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Translated by Rev. Canon Roberts
Book VII Chapter 6: The Sacrifice of Marcus Curtius. War with the Hernici.[362 BC]
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In this year, owing either to an earthquake or the action of some other force, the middle of the Forum fell in to an immense depth, presenting the appearance of an enormous cavern. Though all worked their hardest at throwing earth in, they were unable to fill up the gulf, until at the bidding of the gods inquiry was made as to what that was in which the strength of Rome lay. For this, the seers declared, must be sacrificed on that spot if men wished the Roman republic to be eternal. The story goes on that Marcus Curtius, a youth distinguished in war, indignantly asked those who were in doubt what answer to give, whether anything that Rome possessed was more precious than the arms and valour of her sons. As those around stood silent, he looked up to the Capitol and to the temples of the immortal gods which looked down on the Forum, and stretching out his hands first towards heaven and then to the yawning chasm beneath, devoted himself to the gods below. Then mounting his horse, which had been caparisoned as magnificently as possible, he leaped in full armour into the cavern. Gifts and offerings of fruits of the earth were flung in after him by crowds of men and women. It was from this incident that the designation "The Curtian Lake" originated, and not from that old-world soldier of Titius Tatius, Curtius Mettius. If any path would lead an inquirer to the truth, we should not shrink from the labour of investigation; as it is, on a matter where antiquity makes certainty impossible we must adhere to the legends which supplies the more famous derivation of the name.After this appalling portent had been duly expiated, the deliberations of the senate were concerned with the Hernici. The mission of the Fetials who had been sent to demand satisfaction proved to be fruitless; the senate accordingly decided to submit to the people at the earliest possible day the question of declaring war against the Hernici. The people in a crowded Assembly voted for war. Its conduct fell by lot to Lucius Genucius. As he was the first plebeian consul to manage a war under his own auspices the State awaited the issue with keen interest, prepared to look upon the policy of admitting plebeians to the highest offices of state as wise or unwise according to the way matters turned out. As chance would have it, Genucius, whilst making a vigorous attack upon the enemy, fell into an ambush, the legions were taken by surprise and routed, and the consul was surrounded and killed without the enemy being aware who their victim was. |
When the report of the occurrence reached Rome, the patricians were not so much distressed at the disaster which had befallen the common-wealth as they were exultant over the unfortunate generalship of the consul. Everywhere they were taunting the plebeians: "Go on! Elect your consuls from the plebs, transfer the auspices to those for whom it is an impiety to possess them! The voice of the plebs may expel the patricians from their rightful honours, but has your law, which pollutes the auspices, any force against the immortal gods! They have themselves vindicated their will as expressed through the auspices, for no sooner have these been profaned by one who took them against divine and human law than the army and its general have been wiped out as a lesson to you not to conduct the elections to the confusion of all the rights of the patrician houses." The Senate-house and the Forum alike were resounding with these protests.
Appius Claudius, who had led the opposition to the law, spoke with more weight than ever while he denounced the result of a policy which he had severely censured, and the consul Servilius, with the unanimous approval of the patricians, nominated him dictator. Orders were issued for an immediate enrolment and the suspension of all business.