The Foundation also of Modern European CivilizationWhen the Roman Empire was at the fullest extent of its power and influence, at the beginning of the second century A.D. Roman rule extended over Britain, the whole of modern Belgium, France and Spain, Switzerland, parts of western and southern Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Crimea, Asia Minor, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, Egypt and all North Africa from the western frontier of Egypt to the Atlantic coastline of modern Morocco, as well as over the whole of Italy and all the Mediterranean islands.
Roman customs, Roman laws, Roman thought and the Latin language were the dominating influences in two-thirds of Europe, throughout the Near East and along the whole of the Mediterranean seaboard of North Africa. No other imperial power in the entire history of Europe has ever influenced so much of the continent; and because of the later extension of European interests in the ancient world of India and the new world of the Americas, to the far eastern edges of the world and throughout the vast continent of Africa, the imprint of Roman culture has at one time or another been stamped upon more than half the globe.
Viewed merely as a national accomplishment, the Roman achievement still has the ability to make one catch one’s breath. Yet when one considers the beginnings from which Rome sprang, it becomes even more fantastic.
The foundation of the city of Rome is buried deep in legend. This is not surprising when it is remembered that in the thousand years before the birth of Christ, the historians of western Europe, unlike their Jewish contemporaries in Palestine, for example, recorded their work in the spoken or sung word, and not in writing; the reason being that the high level of civilization achieved by the Jews and the Greeks had not yet been attained by the inhabitants on “the western fringe of the world”.
Be this as it may, modern archaeologists have produced traces of evidence which indicate that in several respects the legend has a basis in fact. For example, legend has always claimed that the city was founded in 753 B.C., and remains have been discovered that show that this date is not far wide of the mark.
When Livy, the most famous of all Roman historians, embarked upon his History of Rome from its Foundations, which he was to complete in 142 books, round about 20 B.C., he was quite content to record the legend in his account of the founding of the city.
He justifies himself thus: “Events that happened before Rome was born or even thought of, have been handed down to us in ancient stories which have more of the charm of poetry about them than sound historical content, and such traditions I do not propose either to accept as true or to reject them. When antiquity makes no clear distinction between the human and the supernatural I do not see any reason why one should object to tradition: for it endows the past with a certain dignity, and if any nation has a right to claim divine ancestry, that nation is ours; and so great has been the glory which the Romans have won in their wars that when they declare that Mars (the god of War) was their first parent and the father of the man who founded their city, all the nations of the world may grant their claim with the same readiness with which they accept Rome’s imperial dominion.”
The version of the legend which Livy recounted was this:
The story of the kidnapping of Helen by Paris of Troy and the Trojan War which followed, also legend to a very great extent is too well known to need to be described. The Greeks, it will be recalled, eventually won the war after a ten years’ siege and burnt Troy to the ground.
Among the refugees who escaped from the disaster was a man called Aeneas, who took with him his father Anchises, whose mother had been Venus, the goddess of Love. With Aeneas went a small company of fellow-citizens. After many years of wanderings, Aeneas was driven by a storm to Carthage, whose queen, Dido, fell deeply in love with him.
In the circumstances, one would have thought that Aeneas would have been eager to settle down to the comfortable life which being the queen’s favourite would have afforded him; but he was too restless, and after a time abandoned Dido, who committed suicide, and set off again on his wanderings.
First he reached Sicily, but found there nothing to commend the place to him, so he embarked again, and sailed for the mainland of Italy, where he landed in the territory called Laurentum. In their travels, Aeneas’s men had lost all their possessions except their swords; so, once on shore, they set about searching for what they could find, and while they were engaged in this they met a force of armed natives led by their king, Latinus.
“There are”, says Livy, “two versions of what happened next. According to one, there was a fight ending in the defeat of Latinus who then came to terms with Aeneas and gave him his daughter for wife. According to the other, as the battle was about to begin, Latinus came forward and suggested talks.”
Curious about the strangers, Latinus asked Aeneas who he was and where he had come from, and when he heard their story said that he had no objection to the Trojans settling in his territory, and offered Aeneas friendship. Aeneas accepted the offer and the gift of Latinus’s daughter as a wife.
The Trojans were now prepared to believe that they had at last found a permanent home. They settled down and built a settlement, which Aeneas called Lavinium, after his wife, Lavinia. A child was soon born, a boy who was given the name Ascanius.
Presently the Trojans and the Latin’s joined forces in a war against Turnus, prince of the Rutuli, to whom Lavinia had been pledged before Aeneas’s arrival. Angered by the insult of losing his fiancée to a stranger, Turnus attacked the Trojans and the Latin’s. The Rutuli were defeated, but in the battle Latinus was killed.
Turnus had for some time been apprehensive about the growing power of the Trojan settlement and, now anxious more than ever for the future, he looked about for an ally, and turned to Mezentius, king of the rich and powerful Etruscans, who needed little persuasion to join Turnus, because he too was jealous of the Trojans.
In order to rally his people, Aeneas declared that from hence-forward his Trojans should call themselves Latin’s. This pleased the Latin’s so much that they readily accepted Aeneas as their king and leader. In a very short time the two peoples had become welded into one nation, and this gave Aeneas confidence to declare war on the Etruscans and their allies, despite their great strength.
As Livy puts it: “Etruria, indeed, had at this time both by sea and land filled the whole length of Italy from the Alps to Sicily with the noise of her name.”
Nevertheless, Aeneas, refusing to put himself on the defensive, marched out to the attack. The Latin’s were victorious, but they lost their leader, Aeneas.
“He is buried on the banks of the river Numicus,” says Livy, and asks, “Was he a man, or was he a god? Whatever he was, men call him Jupiter Indiges, the local Jove.”
Ascanius was too young to take over the kingship, so his mother Lavinia, a woman of great personality and strong character, was appointed regent until her son came of age. By the time Ascanius came to the throne Lavinium was a populous, rich and flourishing town; but despite this, Ascanius handed it over into his mother’s keeping and went off to found a new settlement on the Alban hills which, because it was strung out along a ridge, he called Alba Longa. The Latin’s too had increased in strength and wealth and Mezentius and his Etruscans were less inclined to attack them than ever, so he proposed a treaty of non-aggression which defined the boundary between the two territories as lying along the course of the river Albula, soon to become known as the Tiber.
The years passed, and Ascanius was succeeded upon his death by his son, Aeneas Silvius, so named because he had been born “in the woods”. From this time the kings of Alba all attached Silvius to their names.
Life and the times were violent, and kings of Alba succeeded one another in fairly quick succession, until Amulius murdered his brother and seized the throne, and then proceeded to kill off* all his nephews; and to make quite certain that no descendant of his brother should rise up against him he appointed his only niece, Rhea Silvia, a Vestal, thus condemning her to perpetual virginity. Despite these precautions, however, Rhea Silvia became pregnant, and in due course gave birth to twin boys. She declared that Mars, the god of War, was their father. “Perhaps she believed it,” Livy comments, “or perhaps she was merely hoping that if she claimed that her violator was divine she could not be held guilty.”
But it was in vain. King Amulius would not believe her, and ordered that she should be flung into prison, and the boys to be drowned in the Tiber. “But destiny”, Livy remarks, “intervened.” The Tiber was in flood and it was impossible for the men detailed to get rid of the twins to reach the river proper, and they merely left the box containing the boys at the edge of the flood-water. When the water eventually subsided, it left the boys high and dry, and a she-wolf, hearing their cries and coming to investigate, realized that they were hungry and thirsty and suckled them.
While this was happening one of the king’s herdsmen, Faustulus, came upon them, gathered up the boys and took them to his hut, where he gave them into the care of his wife, who named them Romulus and Remus.
The boys flourished and grew; they were lively youths, always up to some prank, and very partial to carrying out raids upon their neighbours’ cattle. Sometimes they were caught and punished, and on one such occasion, when Remus had been caught but his twin had been able to escape, Faustulus, who had always suspected the identity of the twins, told Romulus of his suspicions, who passed on the story to King Numitor, who had made Remus prisoner. Numitor was convinced of the truth of the story, and when Romulus suggested having revenge upon Amulius, agreed to help them.
Under Romulus’s leadership, Amulius’s palace was attacked and Amulius was killed, and Numitor became king also of Alba Longa, while the two boys decided to found a new settlement on the site at which Faustulus had found them with the she-wolf.
The plan had Numitor’s blessing, for Alba Longa was by now over-populated. Unfortunately, the founding of the new settlement was marred by a disgraceful quarrel which sprang up between the twins as to who should govern. They decided to settle the problem by asking the gods to declare an augury, and took up their positions, Romulus on the Palatine hill and Remus on the Aventine hill, from which to watch the auspices.
But even when the signs were given, neither could accept them, and fighting broke out between the followers of the brothers. During the fracas, Remus, by way of taunting his twin, leapt over the half-built walls of the new settlement, whereupon Romulus, in uncontrollable rage, killed him, exclaiming: “So perish whoever else shall overleap my battlements.”
Thus Romulus became king, and the new city took its name from him, and was called Rome. “Romulus’s first act”, Livy records, “was to fortify the Palatine hill and then to offer sacrifices… Having performed his religious duties with proper ceremony, he called his subjects to him and gave them laws… In his view, the mob over whom he ruled could not be persuaded to observe the laws unless he himself adopted certain visible signs of power, so he proceeded to increase the dignity and impressiveness of his position by various devices, of which the most important was the creation of twelve lictors to attend his person.”
Under Romulus’s guidance, Rome grew rapidly, not only physically but in wealth and power, and in a very short time was in a position to challenge all her neighbours. There was only one thing which seemed to stand in the way of her continued greatness, the lack of women. Try as he might, Romulus could not persuade the women of the neighbouring tribes to marry with his men and had to fall back upon a somewhat desperate plan.
He organized a festival and invited the surrounding peoples. When the festivities were at their height, he gave a sign to his followers and each man seized a woman from among the daughters of their guests and carried her off. There were strong objections from the parents and the young women themselves made a show at least of resentment, but after a time all was straightened out, and the women settled down to become the mothers of the greatest nation of ancient times.
For with his men folk happily married and the future generations assured, Romulus set out upon a campaign of subduing the neighbouring peoples, a campaign which was entirely successful. At the same time, he set up institutions of government upon a new pattern, which was to remain the basis of Roman government for as long as Rome’s power lasted.
Livy relates the legend of Romulus’s end thus: “One day while he was reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius near the marsh of Capra, a storm burst, with violent thunder. A cloud enveloped him, so thick that it hid him from the eyes of everyone present, and from that moment he was never seen again upon earth.”
Romulus’s successors, whether legendary or real, continued to exert their power over every tribe and nation within their reach, and as the years passed so their reach extended. Five hundred years from the founding of the city, the Romans controlled the whole of Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and from that time on they began to extend their rule throughout Europe until within a thousand years they wielded power over the vast territories named in the first paragraph.
By this time they had developed a civilization which was to leave everlasting traces on succeeding civilizations, in Europe at all events, down to the present day. Great law-givers, great administrators, great road-builders, a people of great refinement of taste, creators of a great literature, though not great artists nor outstanding architects, the people who sprang from the primitive settlement of the Palatine hill in 753 B.C. bequeathed a legacy to us to-day which is responsible for much of the richness of our own civilization.
So deep, in fact, go the Roman influences into our lives, our laws, our language, many of our institutions spring from the Roman models that it is difficult to imagine what our lives would be without them.