I should explain why I so love Roman history. Yes, I'm attracted to the life of Julius Caesar above all others. I adore good retellings of Marius and Sulla and Gracchus and the rest. But to me, there is a single moment in time that fascinates me, and always will.
You see, among all the astonishing achievements of the Roman Empire, the one that most amazes me is the fact that it even existed.
After Romulus founded the city, murdered his brother, and conducted the rape of the Sabine women, Rome was just another city. It was ruled over by a minor king, who was followed by his son, and his son’s son. Despite the ties to Aeneas and the kings of Alba Longa and such, it was just another small monarchy, like any other through the ages.
Oddly enough, in a city born from rape, it was a rape that led to the most remarkable moment in Roman – and indeed, to me, all – history.
In 509 BC Rome was under the rule of its seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. The Tarquin’s son raped a distant kinswoman, Lucretia. She summoned four noblemen to call upon her, described the crime that had been committed, and then stabbed herself in the heart.
Here is how Shakespeare paints the scene:
Here with a sigh, as if her heart would break,
She throws forth Tarquin's name: 'He, he,' she says,
But more than 'he' her poor tongue could not speak;
Till after many accents and delays,
Untimely breathings, sick and short assays,
She utters this: 'He, he, fair lords, 'tis he,
That guides this hand to give this wound to me.'
Even here she sheathed in her harmless breast
A harmful knife, that thence her soul unsheath'd:
That blow did bail it from the deep unrest
Of that polluted prison where it breath'd:
Her contrite sighs unto the clouds bequeath'd
Her winged sprite, and through her wounds doth fly
Life's lasting date from cancell'd destiny.
One of the men present was named Lucius Junius Brutus. The nickname Brutus had been earned by his feigning of stupidity. But he had had to seem dull and brutish after his brother had been murdered on the order of the Tarqin, who had a nasty habit of murdering anyone who might rival him.
According to Livy, Brutus tore the knife from the dead woman’s breast and ran into the streets, calling for the overthrow of the Tarquin, who also happened to be his uncle on his mother’s side. A notorious villain, the Tarquin lacked popular support, and thus both he and his son fled Rome as fast as their feet could carry them.
Again, the Shakespere:
When they had sworn to this advised doom,
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence;
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin's foul offence:
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin's everlasting banishment.
This is the moment that amazes me. Because Brutus was related to the Tarquin, the people of Rome turned to him and began hailing him as the new king. At which moment Brutus said, “No. No more kings. Men can rule themselves.”
This is the basis on which our modern culture stands. And it’s this moment that’s so very revolutionary to me. True, other cultures had flirted with democracies, the notion wasn’t entirely new. But for a man being hailed as a king to turn away the crown was – and is – an astonishing act. An act of patriotism, of humility, of far-sightedness, of egalitarianism, and of honor. An act without precedent or peer.
Here, according to Livy, is a retelling of the oath that Brutus had the people of Rome swear:
Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.
First of all, by swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.
Brutus meant it. Among the events that followed was a conspiracy to restore the monarchy. Among the conspirators were Brutus’ two sons. He had them put to death. Though he wept bitterly at their executions, the notion of self-determination, of autonomy, of self-rule, were more important to him than his own life, or the lives of his family. It was a remarkable act of self-abnegation, of sacrificing for the greater good. (below is a painting byJacques Louis-David entitled The Lictors Bring To Brutus The Bodies Of His Sons).
Of all the amazing moments of Roman history, this is the one that stands out to me. Yes, the new government was far from perfect. An oligarchy of Senators is not much better than a king, as it’s still the wealthy above the poor, the entitled against the disenfranchised. But here we are, 2,500 years later, and this is the idea that still strikes a spark in men’s hearts, that kindles us to strive for something more that the random injustices of life. Men can rule themselves. For out of injustice rises a need for justice. Not just justice for the wronged, but for all.
That need for justice is more powerful than one’s property, family, or even one’s own life. Brutus died in battle against the Tarquin and his son, killing the son as he himself fell, thus preventing the family’s return to Rome.
This is the Brutus I wish we remembered. I think his act of courage is among the greatest in recorded history. However much I love Marius and Caesasr and Augustus and the rest of the more known Romans, to me the greatest act in the whole history of Rome was the founding of the Republic.