Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Romans of the Early Republic and their Ways

Even if there were no truth in the old stories of Rome, they would, nevertheless, tell us much about the character of the Romans. People are always inclined to become like those whom they admire, and therefore the best Romans must have been like the heroes of the legends. They were, then, dignified and somewhat stern in manner, with great respect for the law and strong love of country. So long as the father lived, the son must yield to him in all private matters; but as a citizen the son was free, and if he happened to hold a higher office in the state than his father, the father must show him due honor. There is a story that a famous old general, Fabius Cunctator, had a brilliant son who was made consul. This office put him at the head of the army, and the father was, therefore, under him. The general rode up to greet his son as usual, but the son bade him dismount before he ventured to address a consul. The old general whom all Rome delighted to honor was greatly pleased and said, "My son, I wished to see whether you would remember the respect due you as consul of the Roman people."

In the earlier times, the Romans lived very simply. Their houses were at first a single room with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, and a hole in the floor to drain off the rain that leaked in through the roof. The walls were black with the smoke that did not go out. This room, the atrium, was the living-room of the home. Here the wife and her daughters spun and wove. Here was an altar with images of the ancestors of the family who were worshiped as household gods, and were supposed to protect the home. Here were a table, a bed, a hearth for the open fire, and not much besides. Up to the time when Tarentum was captured, even those who were well-to-do lived in houses that had simply added to this atrium a few rooms for sleeping, although as Rome increased in wealth and power, the houses of the rich grew more spacious and more elegant.

The food was as simple as the house. The early Romans ate peas, beans, onions, and other vegetables, and a sort of porridge made of wheat; but meat was not often used.

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


The dress of a Roman consisted chiefly of a toga. This was a long oval scarf, perhaps ten feet wide. It was folded lengthwise and draped over the left shoulder, under the right, and over the left again. One end hung down in the back, while the other was tucked into the fold or loop in front. Arranging the toga was an important matter. A man would have been laughed at from one end of the town to the other who ventured out into the streets with his toga draped over the right shoulder instead of the left. Under the toga, the Roman wore a tunic, or kind of shirt without sleeves. If the weather was cold, he put on one or two extra tunics, and perhaps a sort of mantle. Hats were not worn unless a man was traveling and the sun was uncomfortably warm. In the house the Roman wore sandals on his bare feet, but for the street he had shoes somewhat like those of to-day. The tunic and toga were made of white woolen cloth, but members of the senate were allowed to have a broad purple stripe running down the front of the tunic. Slaves wore tunics and sometimes, in cold weather, cloaks; but they were never permitted to wear the toga, for that was regarded as the special dress of the Roman citizen. The Roman boy wore a toga with a broad purple border until he was about seventeen. Then his father and a company of friends led him to the forum to enroll his name as a citizen, and after this he was permitted to wear the "manly toga," as it was called.

The Roman woman wore a tunic and vest, and over these another tunic long enough to touch the floor. This was the stola. It was kept in place by a girdle. When the Roman lady went out of doors, she put on a palla, or shawl of white woolen, draping it in much the same fashion as the toga of the men.

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


Children were sent to school, usually in the care of some trusty slave who was to see that they behaved well in the streets. It is not probable that in early times they learned much of books besides reading, writing, and a little arithmetic; but they were taught to ride, swim, and use arms, in order that they might be of value in defending the state, and they were most carefully trained to be honest and truthful, to worship the gods, to love their country, and above all things to be strictly obedient. If a child disobeyed his father, the father might sell him as a slave or even put him to death. If a man broke the law of the state, his fellow-citizens thought he had forfeited all right to live.

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


The Romans believed that the spirits of the dead lingered around their tombs. If these spirits received due honor from their descendants, they were happy and kept loving watch over the home. If they were neglected, they were miserable and became mischievous and dangerous.

The goddess of the hearth was Vesta, and the fire on the hearth was her symbol. Each family paid respect to. Vesta at their own fireside; but besides this, a public temple was built in her honor, and there six maidens watched her sacred fires that they might never be permitted to go out. The Romans worshiped Jupiter as father of the gods. The god of war was Mars; the god of property and commerce was Hercules. These four were the principal gods of the early Romans, but there were hosts of others. There was Juno, wife of Jupiter; Neptune, god of the waters; Minerva the wise; Venus the beautiful; the two-faced Janus, whose temple was open in war and closed in peace indeed, there was a god for every action. When a Roman was about to carry his corn into the barn, he offered a sacrifice to the god of carrying corn into barns and prayed that he might do it successfully

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


The worship of the Romans was practiced as a sort of barter between themselves and the gods. They believed that if they did not worship the gods, some evil would come upon them; but that if they offered up prayers and sacrifices, they would get favors. They thought that it was especially pleasing to the gods to watch athletic games; and therefore if a Roman magistrate wished to make sure of good harvests for the people, or if a military commander was in danger of defeat, he would promise the gods that if they would help him, he would celebrate games, or athletic contests, in their honor, such as wrestling and racing. When any important business was to be undertaken, the augur, who interpreted the will of the gods, was always consulted. He went to some high place, prayed, and offered up sacrifices, then seated himself with his face to the east to watch the sky. There were many fixed rules for interpreting what he might see or hear. For instance, it was a good sign if a raven croaked on the right; but if a crow appeared, it must croak on the left to bring good luck. Thunder on the left was fortunate for everything but holding the comitia. A flight of birds in one part of the sky was favorable to any proposed plan, but in another part, unfavorable. There were other omens than these appearances in the sky. To spill salt or stumble or sneeze was sure to bring bad luck unless the suppliant made some gift to the gods to ward off their displeasure.

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


In celebrating a marriage, the augur was always called upon to "take the auspices,"  that is, to watch the various omens and see whether they were favorable. This was done before sunrise, for the wedding ceremonies required a whole day. The guests came together at the house of the parents of the bride and listened eagerly while the augur reported what he had seen, and explained its meaning. Then all eyes were turned upon the bride and bridegroom, for the words of marriage were now to be spoken. The bride wore a snow-white tunic. Her hair had been parted into six locks with the point of a spear, and over it was thrown a red veil. After the words of marriage had been said, some woman friend of the bride's family led the couple to the altar. They walked around it hand in hand and offered up a cow, a pig, and a sheep. Then the guests cried, "Feliciter! Feliciter!"  that is, "Good wishes!" or "May you be happy!" and the feast began. At nightfall the bride pretended to cling to her mother, while the bridegroom tore her away and carried her to her new home. This show of force was perhaps in memory of the stealing of the Sabine women in the days of Romulus.

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


The journey to the home of the bridegroom was not a solitary one by any means, for anybody followed who chose. Torch-bearers led the procession, men played on flutes, and the people sang songs. There were always many boys in the company, for the bridegroom carried a supply of nuts to scatter among them. This was to show that he was throwing away all childish things. At the threshold the bride paused, for there the evil goddesses called the Furies were supposed to dwell. If she were to stumble, it would be a most unlucky omen; and therefore she was always lifted into the atrium. On the following day the wedding guests came together again, for now it was the turn of the bridegroom to give a feast. The household gods were not forgotten, and the bride offered a sacrifice to them to show that she was now a member of her husband's family and joined in the worship of his ancestors.

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


It is no wonder that the Romans wanted the gods to favor their enterprises, for they undertook works of great magnitude. As has been said before, they did not hesitate to set to work to drain a lake by means of a tunnel, the building of which would be no small undertaking even with modern machinery. The Cloaca Maxima, the great sewer built by Tarquinius Priscus, is twenty-five centuries old and still does its work. They built channels under ground and mighty aqueducts on lofty arches above ground to bring fresh water into the city. In the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, they built the Circus Maximus,—a race-course in a valley, with seats rising in tiers on the slopes of the hills. This was large enough to hold many thousand spectators. The Romans were also famous builders of roads. If a city came under their rule, they immediately built a direct road to it. The most famous of the Roman roads is the one leading from Rome to Capua. It is called the Via Appia, or Appian Way, because it was built while Appius Claudius Crocus was censor. The roadway was first covered with broken stone and cement; then upon this were laid exceedingly large blocks of hard rock, cut so smooth and square that the pavement seems almost as if made in one piece.

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


The one aim of the Romans was to make Rome powerful; and the chief object of these roads was to enable them to march bodies of soldiers, to any given place without delay. Therefore they did not trouble themselves to search out easy grades for their roads; they made them as straight as possible. If a valley was in the way, they built lofty viaducts across it. If a mountain stood before them, they dug a tunnel through it. If it had not been for these roads, the Romans could never have held Italy under their rule; but every conquered city knew that at the suspicion of a revolt, the terrible Roman troops would come down upon them, and that the punishments of Rome were swift and severe.

Another method by which Rome kept her conquests was by a much pleasanter means than fighting or threatening, that is, by founding colonies. When Rome overcame a district, part of the land was always given to Roman citizens who would go there to found colonies. These colonies were not mere military camps; they were founded by men who had come to live quietly on their farms. They governed the colonies as Rome was governed, and they practiced the manners and customs of Rome. The result was that the conquered people soon learned to talk Latin and to understand Roman ways of living and thinking and ruling. Just as far as possible the Romans made it difficult for these conquered towns to have much to do with one another, but easy to have dealings with Rome. As their people came to know more of Rome, they could hardly help learning to admire her and wishing to become citizens. So it was that Rome held fast whatever country came into her hands. It is wonderful that a tiny settlement surrounded by enemies should have been able to grow into a state strong enough to overcome all these enemies. It is still more wonderful that having overcome them, she should have succeeded in making them not only obedient to her rule, but proud of being governed by a city that they had come to look upon with respect and admiration.


The old stories of Rome give a good idea of the character of the people. The houses and the food were simple. The toga was the chief article of the man's dress, the stola of the woman's. Children were taught to know a little of books, to use their bodies well, to worship the gods, to love their country, and to be obedient.

The Romans had many gods. Their worship was a sort of barter between themselves and the gods. The augur was the interpreter of the will of the gods and of the significance of omens. The wedding ceremonies required a full day.

The Romans were famous builders. The chief object of their roads was to enable them to march bodies of troops rapidly. Rome kept her conquests by force and by founding colonies.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • Fabius Cunctator tells the story of saluting his son.
  • A Roman school-boy tells what he likes best to do.
  • A Roman describes the omens seen by an augur.
  • A description of a wedding procession.