L ET us imagine ourselves in Rome on the fifteenth day of July, two thousand years ago. It is a public holiday, and as all the Roman equites are out on horseback, we may see many of the finest war-horses that the world could at that time produce. A brilliant company of riders, starting from the temple of Mars outside the ancient walls, wind their way through the main streets of the city, and finally, crossing the Forum to its southeastern corner, draw rein in front of the stately building dedicated to the memory of Castor and Pollux.
The entire course over which they pass is decked with gay banners, flowers are strewn in their way, and they are greeted at every turn with loud shouts of joy and approval. You notice that these knights are not clad in armor, but in flowing robes of purple, and their brows are encircled with wreaths of olive. Garlands of flowers also hang about the necks of their horses and from the reins and saddle-bows; and companies of Roman maidens march in front of them, singing songs of the deeds of the dauntless heroes who lived in the brave days of old. When they reach the end of their route, the noblest men of Rome, the patricians, senators, and consuls, welcome them from the steps of the temple, and the entire Forum echoes with the shouts of the people.
There are also ceremonies, perhaps sacrifices, being performed within the temple, but we do not care to inquire about them—we only want to know what is the meaning of this holiday. There are multitudes of fine horses on exhibition, but this is clearly no horse show. The flower of the Roman cavalry is in the procession, but it is plainly no grand review of troops. The—
But let us ask the old veteran who sits sunning himself in the portico of the temple of Saturn across the way.
He is astonished that we should make such an inquiry, and he looks upon us with suspicion. But he is a garrulous sort of fellow, and is glad of any chance to use his tongue, and so he answers us civilly.
"You must be strangers in Rome," he says, "or you would know that on this day every year—the ides of Quintilis, we call it—the equites hold a festival in honor of the Great Twin Brethren, the patrons of their order. Two hundred times or more have we thus celebrated the anniversary of the victory which they won for the Roman people in the hard-fought battle of Lake Regillus."
We ask him to tell us all about the Twins, and his astonishment at our ignorance is greater than before. Nevertheless, as we sit beside him on the floor of the portico, he kindly relates this story:
It happened a very long time ago, only twelve years after the Roman republic had been founded. The last of the kings, old Tarquin the Proud, was still living—an exile among our enemies, the Latins—and he was all the time plotting to get back. Thirty cities had finally united and raised a great army in order to force our people to restore him to the throne. It was, indeed, a trying time, and the fate, not only of Rome, but of the world hung upon the issue. Thirty against one was great odds, so far as numbers were concerned—but what are thirty jays against a royal eagle?
The dictator, Aulus Postumius Albinus, hastened to go out and give battle to the enemy on their own ground. Every able-bodied man in Rome was with him—some fully armed, but many with only such weapons as they could snatch up from among their working tools—scythes, axes, pitchforks, flails, and the like. Nobody was left to defend the walls except the small boys and the decrepit old men, under the command of a noble ancestor of mine named Sempronius Atratinus. They might almost as well have been left without defenders, but then, of course, nobody intended that the enemy should ever come so near to the city.
All this space in front of us, on the right of the great roadway which we call the Via Sacra, was at that time open ground. It was used as a pasture for the cows and the geese, and the children from the hills on either side often went out there to play. Over there, where now stands the temple of Castor and Pollux, was a gushing spring of clear, cold water, surrounded by a pond where the cattle came in the heat of the day, and the barelegged boys fished for minnows and sailed their tiny boats.
Well, two days had passed since the Roman army had marched out to meet their foes, and no word had come back to the city. Sempronius was becoming very anxious. Since early in the morning he had been in the watch-tower straining his eyes eastward. Far away toward the Apennines he fancied he saw the dust of battle rising in faint, misty clouds above the hills, but he could make sure of nothing. He would have sent out a messenger to learn how the day was going with our people, but there was not a horse left within the walls, and who among the feeble folk that were with him could undertake so difficult an errand? On either side of him, on the wall and above the gate, were the old men who had been left behind, together with many of the Roman matrons and maidens, all eager to know the issue of the day, and all listening if they might be the first to hear the sound of horse-hoofs galloping from the field of fight.
Meanwhile some children playing around the pond were astonished, on lifting their eyes, to see two monstrous white horses drinking from the spring, and on their backs were two men clad in snow-white armor that glistened strangely in the sunlight. There were splotches of blood all over the horses, and the white armor was stained in many places with mud and red gore.
With shrieks of fright the children fled across the fields, and the news of what they had seen was soon carried to the watchers above the gate. Scarcely believing their story, Sempronius, followed by a wondering company of women and boys, hastened down to see for himself. There, indeed, were the snow-white steeds standing by the spring, and there were the two riders who, having dismounted, were washing them in the clear water.
So like were the two horses that no man living could tell one from the other. So like were the two warriors in face and form and movement that no point of difference between them could ever be discovered.
"What news bring you from the battle?" cried Sempronius, awed and afraid to ask them their names.
"Long live the City of the Seven Hills!" they answered. "To-morrow the spoils of thirty cities will enrich her shrines!"
Then they slowly mounted their steeds and rode a little way onward until they came to the door of Vesta's temple. There a whirlwind seemed suddenly to arise, a cloud of dust filled the air, and the white horses and their white riders were hidden from sight, and no man ever saw them again.
The next day, Aulus, the dictator, at the head of his army, returned to Rome, bringing with him, as the strangers had foretold, the spoils of thirty cities. But when the people would have lauded him for his victory he would not permit it.
"It is not to me that the honor is due," he said, "but to two white strangers who brought us timely aid and joined most valiantly in the fray. For, indeed, the day was going hard against us and the Latins were crowding upon us on every side, when, looking up, I was surprised to see two strange warriors of princely mien riding beside me. Never in my life saw I twins so much alike. Their armor was white as snow, as were also the two war-horses which they bestrode; and their appearance was such that not all the hosts of our enemies could have thrown so great a spell of fear upon me. But I saw at once that they were our friends, for, couching their spears and laying on about them, they rode into the ranks of the foe, and all the thirty armies were filled with dread. Then our foemen wavered; they fell back; they were routed; and, following in the lead of the two white strangers, our men pursued them right and left, and paused not until the victory was assured. But when we looked around for the princely pair that had led us so valiantly, they were nowhere to be found; they had vanished as suddenly as they had come among us. It is to them that all honor is due for saving Rome, and did I but know their names they should not want for a fitting monument."
Then Sergius, the pontiff, rose and spoke:
"Romans," said he, "the gods have been with us, and it is they who have saved our city and our homes. These white strangers are the great twin brethren, Castor and Pollux, and the white horses which they rode are the immortal steeds Cyllarus and Harpagus; and we shall be wanting in gratitude if we fail to give them due honor."
Thereupon the dictator, Aulus Postumius Albinus, vowed to build a temple to the Great Twin Brethren, on that spot where they paused to wash their steeds—and there, as you see, it stands today. And every year, on the ides of Quintilis, the Roman equites, mounted on their best horses, ride in procession through the streets to the door of the temple, and all the people delight in honoring the memory of Castor and Pollux and their two gallant steeds, Cyllarus and Harpagus.