THE RIVER TIBER ROSE FROM TWO SPRINGS IN A beech forest in the Apennine Mountains, which run down Italy like a rocky spine. In three great zigzags, it crossed a plain for some two hundred and fifty miles and emptied itself into the Mediterranean. About fifteen miles from the coast it wiggled into the shape of the letter s as it made its way around a cluster of wooded, sometimes precipitous hills. These overlooked and encircled a wide marshy space crossed by a stream, and on some of them stood poor-looking villages, each consisting of a handful of wattle-and-daub huts. These settlements were easily defended and enjoyed clean air, rather than the humid miasma of the valley. The semi-nomadic inhabitants mainly tended livestock, moving them upstream to summer pastures and back to the plain during winter.
It was here that one of the greatest heroes and demigods of the ancient world, Hercules, slew Cacus, a fire-breathing monster who lived on human flesh and made his home in a cave in one of the hills. A larger-than-life figure, Hercules had numerous lovers of both sexes. He was the son of Jupiter by a mortal woman and so incurred the hatred of Juno, seldom one to control her emotions. Driven mad at her instigation, Hercules killed his own children and in expiation undertook twelve “labors,” or feats requiring superhuman strength and bravery.
Hercules became known as a protector of Greek colonists and traders who voyaged dangerously across the Mediterranean, and the story grew of a long wandering, as labor succeeded labor. He began his journey in the city of Gades (today’s Cadiz), which he founded in southwestern Spain; this was a community of Phoenicians, merchants who competed with the Greeks and revered Hercules under the name of Melqart. He made his way up Spain, along the south of Gaul (today’s France), across the Alps, and down into Italy, then over the sea to Sicily and ending up in Greece. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
Hercules, who was the greatest commander of his age, marched at the head of a large force through all the territory that lies on this side of the Ocean [meaning the Atlantic Ocean], destroying any tyrannies that oppressed their subjects, or states that outraged and injured their neighbors, or organized bands of men who lived like savages and lawlessly put strangers to death. In their place he established lawful monarchies, well-ordered governments and humane and sociable ways of life. In addition, he mingled barbarians with Greeks, and inland communities with those who lived on the seacoast, groups which had previously been distrustful and unsocial in their dealings with each other.
The hero arrived at the cluster of hills by the Tiber, driving the cattle of a fearsome, three-faced giant he had killed in his tenth labor. He crossed the river and, heavy with food and wine, fell asleep on a grassy bank. Cacus seized the moment and stole a number of the finest bulls. He dragged them into his cave by their tails, so that their hoofprints would point in the wrong direction. When Hercules woke up, he noticed that some cattle were missing but could not work out where they were (demigods were evidently of a dimmer wattage than mere mortals today). However, some heifers mooed when the herd moved off and the captive bulls lowed in response, betraying their location. Cacus tried to resist the infuriated hero but was struck down by his club. Hercules fortified the hill, later known as the Palatine, and went on his way.
THE RIVER, SWOLLEN by heavy rains, often flooded, transforming the hills into islands. On one such occasion, a wooden trough containing newborn twin boys could be seen, washed up against a slope. As the waters ebbed, it hit a stone and overturned, throwing out the babies, who whimpered and wallowed in the mud. They lay beneath a fig tree, a popular resort for animals seeking the shade.
A she-wolf who had just whelped appeared, her teats distended with milk. She licked off the mud and allowed the boys to suckle. A woodpecker arrived to lend assistance and stood guard. Now that the way was passable, some herdsmen came by driving their flocks to pasture and were dumbstruck by what they saw. Unabashed and unafraid, the wolf stared at the humans, then loped calmly off and vanished inside a cave, arched over by a dense wood, out of which a stream flowed.
THIS EXTRAORDINARY SCENE marked the next great step in the long process that culminated in the foundation of Rome. Three hundred years had passed since the arrival of Aeneas in Latium. The Trojan prince’s son, Ascanius, reigned for nearly forty years in a town he founded, Alba Longa, beneath the Alban Mount, an extinguished volcano (now called Monte Cavo). A line of kings ensued who accomplished little of note and eventually, in the early eighth century B.C., the succession devolved on two brothers, Numitor (the firstborn) and Amulius.
Amulius cheated his elder brother of his throne. He did not harm or imprison Numitor, but killed his son and took steps to prevent his daughter from having offspring who might challenge him for the kingdom when they grew up. He compelled her to become a priestess of Vesta, bound to spend her life as a virgin. The trick did not work, however, for the young woman attracted the attentions of Mars, the god of war, and nine months later she gave birth to healthy twins, Romulus and Remus. The boys were taken from her and a servant was ordered to do away with them by leaving them open to the elements somewhere in the countryside.
It was at this point that the she-wolf came across the boys. One of the shepherds passing by was named Faustulus, keeper of the royal flock. He brought up the infants, and as the years passed they grew into young men with attitude—risk-taking, fearless, and foolhardy. They had hot tempers. According to the biographer Plutarch:
They were on friendly terms with their equals or superiors, but they looked down on the king’s overseers, bailiffs and chief herdsmen. They applied themselves to … physical exercise, hunting, running, driving off robbers, capturing thieves and rescuing the oppressed from violence.
When the brothers were about eighteen, a dispute arose between them and some of Numitor’s herdsmen. Each side accused the other of grazing meadowland that did not belong to them. They often came to blows. Numitor’s men, some of whom had been badly hurt, lost patience and decided to arrest Romulus and Remus and hand them over to the authorities.
Among the group of hills by the Tiber, the centermost, the Palatine, had steep sides, in one of which could be found the cave where the she-wolf had taken refuge. It was a place sacred to the god of shepherds, and every February an ancient festival in his honor was held. The local youths ran around the hill naked except for loincloths made from the skins of animals that had just been sacrificed. Amid much hilarity, they lashed out at bystanders with leather thongs. The purpose of the ritual was to purify the community’s flocks, but in later centuries, at least, it was believed that it also fostered human fertility: in Varro and Cicero’s day, women stood in the young men’s way, supposing that, if they were struck, sterility would be prevented and the pains of childbirth eased.
On this occasion, two groups of boys took part in the ceremonies, with Remus in the first and Romulus with the others, bringing up the rear. The angry herdsmen lay in wait at a narrow section of the roadway; with a loud shout, they rushed on the first group when it came up, throwing stones and spears. Remus and his companions were taken completely by surprise and, bereft of clothes and weapons, were soon overcome and taken prisoner. Romulus escaped and gathered a force with which to rescue his brother.
Remus and the others were brought before the king, who was happy to make an example of them. Wishing to please his brother, Numitor, who shared the herdsmen’s exasperation, the king remitted the punishment to him. Numitor watched the captives being led away, hands tied behind them, and was very struck by Remus’s good looks and his quiet dignity in misfortune. He could not believe the young man was anything but nobly born, so he took him aside and asked, “Who are you? Who are your parents?”
The young man replied that all he knew was that the man who had brought him up had found him and his twin brother exposed in a wood soon after their birth. Numitor suspected the truth of the matter and, after a short pause, reminded Remus that his punishment had yet to be decided, and that it could be a death sentence. “If I free you, would you be willing to help me in a project that could be to our mutual benefit?” he asked.
Numitor then explained how Amulius had stolen his birthright. He asked Remus to help him regain his throne. Remus, game for anything, jumped at the chance. He was told to await instructions and, in the meantime, to send a message to Romulus asking him to join them as soon as possible. When Romulus arrived, he confirmed his brother’s version of their origin.
Meanwhile Faustulus, fearing that Remus’s story would not be believed, decided to bring to Numitor as corroboration the trough in which the baby siblings had been placed. He carried it into Alba Longa hidden under his clothes, but as he walked through the town gate he aroused the suspicions of a guard, who could not understand why he was concealing such an everyday object. By an unhappy chance, the man who had originally taken the infants to the river was present and recognized the trough, and Faustulus was immediately hauled before the king to explain himself.
He revealed the whole story. Amulius reacted in a suspiciously friendly manner, so when he asked where the boys were Faustulus pretended that they were watching their flocks in the fields. The king sent him to find them and bring them to the palace, where they would be given a warm welcome. The old shepherd was joined by some guards, who had been given secret instructions to place Romulus and Remus under arrest. In the meantime, the king sent for Numitor, to keep an eye on him until the twins had been properly, and no doubt finally, dealt with.
However, the messenger told Numitor what was afoot and he alerted the boys, their companions, and his own retainers and friends. They forced their way into the town, which was poorly defended. Amulius was easily found and killed. His brother resumed the throne.
Skeptics who believed, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus noted, that “nothing bordering on legend or fable has any place in historical writing,” told a different tale. Numitor switched the twins with two changelings; he feared that Amulius would have them killed, and that was exactly what he did. He handed his real grandchildren to Faustulus and his wife. She was a woman of loose virtue and was nicknamed Lupa, or she-wolf, a slang term for a prostitute. The boys received a good education and were ready for public life when the coup against Amulius succeeded.
ONE WAY OR another, this brought to a satisfactory conclusion the story of one brace of brothers but left the future of the other pair in some doubt. What was to be done with these headstrong youths? They were eager for political power, but with the restoration of their grandfather that was not on offer at Alba Longa. However, the population in the kingdom was growing and there were enough adventurers to found a new city. Here was a suitable task for Romulus and Remus (and one that, one may guess, prompted Numitor to heave a sigh of relief).
The brothers decided that the group of hills on the Tiber would be an ideal place for a new city. The ford would allow those who controlled it to manage traffic going up and down the western plain; the hills would assure easy defense from attack; and the Tiber, navigable up to this point, would enable trade and access to salt flats where it met the sea; later, a road to the river mouth was to be called the via Salaria, the Salt Road.
Cicero, looking back from the first century B.C., was in no doubt that the choice of site was crucial to Rome’s later success:
A river enables the city to use the sea both for importing what it lacks and for exporting what it produces as a surplus; and by its means too the city can not only bring in by sea but also obtain from the land, carried on its waters, whatever is most essential for its life and civilization. Consequently it seems to me that Romulus must at the very beginning have had a divine intimation that the city would one day be the seat and hearthstone of a mighty empire.
The brothers decided that, as a start, they would fortify one of the hills, but they could not agree on which one. Romulus opted for the Palatine, and Remus the neighboring Aventine. Neither would give way, so they went back to Alba and asked their grandfather’s advice on how to resolve the quarrel. He proposed that each stand on his chosen hill and, after making a sacrifice to the gods, watch for the flight of birds, a traditional method of discovering the divine will. The decision would go to the one who saw the most auspicious kind of bird.
Remus struck lucky first, for six vultures flew past his vantage point. Romulus, not to be outdone, falsely claimed to have seen twelve vultures. Remus didn’t believe him. But when he walked over to the Palatine and challenged his brother, he saw that twelve vultures had in fact just put in an appearance. The question remained undecided, for both men had seen the same kind of bird. Remus claimed victory because he had been the first to spot vultures, and Romulus insisted that he had won because he had seen the largest number of vultures.
Remus lost his temper and made some unkind remarks about a defensive trench Romulus had begun to dig on the Palatine. He jumped scornfully across it, and his brother, now furious as well, attacked him. Their friends and followers joined in the fight. Faustulus, who was present, threw himself unarmed into the melée in an attempt to separate the combatants. He was struck down and killed for his pains. Remus, too, lost his life, at his brother’s hands. In Varro and Cicero’s day, an old stone lion in the Forum was believed to mark Faustulus’s grave.
As calm returned, Romulus realized what he had done. He had founded his new state on a crime. And not just any crime, for he had broken one of the most sacred taboos by committing fratricide. The rivalry of brothers was a common theme in the ancient world—the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, killed one another in a duel—and in the Bible story Cain murdered Abel. But it was something new when the foundation myth of a state originated in brotherly hatred and violence. For Romans in the dying years of the Republic, this was a fearful anticipation of the fratricidal civil wars that led to the decimation of Rome’s ruling class.
FILLED WITH GRIEF and remorse, Romulus lost all desire for life—at least for a while. Ambition returned, and he finally built his city on the hill. This was a religious as well as a political act. A foundation pit, the mundus, a symbolic entrance to the underworld, was dug, in which clods of earth and first fruits were deposited. Then Romulus, as leader or king, yoked a plow to a bull and a cow and drove a deep furrow around the boundary lines. This marked the pomerium, or city limits; it was sacred, and only from inside it could priests watch for the movement of birds and so determine the pleasure of the gods. The city walls, or fortifications, were laid out behind this line and the space on either side was kept free of buildings, graves, and plants. (This ceremony was repeated whenever Rome, in later times, founded a colonia, or colony town.)
Romans of the late Republic were eager to determine the date of the foundation of Rome. There was widespread agreement that it took place in the eight century B.C., but there was fierce argument about the exact year. Computations included 728 and 751 B.C., but the date that won the most support came from Cicero’s greatest friend, a learned multimillionaire named Atticus, and Varro, who proposed 753 B.C. Even today, this year appears in modern histories as Rome’s traditional birthday. Varro was the kind of antiquarian who was fascinated by obscure calculation; he once invited an astrologer to work out from the study of Romulus’s life the date of his birth. In what was in effect a reverse horoscope, the man concluded:
[Romulus] was conceived in his mother’s womb in the first year of the second Olympiad, in the month Choeac of the Egyptian calendar, on the twenty-third day, and in the third hour, when the sun was totally eclipsed; and … he was born in the month Thoth, on the twenty-first day, at sunrise.
Or, in other words, 772 B.C.
This first Rome housed a preliminary population of little more than three thousand Latins. If Romulus was to build a viable community, able not only to man its defenses but also to supply labor for the variety of trades that people would expect of it, he needed more citizens. He established a policy of offering foreigners the gift of Roman nationality, a welcoming approach that lasted a thousand years.
His first measure was to open a sanctuary where exiles, the dispossessed, and criminals and escapees of every kind, freemen or slaves, could take refuge. A miscellaneous rabble soon collected. (The story bears some resemblance to the beginnings of Australia.) It now emerged that there were too few women to go around the growing number of male citizens. Something urgent and decisive had to be done to achieve a one-to-one gender balance.
The king issued a proclamation that an underground altar had been discovered at the racecourse (the Circus Maximus). It was dedicated to Consus, the god of good advice. Romulus proposed a splendid sacrifice, with games and a spectacle open to all the people. Not for the first time, Romulus was playing a trick. Once a large audience had gathered, not only Romans but also members of the neighboring tribe of Sabines, the king took his seat at the front. This was the signal for unleashing a large force of armed men, who kidnapped all the unmarried Sabine women who had come with their families to enjoy the show. Their menfolk were left unharmed and encouraged to make good their escape.
Roman historians could not agree on how many women were taken in this way: estimates varied among 30, 527 and 683. But one thing was clear: every one of them was a virgin.
The Sabines were a warlike people, but before taking military action they sent an embassy to Rome asking for the return of the women. Romulus refused, and counterproposed that marriage between Romans and Sabines should be permitted. Three indecisive battles ensued, and finally, under a general named Titus Tatius, the Sabines invaded Rome and captured its citadel, the Capitoline Hill (or Capitol). A young Roman woman, Tarpeia, betrayed her compatriots by opening one of the gates at night in return for “whatever the Sabines carried on their left arms.” By this she meant their golden armlets; instead, loving the treachery but hating the traitor, the men used their shields, worn on their left arms, to crush her to death. A steep cliff on the Capitol was named the Tarpeian Rock after her, from which those convicted of murder or treason were thrown to their deaths (and also people with serious physical or mental disabilities).
A fight ensued in the marshy valley between Rome’s hills (the present Forum). The Romans had the worst of it and withdrew toward the Palatine Hill. Romulus was hit on the head by a stone, but picked himself up and shouted to his men to hold their ground. This they did, at a spot by the Via Sacra (Sacred Way) where a temple was later built in gratitude to Jupiter the Stayer. The tide of battle turned and the Romans pushed forward to where the Temple of Vesta now stands.
At this point, an extraordinary thing happened. The Sabine women came pouring down into the valley from every direction. They had been kidnapped and forcibly married, but they now accepted their fate. Interposing their persons between the combatants, they imposed an end to the struggle. A treaty was formed, acknowledging that the Roman husbands had treated their Sabine spouses with due respect, and all who wished to maintain their marriages were allowed to do so. Most of the women stayed where they were.
Romulus (following his old policy) and the Sabines made an even more radical decision. They agreed on a merger of their two states. All Sabines would be awarded Roman citizenship and equal civic rights. Tatius was made co-ruler with Romulus.
ROMULUS WAS AN obstinate and self-willed man. As king, he expected to get his own way. His colleague on the throne died after five years. From then on, Romulus ruled alone. His achievements fall into two classes. First, he established a basic pattern of administration—the king commanded the army and the judiciary and was advised by a (possibly ad hoc) committee, the Senate (ultimately two hundred strong). Members were drawn from an aristocracy of birth—patricians, the fathers, or patres, of the state. They enjoyed important religious privileges. Only they could become priests, and they administered the major cults. They had the authority to consult the gods (by conducting the auspices, or auspicia), and they determined the yearly calendar, which included a large number of holy days on which public business could not be conducted. They also supervised the interregnum that followed the death of a king, organizing the election of a successor.
The citizenry was divided into three tribes based on kinship—two of which were composed of Latins and Sabines. Each tribe elected a tribune to represent its interests and commanded tribal levies in times of war. In turn, the three tribes were each subdivided into ten curiae, or courts, individually named after thirty of the kidnapped Sabine women. These formed a popular assembly, the comitia curiata, which voted by curiae on proposals that the king or the Senate placed before it. A curia was further subdivided into tengentes, or clans. When considering a proposal, these assemblies cast one vote each, and so by a majority determined the curia’s one vote, a majority of which then determined the comitia curiata’s decision.
City-states in the Mediterranean in the early classical period tended to be direct democracies, where citizens met in assembly to make all the important decisions, one man having one vote; or oligarchies, where a minority ruling class managed the state; or monarchies or tyrannies (from turannos, the Greek for “autocrat,” and not necessarily a derogatory term). Quite often, they moved violently from one type of government to another. What was interesting about this early Roman constitution was that it found an ingenious, albeit complicated, formula for combining all three forms of government.
Romulus was as vigorous in the field as he was in the committee room. He set the tone of military aggression that marked Rome’s collective personality throughout its history. For more than twenty years, he fought wars with the new state’s neighbors, extending territory and expanding the population.
NONE OF THIS meant that the king’s fiat was entirely unchallenged. He was generous to his soldiers, assigning them land and giving them a share of the spoils of battle, but as the years passed he became more and more peremptory in manner, especially toward the Senate. On one occasion when they could not come to an agreement, he remarked, “I have chosen you, Senators, not for you to govern me, but for me to have you at my command.” He presented himself in public in some style, wearing a crown and carrying a scepter with an eagle on the top; he wore scarlet shoes and a floor-length white cloak with purple stripes.
In the thirty-seventh year of his reign, the king went to the Campus Martius, an open space north of the Capitol, and held a military review near the Goat’s Marsh (now the site of the Pantheon). Suddenly, a storm came up with loud thunderclaps and darkness fell from a clear sky (perhaps an eclipse). A thick mist formed, and Romulus disappeared from view. When the air cleared, he was no longer sitting on his throne and in fact was nowhere to be found. The senators who had been standing beside him claimed that he had ascended into the skies. One or two said that he had become a god, and soon all present hailed him as divine.
Another version of Romulus’s death gained currency. This was that patrician members of the Senate had become so disgusted with his tyrannical ways that they plotted his assassination. They struck him down in the middle of a Senate meeting. They then cut him up into pieces and each “father” carried a body part under his clothes when leaving the meeting. Hence the vanishing.
The Senate was unpopular with ordinary citizens, but their attention was distracted from rumors of conspiracy when, as the historian Livy put it, “the shrewd device of one man is said to have gained credit for the story [of the apotheosis].” A leading politician, he claimed at a People’s Assembly that Romulus had descended from heaven and appeared to him. The ghost said that he was to be worshipped under his divine name of Quirinus and promised that “my Rome shall be the capital of the world, so let the Romans cherish the art of war.” According to one of Rome’s earliest historians, this was a cynical trick, but it certainly worked.
The official version of a deified Romulus was the one that gained the greatest currency. Even experienced and skeptical commentators like Cicero were inclined to believe it. He observed that in the distant and uncivilized past there was a “great inclination to the invention of fabulous tales and ignorant men were easily induced to believe them … but we know that Romulus lived less than six hundred years ago when writing and education had long been in existence.”
Strangely, the unofficial account of the king’s passing was to receive an uncanny echo during Cicero’s own lifetime, when in 44 B.C. the great tyrant of his age, Gaius Julius Caesar, was struck down by his colleagues during a session of the Senate. Indeed, Cicero was present in the meeting hall at the time, and he must surely have wondered at the coincidence. Then, for seven days, a new comet was seen in the sky, which the common people held to be Caesar’s soul; like Romulus, he had ascended into heaven and joined the company of the gods. In Rome’s end was its beginning.
THE MONARCHY WAS not handed on by birthright but was an elective post in the gift of the People’s Assembly (with some input from the Senate). Most Roman kings were not related to one another and were foreigners or, at least, outsiders; this had the fortunate consequence of removing senators from competition and stabilizing the Senate as an institution.
According to Cicero, the Senate tried for a while to rule without a king, but the People wouldn’t have it. An election was held, and the winner was Numa Pompilius, a Sabine from outside the city. If Romulus had been a warrior king, he was a priest king. He distributed land to every citizen, writes Cicero, to discourage brigandage and to foster the arts of peace. He was especially interested in religion, which he envisaged as a complex system of rules, ceremonies, and superstitions designed to discover the will of the gods and to ensure their favor. He was advised on these matters by a friendly water nymph named Egeria, whom he consulted privately in her sacred grove (near where the Baths of Caracalla were built in the third century A.D.), but many of his innovations were drawn from Etruscan religious observance. Cicero wrote:
He wanted the proper performance of the rituals themselves to be difficult, but that the necessary equipment should be readily available, for he provided that much should be learned by heart and scrupulously observed, but made the expenditure of money unnecessary. In this way, he made the performance of religious duties laborious but not costly.
“Laborious” is the word. Senior Romans holding public office spent much of their time on ceremonial business. If any error was made—misspoken or forgotten phrases or interruption of any kind, even the squeaking of a rat—the whole rigmarole had to be repeated until the performance was perfect. On one occasion, a sacrifice was conducted thirty times before the priest got it right.
Numa was followed by a king, Tullus Hostilius, who was even more warlike than Romulus. His reign was marked by a long struggle with Alba Longa, the city built by Aeneas’s son and from which Romulus and Remus had emerged to found Rome. It was, in effect, Rome’s first civil war. The two sides agreed on a treaty according to which the loser of the conflict would consent to unconditional surrender. The Romans placed a high value on their collective word and, typically, devised an elaborate religious ritual for treaty-making. The king swore that if the Roman People departed in any way from the terms of an agreement with a foreign power he would implore Jupiter, king of the gods, to smite its members, just as he smote a sacrificial pig. With these words, he struck down the pig with a flint.
To avoid a full-scale battle with all the attendant casualties, a duel was agreed on between two sets of triplet brothers—the Curiatii for Alba and the Horatii for Rome. In the fight, all of the Curiatii were wounded, but two of the Horatii were killed. The surviving Horatius, Publius, then reversed the fortunes of battle by killing all his opponents. He was able to tackle them one by one, for they had become separated because of their wounds.
Publius was the hero of the hour, and he marched back to Rome carrying his spoils, the three dead men’s armor. At the city gates, he was greeted by his sister. She happened be betrothed to one of the Curiatii, and when she noticed that Publius was carrying his cloak she let down her hair, burst into tears, and called out her lover’s name.
In a fit of rage, Publius drew his sword and stabbed his sister to the heart. “Take your girl’s love and give it to your lover in hell,” he shouted. “So perish all women who grieve for an enemy!”
He was condemned to death for the murder but reprieved by the People, which refused to countenance the execution of a national hero. However, something had to be done to mitigate the guilt of such a notorious crime. The Horatius family was obliged to conduct expiatory ceremonies. Once these had been performed, a wooden beam was slung across the roadway under which Publius walked, with his head covered as a sign of submission.
Typically, two ancient memorials survived that were believed to mark the event. Livy, writing at the end of the first century, observed:
The timber is still to be seen—replaced from time to time at the state’s expense—and is known as the Sister’s Beam. The tomb of the murdered girl was built of hewn stone and stands on the spot where she was struck down.
For men like Cicero and Varro, Rome was a stage on which great and terrible deeds had been done. People of the present were energized and uplifted by the invisible actors of a glorious past. Horatius did a very Roman thing: he committed a crime that illustrated not vice but virtue—in this case, the noble rage of valor.
The war with Alba stimulated not only individual but also collective rage. After a resumption of hostilities, the war eventually ended in a Roman victory. The enemy population was brought to Rome and, as usual with defeated foes, given Roman citizenship. But its city was destroyed. Livy wrote: “Every building, public and private, was leveled with the ground. In a single hour the work of four hundred years lay in utter ruin.” It was as if Alba Longa had never existed. This would not be the last time that Rome annihilated an enemy city, giving full rein to the hatred caused by fear.
THERE WERE TWO ways of crossing the Tiber. One could walk or drive a vehicle across a ford that led to a river island, the Insula Tiberina, and then another ford by which one reached the far bank. This was not very convenient, though, and the alternative was a ferry much used by traders in salt on their way to and from the salt flats at the river mouth.
One of the achievements of Ancus Marcius, Tullus’s successor, was to replace the ferry with Rome’s first bridge, the Pons Sublicius. It was made of wood and, for some forgotten ritual scruple, the use of metal in its construction was strictly forbidden. Its repair was the responsibility of Rome’s leading college of priests, the pontifices (the name means “bridge builders”). It was frequently destroyed by floods, and its rebuilding was a religious duty. The bridge survived for about a thousand years and was probably not removed until the fifth century A.D.
Religion also entered into the process of declaring war. The Romans believed that they would arouse divine anger if they went to war on a false prospectus. The cause had to be just. Ancus Marcius was credited with devising a ritual formula that kept Rome on the right side of the law.
When some offense, some casus belli, had been committed, the head of a delegation, or the pater patratus (“father in charge”), accompanied by three other colleagues (drawn from a college of priests called fetiales) traveled to the border of the state from whom satisfaction was sought. He covered his head in a woolen bonnet and announced, “Hear me, Jupiter! Hear me, land of So-and-So! I am the accredited spokesman of the Roman People. I come as their envoy in the name of justice and religion, and ask credence for my words.” He then spelled out the particulars of the alleged offense and, calling Jupiter as witness, concluded, “If my demand for the restitution of these men, or those goods, be contrary to religion and justice, then never let me be a citizen of my country.”
The embassy then crossed the frontier and the pater patratus repeated the formula to the first (presumably somewhat startled) person he met, and again at the state’s city gates, and one final time in the marketplace. If his demands were not conceded within thirty days, he proceeded to a formal declaration of war, calling on not only the leader of the gods but on the god of gates and doorways, of beginnings and endings: “Hear, Jupiter; hear, Janus Quirinus; hear, all you gods in heaven, on the earth and under the earth: I call you to witness that the people of So-and-So are unjust and refuse reparation. But concerning these things we will consult the elders of our country, how we may obtain our due.”
If their complaint was not accepted, the envoys returned home and discussed the position with the Senate. Each member was asked his view and, typically, replied, “I hold that these things be sought by means of just and righteous war. Thus I give my vote and my consent.” If a majority agreed, then one of the fetiales returned to the enemy frontier and formally declared war. He flung a spear across the frontier as a sign that hostilities had begun.
In later years, with the enlargement of Rome’s territory this procedure became increasingly difficult to apply. A piece of land was therefore acquired in the city which was symbolically designated as hostile soil and into which the spear could be thrown. A specially appointed senator replaced the fetiales. But the principle of ensuring that a war was just remained obligatory, at least in theory.
Ancus Marcius was also responsible for enlarging the city by bringing two hills inside its boundary, the Aventine and the Caelian. He founded the port of Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, a clear sign that Rome was developing trade.
The tiny settlement on the Palatine Hill was beginning to find its feet.