Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum - Isabel Lovell

The Story of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

One evening, although the twilight was fast darkening into night, the Forum of Rome was full of people. Men were talking together in anxious groups, magistrates were holding long consultations; for the army had gone out to battle against their exiled king, Tarquin the Proud, and that day there had been a hard fight at Lake Regillus, not many leagues from Rome. Many were the heavy hearts weighed down with fear as the night drew on, and still no tidings of either weal or woe; many were the watchful eyes strained far into the gathering shadows for the messenger hourly expected from the Roman hosts.

Now close by the Temple of Vesta, there was a spring that belonged, it is said, to the nymph Juturna; and so pure and clear were these waters that they were believed to bring healing to mankind. Some citizens, in their restless wanderings, now came near this fountain of Juturna, and most surprising was the sight that met their eyes. Before them stood two noble warriors, whose steeds, all flecked with foam, were drinking from the sacred spring. The armour of these strangers gleamed brightly in the dusk, although they had the air of those that had not only ridden far and fast, but that had fought long and hard. In each right hand was a mighty spear, and upon each egg-shaped helmet shone a star! In awed tones the news of their arrival passed from man *to man, until all that were in the Forum had gathered about the warriors, who, unmindful of the multitude, continued to refresh themselves and their pure white chargers with the sparkling waters. However, when every one had drawn near, the splendid strangers stood up side by side, and, as with a single voice, spoke to the spellbound people, saying,

"Hail, men of Rome! Let your hearts be uplifted! From Lake Regillus do we come, and would have you know that Tarquin is vanquished, and that Rome's standards are planted in his very camp. Right valiant has been the fight, for the cause of Rome has this day been defended by the favour of the gods."

Having thus spoken, the glistening knights remounted their noble steeds, quieting them by calling their names in gentle tones—"Ho, Kanthus!" "Now then, good Cyllarus!"—and the voice of these warriors was like the sound of deep, sweet music. Then, with a gesture of farewell, they gave rein to their horses, rounded the road by the Temple of Vesta, and—were gone!

No trace of the mysterious riders could be found, and a wonderment, almost a fear, seized upon the people in the very midst of their rejoicings. Some murmured that the warriors had been but a vision of over-wearied brains; but the more devout among them declared that these had been no earthly visitors, and that none less than Castor and Pollux, sons of Jupiter, had brought this good news to the Roman people. At this, still greater gladness reigned, and the Romans continued their rejoicings, recalling to one another the many marvellous deeds of these Great Brothers. And wonderful, indeed, were the tales they told—how Jupiter, who when on earth took many forms, had once become a swan; how the Twin Brothers had been born from a great egg; and how Leda, their fair mother, had tended them. It was because of their strange birth, so they further said, that the helmets of the Brothers were egg-shaped, and because of their heavenly origin that stars shone brightly upon their heads. Great in war were Castor and Pollux, but, above all else, great were they in their love the one for the other. Together they gave their special favour to manly games of skill and strength, and to them all knights made vows, and all soldiers offered sacrifices.

Such were Rome's champions at Lake Regillus, for with the next morning's light there came a messenger in haste from the Roman camp, bearing a strange report. This message, opened with intense interest, was wrapped, as a sign of triumph, in leaves of laurel, as was the custom of victorious generals when informing the Senate of an important conquest. And in this letter from the dictator Postumius, were words proving that, in very truth, the sons of Jupiter had fought for Rome. For, so wrote Postumius, at a moment when the Romans were hard pressed and their courage grew faint, two warriors on pure white steeds had suddenly appeared among their foremost ranks. Before them, Tarquin's army had fallen back in great confusion, and soon the victory was with the knights of Rome. Upon this, the marvellous defenders of the new Republic had disappeared. Then, so ended the letter, all knew that the contest had been gained by the favour of the gods, not by the strength of man; and immediately upon the battlefield, a temple had been vowed to the great Twin Brothers, in gratitude for their valiant aid.

So runs the old story, and, in fact, a few years later a temple to Castor and Pollux was built in the Forum, just on the spot where, men say, the heavenly visitors announced the good news to the people; and the son of Postumius dedicated it before all the citizens of Rome. This temple stood upon a high foundation, and was approached by flights of steps; and within it was a treasury where, as in many other temples, the people might leave for safe-keeping any of their gold, silver, or other articles of value. It became the custom to hang in the Temple of Castor and Pollux, certain tablets on which were engraved treaties with conquered tribes, and decrees of various kinds; here were also kept the standard weights of Rome, by which all other weights were tested. Statues of the great Twin Brothers were later placed in the Temple, ever carefully kept in perfect order and repair.

Indeed, the Romans had good cause to honour Castor and Pollux, for the old writers tell us that again these valiant sons of Jupiter showed their favour to the Romans, by bringing glad tidings to Rome. When the heavenly Brothers appeared for the second time, the nation was at war with King Perseus of Macedon, and the Roman army was commanded by the consul Paullusmilius. It happened that as a certain man, named Vatinius, was returning to Rome one night, he saw two horsemen on pure white steeds, coming quickly along the road. Their armour shone through the darkness with dazzling brightness, and their forms were of a beauty far exceeding that of man. As they neared, Vatinius moved aside to let them pass, whereupon they called out to him to halt.

Stay, good Vatinius!" cried they. "We bear joyful news for Rome! Go thou to the Senate and say that this day a great victory hath been won in Macedon."

With these words they passed on, their horses, fleet as the wind, bearing them swiftly out of sight.

All amazed, but feeling sure that these glorious knights were none other than Rome's ancient champions, Castor and Pollux, Vatinius made haste to seek out the magistrates, and to tell them what had befallen him. But the senators doubted him, and cast him into prison, because, as they thought, he would play a trick upon the Roman people at a moment when the whole nation was troubled concerning the fate of so many of their bravest and noblest men.

But in due season news reached Rome from Paullus Aemilius himself, and his report stated that a great conquest had been gained by his army on the very day that the Twin Brothers had appeared upon the highway to Vatinius. So great was this victory, that not only was the long war ended, but King Perseus himself was taken prisoner. Then, by order of the Senate, Vatinius was released from his chains, and lands were given him in atonement for his unjust sufferings.

Paullus Aemilius had sent this good news to the Senate by three noble Romans, one of whom was named Metellus. Many of this man's family were warriors of renown, but there was one among them whose record was unworthy that of the rest. This was his nephew, Metellus Dalmaticus, whose last name was gained by the war waged by him against the people of Dalmatia, a nation on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Although the Dalmatians had given no offence, Metellus went out against them in order that he might be seen in Rome with all the glory of a victorious general. He triumphed without opposition, but without merit, and without honour. Much of his booty was used in the rebuilding of the Temple of Castor and. Pollux; Metellus hoping perhaps by this use of his spoils to right himself with the Roman people, who held him in no high esteem. Other statues and many paintings were now added to the Temple, which became one of the most beautiful in Rome.

About this time there was much trouble in the city concerning the money-lenders, who, unheedful of the laws, loaned their money at too high rates, thereby unjustly oppressing those that had need to borrow. These wrongs, the magistrate, Asellio, determined should cease, and to this end he decreed that all disputes between debtors and money-lenders should be judged in open court. Upon this the money-lenders became angry, and, plotting against Asellio's life, many of them mingled one day with the crowd worshipping in the Temple of Castor and Pollux, while Asellio was offering a sacrifice to the great Twin Brothers. The place was still, as with veiled heads the people stood reverently before the altar, where Asellio, clothed in gilded robes, held the libation bowl within his hands. Suddenly, a stone was thrown at him with great force, and turning, he saw, beyond the bowed heads of the worshippers, many of his enemies, their evil looks threatening him with death. Trembling with fear, and dropping the sacred bowl, Asellio ran out to seek refuge at Vesta's shrine,—but the assassins were there before him I Then, in desperation, he fled into a tavern near by, and there his pursuers followed and slew him.

Strangely enough, this evil deed happened in the Forum of Rome in broad daylight, and while this magistrate, surrounded by many persons, was sacrificing in a temple. And, still more strange, although the Senate offered high reward, no trace of the murderers could be found. For so powerful were these money-lenders that not only was their guilt covered up, but their business was still carried on with as little justice as before.

Yet greater injustice took place in the business affairs of the Temple itself, which was repaired and cared for by men to whom the city paid a certain sum. Now at the time when Gaius Verres was the city magistrate in charge of the public buildings of Rome, the Temple of Castor and Pollux was kept in repair by one Lucius Rabonius. Acting for a youth not yet of age, one whose father had carefully kept the Temple for many years, Rabonius strove to do his duty honestly and well. This, however, was far from pleasing to Verres, who, cunningly keeping his coffers filled from the public funds, hoped to gain large sums from the work on such an important temple. But all was in order, all according to agreement, and Verres sighed with discontent as he gazed from the beautiful ceiling to the many statues, and from these to the rich paintings that adorned the sacred place. Just then there came to him a friend, even more cunning than himself.

"Wouldst fill thy pockets, Verres?" whispered he. "Cause the columns of this too perfect temple to be tried by a plumb-line."

"And wherefore?" queried the magistrate, with puzzled interest. "What meanest thou by a plumb-line?"

'Tis a line bearing a heavy weight, by which all upright things may be tested, O Verres," spake his evil counsellor. "Know that few columns stand exactly straight. Try these by a plumb-line, wise magistrate, and, I beg thee, forget not thy friend!"

The grasping Verres, accepting this advice, forced Rabonius to tear down the columns, and to set them up again. And the money used for this unneeded work was that belonging to the helpless youth, a large part of whose fortune thus slipped into Verres's ever yawning pockets.

Many were the scenes of riot that took place both within and without the Temple of Castor and Pollux, for the Senate at times held meetings there, and the lofty steps of the building often served as rostra, from which addresses were made to excited assemblies of the people.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


It was upon these steps that Julius Caesar stood to address the people concerning a new law. He was then consul, and to gain the goodwill of the Romans, he proposed that certain lands belonging to the State be divided among some of the poorer citizens. As the delighted crowds cheered him loudly, Marcus Bibulus, the consul of the opposite party, entered the Forum and approached the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The throng willingly separated to let him pass, for they hoped that he also brought good news; but when Bibulus had mounted the steps, he denounced Caesar's methods, and cried out against the new law that had found such favour with the people. Whereupon he was thrown down, and forced to leave the Forum, barely escaping with his life from the angered multitude. Then, keeping safely within his own house, Bibulus tried still further to hinder the passing of the law by announcing day after day that he had consulted the augurs, and that, concerning such an act of the Senate, there were evil omens only. His efforts, however, were all in vain. Caesar swept everything before him, and none listened to the piping of so small a voice as that of Bibulus. All eyes were upon Caesar; he was the hero of the day. Even in the feasts and games which, for their own advancement, the consuls together gave the people, all the praise was Caesar's. Although Bibulus shared the expenses equally with Caesar, he received no thanks, and for this reason he was wont to say that Fate had dealt with him as with Pollux. For although a temple had been built in honour of both Brothers, it was generally spoken of as the Temple of Castor only. "And so," said Bibulus, "although half the money spent is mine, the glory is Caesar's alone."

During the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the Temple of Castor and Pollux was rebuilt by Tiberius, the adopted son of the Emperor. When the work was finished, and the Temple stood white and glistening in all its marble magnificence, it was dedicated to the great Twin Brothers, in the name of Tiberius and of his own brother Drusus. For although Drusus, a good man and a brave warrior, had been killed while at war against the Germans, he still lived in the hearts of the Roman people, who rejoiced in the thought that the love of Castor for Pollux was reflected in the affection of Tiberius for Drusus.

A curious change was made in this Temple by the mad Emperor Caligula, whose lofty pride caused him to feel greater than the very gods themselves. His mad conceit knew no bounds, and when he built his palace on the Palatine Hill, he did not hesitate to use the Temple of Castor and Pollux as its vestibule. Now the vestibule was the court before a rich Roman's house, and in it stood servants guarding against thieves, and obeying the wishes of those desiring to visit their master. Caligula's wild fancy caused him to announce that this beautiful Temple should be the vestibule of his house, and that the Great Brothers should serve as the lowly guardians of his doors. And further, as if to force the people to acknowledge his more than human greatness, this profane and wicked man often sat between the statues of the heavenly Brothers, that with them he might be adored by those that worshipped. However, after the death of Caligula, the next emperor, Claudius, commanded that the Temple be restored as a place of worship, and that the holy rites thereof be renewed with all their former solemnity.

Three beautiful columns still stand upon the high foundations of the Temple of Castor and Pollux. They are part of the building dedicated by the imperial brothers, Tiberius and Drusus, to the sons of Jupiter, Castor and Pollux; and these graceful pillars are pointed out to-day as among the most beautiful of Roman ruins.

During all Rome's history, until the worship of the ancient gods was ended, there took place every year a certain procession, watched by the people with never failing delight. It occurred on the anniversary of the battle of Lake Regillus, on which day the Roman knights rode forth to do honour to the great Twin Brothers. All the way from the Temple of Mars, just beyond the city's walls, to the Temple of Jupiter, on the Capitoline Hill, the road was lined with happy throngs, eagerly waiting for the first glimpse of the glittering hosts. And at last they came, five thousand strong, the best and bravest of Rome's warrior sons. Entering the city by that gate through which, so many years ago, the victorious Postumius had come in triumph, they proceeded, mounted upon shining steeds, in the order of their rank. Their robes were of purple, and they bore all the ornaments gained as rewards of valour upon the field of battle; but on their heads were only chaplets of olive leaves, for on this day they celebrated peace, not war. Well might the hearts of the Romans glow with pride as they gazed upon so many valiant men, for splendid indeed were these knights as they passed along—armour gleaming, colours waving, standards glistening, and trumpets blowing. Within the Temple of Castor and Pollux a magnificent sacrifice was offered to Rome's heavenly champions, and then the brilliant train moved onward to great Jupiter's temple on the hill above.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


Since the first troublous days of the Republic, the citizens of Rome again and again had waited in the Forum for tidings from the army, and again and again news had come to them of victory, but never had greater anxiety been replaced by greater gladness than when Castor and Pollux brought the word of triumph from Lake Regillus. For to the ears of the oppressed people to whom it came, it sounded both as the knell of the tyranny of kings, and as the joyous peal announcing the freedom of Rome.