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Legends of Early Heroes

WHEN the Greeks sent out their colonies to make new homes in the south of Italy, they came across another Indo-European people. These are best known as Latins, whose city was Rome. These famous people in due course continued the work of the Greeks in civilizing Europe.

There were other peoples in Italy besides the Latins -- e.g. the Etruscans, who once lived in Asia, to the north; the Sabines in the hills, and so on. The city of Rome was founded near the Tiber's mouth in a nest of seven hills, which protected the city from other tribes, and, as it grew, a wall surrounded the hills. According to the ancient legend, Rome was founded (753 B.C.) about twenty years after the Greeks began to meet for their Olympian games. It was named after Romulus, who, with his brother Remus, according to the famous legend, had been placed in a basket on the Tiber, and when the river overflowed a she-wolf had found them, nourished them in her lair, and so saved them from drowning. Romulus later slew Remus, and became the first king of Rome.

For the first two and a half centuries of its history the little city of Rome was governed by kings. Against the seventh king, Tarquin the Proud, the Romans rebelled. Tarquin called in the Etruscans to help him, and with his army he reached the wooden bridge over the Tiber.

Then it was that Horatius saved Rome in its grave hour of danger -- as Leonidas had tried to save Greece at the Hot Springs. He, with two men, kept the hostile army at bay while other Romans were destroying the bridge. As the bridge began to fall, the two rushed back, but Horatius held on to the last, and then threw himself into the river. "Oh! father Tiber," he cried, "take me into thy charge this day;" and, in spite of the darts of the enemy, he swam safely to shore.

"When the good-man mends his armour

And trims his helmet plume;

When the good-wife's shuttle merrily

Goes flitting through the loom;

With weeping and with laughter

Still is the story told,

How well Horatius kept the bridge

In the brave days of old."

During their early history the Romans came to hate kings, and they hated them ever afterwards. Rome became a republic (508 B.C.), a city without a king, and this form of government lasted through 500 years. Each year they elected two consuls to be at the head of the state instead of a king. They had also a "parliament," or senate, composed of members of the patrician or noble families. In the senate they wore the robe of Roman citizenship -- the toga, a kind of cloak made of woollen cloth that fell gracefully about the body.

For many years there were bitter quarrels between the patricians and the common people, or plebs. In time, however, the plebs won certain rights, and soon after the republic began, they were allowed to choose two tribunes of the people (493 B.C.), whose duty it was to guard their interests.

But, in spite of their quarrels, all Roman citizens, patricians and plebeians, united to save the republic in times of danger. This is well shown by the legend of Cincinnatus -- that is, the "crisp-head" -- for he was famous for his curled locks. When he was consul his son, for certain offences, had been exiled from Rome, but the son and his friends returned from exile, and the Romans slew them all. Deeply grieved, Cincinnatus, at the end of his year of office, retired to his farm. A neighbouring tribe invaded Roman territory, and as the Roman army approached the enemy they became shut up in a valley, and only five Roman horsemen escaped to tell the news to the senate. "There is only one man who can save us," they said; "we must make Cincinnatus Master of the People" (or Dictator).

Now Cincinnatus was a frugal man, and did not care to be rich, and he busied himself with the tilling of his small plot of land on the Tiber, where he dwelt with his wife. So in the morning early the senate sent deputies to him to tell him that he was chosen to be Master of the People. The deputies went over the river and came to his house, and found him in his field at work, without his toga or cloak, digging with his spade in the ground.

They saluted him and said, "We bring thee a message from the senate, so thou must put on thy cloak that thou mayest receive it as is fitting." Then he said, "Hath aught of evil befallen the state?" and he bade his wife bring his cloak, and when he had put it on he went out to meet the deputies. Then they said, "Hail to thee, the senate declares thee Master of the People, and calls thee to the city; for the consul and the army are in great danger."

A boat was then made ready to carry him over the Tiber, and when he stepped out of the boat his three sons came to meet him, and his kinsmen and friends, and the greater part of the senators. He was thus led home in great state to his house, and the four-and-twenty lictors, with their rods and axes, walked before him. As for the multitude, they crowded round to see him, but they feared his four-and-twenty lictors; for they were a sign that the power of the Master of the People was as sovereign as that of the kings of old.

Then he went into the Forum, and bade every man shut up his booth or shop, and stopped all causes at law, and gave an order that none should look to his own affairs till the consul and his army were delivered from the enemy. All was done so quickly, that he went out on one evening, and came home the next day victorious and triumphant.

The senate decreed that he should enter the city in triumph, and he rode in his chariot, while the chiefs of the enemy were led bound before him; and the standards were borne before him, and all the soldiers laden with their spoil followed behind. And tables were set out at the door of every house with meat and drink for the soldiers, and they and the people feasted together, and followed the chariot with singing and great rejoicings.

Such is the great and simple story as told by the Roman historians of old.

“Are you dejected? here is comfort. Are you sinful? here is righteousness. Are you led away with present enjoyments? here you have honours, and pleasures, and all in Christ Jesus. You have a right to common pleasures that others have, and besides them you have interest in others that are everlasting, that shall never fail; so that there is nothing that is dejecting and abasing in man, but there is comfort for it in Christ Jesus.”
–Richard Sibbes, Description of Christ