"H ORROR! Two snakes on the bed!" shouted a Roman gentleman; and he was about to slay the reptiles.
"Stay, sir!" cried a slave. "Had you not better ask a soothsayer to tell the meaning of the strange sign?"
A soothsayer was fetched. He looked at the wriggling creatures, and, pointing to one and then the other, said:
"If you kill this one, you will soon die. If you kill that one, your wife will die."
The Roman reflected a moment. Then he killed the first one, and the second escaped. And soon afterward (so says the old legend) he died. He loved his wife Cordelia more than he loved his own life.
The good Roman's name was Gracchus (Grakkus), and his two sons were called the Gracchi. One was Tiberius (Ty-beer-ius), born in 168 or 163 B.C., killed 133 B.C., and the other Caius (Ky-us), born about 154 B.C., killed 121 B.C. They died some twenty or thirty years before Julius Cæsar was born. I will tell you a little about each.
He was elected tribune, or the people's man. Any one of the tribunes could stand up in the senate when a law was about to be passed, and cry "Veto!"—"I say no!"—and the law had to drop. Tiberius was a friend of the poorer Romans—the plebs, or commons. In early times, when land was taken from the foes of the republic, a good deal of it was divided among the people. And none might hold more than two hundred and sixty acres. On such an estate a Roman could live a healthy country life, and the yeomen, or small land-owners, who tilled these farms were stout and honest citizens, who loved the land which they made fruitful. But, little by little, the richer people (patricians) got the land into their own hands, and had it tilled by their slaves; and thus the hard-working freemen were becoming poor and unhappy.
In the forum, or meeting-place, at Rome there was a platform of stone raised eleven feet above the floor of the hall. Along the front of this platform (or rostra) were two rows of bronze beaks of ships captured from enemies in sea-fights. Tiberius would mount the rostra, and look down upon a crowd of the citizens, and say:
"The wild beasts of Italy have caves to crouch in, but the brave men who shed their blood for the fatherland have nothing left them but the air they breathe and the light of heaven. They have no houses, no settled homes; they wander to and fro with their wives and children. When a battle is about to begin, the generals bid their soldiers fight for the hearths which the household gods watch over; but, alas! these men have no hearths. The Romans make war to gain riches for the rich, and yet have no plots of land which they can call their own."
The people in the forum and in the poorer streets listened to such words with great joy.
The wealthy folk frowned, and murmured to one another that Tiberius must be hindered from stirring up the commons. They had secret talks with a tribune named Octavius. He promised to say "Veto" to any law that gave land to the plebs—the masses of the people. And so nothing could be done. Tiberius would step to the platform behind the ships' beaks, and speak of the happy days that would dawn when the plebs were land-owners. But Octavius was always there, ready to say "Veto."
The people were filled with wrath.
"No longer shall you be the people's man!" they shouted.
Octavius was thrust out of the office of tribune; the law for giving allotments of land to the commons was passed.
When Tiberius Gracchus had acted as tribune for one year he wished to be people's man again, though this was against the Roman rule. The rich patricians resolved that he should not again take office. His life was in danger. The night before the Election Day a crowd of his friends set up tents in front of his house to guard it against attack.
In the morning vast crowds of electors covered the slopes of the Capitol hill. They cheered wildly as Tiberius came in sight. But a band of his opponents forced their way toward him. Clubs and bludgeons were raised in deadly warfare. Men pushed hither and thither. Some hundreds of Romans were done to death. Tiberius was felled by a blow with a stool. A second blow crushed out his life. His body was flung into the river, and the people, cowed and beaten, mourned for their dead leader.
Now Caius, the younger brother of the brave Roman of whose death I have told you, was of a hotter blood than Tiberius. Indeed, he himself knew his temper was violent and his words oftentimes too strong. So he bade a slave carry a small ivory pipe, which, when blown, gave out a sweet and low note. Perhaps Caius was talking in a loud key.
"I tell you, gentlemen, that, as sure as I stand here—"
Then a gentle "Hoo-oo" would be heard from the ivory pipe, and Caius would drop into a lower tone!
Perhaps some of you girls and boys might talk more nicely if you heard the ivory pipe now and then!
After the death of his brother Caius lived for a while in a quiet manner, wishing to keep clear of brawls and tumults. But (so the old story goes) the ghost of Tiberius rose up before him in a dream, saying:
"Why do you loiter, Caius? There is but one way to take. Both you and I are fated to go that road. We must die the same death. Both of us have to suffer for the people's sake."
And so it came to pass that he took the side of the plebs, and they gave their votes that he should be a tribune, and for a time he had much power.
The plebs loved him. Once, when a show of gladiators was to be held in a public place in Rome, certain persons were allowed by the magistrates to put up stands round about, in order that seats might be let for hire. Thus the common people who could not afford to pay for admission would be shut out from the exciting scene of the gladiators in combat. Perhaps you will say that it was not right to set men fighting each other in that way. Yes, that is true; but the Romans had different ideas from ours. And if people were to see the show at all, it was not fair to permit only the folks with money to witness it.
Well, in the night the tribune, Caius Gracchus, led a band of workmen to the place, and bade them break down the stands. Next day the plebs found a clear space for them, and they enjoyed the spectacle of the gladiators, and praised the tribune.
You know that the Roman tribes were only part of the people of Italy. The Romans were freemen and citizens. The
rest of the Italians had no vote in the ruling of the republic. As we say
A piece of land was chosen at Carthage, on the African coast, for a number of poor Romans to emigrate to; and Caius went to this spot to help arrange the new colony.
His enemies said he did his work badly, and he was summoned to a meeting on the Capitol hill to defend himself. Men's hearts foreboded an evil time. The night before the trial the friends of Caius guarded his door. In the morning his wife knelt, and held her son by one hand, her husband by the other, and begged Caius not to go to death. But he went forth like a brave man.
Angry tempers and angry words led to blows, and soon a dreadful massacre began. Caius was left with but three persons—one was his slave, the others were two faithful friends. The little party retreated to a narrow wooden bridge. The two friends defended the passage, and were cut down. Caius and his loyal slave died together in the Temple of the Furies, in the grove of trees just beyond the bridge.
The mother of the two noble brothers lived for some years afterward in peace in a country villa, much revered by all who knew her. A statue of her was set up, and on its base were carved the Latin words: "Cornelia Mater Grac-chor-um"—that is, Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi.