Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Legends of the Seven Kings of Rome

In Troy, a famous town of Asia Minor, there once lived a man named Aeneas. For ten long years the Greeks, fierce enemies of the Trojans, had been trying to take the city; and at length they succeeded. They set fire to it, and soon the whole town was in flames. Aeneas fought as long as there was any hope in fighting, then he took his aged father on his shoulders, and keeping fast hold of the hand of his little son Ascanius, he fled through the burning streets and over the ruins of the walls to the country. Many of his friends joined him, and they hid away together among the mountains. After a while the gods told Aeneas to build some boats and set out and his companions must make a new home for themselves in Italy.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


They obeyed and set sail, and after many troubles and adventures they reached the Italian shores Aeneas married Lavinia, the daughter of the king of Latium, and afterward became ruler of that province. He built a town which he named Lavinium, in honor of his wife. After he died, Ascanius ruled; but he soon found that his town was becoming too crowded. He concluded, therefore, to leave it and build another on a ridge of a neighboring hill. This he named Alba Longa, or the long white city.

For three hundred years the descendants of Ascanius ruled in Latium. Then there was trouble. The rightful king was Numitor, but his brother Amulius stole the kingdom and murdered Numitor's son. There was also a daughter, Rhea Sylvia, but Amulius disposed of her by making her a priestess of the goddess Vesta. One day Amulius was told that his niece had twin sons whose father was the war god Mars. "If they are allowed to live, they will grow up and claim the kingdom," thought Amulius; so he put Rhea Sylvia to death and ordered one of his men to throw the boys into the river Tiber. The man obeyed, but the river had overflowed its banks, and when it went down again, it left the two babies on dry land at the foot of the Palatine Hill, not drowned by any means, but exceedingly hungry and crying with all their might. A she wolf coming for a drink heard the crying and went to the children. She seemed to think they were some

new kind of cub, for she carried them to her den and nursed them there for some time. At length they were discovered by a shepherd named Faustulus. He frightened the wolf away and carried the babies home to his wife. When Romulus and Remus, as they were called, had grown up, Faustulus told them that they were not his children, but the grandsons of Numitor, and that Numitor was the rightful king. Then the young men and their shepherd friends overcame the wicked Amulius. He was put to death, and the kingdom was given back to Numitor.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The two brothers determined to form a kingdom for themselves, and to build a city near the place where they had been thrown into the water. But now there was trouble, for it was fitting that the elder brother should give his name to the city, and they were twins!" Let the gods decide," they said. So Romulus climbed the Palatine Hill and Remus the Aventine, and they watched all day and all night; but the gods gave them no sign. Just at sunrise, however, Remus saw six vultures fly across the sky. His followers shouted with delight and hailed him as king. While they were still shouting, the friends of Romulus cried out joyfully; for, behold, Romulus had seen a flight of twelve vultures! But who could say whether it was worth more to see six birds first or twelve birds second?

The question seems to have been settled in some way in favor of Romulus, for he began to build on the Palatine. Hill a wall for a town. Remus jumped over it and said scornfully, "That is what your enemies will do." "And this is the way they will fare," retorted Romulus, and struck his brother angrily. Remus fell down dead, and all his life Romulus grieved for the brother whom he had slain in a moment of anger.

The walls were completed and the place was named Rome; but it needed people; "I will admit as citizens whoever choose to come," said Romulus; and at this, there came crowds of men who had fled from their enemies or from justice. Romulus took them in and protected them.

Rome became strong, but the men of the neighboring states looked upon it scornfully and would not allow their daughters to marry Romans. "If you want wives to match your men," they said to Romulus, "you would better open an asylum for women slaves and thieves and outcasts."

Romulus kept his temper, and a little later he even invited his scornful neighbors to some games in honor of Neptune. All were curious to see the new city, and they did not wait for any urging. The Sabines especially came in full numbers and brought their wives and children also. The Romans entertained them hospitably, and soon the guests were all eagerly watching the games. Suddenly the Romans rushed upon their visitors, seized the young maidens among them, and carried them away to become their wives.

Then the Romans fought with one tribe after another, with the Sabines last of all, because these people waited till they were fully prepared to fight. The most important thing for the Sabines to do was to take the Roman citadel, that is, the strong fortress which Romulus had built on a hill to protect the city, and they secretly asked the young girl Tarpeia, daughter of the Roman commander, what reward she would demand to let them in. "Give me what you wear on your left arms," she replied, pointing to their heavy golden bracelets. They agreed and she opened the gate. But they also carried their shields upon their left arms, and they felt such scorn for the disloyal maiden that they threw these upon her, and so crushed her to death. That is why the cliff on one side of the ledge on which the citadel stood is called the Tarpeian Rock. For many years afterward, traitors were punished by being hurled from this very cliff.

When the Sabines were once within the city, a savage fight followed between them and the Romans; but now the stolen women had a word to say. Their husbands had treated them kindly and they had become fond of their new homes. They ran fearlessly into the battle, straight between the angry fighters, and begged on the one side their fathers, and on the other their husbands, not to murder one another. The men were so amazed that they stopped fighting, and after a parley they agreed to make peace and even to dwell together as one nation.

Many of the ideas and customs of Rome, which were handed down from the time of Romulus, were quite different from those of to-day. For instance, the father of a family owned his wife and children as much as he owned his sword or his house, and he could do what he liked with them. If he wished to sell them as slaves, or even to put them to death, there was no law to prevent.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


A group of families claiming to be the descendants of a common ancestor was known as a gens, or clan. The head of each gens was called a pater, the Latin word for father, and therefore the members of these early clans came to be known as patricians. They were the aristocrats of Rome. All the patricians were divided into three large groups called tribes, each tribe consisting of ten smaller groups called curiae.

Besides these patricians there were slaves and clients. The slaves were few in number and were chiefly house servants. The clients were for the most part strangers who had come to Rome, or else freedmen, that is, slaves who had become free. They depended upon some patrician to act as their patron, that is, to befriend them in whatever way a man of power and standing could aid one of lower rank. In return, they acted as humble friends to him. If they were poor, they worked on his land; if they became rich, they made him generous gifts. The patricians were not all wealthy by any means, and to make money in trade seemed to them a disgrace. Through their clients, however, they could carry on trade without humiliating themselves.

Besides patricians, slaves, and clients; there was a great multitude of people in Rome who were known as plebeians, from plebs, a Latin word meaning common folk. They were people, or the descendants of people, who had come to Rome later than the patrician families. Some were freedmen, some had fled to the city for refuge, and some had probably been conquered in war. They were not forbidden to carry on trade, but most of them worked on the land.

The patricians had many rights which the plebeians did not share. The patrician alone might marry into a patrician family, or leave his property by will to whomever he chose. No plebeian was allowed these rights. The patrician was the only voter, and he alone was allowed to hold office. Neither slaves, clients, nor plebeians were regarded as citizens. The patrician was the only citizen.

The government of Rome was carried on by the king, the senate, and the citizens. The king acted as priest, ruler, and commander; that is, he was the religious head of the Romans, he governed them in time of peace, and he led them to battle in time of war. He had a right to name his successor. The senate was composed of elderly men selected from the heads of the patrician families. It took its name from the Latin word senex, meaning an old man. No resolution could become law without its approval. The senate also acted as special adviser to the king; and if he died without naming a successor, it had power to nominate a sovereign. The citizens, that is, the patricians, took part in the government by voting in the assembly of the curiae known as the comitia curiata. Each of the thirty curiae had one vote. Laws might be proposed in this assembly either by the assembly itself or by the king, but, as has been said, they must be approved by the senate. No king, whether named by the preceding ruler or nominated by the senate, could take possession of the throne until the comitia curiata had given its consent.

These were some of the customs that are said to have flourished in early Rome. The little village grew in power and in number of inhabitants until Romulus had become an old man. When the time had drawn near for him to be taken to the gods, he called his people to a sacred festival. A terrible thunderstorm arose, and it became so dark that they could not see one another's faces. When the light had come again, the royal seat was vacant; Romulus had vanished. His people mourned for him, but after a while a man who was held in much esteem among them declared that their lost ruler had appeared to him in a vision as one of the gods. "The king bade me tell you," said the man, "that the gods decree Rome to become the capital of the world, and that if you cultivate the art of war, no human power will be able to withstand you. Then he vanished into the heavens." The Romans believed the story, and after this they worshiped Romulus as a god.

This is the legend of the founding of Rome. The Roman poets and orators were never tired of referring to it, and in the magnificent temple of Jupiter, called the Capitol, which in later days stood on the Tarpeian Rock, there was a large statue of the wolf and the twin brothers.


After the fall of Troy, Aeneas went to Italy and founded Lavinium. His son Ascanius founded Alba Longa.

Amulius stole the kingdom from his brother Numitor, and made Rhea Silvia a Vestal virgin. She became the mother of Romulus and Remus. The boys were thrown into the Tiber, but were nursed by a wolf and brought up by Faustulus. When they were grown up, they restored the kingdom to Numitor. Romulus founded Rome in 753 (?) B. C., having slain his brother in a moment of anger. He admitted as citizens all who chose to come. To obtain wives for them, he stole the women of the Sabines and others. War followed. By the disloyalty of Tarpeia, the Sabines were permitted to enter the city. The stolen women made peace between the two nations.

The people of Rome were divided into patricians, clients, slaves, and plebeians. The patrician alone had the rights of a citizen. The government was carried on by the king, the senate, and the citizens. The senate was made up of the heads of families. The assembly of patricians, or citizens, was called the comitia curiata.

After Romulus had been taken to the gods, he appeared in a vision and predicted that Rome would become the capital of the world.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • Ascanius describes his flight from Troy.
  • The story that Faustulus told Romulus and Remus. The Sabine women plan together to make peace.
  • A Roman boy describes the disappearance of Romulus.