Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Horatiii and Curiatii

Romulus was succeeded by a king named Numa Pompilius, of Sabine origin, who so loved peace that during his reign Rome had no wars and no enemies, so that the doors of the Temple of Janus were never once opened while he was on the throne. He built a temple to Faith, that men might learn to avoid falsehood and to act honestly. He taught the people to sacrifice nothing but the fruits of the earth, cakes of flour, and roasted corn, and to shed no blood upon the altars. And so Rome was peaceful and prosperous throughout his long reign, and grew rapidly in wealth and population. He died at length when eighty years of age, and was succeeded by Tullus Hostilius, a king of Roman birth.

The new king loved war as much as the gentle Numa had loved peace. Under his rule the gates of the Temple of Janus were soon thrown open again, long to remain so. His first war was with the city of Alba Longa, the foster-parent of Rome. Some border troubles brought on hostilities, war broke out, and an Alban army marched until within fifteen miles of Rome. And here took place a celebrated incident. The two armies were drawn out on the field, and were about to plunge into the dreadful work of battle, when the Alban king, to whom the war seemed a foolish and useless one, stood out between the two armies and spoke in the hearing of both.

He reminded them that the Romans and Albans were of the same origin, and that they were surrounded by nations who would like to see both of them weakened. He proposed, therefore, that the dispute between them should be decided not by battle, but by a duel between a few soldiers, and that the side which won should rule the other. This proposal seemed to Tullus a sensible one, and he accepted it, offering as the combatants on his side three brothers known as the Horatii.

The Alban army had also three brave brothers, of about the same age as the Roman champions, known as the Curiatii, and these were chosen to uphold the honor and dominion of Alba against Rome. So, with the two armies as spectators, and a broad space between for the deadly duel, the six champions, fully armed, faced each other in the field.

The onset was fierce, and set every heart in the two armies throbbing in hope or dread. But after a short time a shout of triumph went up from the Alban host. Two of the Horatii lay stretched in death on the field. The Curiatii were all wounded, but they were now three to one, so the remaining Horatius turned and fled, though he was still unhurt. Dismay full on the Romans as they saw their single champion in full flight, pursued by his opponents. The glad shouts of the Albans redoubled.

Suddenly a change came. The fugitive, whose flight had been a feint, to separate his foes, now turned and saw that the wounded men were lagging in pursuit and were widely separated. Running quickly back, he met the nearest, and killed him with a blow. The other two were met and slain in succession before they could aid each other. Then, holding up his bloody sword in triumph, the victor invited the plaudits of his friends, while shedding dismay on Alban hearts.

The Romans, now lords of the Albans, returned to Rome in triumph, their advent to the city being marked by the first of those pompous processions which in after years became known as Roman Triumphs, and were celebrated with the utmost splendor and costliness of display.

But the affair of the Horatii and Curiatii was not yet at an end. It was to be finished in blood and crime. A sister of the Horatii was the affianced bride of one of the Curiatii, and as she saw her victorious brother enter the city, bearing on his shoulders the military cloak which she had wrought for her lover with her own hands, she broke into wild invectives, tearing her hair, and upbraiding her brother with bitter words. Roused to fury by this accusation, the victor, in a paroxysm of rage, struck his sister to the heart with the sword which had slain her lover, crying out, "So perish the Roman maiden who shall weep for her country's enemy."

This dreadful deed filled with horror the hearts of all who beheld it. Men cried that it was a crime against the law and the gods, too great to be atoned for by the victor's services. He was seized and dragged to the tribunal of the two judges who dealt with crimes of bloodshed. These heard the evidence of the crime, and condemned him to death, in despite of what he had done for Rome.

But the Roman law permitted an appeal from the judges to the people. This appeal Horatius made, and it was tried before the assembly of Romans. Here his father spoke in his favor, saying that in his opinion the maiden deserved her fate. Remembrance of the great service performed by Horatius was also strong with the people, and the voice of the assembly freed him from the sentence of death. But blood had been shed, and blood required atonement, so a sum of money was set aside to pay for sacrifices to atone for this dreadful deed. Ever afterwards these sacrifices were performed by members of the Horatian clan.

In a later war the Albans failed to aid the Romans, as they were required to do by the terms of alliance. As a result the city of Alba was destroyed, and the Albans forced to come and live in Rome, the Cælian Hill being given them for a dwelling-place.