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Mary Macgregor

The Curtian Lake

The pestilence, to which Camillus fell a prey, did not cease until 361 b.c.

During the second year, the superstitious folk, of whom there were many, were startled by strange omens.

The Tiber overflowed its banks. This was perhaps not so unusual as to alarm the citizens of Rome, but when the waters streamed into the Circus it was certainly strange. For at that very time games were being held there, in the hope of propitiating the gods, so that the pestilence might be stayed.

But the flood speedily put an end to the games, and the people wondered if this was the answer of the gods.

The flood was alarming, but still more so was an earthquake that took place before the people had forgotten their fears. It is supposed that the earthquake gave rise to the well-known legend of the Curtian Lake.

For it was after the shock that a gulf wide and deep yawned in the Forum. The Romans believed that the gods who had sent the pestilence had now opened this terrible abyss in their market-place.

In vain the terrified people tried to fill up the gulf. However much they threw into it, there it was, deep, dark, mysterious as before.

Then the Romans went to their priests and begged them to learn from the gods how the gulf might be closed.

The answer, when it came, seemed almost as perplexing as had been the problem. "Never will the awful chasm disappear until into it has been thrown the best and truest strength of Rome."

What was the true strength of the city? With grave faces and anxious hearts the people pondered the answer of the gods.

Suddenly the truth flashed into the mind of a noble youth named Curtius, who was known among his fellows as a brave and gallant soldier.

"The true strength of Rome," said Curtius, "can lie in naught save in the arms and in the valour of her children. To think otherwise would shame us all."

So, believing that he had discovered the will of the gods, the noble youth donned his armour, mounted his steed, and plunged headlong into the abyss.

A great crowd had gathered in the Forum to see what Curtius meant to do. For a moment the people stood in silence, awed by the fate of the young Roman, and full of admiration for his deed.

Then, rousing themselves, they took offerings of gold and precious ornaments and flung them after the bold rider and his horse, and as they did so, slowly the gulf closed. And since that day the place where once the chasm yawned has been called the Curtian Lake.

Before the plague was subdued, in 361 b.c. , the Gauls once more invaded Roman lands, and a terrible battle was again fought, near the river Anio.

Titus Manlius engaged in single combat with one of the barbarians, who was strong and tall as a giant. Yet so bravely did the Roman fight that the giant was slain. Then Manlius took from the neck of his foe a gold collar. As the Latin word for necklet is "torques," Manlius and his descendants were ever after called Torquati.

When the Gauls saw that their champion was slain, they retreated; yet for a year and a half they continued to harass the Romans. But in 358 b.c. they were defeated so severely that those who were left after the battle were glad to escape from the neighbourhood of Rome.

Ten years later, however, the Gauls were once again laying waste the plains and coasts of Latium.

Furius Camillus, son of the great Camillus, was Consul, and as his colleague had died, he alone was responsible for the safety of the State.

He, like his father, was a brave soldier, and his army soon scattered the Gauls.

During the battle, as Valerius fought in single combat with one of the strongest of the barbarians, a strange sight was seen.

A crow circled over the heads of the combatants, then suddenly it flew down and perched on the helmet of the Roman.

The clashing of swords, the cries of the barbarians, did not disturb the bird. It sat on the helmet of Valerius as still as though it was perched on a tree in the forest.

But by and by this strange crow began to watch what Valerius and the Gaul were doing. Seizing its chance, it darted again and again between the combatants, flapping its wings and tearing with beak and claws at the face and eyes of the barbarian.

Unable to see what he was doing with his sword, as well as unable to avoid the thrusts of his foe, the Gaul tried in vain to get rid of the bird.

At length, worn out with the unequal struggle, the barbarian fell, and Valerius was hailed as victor.

The crow, as though content with the result of the battle, now flew away and was seen no more; but from that time Valerius was called Corvus, corvus being the Latin word for a crow.

After the victory of Camillus, the Gauls left Rome undisturbed until the end of the third Samnite war, in 290 b.c.

About the Samnite wars I am now going to tell you.