Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Sacrifice of Virginia

In the year 504 B.C. a citizen of Regillum, of much wealth and importance, finding himself at odds with his fellow-citizens, left that city and proceeded to Rome, with a long train of followers, much as the elder Tarquin had come from Tarquinii. His name was Atta Clausus, but in Rome he became known as Appius Claudius. He was received as a patrician, was given ample lands, and he and his descendants in later years became among the chief of those who hated and oppressed the plebeians.

About half a century after this date, one of these descendants, also named Appius Claudius, was a principal actor in one of the most dramatic events of ancient Rome. The trouble which had long existed between the patricians and the plebeians now grew so pronounced, and the demand for a reform in the laws so great, that in the year 451 B.C. a commission was sent to the city of Athens, to report on the system of government they found there and elsewhere in Greece. After this commission had returned and given its report, a body of ten patricians was appointed, under the title of Decemvirs (or ten men), to prepare a new code of laws for Rome. They were chosen for one year, and took the place of the consuls, tribunes, and all the chief officials of Rome.

At the head of this body was Appius Claudius. The laws of Rome had previously been only partly written, the remainder being held in memory or transmitted as traditions. A complete code of written laws was desired, and to this work the decemvirs set themselves diligently. After a few months they prepared a code of laws, which was accepted by nobles and people alike as fair and satisfactory, and it was ordered that these laws should be engraved upon ten tables of brass and hung up in the comitium, or place of assembly of the people, where all might read them and learn under what laws they lived. It is probable that the plebeian demand for reform was so great that the decemvirs did not dare to disregard it.

At the end of the year of office of these officials it was felt that they had done so well that it was thought wise to continue them in power for another year. But when the time for election came round, Appius Claudius managed to have his nine associates defeated, he alone being re-elected. The other nine chosen were men whom he felt sure he could control. And now, having a year's rule assured him, he threw off the cloak of moderation he had worn, and began a career of oppression of the plebeians, aided by his subservient associates. The first step taken was to add two new laws to the code, which became known, therefore, as the "Twelve Tables." These new laws proved so distasteful to the people that they almost broke into open rebellion. It was evident that the haughty decemvirs were seeking to increase the power of their class.

The decemvirs did not confine themselves to passing oppressive laws. They began a career of outrage and oppression that filled Rome with woe. The youthful patricians followed their lead, and insult and murder became common incidents in Rome. When the second year of the decemvirate expired, Appius and his colleagues, knowing that they could not be elected again, showed no intention of yielding up their authority. They were supported by the senate and the patricians, and had gained such power that they defied the plebeians. Those of the people who were active in opposition were quietly disposed of, and so intolerable became the tyranny that numbers of the plebeian party fled from Rome.

While this was going on war broke out with the Sabines and the Æquians. Of the armies sent against these nations, one was commanded by Lucius Sicinius Dentatus, among the bravest of the Romans, and who had fought in one hundred and twenty battles and was covered with the scars of old wounds. On his way to his post this veteran was murdered by bravos sent by Appius Claudius. Decemvirs were now appointed to command the armies, Appius and one of his colleagues remaining in Rome to look after the safety of the city.

The story goes that both armies were beaten by their foes, and forced to retreat within Roman territory. While they lay encamped, not many miles from Rome, an event occurred in the city which gave them new work to do, and proved that the worst enemies of Rome were not without, but within, her walls.

In the army sent against the Æquians was a centurion named Lucius Virginius, who had a beautiful daughter named Virginia, whom he had betrothed to Lucius Icilius, recently one of the tribunes of Rome. But the tyranny of the decemvirs was directed against the wives and daughters as well as the men of the plebeians, as was now to be strikingly shown.

One day, as the beautiful maiden was on her way, attended by her nurse, to school in the Forum (around which the schools were placed), she was seen by Appius Claudius, who was so struck by her beauty that he determined to gain possession of her, and sought to win her by insidious words. The innocent girl repelled his advances, but this only increased his desire to possess her, and he determined, as she was not to be had by fair means, to have her by foul. He therefore laid a wicked plot for her capture.

Marcus Claudius, one of his clients, instigated by him, seized the girl as she entered the Forum, claiming that she was his slave. The nurse screamed for help, and a crowd quickly gathered. Many of these well knew the maiden, her father, and her betrothed, and vowed to protect her from wrong. But the villain declared that he meant no harm, and that he only claimed his own, and was quite willing to submit his claim to the decision of the law.

Followed by the crowd, he led the weeping maiden to where Appius Claudius occupied the judgment-seat, and demanded justice at his hands. He declared that the wife of Virginius, being childless, had got this child from its mother and presented it to Virginius as her own, and said that the real mother had been his slave, and that, therefore, the daughter was his slave also. This he would prove to Virginius on his return to Rome. Meanwhile it was but just that the master should keep possession of his slave.

This specious appeal was earnestly combated by the friends of the maiden, many of whom were present in the throng. Virginius, they said, was absent from Rome in the service of the commonwealth. To take such action in his absence was unjust. They would send him word at once, and in two days he would be in the city.

"Let the case stand until he can appear," they demanded. "The law expressly declares that in cases like this every one shall be considered free till proved a slave. The maiden, therefore, should legally be left with her friends till the day of trial. Put not her fair fame in peril by giving up a free-born maiden into the hands of a man whom she knows not."

To this reasonable appeal Appius, with a show of judicial moderation, replied,—

"Truly, I know the law you speak of, and hold it just and good, for it was enacted by myself. But this maiden cannot in any case be free; she belongs either to her father or to her master. And as her father is not here, who but her master can have any claim to her? I decide, therefore, that M. Claudius shall keep her till Virginius comes, and shall require him to give sureties to bring her before my judgment-seat when the day comes for hearing the case between them."

This illegal decision was far from satisfying the multitude. The decemvirs and their adherents had gained an unholy reputation for dishonorable treatment of the wives and daughters of the people, and it was not safe to trust a maiden in their hands. Word had been hastily sent to Numitorius, the uncle of Virginia, and Icilius, her betrothed, and they now came up in great haste, and protested so vigorously against the sentence, that the surrounding people became roused to fury. Appius, seeing the temper of the throng, and fearing a riotous demonstration, felt forced to change his decision. He said, therefore, that, in view of the rights of fathers over their children, he would let the case rest till the next day.

"If, then," he said, with a show of stern dignity, "Virginius does not appear, I plainly tell Icilius and his fellows that I will support the laws which I have made. Violence shall not prevail over justice at this tribunal."

Obliged to be content with this, the friends of Virginia conducted her home, and Icilius sent messengers in all haste to the camp, to bid Virginius come without an hour's delay to Rome. Surety was given that the maiden should appear before Appius the next day.

It was fortunate that the army in which Virginius was a centurion had been obliged to retreat, and then lay not many miles from Rome. The messengers sent reached the camp that same evening, and told Virginius of the peril of his daughter. Appius had also sent messengers to his colleagues in command of the army, secretly instructing them not to lot Virginius leave the camp on any pretence. But the messengers of right outstripped those of wrong, and when word came from the decemvirs in command to restrain Virginius he had already been given leave of absence, and was speeding on the road to Rome, spurred by love and indignation.

Morning came, and Appius resumed his judgment-seat, under the delusion that his vile scheme was safe. To his surprise and dismay, be saw Virginius, whom he supposed detained in camp, dressed in mean attire, like a suppliant, and leading his daughter into the Forum. With him came a body of Roman matrons and a great troop of friends, for the affair had roused the people almost to the point of revolt.

This is not my cause only, but the cause of all," said Virginius, in moving accents, to the people. "If my daughter shall be robbed from me, what father and mother among you all is safe?"

Icilius earnestly seconded this appeal, and the mothers who stood by wept with pity, their tears moving the people even more than the words of the father and lover.

But Appius was not to be moved by tears or appeals. Bent on gaining his unholy ends, he did not even give Virginius time to address the tribunal, but before Claudius had done speaking he hastened to give sentence. The maiden, he said, should be considered a slave until proved to be free-born. In the mean time she should remain in the custody of her master Claudius.

Virginia and Claudius


This monstrous decision, a perversion of all law, natural and civil, filled the people with astonishment. Could the maker of the laws of Rome thus himself set them at defiance? They stood as if stunned, until Claudius approached to lay bands on the maiden, when the women and her friends gathered around her and kept him off, while Virginius broke out in passionate threats that he would not tamely submit to so great a wrong.

Appius had prepared for this. He had brought with him a body of armed patricians, and, supported by them, he bade his lictors to drive back the crowd. Before their threatening axes the unarmed people fell back, and the weeping maiden was left standing alone. Virginius looked on in despair. Was he to be robbed of his daughter in the face of Rome, and in defiance of all justice and honor? There was one way still to save her, and only one.

With an aspect of humility he asked Appius to let him speak one word to the nurse in the maiden's hearing, that he might learn whether she were really his child or not. "If I am not indeed her father, I shall bear her loss the lighter," he said.

Appius, with a show of moderation, consented, and the distracted father drew the nurse and his daughter aside to a spot where stood some butchers' booths, for the Forum of Rome was then a place of trade as well as of justice. Here he snatched a knife from a butcher, and, holding the poor girl in his arm, he cried, "This is the only way, my child, to keep thee free," and plunged the weapon to her heart.

Then, turning to Appius, he cried, in threatening accents, "On you and on your head be the curse of this blood!"

"Seize the madman!" yelled Appius.

But, brandishing the bloody knife, Virginius broke through the multitude, which readily made way for his passage, and flew to the city gates, where, seizing a horse, he rode with wild haste to the camp of Tusoulum.

Meanwhile Icilius and Numitorius held up the maiden's body, and bade the people see the bloody result of the decemvir's unholy purpose. A tumult instantly arose, the people rushing in such fury upon the tribunal that the lictors and armed patricians were driven back, and Appius, stricken with fear, covered his face with his robe and fled into a neighboring house.

Never had Rome been so stirred to fury. The colleague of Appius rushed with his followers to the Forum, but the people were too strong for all the force he could gather. The senate met, but could do nothing in the excited state of public feeling. An attempt to support the decemvirs now might cause the commons once more to secede to the Sacred Hill.

While this was going on in the city, Virginius, followed by many citizens, had reached the camp. Here the encrimsoned knife he held, the blood on his face and body, and the many unarmed citizens who followed him, brought the soldiers crowding round to learn what all this meant.

The tale was told in moving accents. On hearing it the whole army burst into a storm of indignation. Heedless of the orders of their generals, they rushed excitedly to arms, pulled up their standards, and put themselves in hasty march for Rome. The only leader they recognized was Virginius, who, knife in hand, led the way in the van.

Reaching the city, the soldiers called on the commons to assert their liberties and elect new tribunes, the decemvirs having deprived them of these officials. They then marched to the Aventine Hill, where they selected ten military tribunes. The senate sent to them to know what they wanted, but they replied that they had no answer to give except to their own friends.

The other army had also heard of the outrage, and soon appeared at the Aventine, led by Icilius and Numitorius, who had hastened with the dreadful story to its camp. It, too, elected ten tribunes, and waited to hear what the senate had to propose. They waited in vain. No word came to them. The senate, distracted by the sudden occurrence, sought to temporize, but the people were in too deadly earnest to be thus dealt with. In the end the armies left the Aventine, marched through the city, and made their way to the Sacred Hill, where the seceding commoners had established themselves on a famous occasion long before. Men, women, and children followed them in multitudes. Once more the city was deserted by the plebeians, and the patricians were left to keep Rome together as they could.

This brought the senate to terms. The decemvirs agreed to resign. Deputies were sent to ask what the people demanded. They replied that they wanted their tribunes and the right of appeal restored, full indemnity for all the leaders in the secession, and the punishment of their oppressors.

"These decemvirs," said Icilius, "are public enemies, and we will have them die the death of such. Give them up to us, that they may be burnt with fire, as they have richly deserved."

This bloodthirsty desire, however, was not insisted on. All their other requests were granted, and the people returned to Rome. The decemvirs had resigned. Ten tribunes were chosen, among them Virginius and Icilius. The people of Rome had regained the liberty of which they had been robbed by their late oppressors.

But though the decemvirs had been spared from death by fire, they were not forgiven. Virginius, as a tribune, impeached Appius for having given a decision in defiance of the law. The proud patrician appeared in the Forum surrounded by a body of young nobles, but he gained nothing by this bravado. He refused to go before the judge, appealed to the people, and demanded to be released on bail. This Virginius refused. He could not be trusted at liberty. He was therefore thrown into prison, to await the judgment of the people.

This judgment he did not live to hear. Whether he killed himself in prison, or was killed by order of his accusers, we do not know. We only know that he died. His colleague, who had come to his aid on that fatal day, was also thrown into prison, on the charge of having wantonly scourged an old and distinguished soldier. He also died there. The other decemvirs, with M. Claudius, who had claimed Virginia as his slave, were allowed to give bail, and all fled from Rome. The property of all of them was confiscated and sold.

Rome had experienced enough of decemvirate rule. The tribunes of the people were restored, and thereafter they were both freely chosen by the people, which had not been the case before.

And thus it was that Virginia was revenged and justice once more reigned in Rome.