Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


No author has stated with certainty how the city of Rome received its name, which signifies strength, but it is supposed to have been called after Romulus, who built it.

Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, were the sons of a priestess named Rhea Sylvia and of Mars, the god of war. Rhea Sylvia was the daughter of Numitor, who was the rightful king of Alba, but the throne had been taken away from him by his wicked brother Amulius. Amulius, being afraid that the children of Numitor might try to take his crown as he had taken their father's, had killed Numitor's sons and obliged his daughter, Rhea Sylvia, to become a vestal virgin. Vestal virgins were the priestesses of Vesta, one of the heathen goddesses, and their chief duty was to look after the sacred fire that burned in her temples, and to see that it never went out. There was a severe law against their marrying and having children. So, when Amulius made Rhea Sylvia a vestal virgin, it thought there would be no fear of any one after her doing him any harm. He was therefore very angry when Rhea Sylvia became the mother of Romulus and Remus, and declared that Mars was her husband. He had her buried alive, and the two little infants were put in a basket and thrown in the river Tiber to be drowned. It happened, however, that the river had overflowed its banks and covered part of the land near, and the basket was carried by the tide till it reached a place where the water was very shallow. Here it rested on the ground, and so the children were saved. But they would have perished of hunger and cold had it not been for a she-wolf, who fondled and fed them as if they were her own offspring until a shepherd named Faustulus found the two boys and carried them home to his wife.

Romulus and Remus were unusually robust and beautiful infants, and as they grew into boyhood they were noted for their bravery. In public games both showed remarkable skill, and their manners were so kind and affable that everybody loved them. In course of time they became famous because of their readiness to defend the oppressed, and their courage in punishing robbers and other wicked people.

Thus they were led to take part in a quarrel between the herdsmen of Amulius and those of Numitor, because the latter had stolen some of the king's cattle. Romulus and Remus attacked the offenders and got back nearly all the cattle, but Numitor vowed vengeance against them.

One day when Remus was taking a walk, some of Numitor's herdsmen seized him and carried him before their master. He was determined that the young man should be punished, and so led him to the king for sentence. Now, this placed Amulius in an embarrassing position, for it was in defending his rights that Remus had got into trouble. While he was still hesitating, the officers of Alba, who surrounded his throne, cried out that as Numitor was the person who had been insulted, Remus ought to be placed into his hands to be used as he saw fit.

This was accordingly done, and Numitor departed for home with his prisoner. But he was struck with admiration for the young man's fine face and robust form, and for the courage and coolness he displayed in so trying a position. He therefore resolved to be kind to Remus, and he encouraged him to talk, and asked him who he was and whence he had come.

"I will hide nothing from you," answered the prisoner, "for you seem to be of a more princely nature than Amulius, since you are willing to hear and examine before you punish. He has delivered me over into your hands without even inquiring into the nature of my offence." Remus then told all he knew about his birth, and how he and his twin brother Romulus had been nourished and tended in their infancy by a wolf. Numitor became more and more interested as Remus continued his story, and after hearing all that the young man could tell of his parentage, he at last discovered that Romulus and Remus were his own grandchildren.

Meanwhile, Romulus had not been idle. No sooner did he hear of the fate that had befallen his brother than he gathered together a large force, which he divided into companies of a hundred men each, and marched on Alba. So many of the citizens either feared or hated Amulius, that as Romulus advanced with his army they hastened to join his ranks, while Remus, on his part, excited those in the city to revolt.

So violent was the attack, both within and without the walls of Alba, that Amulius was incapable of defending himself or his subjects, and he was easily seized and put to death. Order was soon restored, but Romulus and Remus did not wish to stay at Alba, because so long as their grandfather lived they would not assume the reins of government. So, after placing Numitor on the throne, they resolved to return to the spot where their infancy had been passed, and there try to build up a city.

They were accompanied by their soldiers, many of whom had selected wives from among the women of Alba, and as soon as the foundation of the city was laid, a sanctuary, called the temple of the god Asylæus, was opened to serve as a place of refuge for all fugitives. There a servant could find protection from his master, a debtor from his creditor, or a murderer from the magistrates; for it was proclaimed that the oracle had declared the temple a privileged place. So many availed themselves of this asylum that the city soon became very populous.

Romulus and Remus occupied themselves at once with the laying out of their city, but a dispute arose as to its site, for the former selected a square which he called Rome, while the latter chose a piece of ground on the Aventine Mount which he called Remonium. Neither was willing to yield, for each thought that the spot he had chosen possessed more natural advantages than the other. At last, no amount of argument proving of any avail in bringing the brothers to an agreement, it was decided to settle the question by means of an augury. Placing themselves at a considerable distance apart in the open air, Romulus and Remus waited to see what would happen.

After a while the latter announced that he had seen six vultures, whereupon the former declared that he had seen twelve, and the contest was therefore decided in favor of Romulus. These birds were so scarce, and their young were so seldom seen, that they were regarded by the ancients with superstitious awe. It is said that if Hercules, when setting out upon an important expedition, chanced to behold a vulture, he was filled with joy, because he considered it a good omen. The ancient soothsayers believed that vultures came from another world, and that they were divine messengers. Such being the case, their appearance just when Romulus and Remus were on the lookout for an augury was quite opportune.

But Romulus told an untruth, for he did not really see more vultures than his brother did. When Remus discovered the cheat, he was so angry that he ridiculed the ditch that Romulus had dug for his foundation wall, and jumped over it, contemptuously exclaiming, "Just so will the enemy leap over." "And in this manner will our citizens repulse the enemy," cried a bystander, as he dealt Remus a deadly blow.

Romulus buried his brother, and then proceeded with the building of his city. He sent to Tuscany for workmen, because they understood all the ceremonies to be observed, and were just as particular concerning them as if they had been religious rites. First they built a circular ditch around the spot where the Comitium, or Hall of Justice, afterwards stood. In this ditch the first-fruits of all things good and useful were solemnly deposited; then every man threw in a handful of earth brought from his own country. Romulus marked out the bounds of the city with a brazen ploughshare, to which he yoked a bull and a cow, and as he drove along making a deep furrow, those who followed were careful to see that all the earth turned up was thrown inwards towards the city, so as not to lose a single clod. The line thus made described the wall, which was called the Pomœrium. Wherever it was intended to make a gate, the plough was carried over and the earth left unbroken.

It is supposed that on the 21st of April the building of Rome began, and the Romans always regard that day as their country's birthday.

As soon as the city was built, Romulus formed militia companies numbering three thousand foot and three hundred horse soldiers, and called them legions. A hundred counsellors from among the most influential citizens were selected, under the title of Patricians; their assembly was called the Senate, or Council of Elders.

The Patricians shared in the government and took care of those beneath them in station, and the people were taught to respect them and look to them for advice. Each man could select his own patron, whom he was bound to serve, and to whom he applied for protection and help, and the ties of affection and loyalty between patron and client were as strong as those between father and child.

Now, Romulus had proved himself a benefactor, by offering an asylum to those who had neither house nor home; but there were many lawless, depraved men among those who flocked to Rome, who did not make good citizens. Romulus thought to improve their morals by providing them with wives, and this is how he managed it.

First he gave out that he had discovered an altar of a certain god hidden under ground; and in order to celebrate the discovery he appointed a day for a splendid sacrifice, public games, and shows of all sorts. Neighbors were invited to witness the grand display, and flocked to the pleasure-grounds in great numbers. Among these were the Sabines, a tribe of people settled near Rome, who were accompanied by their wives and daughters.

By a previous understanding it was arranged that Romulus, who sat on a platform, clad in a purple robe, should at a certain stage of the performance rise and gather his garment about him, whereupon his men were to draw their swords, rush forward, and each secure for himself a wife. The signal was duly given, and the Sabine girls were carried off. Their fathers and brothers were naturally enough exceedingly angry, and they declared war against Rome.

After several severe struggles, peace was made, one of the conditions being that the stolen wives should be compelled to do no meaner work for their Roman husbands than spinning.

Meanwhile, several powerful armies were sent against Romulus by neighboring kings who feared his increasing power; but he defeated each in turn, and forced them to surrender their cities and territories and become citizens of Rome. All the lands thus acquired Romulus distributed among the inhabitants, with the exception of those that belonged to the parents of the stolen virgins. It so enraged the rest of the Sabines that such partiality should be shown, even to their own people, that, choosing Tatius for their captain, they straightway marched against Rome; but the city was so well fortified that had it not been for the treachery of Tarpeia, the daughter of Tarpeius, captain of the Roman guard, the Sabines would have been totally defeated. Tarpeia coveted the gold bracelets she observed on the left arms of the Sabines, and promised Tatius that she would assist him if he would give her what his soldiers wore on their left arms. He promised to do so, and at night she opened the gate of the citadel, and admitted the enemy. But the traitress did not enjoy the reward of her base deed, for Tatius was so filled with contempt and hatred of her that he tore off his bracelet and dashed it at her feet, then threw his buckler against her with all his strength, and commanded his soldiers to follow his example, and she was soon killed. In this way he fulfilled his promise, for the soldiers wore their bucklers also on their left arms.

Romulus was so enraged when he found the Sabines in possession of the Capitol hill that he offered them battle, though the field on which the conflict was to take place was so surrounded by lofty hills that there seemed little chance for either army to escape. However, Tatius was under the impression that his was the better position. He and his forces were on the point of marching across a plain that had been under water a few days before through the overflow of the river, when Curtius, a brave, gallant soldier, dashed on in advance. His horse sank so deep into the mire that it became impossible to extricate him, and the rider was forced to abandon him and save himself as best he could. An army so placed would have been thrown into confusion and probably destroyed. The Sabines felt much elated on account of their escape from this danger, and, looking upon it as a good omen, they fought all the more desperately. Many were slain on both sides, and for a long time there was doubt as to the result of the battle. At last Romulus was struck on the head by a stone that almost felled him to the ground. Then his soldiers, being driven out of the level plain, fled towards the Palatium; but Romulus soon recovered from his shock, and encouraged them to return to the fight. They dared not do so, however, until Romulus stretched his hands towards heaven and prayed aloud to Jupiter to assist the Roman cause. Then the fugitives felt ashamed of their cowardice, and determined to stand by their commander. Another fight ensued, and the Sabines were repulsed. Both armies were preparing to attack again, when the stolen Sabine wives came running towards them in a body, crying and lamenting like creatures possessed, and with their babies in their arms made their way among the dead bodies strewn upon the ground, entreating both sides to desist. The soldiers fell back in amazement, whereupon the women placed themselves between the armies. So eloquent were they in their appeals that a truce was made, and the chief officers decided to hold a council of war. Meanwhile, the women presented their husbands and children to their fathers and brothers, gave meat and drink to those that were hungry, and carried the wounded home to be cured. They took special pains to prove to their countrymen that they governed in their own houses, and that their husbands were the kindest and the most indulgent in the world. Finally it was agreed that those women who chose to stay should do so, providing that they continued to do no work but spinning; that the Romans and Sabines should inhabit the city together; that the city should be called Rome, and that both Romans and Sabines should govern and command in common. The place where this treaty was made was called the Comitium.

Thus was the population of the city increased. A hundred Sabines were added to the senators. The legions were increased to six thousand foot and six hundred horsemen, and the people were divided into three tribes, called the Ramnenses, from Romulus; the Tatienses, from Tatius; and the Luceres, from the grove where the asylum for refugees stood.

At first each of the princes took council with his own hundred representatives in the senate, but afterwards all assembled together. The house of Tatius was where the temple of Moneta afterwards stood, while that of Romulus was close by the steps that led from the Palatine Hill to the Circus Maximus. It is said that near the house of Romulus grew the holy Cornel tree, which had been planted in this wise. Once, to try his strength, Romulus threw a dart which stuck so fast into the ground that nobody could withdraw it. The soil being fertile, the wood took root, and in course of time grew into a good-sized tree. Posterity worshipped it as a sacred object, and placed a wall around it for protection, and if any one chanced to observe that it was not flourishing, or that it looked somewhat wilted, he would raise the alarm, when all those within hearing would run to fetch buckets of water, as though they had been warned of a house on fire. The tree withered when Collis Cæsar ordered the garden-steps to be repaired, because some of the workmen dug too close to the roots and destroyed them.

The Sabines adopted the Roman months, and Romulus, on the other hand, introduced into his army the armor and long shields that the Sabines used, instead of the Greek buckler, which he and his soldiers had worn before. The feasts and sacrifices of both nations were continued and partaken of in common, and some new ones were added to the list. One of these was the Matronalia, instituted in honor of the women who put an end to the war. During this feast the married Roman women served their slaves at table and received presents from their husbands. Another was the Carmentalia, a very solemn feast kept on the 11th of January. Carmenta was supposed to preside over the birth of babies, therefore all mothers worshipped her. The Lupercalia, or feast of wolves, was celebrated in February, and one of the rites consisted in the killing of a dog. The meaning of this is that dogs are enemies to wolves, and the Romans honored the latter because it was a wolf that nourished Romulus.

We have seen that the mother of Romulus was a vestal virgin. It was probably in memory of his mother that Romulus introduced the sacred and perpetual fire into his city, and appointed the Vestals to tend it. He was a religious man, and so skilled in divination that he carried the crooked rod used by soothsayers when observing the flight of birds. The one that belonged to Romulus was kept in the Capitol, but it disappeared when Rome was taken by the Gauls. Long afterwards it was found buried beneath a pile of ashes, uninjured by the fire that had destroyed everything about it.

For five years there was peace and harmony under the two rulers at Rome, and it did not seem probable that any disturbance would arise. But one day some of the friends and kinsmen of Tatius chanced to meet certain ambassadors from a neighboring town called Laurentium, who had gone to Rome to complain of incursions made upon their territories, and attempted to rob them. The ambassadors made a bold resistance, but, being unarmed, were put to death. Romulus was indignant at this cowardly crime, and demanded that the offenders should be punished forthwith. Tatius objected because they were his friends. He could not with justice declare that they did not deserve punishment, but he hesitated to give the order, whereupon the relatives of the murdered ambassadors became so indignant that one day when Tatius was engaged in offering sacrifices, they set upon him and put him to death.

The Sabines took no steps towards avenging the fate of their ruler, but peaceably submitted to Romulus.

Not long after this event a dreadful plague broke out, and caused the death of a great number of people as well as cattle; even the grain was blighted, and it was universally believed that the gods used this means to express displeasure. When Laurentium was similarly visited, the belief was strengthened, and no further proof was needed to convince the Romans that the murderers of the ambassadors, as well as those of Tatius, ought to have been punished. They were accordingly put to death, and it is said that the pestilence soon ceased. But, while it lasted, several nations, taking advantage of the distress it occasioned, made attacks on the Romans, under the belief that they were not in condition to resist. They found they were mistaken, however, for Romulus conquered so many of them that they were forced to accept whatever terms he chose to dictate.

Of course, so much prosperity had its effect on Romulus, as it would have on almost any man whom fortune favors to such an extent, and he became exceedingly haughty and arrogant. The people who had adored him now began to hate him, particularly as he assumed grand airs and made a display of his power. For he dressed himself in scarlet, and wore a regal, flowing, purple robe; then he would lie on a couch of state, and so give audience to those who sought him, while young men, called Celeres, from their swiftness in running errands, stood by ready to do his bidding. When he went out, these Celeres preceded him with long staves to make way for him, and they had leather thongs tied around their waists with which to bind anybody Romulus saw fit to punish. His conduct was entirely different from what it had been at the beginning of his reign, and he had become so despotic that the Patricians no longer had a share in the government. They retained their honorable title, and met at the senate-house, but this was a mere matter of form, for they heard their king give orders without daring to offer an opinion or to interfere in any way. At last this behavior became intolerable, and when Romulus went a step further and divided the conquered lands among his soldiers, and restored hostages without the consent of the senate, that body openly expressed profound indignation.

Shortly after, Romulus suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Suspicion of foul play fell upon the senators, and many were under the impression that when they had assembled at the temple of Vulcan on a certain day they had killed the king and cut up his body, each senator carrying away a portion and concealing it.

The excitement caused by this event was increased by a total eclipse of the sun, accompanied by a wind-storm, vivid flashes of lightning, and loud peals of thunder. The nobility gathered together in the senate-house, but the common people were so terrified that they fled to their homes and hid themselves. They did not understand the laws which governed an eclipse, and always looked upon one with superstitious awe.

When the sun shone forth again, inquiries about the fate of Romulus were renewed, and the people insisted upon knowing what had happened to him. But they got little satisfaction, for the Patricians gave them no answer, except that they were to honor and worship Romulus because he had been a good and wise king, who had gone to heaven, where he would henceforth prove a propitious deity to the Romans.

Some went away, expecting now to have special favors and protection, but others accused the Patricians of imposing an absurd tale upon them for the sake of concealing a crime; for they felt certain that Romulus had been murdered. The excitement became so great that considerable uneasiness was felt as to the result.

At last Julius Proculus, a distinguished senator, who had come from Alba with Romulus and had been his faithful friend, went into the Forum and declared upon oath, before all the people assembled, that as he was travelling along the road he met Romulus, looking more noble and august than ever, and clad in bright, glittering armor. He further declared that in his astonishment at the sight, he said, "For what misbehavior of ours, O king, or by what accident have you left us to labor under the heaviest calumnies, and the whole city to sink under inexpressible sorrow?" To this Romulus answered, "It pleased the gods, my good Proculus, that we should dwell with men, for a time, and after having founded a city, which will be the most powerful and glorious in the world, return to heaven whence we came. Farewell, then, and go tell the Romans that by the exercise of temperance and fortitude they shall attain the highest pitch of human greatness, and I, the god Quirinus, will ever be propitious to them."

Proculus was so highly esteemed by the Romans that they did not doubt a word of his recital. All suspicion concerning the murder of Romulus vanished forever, and from that time the devotions of the Romans were addressed to the god Quirinus, who they believed had power to extend towards them special benefits.