worm themselves into the good graces of two of the best families in Rome,—the Aquilii, of whom three were senators, and the Vitellii, of whom there were two members in the senate. These families were relations of Collatinus, the consul, and, as Brutus had married a sister of the older Vitellii, some of the younger ones were his own sons. Two of these were persuaded to join in a plot for the re-establishment of the Tarquins, hoping that if they met with success they would have more freedom, because Brutus was very harsh and strict with them, as well as with all his subjects.

A meeting was held at an out-of-the-way building which belonged to the Aquilii, for the purpose of perfecting the arrangements. There, in a dimly-lighted apartment, each conspirator bound himself, by a dreadful and solemn oath, to do his part of the work, touching the entrails and tasting the blood of a murdered man as he swore. The room in which this scene was enacted was seldom used, but it happened that just before the conspirators arrived a slave named Vindicius had entered it. He was so awed by the mysterious manner of the men that he dared not make his presence known; so, hiding behind a large wooden chest that stood in one corner, he saw and heard all that happened. Having declared their determination to kill the consuls, the conspirators wrote letters giving all the details of their intentions to Tarquinius and placed them in charge of the ambassadors.

When Vindicius was left alone he stole out of his hiding-place and began to reflect upon what he had heard. To go to Brutus and Collatinus with the intelligence that their relations had planned to kill them seemed impossible, for it would be difficult to get a private audience, and perhaps more difficult to make himself believed. Suddenly he remembered Valerius, whose gates were always open to those who sought him, and who was ever ready to advise and aid the poor and helpless. Fully alive to the fact that not a moment ought to be lost, Vindicius hastened to the house of Valerius and told him all about the dreadful discovery he had made.

Valerius was amazed; but, without losing his presence of mind for a moment, he locked the slave in a room, and, placing his wife to guard the door until he had ascertained the truth of the story just related to him, he ordered his brother, Marcus, to surround the palace that Tarquinius had occupied, seize all the letters to be found there, and secure the servants.

Meanwhile, Valerius, with a large number of friends and attendants, repaired to the house of the Aquilii. None of them were at home, and an entrance had to be forced through the gates. Papers containing a full account of the conspiracy were found upon a table in the ambassadors' apartment. These were rolled up and taken in charge, and the party had reached the outer gate just as the Aquilii returned. A desperate fight took place, and after several moments, Valerius's men, at a given signal, took off their gowns, threw them over the heads of their opponents, and, twisting them tightly about their necks, dragged them to the Forum. While this scene was being enacted, another, almost as exciting, took place at the king's palace, which Marcus, in obedience to orders, had attacked. Having possessed himself of all the letters to be found there, Marcus, with his men, made prisoners of the royal servants, whom he marched to the Forum just in time to meet Valerius as he came up with his victorious party.

The tumult caused by the assembling of the prisoners was so great that all the efforts of the consuls were required to restore quiet; but when that was accomplished, an order was given for Vindicius, the slave, to be brought forth. Standing erect upon the platform, he made his accusation in a loud, clear voice. The confiscated papers were next produced and read, the traitors standing with bowed heads, while the people present listened with amazement and sorrow. Collatinus shed tears; Valerius remained silent, and whispers of banishment passed among the crowd, whose eyes were fixed on Brutus. That unhappy father looked stern and unforgiving as he rose, and, drawing himself up to his full height, thus addressed his sons: "Canst not thou, O Titus, nor thou, Tiberius, speak out boldly and defend thyself against this shameful charge?" There was a painful silence; the question was repeated, but still there was no answer. Brutus spoke once again; then turning to the lictors, or executioners, he exclaimed, "What remains is your duty!"

The lictors thereupon seized the youths, stripped off their clothes, bound their hands behind them, and scourged them with rods. The scene was so horrible that strong men turned aside, unable to witness it, but Brutus showed no signs of weakness or pity; he watched the agony of his children until the bitter end, when the lictors laid them on the ground and cut off their heads with an axe. Then, leaving the punishment of the other traitors to Collatinus, Brutus rose and walked away.

For a long time after Brutus had left the Forum horror and astonishment kept the people silent. Seeing that Collatinus inclined towards forbearance, the Aquilii gained confidence, and requested that their servant Vindicius should be delivered up to them, and that they should be granted time to answer the charge against them. Collatinus was disposed to consent, and began to dismiss the assembly, but Valerius would not listen to such a thing, and declared against the injustice of allowing any of the traitors to escape punishment, particularly as Brutus had set them a terrible example by witnessing the death of his own sons. Then the consul lost his temper, and ordered Vindicius to be removed. The lictors pushed through the crowd prepared to obey, but the friends of Valerius attacked them, and surrounded the slave, determined that he should not be lost sight of. During the conflict loud cries arose for Brutus, and some people ran to fetch him. His reappearance acted like magic: the fighting ceased, silence ensued, and every eye was directed towards his face. All he said was that he had been able to pass sentence upon his own sons, supposing that the free citizens would see justice done with regard to the other traitors, and added that any one might plead for them who chose. No man spoke until it was decided to put it to the vote, when, with one voice, the traitors were condemned to death. They were beheaded on the spot.

Collatinus had been suspected for some time of favoring the royal family, particularly as Tarquinius Superbus was his second cousin: he had therefore become unpopular, and this last affair had not tended to make him less so. Finding such to be the case, he resigned his consulship and retired from the city. Valerius was elected to succeed him, and his first act was to reward Vindicius, by making him a free man and a citizen of Rome, with the privilege of voting. The king's palace was torn down, and all his valuables were taken by the state.

Tarquinius Superbus, though disappointed at the failure of the conspiracy, by no means abandoned hope. On the contrary, he interested the Tuscans in his cause, to such an extent that they raised a great army for the purpose of restoring the kingdom to him. The Romans, headed by their consuls, collected their forces on the battlefield ready to resist the enemy. In the first action Aruns, the son of Tarquin, and Brutus, the Roman consul, sought each other out, and engaged in a terrible hand-to-hand encounter. They fought until they fell dead together. The rest of the warriors on both sides engaged with similar fury, and the loss was very great. A tremendous storm put an end to the fighting at last. When night came on, neither army knew which was victorious, but each was dismayed at the number of dead that lay upon the field. Valerius was greatly perplexed, for he could not find out how the enemy regarded the conflict, nor could he guess what they would do when day dawned. While he pondered, a strange thing happened. It was midnight, and both camps were hushed in silence and repose. Suddenly the grove shook, and a loud, clear voice was heard, announcing that the Tuscans had lost one man more than the Romans. No one was to be seen, but every living soldier heard the voice. From the Roman camp arose shouts and cheers, while the Tuscans were filled with fear and disappointment, and at once began to desert their camp. About five thousand of them, less fortunate than the rest, were taken prisoners by the Romans, who lost no time in renewing the battle. After plundering the Tuscan camp, the victors set about the task of numbering the dead, when it was discovered that the Tuscans had lost eleven thousand three hundred, and the Romans just one man less, as the mysterious voice had declared.

Then Valerius made a triumphal entry into Rome in a magnificent chariot drawn by four horses. He was the first consul who had ever done this. The citizens gathered in crowds to welcome the return of their victorious army, whom they received with cheers and exclamations of delight. While receiving these honors, Valerius did not forget Brutus, who had fought so nobly for his country, but assisted at his funeral and delivered an oration filled with praises of the dead warrior. The Romans were so well pleased with this idea that from that time they adopted the custom of having speeches made by their best men at the funerals of remarkable citizens, setting forth their virtues and great deeds. Among the Greeks funeral orations were not in use until the battle of Marathon, sixteen years after the death of Brutus. They honored in this manner only those heroes who fell on the battlefield, but the Romans publicly eulogized a man who had served his country in any capacity.

After a while Valerius gave offence by assuming too much authority. The Romans remembered that Brutus, whom they regarded as the father of their liberty, would not consent to rule alone, but had always associated some other consul with himself. "What is the use," they asked, "in this man's praising Brutus as we all heard him do, and then imitating Tarquinius? He walks about with all the stateliness and pomp of that tyrant, and occupies a house not less magnificent than his was." It is true that Valerius's house was a very handsome one. It was situated on the Velian Hill, overlooking the Forum, so that when the consul descended he could be seen nearly all the way. At that time his insignia were those of the kings, except the crown, and he was preceded by twelve lictors, who walked one by one in a line, carrying axes. This procession made a very imposing show, and the citizens began to question whether they had not again placed their heads in a tyrant's yoke.

Valerius heard their murmurings, but said nothing. One morning, when a crowd assembled at the Forum, great was their surprise to find that the beautiful mansion on the Velian Hill had vanished. It was soon made known that Valerius had engaged workmen to destroy it during the night. Now the citizens felt heartily ashamed to think that their grumblings and jealous fears had caused their consul to leave himself without a roof to cover his head. They immediately set to work to select another piece of land, and put up a less pretentious house, Valerius meanwhile being dependent on the hospitality of his friends.

His power was not diminished in the least, but Valerius thought best to have it appear as if it were, and for that reason ordered his lictors to lay aside their axes, and for the future to carry the long poles only to which they had been attached. These they were instructed to lower whenever Valerius went to a great assembly, as a sign that supreme power was lodged in the citizens, and not in the consul; that is, the consul wished to intimate that he no longer had the power of life or death.

Valerius declared that any citizen was free to apply for the consulship, but before any one had the chance of doing so he made his most important regulations. First, he supplied the vacancies left by the senators who had been put to death by Tarquinius, or had perished in the late battle with the Tuscans. Then he made several laws which increased the liberty of the people, lightened their taxes, and encouraged them to work.

All the new laws were popular and moderate except one, which was very severe. It declared that any man who should attempt to set himself up for a king might be killed without trial or hearing of any sort, and the person who took his life should be excused, providing he could prove the intended crime.

Money for purposes of war had to be raised out of the estates of the citizens, and Valerius made an excellent arrangement for this fund. He would not take charge of it himself, nor would he permit any of his relations to do so, but ordered it to be placed in the Temple of Saturn, and chose two worthy young men for Quæstors, or treasurers. Their position was considered a very lofty one, and they were required to give a yearly account of the funds.

It was at this period that Valerius was called Publicola, "protector of the people," and so we shall henceforth designate him.

Having regulated affairs of state, Publicola appointed Marcus Horatius to share the consulship with him.

Tarquinius now began to prepare for another war against the Romans, but it was abandoned for a very strange reason. While he was king of Rome it suddenly occurred to him that a porcelain chariot would look well on the top of the Jupiter Capitolinus Temple, and the artists of Veii, in Tuscany, who excelled in such work, were ordered to mould one. It was not completed when Tarquinius lost his crown, but the artists did not abandon their task. They made the chariot and put it in the furnace to bake. Instead of contracting by the evaporation of moisture the clay used on this occasion swelled, until the chariot became so large and so hard that it could only be removed with difficulty even after the furnace was pulled to pieces. The soothsayers believed that power and success would attend the possession of this wonderful chariot, so the Tuscans determined not to let the Romans get hold of it. But a few days later there was a race at Veii, with all the usual ceremonies, and when the victorious charioteer, with his garland on his head, was quietly driving out of the ring, his horses took fright, from no apparent cause, and dashed at full speed towards Rome. The driver pulled the reins and called to the animals in vain; they whirled along until they came to the Capitol, where he was thrown out by the gate called Ratumena. This occurrence so surprised and terrified the people of Veii that they forthwith sent the chariot Tarquinius had ordered to the Romans. It was placed on top of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, when Publicola desired to dedicate it, but certain of the nobles were so jealous of him that, taking advantage of his absence with the army, they procured an order from the people for Horatius to do so instead. Accordingly, he was conducted to the spot, and the usual ceremonies were performed. Just when Horatius took hold of one of the gate-posts to pronounce the prayer of consecration, Marcus, the brother of Publicola, hoping even at the last moment to interrupt the ceremony, cried out, "Consul, your son lies dead in the camp!" "Then cast out the dead where you please; I admit of no mourning on this occasion," answered Horatius, who showed great presence of mind, for the statement was, as he suspected, a falsehood. And so the first temple to Jupiter Capitolinus was dedicated, and Publicola had no share in it.

Let us return to Tarquinius Superbus. When his son was killed in single combat with Brutus he fled to Clusium and sought aid from Lars Porsenna, a man of worth and honor, and one of the most powerful princes of Italy. Porsenna was interested in the Tarquins because they were countrymen of his, being of Tuscan descent, as he was; so he immediately sent word to Rome that Tarquinius was to be received as king. A prompt refusal was the only reply he got, whereupon he declared war, proclaimed the time and place of his intended attack, and approached with a powerful army. Publicola, who had been re-elected consul, and Titus Lucretius, who shared the government with him, took command of the Roman army. Porsenna made such a spirited assault that he drove his opponents back to their city, which they entered in such haste and confusion that the enemy came very near getting beyond the gates also. It was Publicola who prevented such a catastrophe by rallying his men and giving battle to the enemy on the banks of the Tiber. He fought until, being dangerously wounded, he was carried out of the battle. The same fate overtook Titus Lucretius; and the Romans, finding that both their consuls were disabled, lost courage and retreated to Rome. The city would certainly have been taken had it not been for the heroism of Horatius Cocles. This surname was given to Horatius because he had only one eye, having lost the other in the wars. Those who named him so meant Cyclops, but miscalled the one-eyed giants and made it Cocles instead. With the aid of Herminius and Lartius, two of the first men in Rome, Horatius Cocles defended the wooden bridge over the Tiber and kept back the enemy until his own party cut it down behind him. Then he plunged into the river with his armor on and swam back, although he had been wounded in the hip by a Tuscan spear.

Publicola was so pleased at the courage shown by Horatius on the bridge that he at once proposed that every Roman should present him with one day's provisions. Afterwards he gave the hero as much land as he could plough around in one day, and erected a statue in his honor in the Temple of Vulcan. Horatius Cocles could never be made consul, because of his lameness and of his having only one eye.

While Porsenna besieged Rome, another body of Tuscans laid the country waste. Fearing they would produce famine, Publicola marched against them without giving warning, and killed five thousand. A Roman warrior named Mucius, who was distinguished for his valor, resolved to go quite alone and kill Porsenna. Disguised in the Tuscan attire and speaking the Tuscan language, Mucius went to the enemy's camp and made his way straight to the spot where the king sat among his nobles. On arriving there he was at a loss to decide which was Porsenna; and, fearing to betray himself by making inquiries, he drew his sword and slew the man who he thought had most the appearance of king; but he made a mistake and was seized on the spot. During the examination which followed, Porsenna threatened Mucius with torture by fire, in order to make him name his accomplices. Thereupon, to show how indifferent he was to pain, Mucius thrust his right hand into a blazing fire prepared upon a portable altar for purposes of sacrifice. While his flesh was burning he kept his eyes fixed on the face of Porsenna without once flinching. The king was lost in admiration of such fortitude, and graciously returned to the prisoner the sword that had been taken from him. Mucius received the weapon with his left hand, and said to Porsenna, "I regarded not your threats, but I am conquered by your generosity, and will now tell you what you could never have forced from me. There are three hundred Romans who have taken an oath, as I did, to kill you; they are now walking about your camp, waiting for an opportunity. It was my lot to make the first attempt; but I am not sorry that I failed, for so brave and good a man as you ought to live to be a friend to Rome rather than an enemy." Porsenna did not fear the three hundred who wanted to take his life, but he was so favorably impressed by the example of courage Mucius had shown that he was willing to come to terms, and soon ceased to have any regard for Tarquinius. Indeed, so kindly disposed was he towards the Romans that he ordered his forces to quit camp with nothing but their arms, and to leave their tents full of provisions as a gift to them. This generous act was rewarded by the senate with a present to Porsenna of a throne adorned with ivory, a sceptre, a golden crown, and a superb robe. A brazen statue was also erected near the senate-house in his honor.

Publicola was made consul a third and a fourth time. Then the Sabines threatened a war, and preparations were made to oppose them. Among that race was a man named Appius Clausus, noted for his wealth, his excellent character, and his great eloquence. Clausus did all he could to prevent the war, and thus came to be suspected of favoring the Romans. He did not care to stand a trial when this accusation was made, because, although he knew that many would be delighted if peace could be preserved, the army would be angry. However, he had numerous friends and allies, who helped him in disputing the question of war, thus causing a delay. Meanwhile, Publicola sent messengers to tell Clausus that he was assured of his honesty and good intentions, and that if he pleased to secure himself against his enemies and come to Rome, he would be most cordially received. Clausus considered the proposition seriously, and concluded to accept it. Five thousand of the best Sabine families determined to accompany him, and all set out together for Rome.

On being informed of their approach, Publicola went out to meet them, and gave them a hearty welcome. The advantages of citizenship were bestowed on them, and each family was presented with two acres of land. But Clausus received twenty-five acres and an invitation to become senator. He soon rose in political power, and established such a fine reputation that the Claudian family, of which he was the founder, became one of the most illustrious in the city.

The Sabines who remained at home would have settled down quietly after the departure of Clausus with his party, but their leaders were determined upon war, and told them it was disgraceful not to resent the desertion of so large a number of their race. A grand army was therefore equipped and gathered at Fidenæ, not far from Rome. Then an ambuscade of two thousand men was stationed in a wood on the outskirts of the city, with this design: as soon as day dawned a few horsemen were to set forth and ravage the country up to the very gates, and then suddenly to retreat and draw the enemy, who would be sure to follow into the ambush. But Publicola was informed of this by deserters, and so prepared his forces. The night before the attack was to be made, Posthumius Balbus, son-in-law of Publicola, went out with three thousand men, and stationed them on top of the hills beneath which the Sabines were hidden, for the purpose of watching their movements. Lucretius, with a body of the boldest and most active Romans, was appointed to meet the Sabine cavalry, while the consul himself, with the rest of the forces, surrounded the enemy in the rear. Taking advantage of a fog that settled at dawn, Posthumius, with loud shouts, assailed the enemy from the hills, Lucretius cut off the retreat of the cavalry, and Publicola attacked the camp itself. The Sabines were completely taken by surprise, and the slaughter was tremendous. There was so much confusion among them that those in the camp ran to the ambuscade, and those in the ambuscade flew to the camp, each expecting protection from the other. Had not the city of Fidelæ been so near, all the Sabines would have been killed or captured, but, as it was, some of them escaped. The plunder and the sale of the prisoners brought great wealth to the Romans, who gave all the credit of the victory to their general.

While at the height of his glory Publicola resigned his office. He lived only a short time after that, and when he died he did not leave money enough to pay the expenses of his funeral, a good proof that he had honorably used the public funds. Each citizen contributed a piece of money towards paying for the funeral, and the women mourned a whole year for Publicola, one of the greatest generals and the most popular consul Rome ever had.