Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

How Rome Became Ruler of Italy

While the plebeians were struggling for their share in the government of the city, and the patricians were doing their best to keep it out of their hands, there was some danger that no city would be left for either of them to govern. They held Rome and a little land around it; but the Latins and the Hernicans were their only allies, and all the other tribes of Italy were their enemies. No one would have expected the little settlement on the Tiber to become strong enough to rule Italy, but that is just what was coming to pass.

It took a long while to bring this about and a great deal of fighting; though this fighting was not always what we should call war in these days. Their enemies, especially the Aequians and the Volscians, were so near that whenever they had a good chance, they made sudden raids upon the Roman lands, did all the damage they could, and then hurried home. The Romans did the same thing in return. Sometimes there were real battles, and a city was taken by one party or the other.

Not much is known of these wars except that the Romans were finally victorious; but there are two or three fine old stories about them that ought not to be forgotten. One is the story of a valiant soldier named Caius Marcius. The Romans were besieging Corioli, a town held by the Volscians, when the Volscians suddenly threw open the gates and dashed out upon them.

The young Caius Marcius and his followers repelled their attack, rushed in through the open gates, caught up firebrands, and set fire to the houses nearest the wall. Then the Volscian women and children wailed, and the men cried out in terror, for they were in the hands of their enemies. In memory of this exploit, the Romans gave the young hero the name of Coriolanus, and after this he was known as Caius Marcius Coriolanus.

A little later there was a famine in Rome. Corn was brought from Sicily, and the senators were discussing at what price it should be sold to the plebeians. Coriolanus had from the first been indignant that the plebeians should be gaining power in the state, and he said, "If the plebeians want corn at the old rates, let them give up their tribunes and restore to the senators their own proper rights." The plebeians learned of this speech, and they were so angry that Coriolanus had to flee to the Volscians. He offered to lead them against Rome. They were delighted to have so famous a leader, and he set out with a large army. He took one Roman town after another, and pitched his camp only a few miles from Rome. Then the Romans were in great alarm. They sent some of the senators, old friends of Coriolanus, to ask him to make peace; but he refused. Then the priests went to him, wearing their robes of office and bearing the images of the gods; but he still refused. Suddenly a friend told him that a great company of noble ladies was approaching the camp. "And unless my eyes deceive me," said the friend, "your mother and wife and children are at their head." Coriolanus sprang from his seat. Before him stood his mother, with his wife on one side, and his children on the other. He would have thrown his arms about his mother's neck, but she drew back. "First let me know," she said sternly, "whether I am coming to my son or to an enemy. Is it possible that you can lay waste this land which gave you birth and has cared for you? Look at your wife and children, and think that if you persist, they must either die or become slaves." The whole company of women moaned and lamented and begged him to spare the city. His children and his wife kissed him and embraced him and begged for mercy. At last Coriolanus yielded. He turned to his mother and said sadly, "Mother, this is a happy victory for you and for Rome, but it is shame and ruin for your son." He withdrew his troops and returned to the Volscians. Some say that in their anger they put him to death, and some say that he remained an exile among them as long as he lived.

From the wars with the Aquians comes the story of Lucius Quinctius, called Cincinnatus, or the curly-haired. He was a patrician, but he was poor, and he and his wife lived contentedly on their little farm just beyond the Tiber. One warm day he had thrown off his toga, and, wearing only his tunic, was busily ploughing when some men from Rome came into the field. They greeted one another in friendly fashion. Then the men spoke to him formally. "Listen to the commands of the senate," they said, "for we are its ambassadors." Cincinnatus wiped off the dust and sweat, his wife brought his toga, and when he had put it on, the ambassadors saluted him with reverence as dictator. A vessel was moored at the river bank, waiting to carry him across to the city. On the opposite shore stood his three sons, his relatives, and friends, and nearly all the patricians of Rome. They were in grievous trouble, for the "Aequians had shut up the consul and his troops in a narrow valley, and no one could form any plan for rescuing them. The Romans believed that Cincinnatus was the one man who would know what to do, and therefore they had made him dictator. Cincinnatus knew how to think fast, and before night he had decided upon a plan. He ordered every man in Rome to come to the Campus Martius, with his weapons, food for five days, and twelve long, sharp stakes. At sunset they set out on a rapid march and reached the enemy at midnight. Cincinnatus arranged his men in a line around the camp. "When the signal is given," he said, "let each man dig a trench in front of him and also drive down his stakes." In the morning the "Aequians found that they were shut in by a ditch, a palisade, and a line of valiant soldiers, and they were forced to surrender. The dictator set up two spears in the ground and tied a third spear across their tops. This was called a yoke, and under it the whole Aequian army was made to march to show that they had become subject to the Roman people. The consul and his men saluted Cincinnatus and voted him a golden crown of a pound's weight. Then they set off for the city. First came the Aequian leaders, led as captives; then the military standards, and Cincinnatus in his chariot. Behind him marched the army with the spoils of the enemy. There was great rejoicing in Rome. Before every house along the way was a table spread with food; and as the soldiers marched through the city, they feasted and sang songs of victory. Honors were showered upon Cincinnatus; but just as soon as he was free, he laid down the dictatorship and went back quietly to his little farm across the Tiber.

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


From the wars with the Etruscans comes another good story, that of Camillus. These Etruscans were an interesting nation. They built strong walls and dikes and some temples. They owned many ships and traded with the peoples who lived about the Mediterranean Sea. They made statues and paintings and jewelry. They were rich and powerful; but their power was growing less, for they had been beaten at sea by the Greeks and attacked on land by the Gauls.

These Gauls had come into Italy from what is now France, and had taken possession of the country to the north of the Etruscans. Now was the chance for the Romans. The patricians were eager to make war upon the Etruscans, for this was not long after Spurius Cassius had proposed the Agrarian Law, which has been mentioned before, and they were afraid the plebeians would insist upon its being carried out. If they were making war, they would have no time to think about land laws; therefore the Romans laid siege to Veii, one of the twelve Etruscan cities. They knew how to fight in the field, but they were not wise in conducting sieges, and year after year passed without the capture of the city. Men had to be kept in service the year round, and for the first time wages were given to Roman soldiers. Toward the end of one summer, so the legend runs, the waters of the Alban Lake suddenly began to rise, though no rain had fallen. The Romans were alarmed, for they feared this was a sign that the gods were angry with them. They prayed and they offered sacrifices, but the waters continued to rise. Finally some one heard that a soothsayer of Veii had laughed at the labors of the Romans, and declared it to be decreed by the Fates that Veii should not fall until the Alban Lake was drained. The Romans sent to the Greek oracle at Delphi to ask the god Apollo if this was true, and there they received the same answer. "Let the water out," commanded the oracle, "but not to flow into the sea. Rather make courses for it in your fields until it is spent." Then the Romans bored through the side of the hill and let the water out. They cut through hard rock for three miles and made a tunnel about three feet wide and five feet high. Through this the water flowed, then into courses in the fields until it had been spent. The Romans pressed in through this tunnel, and Veii was taken.

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


Camillus took one town after another in Etruria, the country of the Etruscans, until at length he stood before Falerii. There was every reason to fear that this city would be as hard to capture as Veii had been, for it was built high upon an eminence between two great ravines. One day, however, a man appeared at the tent of Camillus with a little band of school boys. "These boys are the sons of the chief men of Falerii," he said, "and I am their tutor. I deliver them up to you, and with them in your power, you can easily force their fathers to surrender." The treacherous man expected to receive a great reward; but Camillus replied indignantly, "We do not make ward with boys. When I win, I win by bravery, labor, and arms." Then he stripped the wicked tutor, tied his hands behind his back, and giving the boys rods, told them to drive him back to the town.

On learning of this, the Falerians declared that they were willing to surrender to so just and honorable a commander. So it was that Falerii fell: into the hands of the Romans. The senate paid special honors to Camillus, because he had taken the city of the Etruscans less by warfare than by justice and good faith. Other cities of Etruria were taken by the Romans, and finally they made a peace of twenty years with the Etruscans.

When the people of Veii had seen that their city was about to fall, they had sent messengers to Rome to ask for peace. The senate had refused. Then one of the messengers had said, "In the Book of the Fates it is written that our city shall fall; but it is also written that if Veii falls, Rome, too, shall be destroyed." The senators had paid no attention to this prophecy, but they were soon to remember it; for Rome was about to fall. The fierce and barbarous Gauls, as has been said, were coming down upon Etruria from the north. The Romans became the allies of the Etruscans; but they did not prove to be especially valuable allies, for when they reached the river Allia, a sudden fright seized upon them and they ran away so fast as to get into one another's way. Some of them lost their heads so completely that they ran to some hostile town rather than toward Rome. This defeat at the river Allia in 390 B. C. was the worst that the Romans had ever known.

The Gauls pushed on to Rome. So few Roman soldiers remained that there was not a hope of saving the city. Most of the people fled; but a few of the strongest young men and senators and their families shut themselves up in the citadel, to hold that if possible, and carry on the Roman name. The old men would not go with them to use up the scanty food. They put on their richest robes, and those who had held office arrayed themselves in the handsome garments worn by victors riding in triumph, and seated themselves in the Senate Chamber on their ivory chairs. The enemy pressed into the forum, and there they saw these silent, dignified old men, as calm and motionless as statues. The Gauls stood gazing half in reverence and half in fear. Then one of them stroked the long white beard of a senator, and the old Roman struck him with his ivory sceptre. At this the Gauls struck blow after blow. They killed every one that could be found, plundered the houses and set them afire.

But the brave young warriors held the citadel, and seven months later, they still held it, for it stood on a steep rock and the Gauls had not found the way to it. At length they discovered the path, and one dark night they climbed up in single file so quietly that the foremost man succeeded in reaching the top without being heard by the sentinels. The Romans, however, had watchmen with keener ears than the sentinels, for a flock of geese had been spared by the hungry people because they were sacred to Juno, and they now set up a cackling. Marcus Manlius, the commander, sprang from his bed, snatched up his arms, and struck with his shield the foremost Gaul. The Gaul fell headlong, carrying others with him. The Romans hurled down stones and javelins. The Gauls who were not killed fled, and the Capitol was saved.

Soon the Gauls heard that enemies were invading their own country, and they offered to leave Rome if the Romans would give them one thousand pounds of gold. The Romans were obliged to agree, and even when they saw that the weights of the scales were false, they could only complain.

Brennus, leader of the Gauls, threw his sword into the scales beside the weights and cried insolently, "Woe to the vanquished!" But unexpected help was coming to the vanquished. After the fall of Veii, the enemies of Camillus had caused him to be accused of taking for himself some of the treasures of the place, and he had indignantly left Rome. Now in their time of distress, the Romans who had fled from their city begged him to become their commander and lead them back against the Gauls. "If such is the wish of my countrymen in the Capitol," he replied. The men shun up in the Capitol were glad enough not only to ask him to return, but to elect him dictator. This was how it came about that just when Brennus was saying, "Woe to the vanquished!" Camillus appeared with his force and cried, "Rome is not ransomed with gold, but with steel!" The Gauls were so taken by surprise that they were easily routed.

The Gauls had been driven away, but the houses of the Romans were only heaps of ruins and cinders. It is small wonder that they were dismayed. "Let us go to Veii," they cried, "and make that our home." According to the custom of victors, they had either slain the people of Veii or sold them as slaves, and the vacant city stood ready for them. Camillus, however, finally persuaded them not to desert their homes and the places sacred to the rites of the gods, and they set to work to rebuild the city. The poor plebeians were obliged to borrow money, and soon many of them were in great distress. The good Marcus Manlius helped them in every way that he could. He sold his property and paid the debts of many poor people. It was whispered that he was trying to win the favor of the crowd that he might be made king, and he was put to death. The Gauls came again more than once, but they were finally so harassed by one Lucius Furius Camillus, a nephew of the first Camillus, that they fled, and Rome was free from them. The houses and temples were rebuilt; but there was one loss which nothing could make up, and that was of the old records kept by the priests of what had taken place in the city from year to year. These were burned with the temples, and that is why we have only legends for the history of the early days of Rome.

Rome had now fought with the Aequians, Volscians, Etruscans, and Gauls; but lying to the southeast was the land of the Samnites, and between them and the Romans, war arose. The Samnites were a bold, hardy race of mountaineers. They attacked Capua, one of the cities founded by the Greeks in Italy; and Capua begged Rome to come to her aid. This war was bitter while it lasted, for the Samnites were almost as strong as the Romans. Rome was glad when peace was made, for she was now having trouble, not with her enemies, but with her old allies, the Latins. They were willing and glad to be friends with Rome, but they did not wish to be under her command. "We are as strong as you," they said, "and where there is equal strength, should there not be an equal share in the government? Let half of the senate and one of the consuls be Latins, and we are ready to call ourselves Romans and take Rome for our fatherland."

The proud Roman senators were angry and scornful. "If a Latin should be permitted to enter our senate," one of them cried, "I would come with my sword and strike him down with my own hand." War followed. The greatest battle was fought near Mt. Vesuvius. There is a legend that on the night before the battle each consul dreamed that the side would win whose general should of his own will give his life for his country. Both consuls were eager to sacrifice themselves; but they agreed that the one whose troops first began to give way should be the victim. The troops of Decius Mus were the first to fall back. Then Decius cast his spear upon the ground and, standing upon it, cried aloud, "Ye gods, I beg that you will grant victory to the Roman people; and as a sacrifice I now give myself up to death." He mounted his horse and dashed into the midst of the enemy and was slain.

The other consul, Titus Manlius, made an even greater sacrifice for his country. The two armies were so nearly matched that the Romans needed to take every care. Orders were given that there should be no single combats; but one of the Latins called to the son of Manlius: "Come forth, come forth, and I will show you how much better a Latin can fight than a Roman." The young man forgot his father's commands, galloped forth, and slew his enemy. He and his troop hastened to tell the consul of the victory. But the consul ordered the trumpet to be blown to call the assembly together, and told them of his son's disobedience. "I must forget either the state or myself," he said sadly. Then he ordered his son to be bound to a stake and beheaded. It was by such stern patriotism as this that Rome won her victories.

The Latins were obliged to yield, and they waited anxiously to see how Rome would treat them. Rome was exceedingly wise. She made a separate treaty with every city; she allowed them to trade with her, but not with one another; and she promised each city that if its people proved faithful to her, they should some day be counted as Roman citizens.

It was not long, however, before Rome, too, had to meet defeat. The Samnites attacked a town friendly to her. The Roman troops hurried to the rescue, but on the way they were caught by the enemy in a narrow valley called the Caudine Forks and were all taken prisoners. The father of Gavius Pontius, the Samnite general, was a feeble old man, but of great wisdom; and Pontius sent a wagon to bring him to the camp to advise what to do with the captives. "There is no middle course," said the old man. "You must either let them go free, and so win the friendship of the Romans; or else you must slay every man of them, and so weaken the Roman state that it cannot harm you." Unfortunately for himself, Pontius did not follow his father's advice, but thought he had discovered a "middle course." He made the Roman consuls agree to a disgraceful peace, took away all arms from the troops, and sent the whole army under the yoke.

When the Romans heard of this, they put on mourning, closed their shops, and postponed their festivals. "Such a treaty must never be kept," they declared. "No consuls had any right to make it." "Either keep it or else put your troops back into the valley," retorted the Samnites. "Their weapons shall be given back, and we will see how the matter will end." The Romans refused, and so the war went on. Before long Pontius found that the advice of his father had been wise; for the Romans won a decisive victory, captured Pontius, and put him to death. At length the Samnites had to yield.

The peace with the Samnites did not last long, for the Romans were becoming so strong that the Gauls and Etruscans gladly united with the Samnites to try to conquer them. At Sentinum the Romans in 295 B. C. won a decisive victory, although it was five years longer before the resolute Samnites sued for peace.

It was now plain that Rome was to be mistress of Italy. Even the wealthy Greek towns in the south were under her rule except Tarentum, and with that she had a treaty. One of the terms of this treaty was that no Roman vessel should enter the harbor of Tarentum. One summer noon the people of the place were sitting in their theatre. The seats ran up the hillside and gave a view of the bay. Suddenly the whole audience left their places and hurried to the shore, for they had caught sight of ten Roman vessels sailing toward their city. The Tarentines had an excellent navy and were good sailors. They sailed out to meet the Romans, and it was not long before they had sunk four Roman ships and taken many captives. When envoys were sent from Rome to demand an explanation, the Tarentines insulted them and laughed at the mistakes they made in trying to talk Greek. War followed. The Tarentines persuaded Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, to come to their aid. Fortunately for him, he brought twenty elephants with him. Neither the Romans nor their horses were accustomed to elephants, and Pyrrhus won the battle of Heraclea in 280 B. C. Nevertheless, the Romans fought so bravely and Pyrrhus lost so many men, that he declared a few more such victories would ruin him. He sent to the Romans his most eloquent ambassador to discuss making peace. The Romans would have yielded to his request had it not been for one Appius Claudius Caecus, a man who had formerly been consul and also censor.

He was now old and blind; but notwithstanding this, he entered the senate and in a burning speech begged the senators never to make peace so long as Pyrrhus was in Italy. The envoy of Pyrrhus returned to his master. "The Roman senate is an assembly of kings," he declared. Still, Pyrrhus did not give up at once. He spent two years in Sicily, helping the Greek colonies of the island against the Carthaginians of northern Africa; then he met the Romans at Beneventum in 275 B. C., and was so completely overcome that he had to return to Epirus. Tarentum yielded, and soon the other Greek cities fell into the hands of the Romans. An Italian "city "meant not only the town itself within the walls, but also the district surrounding the town, so that in conquering the Italian cities Rome had conquered the whole country. From the "toe" of Italy to the tiny rivers Rubicon and Macra, the whole land was in the power of the Romans.


From the wars with the Volscians comes the story of Coriolanus, who spared Rome at his own peril. In the wars with the Aequians, Cincinnatus was called from the plough to save the state. During the long siege of Veii, wages were paid to the Roman soldiers for the first time The Romans drained the Alban Lake, entered Veii through the tunnel, and captured the city.

Camillus punished the treacherous schoolmaster, and the Falerians surrendered.

The Romans went to the aid of the Etruscans against the Gauls, but were defeated at the river Allia. The Gauls entered Rome, but the warning of the geese saved the citadel. Camillus, who had been exiled, returned and ransomed Rome "with steel." Rome was rebuilt.

The Romans fought with the Samnites and the Latins. The battle of Mt. Vesuvius is noted for the sacrifice of Decius Mus. Manlius punished his son's disobedience with death. Rome conquered the Latins and made a treaty with each city separately. At the Caudine Forks, the Romans were sent under the yoke; but soon avenged themselves by a victory.

The Gauls, Etruscans, and Samnites united to conquer the Romans; but the Roman victory at Sentinum, in 295 B. C., made it clear that Rome was to be mistress of Italy.

Contrary to their treaty, the Romans entered the harbor of Tarentum. War ensued. The Tarentines, aided by Pyrrhus and his elephants, won the battle of Heraclea, in 280 B. C., but with such losses that Pyrrhus wished to make peace. The Romans refused, and Pyrrhus was driven back to Epirus. From the "toe" of Italy to the Rubicon and the Macra, the whole land was in the power of the Romans.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • The wife of Cincinnatus describes the visit of the ambassadors to her husband.
  • One of the schoolboys of Falerii tells the story of Camillus and the treacherous schoolmaster.
  • A Gaul tells his friends of the coming of Camillus to ransom Rome.
  • A Roman soldier describes his first sight of the elephants of Pyrrhus.