During three years—363 to 361 b.c. —Rome was ravaged by the plague, which was so violent and fatal as to carry off the citizens by hundreds. In its first year it found a noble victim in Camillus, the conqueror of Veii and the second founder of Rome, who four years before had a second time defeated the Gauls. He was the last of the old heroes of Rome, those whose glory belongs to romance rather than history. The Gauls had destroyed the records of old Rome, and left only legend and romance. With the new Rome history fairly began.
But we have another romantic tale to tell before we bid adieu to the story of early Rome. In the second year of the pestilence a strange and portentous event occurred. The Tiber rose to an unusual height, overflowed with its waters the great circus (Circus Maximus), and put a stop to the games then going on, which were intended to propitiate the wrath of heaven, and induce the gods to relieve man from the evil of the plague.
And now, in the midst of the Forum, there yawned open a fearful gulf, so wide and deep that the superstitious Romans viewed it with awe and affright. Whether it was due to an earthquake or the wrath of the gods is not for us to say. The Romans believed the latter; those who prefer may believe the former. But, so we are told, it seemed bottomless. Throw what they would in it, it stood unfilled, and the feeling grew that no power of man could ever fill its yawning depths.
Man being powerless, the oracles of the gods were consulted. Must this gaping wound always stand open in the soil of Rome? or could it in any way be filled and the offended deities who had caused it be propitiated? From the oracle came the reply that it must stand open till that which constituted the best and true strength of the Roman commonwealth was cast as an offering into the gulf. Then only would it close, and thereafter forever would the state live and flourish.
The true strength of Rome! In what did this consist? This question men asked each other anxiously and none seemed able to answer. But there was one man in Rome who interpreted rightly the meaning of the oracle. This was a noble youth, M. Curtius by name, who had played his part valiantly in war, and gained great fame by brave and manly deeds. The true strength of Rome? he said to the people. In what else could it lie but in the arms and valor of her children? This was the sacrifice the gods demanded.
Ruins of the Roman Aqueducts.
Going home, he put on his armor and mounted his horse. Riding to the brink of the gulf, he, before the eyes of the trembling and awe-struck multitude, devoted himself to death for the safety and glory of Rome, and plunged, with his horse, headlong into the gaping void. The people rushed after him to the brink, flung in their offerings, and with a surge the lips of the gap came together, and the gulf was forever closed. The place was afterwards known by the name of the Curtian Lake, in honor of this sacrifice.
There are two other stories of this date worth repeating, as giving rise to two great names in Rome. T. Manlius, the future conqueror of the Latins, fought with a gigantic Gaul on the bridge over the Anio on the Salarian road. Slaying his enemy, he took from his neck a chain of gold (torques), which he afterwards wore upon his own. From this the soldiers called him Torquatus, which name his descendants ever afterwards bore.
In a later battle Marcus Valerius fought with a second gigantic Gaul. During the combat a wonderful thing happened. A crow perched on the helmet of the Roman, and continued there as the combatants fought. Occasionally it flew up into the air, and darted down upon the Gaul, striking at his eyes with its beak and claws. The Gaul, confounded by this attack, soon fell by the sword of his foe, and then the crow flew up again, and vanished towards the east. The name of Corvus (crow) was added to that of Valerius, and was long afterwards borne by his descendants.
These stories are rather to be enjoyed than believed. They probably contain more poetry than history, particularly that of Curtius and the gulf. Yet they were accepted as history by the Romans, and are given in all their detail in the fine old work of Livy, the rarest and raciest of the story-tellers of Rome.