Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Rome by Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp
Ancient Rome by  Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

Rome in Her Infancy

While we were watching Greece win her freedom on the fields of Marathon and Plataea, and while we followed Alexander into the far East, where he carried Grecian arms and culture, and while the Egyptians at Alexandria were taking up Grecian thought and carrying it back to the land of the Nile, there was growing up on the banks of the Tiber a city which became, because of what it did, the greatest city of the world.

It was, perhaps, a very fortunate thing for Rome that these other great peoples had affairs of their own, so that she was left undisturbed to grow slowly, as all great and lasting nations must grow.

But before we go on to study about Rome, let us recall to mind the most important facts about the country surrounding Rome. Only two or three days' travel by trireme westward from the beautiful island-fringed Greece, and almost in the very middle of the blue Mediterranean, is where the people lived whom we are to study about now. We might, as I have already told you, call the country the "Boot Country," for it resembles a great boot, looking as if it were hung out into the water, and fastened by the upper, or northern, end. Look at the map and see what a long coast line this gives Italy, and how friend and foe alike could reach her by water. This fact may lead Rome to become a trading people, and it may finally lead her to go out to the peoples around the Mediterranean to conquer and to rule them. You notice that Italy is not cut to pieces as is Greece by arms of the sea extending far into the land, nor are there numerous islands scattered around her coasts; nor do her mountains, which have good passes, serve to divide the country into small sections, so much as do those of Greece. Thus, because the country is comparatively united, the people tend to become more united.

The eastern coast has no good harbors, and people would seldom enter to trade from that side; but the western coast has several good harbors and fertile plains, and it is from this side that Italy invites people to enter.

We shall sail into the best harbor along the coast. It is the harbor of the Tiber, which leads us into a beautiful plain, where the sky is bluer and the climate pleasanter than even in Greece, if such a thing were possible.

Overlooking this beautiful plain, about fifteen miles up the river Tiber, are the hills upon which Rome was built. In early times, the people who lived in Rome went out in the daytime and tilled the plain, and at night returned to Rome in order that they might be protected. From this it would seem that there were enemies near, would it not? Do you think they were wise in choosing such a place for their city? Indeed it was a very wise choice, because from the hills they could overlook their farms, see enemies coming, and protect themselves; and the river too was at hand, upon which they could sail thirty miles or so above Rome and get the products, and then float them out to sea, and work up a good trade with the people living on the Mediterranean.

At first in Rome all land and trade and wealth were owned by the rich people alone, but in time the poor people came to have little farms of their own, which they lived upon and cultivated. I say little farms, but you will be surprised when you know just how small they were. Could you imagine any one with a family living upon a farm of only three or four acres, or about three times the size of the usual school square? Well, the father of the little Roman boy Marius lived on just such a farm. It lay favorably on a gently sloping hillside facing the east, for there the early sun shone upon it. It had a sandy soil which was easily drained, and it was surrounded by a hedge of trees.

The little farm had its vineyard, and Marius enjoyed going about it with his father, trimming branches here and there, for he knew that the wine of the grape made a large part of their living. He watched the olive orchard as it grew, and in the proper season helped his father to press the oil from the olive. The Romans were very fond of olives, and the oil served them as butter.

Marius, of course, could merely help in the things that I have mentioned, but there was one thing that he and his little brother could do alone, and that was to tend the garden patch, which, to be sure, was not very large, but sufficient, if well tended, for the father, mother and four children,—for Marius had two sisters and a brother also. Do you think a family of six could have many luxuries, making a living on a four-acre farm?

While the father plowed the ground with a rude plow made from a forked sapling, and the mother and sisters looked after the broods of chickens and geese, Marius and his brother carefully tended the patches of lettuce, turnips, onions, cabbage, carrots and many other things which you see nowadays growing in the gardens in the United States. Marius was not yet old enough to follow the plow, but he had helped his father select the tree from which the plow was made, and watched his father make it, so I am sure he could tell you just how it was made. It was very simple, and yet it seems a little strange to us who never think of making our own plows. But the early Roman farmers, having no manufactories, had to make all their plows by hand; and no matter how poor they were, they could have as many plows as they wished, for all they had to do was to hunt a branched sapling, and sharpen the branch into a long point. This served as a share, to run in the ground, and about midway of the longest part a handle was fastened; to this longer part was hitched an ox to draw it. Do you think these plows were as good as those made in our own manufactories of today? No, they were nothing but sharpened wooden sticks, and besides being very poor for turning the soil, they were hard to sharpen and soon wore dull again.

The soil for the wheat, rye and millet was plowed with this plow, and when the grain was ripe, it was threshed by walking oxen over it; the chaff was separated from the grain by flinging it into the air and letting the wind blow it away. After grinding the grain between two stones, arranged much as our coffee mills are, it was mixed with water and was then ready to eat. We should hardly think we could eat it without baking, but the Romans did not learn to bake their bread until a good many years after Rome was settled.

The principal buildings on the farm were Marius' home, and, a little apart from it, the sheds, granaries and coops which surrounded the open court, and in which the hay, grain, wine, oil and broods were stored and kept. Bees had a home here, too. The Romans had no sugar, so Marius ate honey in the place of sugar.

It would not do to forget the flock of sheep which Marius helped drive down to the river and wash off, after which he watched his father cut the great fleece, which the mother and sisters wove by hand into clothing.

This was the time that Marius most enjoyed, for it was then that his father told him many things that his father had told to him. The story that Marius loved best was how Rome, the city on the hills a short distance away, was thought to have been founded. I must first tell you that nowadays scholars know that the Romans just imagined some of the things they told about early Rome; and while we do not believe every story they told, they did, and I will tell you the story of the founding of Rome just as Marius used to hear it from his father.

A wicked king, named Amulius, ruled in Alba Longa, a city a little southeast of where Rome was afterward built. He had robbed his elder brother of the kingdom and killed his brother's sons. But there was a daughter named Rhea Silvia left, and fearing lest she should marry and have sons, who would take back the kingdom of her father, he made her priestess of Vesta. A Vestal virgin or priestess of Vesta was a maiden who watched and kept the sacred fire always burning in the temple of Vesta. You see, the Romans, as well as the Egyptians, Phœnicians and other people we have studied, used fire in their worship. These Vestal maidens were not allowed to marry, but the god Mars married Rhea Silvia, and she gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. When Amulius heard this, he ordered the babes to be thrown into the Tiber, and they floated down the stream until they were washed ashore near the place where Rome was afterward built. Here they were nursed by a wolf, and afterward were found and brought up by a shepherd. When they had grown up, they were made known to their grandfather, whom they restored to the throne by slaying the wicked Amulius. They then determined to build a city on the Tiber, near where they had been saved.

You see, the wild life they had lived made them fierce and strong, so they quarreled about whose city it should be, and Remus was killed in the quarrel. Then Romulus built the city, and called it Rome after his own name. He was its first king, and he made his city great in war. He selected old men called senators to advise and help him govern, and these made up the senate; only the sons of these first men, and then their sons, and so on down, could become senators and hold other offices in the state, and you will find later that this brought on a great deal of trouble.

After Romulus had reigned thirty-seven years, he was taken up to heaven by his father Mars, and the Romans worshiped him as a god.

As was said, Romulus made his city great in war. Now fighting makes people fierce and rough, so when wise and good Numa became the second King of Rome, he thought his people ought to be made peace-loving and taught lessons of religion; for this reason he turned their attention to the worship of the gods rather than to war.

Whenever there was war, the gates of the temple of Janus were open, so that the people could go in and pray. Janus, I must tell you, was the god of Beginnings, and I am sure you can guess where we got our name for January. He had a double face, and thus could look backward or forward; but in Numa's reign he was no longer seen, for during the thirty-nine years of Numa's rule Rome was without war, and moved along in perfect happiness.

Numa also appointed priests, who were to dance and sing through the street in a procession once a year, carrying the twelve sacred shields. During a famine in Rome the god Mars is said to have dropped a shield from heaven as a sign of protection to Rome. Numa then had eleven others made, which looked exactly like this one, so that if any one attempted to steal or destroy the sacred shield, he could not tell it from the others.

Because Numa was so wise and good, and taught the people how to worship the gods, they believed he talked with a goddess, Egeria, who told him what was best for his people and how they might please the gods. Egeria led him through the sacred groves, told him how to consult the gods by the lightning and the flight of birds; and so much did she come to love him, that when he died Egeria melted away in tears into a fountain.

There were five other kings, the last being Tarquin the Proud, who ruled very harshly; he was a warrior and made Rome more powerful among the surrounding people, but at last the Romans could endure him no longer, so they rose against him, and drove him and his family out. They then elected, to serve for a year at a time, in place of the king, two men, called consuls. The consuls were to preside over the senate, and lead the army in battle. If in war the state was in great danger and the consuls were likely to be defeated, they could elect a dictator who could rule Rome without asking consuls, senate or anybody else, but who could serve no longer than six months. When King Tarquin was driven out, he went to Porsena, the king of the country north of Rome, and persuaded him to lead an army against Rome, and place him—Tarquin—again on the throne. The news soon reached Rome that the enemy had captured Janiculum, a hill just across the Tiber from the city. A bridge had been built by the Romans from Rome to this hill, and so they feared that Porsena with his army would soon cross and take their city. Horatius, with two brave companions, crossed the bridge to the Janiculum side, and forced the enemy back until the people in Rome could cut down the bridge behind the brave boys. As the bridge tottered and was about to fall, Horatius' companions rushed back and reached Rome just as it fell; but brave Horatius stood until it went down, with thirty thousand foes before him and the great river behind. He then turned and said:—

"Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber,

To whom the Romans pray,

A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,

Take thou in charge this day,"

and then he plunged headlong into the stream. The enemy on one side, and his friends on the other, were silent with awe at such great bravery; and when he reached the shore, he was received with great rejoicing, and

"They gave him of the corn-land,

That was of public right,

As much as two strong oxen

Could plow from morn till night;

And they made a molten image,

And set it up on high,

And there it stands unto this day,

To witness if I lie."

Rome had many such brave men. Do you think such people were likely to be conquered? These stories the Romans believed and loved to tell, and I am glad they have come down to us, too. As I told you, they contain truth and fable and fancy, all mixed together, but the Romans believed them so firmly that they were influenced by them almost as much as if they had been entirely true. They made the Romans a brave, obedient, patriotic people,—in fact, I know of none who were ever more so.

At first Rome was only a few houses upon a hill, near the river; it grew in numbers, because men came to live within its mud walls, to be safe from their enemies and to trade; and as it grew in numbers it grew in power, until the mud wall, which at first surrounded only one hill, was changed to a stone wall surrounding six others lying near; and thus Rome became known as the City of Seven Hills.

Some of the men were merchants and went up and down the Tiber River in their boats, but the greater part of the people at this early time were farmers, who tilled the land which lay about the city, and from which their principal supply of food came. When you think of Rome, therefore, in early times, you must always understand it meant both the city and the land around it.

It was on one of these farms close to Rome, as I told you, that Marius lived. He not only hears these stories from his father, but he and his little neighbor Cato often talk about them. Only yesterday Cato told Marius that his oldest brother was one of the priests who carried the sacred shields, and that next year his sister would be eight years old and was to become a Vestal virgin, and that then he would hardly ever see her. Marius wondered why one of his sisters had never been a priestess of Vesta, for he thought it must be very delightful to be dressed in white robes and snowy linen in the great temple and keep the fire burning upon the altar, carry the sacred water from the fountain of Egeria and thus to serve the sacred goddess; he often hoped, too, when he became a man that he might be one of the priests. Other things about him often brought questions to his mind and longings to his little heart. The farm of Cato's father was much larger than their own, and Cato and his father had several slaves to do their work. One of the slaves often told Cato many stories, and taught him to write on a waxen tablet with a stilus; and thus he was being educated, and Marius was not. Cato's father sometimes took him to the senate, where he saw the senators in their white woolen togas, or cloaks with purple hems. Marius had been to Rome with his father and had been in the busy market place, or forum, a number of times; he had seen and worshiped in the temple of Mars, for Mars was the god who kept off sickness from the cattle and sheep and kept the grain from blight and disease; he had seen the temple of Minerva, and prayed to her often, for she was the goddess who gave wisdom to all; but Marius had never visited the senate, and he wondered why his father had not taken him there, too.

That night he asked his father why he did not have slaves as Cato's father had, and if he might, when he was a man, go to Rome and be one of the priests,—for Cato's elder brother was one,—and if he would take him to visit the senate. His father then told him that when Romulus chose the senators, there were only a few families in Rome, and that the senators were the heads of these old families. But as Rome grew, many new people came there to live and trade who had no place in the old families, and so had no share in the government. But that was not all: these old families, or patricians, as they were called, thought that because they were older they were better, and so looked down upon those who came later. "They have done this for years," said his father, "and still they expect us to fight when the rough plunderers come down from the mountain regions in search of booty, drive away our flocks and herds, take our grain, and burn and ruin our farms; and yet for all this fighting we receive no pay. The land we get by war the patricians alone use for pasturing their sheep and cattle: that is why our neighbor has wealth and luxury and a large farm, and slaves to do the work upon it.

"Only a few years ago," he continued, "the plebeians were treated so badly that they marched out of Rome in a body, to the Sacred Mount not far from Rome, where they thought they would make a city for themselves and let Rome fight her own battles; but the patricians promised, if they would come back, that the plebeians might have officers, called tribunes, to protect them from wrong. These tribunes left the doors of their houses open day and night, so that any who sought refuge might find it in their homes; and the patrician senate agreed, also, that the tribunes might stand at the door of the senate and forbid the passage of any law which would oppress the poor people. We are still struggling for our rights, my boy, and I hope by the time you are a man things will be so that you may be a priest, but now only the patricians can be selected; and now you know also why you have never visited the senate."

The father told Marius all this, but he did not tell him what would happen if the mountaineers should come down upon them and destroy their crops, and attack the valley farmers and then Rome. But Marius was soon to know. Only the next week, not long after harvest, messengers were sent by the Roman consuls out among the Roman farmers to summon to Rome all men who were able to fight. One of the consuls then led them to battle against the people who lived in the surrounding mountains, but not till the army, which had gathered at Rome, went to the temple of Mars and offered sacrifices and asked the help of the god whom they thought went always before them in battle. Marius' father offered wheat to Mars for the protection of the cattle, fields and flocks, and a measure of barley to Vesta for the safe-keeping of his wife and children, and departed for the war. He was gone several months, and in spite of the fact that Marius and the rest of the family worked faithfully on the little farm, offered sacrifices each day on the hearth-stone to Vesta and Mars, to protect their father, their home and their crops, when the father returned his farm had been overrun and plundered by the rude shepherds and mountaineers who swept down from the upland hollows, buildings were destroyed, fields laid waste, and the little herd of sheep and goats driven away. But the father, who had fought so bravely in the war, struggled yet more bravely to support his family and save his little farm. In order that the family might have food and clothing when winter came, he was compelled to borrow money from a wealthy patrician; for as I told you, he received no pay for serving in the army, and since his crops and stock had been stolen, he must borrow money or see suffering and disease come to his wife and children. This threw him in debt, and his little farm did not grow enough for him ever to repay it.

Do you begin to see how impossible it was, with wars and robbers and little farms, for the early Roman plebeians to keep free from debt? Well, as time went on, what do you suppose happened to Marius' father? By so much service in the army, and by frequent destruction of his crops, all his struggles, and the help of his noble little son, were not sufficient to enable him to pay the patrician from whom he had borrowed the money. His farm was at first taken from him, and finally the father himself thrown into prison. In those olden times each patrician house had its own prison in which to punish the poor people who could not pay their debts. Another hardship for the plebeian arose from his ignorance of the law. What would you think if parents or teachers never told you plainly and clearly what was the proper thing to do, and yet punished you if you did not do it? You would of course think that very wrong. Well, you will sympathize with the plebeians of early Rome then, for this is the way the patricians treated them. The patricians had teachers and had been taught the laws when they were children, but they had never allowed the plebeians to know what the laws were, because by keeping the plebeians ignorant, the patricians could punish them for anything they wished, or take their property from them and say it was the law. But the plebs kept struggling to work out some way to know the law; for, they said, "How can we obey the law unless we know what it is?"

After a struggle of ten years, ten men were appointed to write down the laws of Rome. Before this the laws had been told by father to son. Do you suppose when the laws were written they were written on paper and printed in newspapers? Not at all; for there was then in Rome neither writing-paper, nor newspapers, nor scarcely any books. These laws were placed in the Forum, where every man and boy went very often to trade and attend to other things, and thus could learn them. They were written on twelve bronze tablets, and were called "The Twelve Tablets of the Law." It was a very great help to the plebeians to get these laws all plainly written out. Some of these laws were very similar to those we have today, but one like this we should think very strange: a man had control over his wife and sons and daughters (until they were married), and could sell them if he chose.

The struggle between the patricians and the plebeians lasted about four hundred years from the founding of Rome, until step by step the plebs were victorious, and stood equal in every way with the patricians. They could be senators, consuls, or priests, and finally little plebeian girls could become Vestal virgins as well as patrician. So, while I do not think Marius ever got to be a priest, he probably lived to see his son one.

Often while this struggle was going on within Rome herself, there were other wars, as I have been telling you, with the Æquians, Volscians, Etruscans, Samnites, and other mountain tribes, living north, east and south, but Rome was conqueror over all; for in the long struggle among themselves they had learned obedience, self-control and courage, and by learning to rule themselves had learned to rule others.

As we go on with our work I will tell you about these different wars,—first, about the Dictator, Cincinnatus, and then how bravely the Romans defended the citadel when the fair-haired Gauls came from the North against them, and how the Samnites fought and were overcome, and how, after holding out for some time, the Greek cities along the southern coast were taken, and their Grecian leader Pyrrhus, with his elephants, driven away. But I must now tell you a little about how Rome governed this great "Boot Country," which she had gained through these wars. I have briefly told you how, when she conquered a people, say the Samnites, she would take part of the land and send some of the citizens of Rome to live upon it, and form a little state among the people, which became like Rome. The wild uncultivated people living around these "little Romes," so to speak, were greatly influenced by the citizens from Rome, and gradually adopted their language, customs and institutions, until all Italy gradually became like Rome. Rome made it easy to govern these conquered people in another way. She built great roads. Let us see how these were made: First it was decided where the road should run—over the plains, through the hollows and over the hills. Then the breadth, which was enough for four horses abreast, was laid out by cutting wide trenches. In digging the trenches, earth was thrown out until solid ground was reached, so that the foundation would be firm; then there was placed in the trench a layer of small stones; next, on top of this, broken stones cemented with lime; then, as a third layer, a mixture of lime, clay and beaten fragments of brick and pottery; and finally, as a fourth and last layer, a mixture of pounded gravel and lime, or a pavement of hard flat stones.

These roads were built in all directions to different parts of Italy, from Rome, until they looked like a great spider web, with Rome as a spider in the center, catching everything and drawing it into its power. When Rome conquered a new country, the roads were always extended into it. You see, by means of these highways Rome could send soldiers quickly where they were needed, for the roads were never out of order; and notwithstanding she had no newspapers, and of course no railroads, it is astonishing how quickly messages or troops could be sent from one end of the country to the other.

Thus you have seen how the town of Rome, starting as a little village of mud huts on the Tiber, gradually spread over the Seven Hills and along the river banks and out over the plain, growing richer and stronger all the time, and by her struggles at home between plebeians and patricians, learned lessons of courage, patience and perseverance. After this, Rome, having learned these lessons, was able to go out and conquer all the hill and mountain peoples and teach them to obey her. When Rome had done all this, she was strong enough to conquer the greatest enemy she ever had. This was Carthage; and we shall soon see how she did it, and as a result became master of the whole Mediterranean Sea.

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