T HE Romans had refused to be under a king, and they were afraid that if any one man were made chief ruler, he would become too powerful. They decided, therefore, to elect two rulers instead of one, and for a term of one year only. These two were called consuls. They wore robes with borders of deep violet and sat in seats of honor known as curule chairs. These chairs were either made of ivory or richly ornamented with it, but, however handsome and honorable they may have been, they must have seemed rather uncomfortable, for they had neither arms nor back. According to law, neither consul could give a command if the other objected. This was all very well when matters were going on smoothly, but in time of danger, if an enemy were at the gate, for instance, the two consuls might have quite different schemes for defense, and while they were trying to convince each other, the enemy might force his way into the city. The Romans were too keen not to provide for this, and they decreed that if great public danger arose, a dictator should be appointed. He was to hold power for six months only, but during that time even the consuls were to obey his commands.
Brutus was one of the first consuls; but it was not long before he must have wished he was only a private citizen, for his two sons were brought before him to be punished. They had conspired to bring back King Tarquinius Brutus must have been heartbroken, but he gave sentence according to law, and sat by sternly while his own sons, together with the other conspirators, were flogged and then beheaded.
Tarquinius still hoped to regain his crown, and he induced one tribe after another to take up his cause and fight for him. In one of the battles Brutus was slain. His fellow consul, Publius Valerius, was now left sole ruler; and the people began to be afraid that he would try to make himself king. It was dangerous even to be suspected of such a desire, and he did all in his power to show that he never thought of such a thing. He built his house at the foot of a hill instead of on top, as he had begun; he had the axes removed from the bundles of rods that were borne before him by the lictors; and, far more important than these acts, he had a law passed that a Roman citizen who was sentenced by any one except a dictator to be put to death, or to be flogged, might appeal to the assembly of the centuries. This was named the Valerian Law.
Tarquinius had not given up hope of the throne, and now he persuaded Lars Porsena of Clusium to become his ally. Then there was dismay in Rome, for Porsena was a powerful king and could call out many thousands of men. His great army came marching toward the city. From the Tarpeian Rock, men could see one little village after another burst into flames. The countryfolk seized whatever was dearest to them and fled to the protection of the city walls. Lars Porsena came nearer; he captured Janiculum; and so great was the alarm of the Roman soldiers that they ran headlong across the bridge and into the town, as frightened as the women and children of the country.
Out spake the Consul roundly:
"The bridge must straight go down,
For, since Janiculum is lost,
Naught else can save the town."
Then a brave Roman named Horatius stepped forward and spoke to the Consul:
"Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well he stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?"
Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
A Ramnian proud was he:
"Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
And keep the bridge with thee."
And out spake strong Herminius;
Of Titian blood was he:
"I will abide on thy left side,
And keep the bridge with thee."
Soon Porsena and his followers were shouting with laughter to see "the dauntless three" take their stand to drive back an army. There was terrible fighting; but all the while the Romans,—consul, fathers, and plebeians, were breaking down the bridge. It was ready to crumble.
"Come back, come back, Horatius!"
Loud cried the Fathers all.
"Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
Back, ere the ruin fall!"
Lartius and Herminius darted back over the swaying timbers, and Horatius stood alone on the farther shore between the river and his sixty thousand foes. Then he sprang into the flood, wounded, and weighed down by his armor as he was.
And when above the surges
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.
He swam bravely to the landing-place; he had saved his country.
And wives still pray to Juno
For boys with hearts as bold
As his who kept the bridge so well
In the brave days of old.
Even after this, there was sore trouble in Rome, for Lars Porsena besieged the town and famine set in. Then Caius Mucius, a noble young Roman, made his way into the enemy's camp to kill the king. By mistake, he slew, not the king, but his secretary. When he was brought before Lars Porsena, he was threatened with being burned alive if he did not reveal whatever plots had been made. He stretched forth his right hand and held it in the fire that was burning on the altar. "See," he said to the king, "how little those think of the body who have glory in view." Lars Porsena was too brave a man not to appreciate bravery, and he ordered the young man to be sent home unharmed. Mucius told him that three hundred other youths were sworn to have his life; and Lars Porsena soon asked the Romans to make a treaty of peace with him. Caius Mucius was richly rewarded by his countrymen, and the name Scævola, or the left-handed, was given him in memory of his deed.
Tarquinius now induced the powerful Latins to help him. At Lake Regillus there was a fierce battle between the Romans on one side and the Latins and Etruscans on the other. The Romans were getting the worst of it when suddenly the twin gods, Castor and Pollux, appeared among them. The armor of the gods and also their steeds were white as snow, and they had come to the aid of the Romans.
And forthwith all the ranks of Rome
Were bold and of good cheer;
and soon the battle was won. Tarquinius Superbus gave no further trouble, and Rome never had another king.