The Legend of Siccius Dentatus and The Legend of Virginai.
Continuing The Decemvirate In Rome,
our selection from A History of Rome by Henry G. Liddell published in 1855. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Decemvirate In Rome.
Time: 450 BC
Place: City of Rome
In the army sent against the Sabines, Siccius Dentatus was known as the bravest man. He was then serving as a centurion; he had fought in one hundred and twenty battles; he had slain eight champions in single combat; had saved the lives of fourteen citizens; had received forty wounds, all in front; had followed in nine triumphal processions, and had won crowns and decorations without number. This gallant veteran had taken an active part in the civil contests between the two orders, and was now suspected, by the decemvirs commanding the Sabine army, of plotting against them. Accordingly they determined to get rid of him; and for this end they sent him out as if to reconnoiter, with a party of soldiers, who were secretly instructed to murder him. Having discovered their design, he set his back against a rock and resolved to sell his life dearly. More than one of his assailants fell and the rest stood at bay around him, not venturing to come within sword’s length, when one wretch climbed up the rock behind and crushed the brave old man with a massive stone. But the manner of his death could not be hidden from the army, and the generals only prevented an outbreak by honoring him with a magnificent funeral.
Such was the state of things in the Sabine army.
[Dionysius is the authority for this legend.]
The other army had a still grosser outrage to complain of. In this there was a notable centurion, Virginius by name. His daughter Virginia, just ripening into womanhood, beautiful as the day, was betrothed to L. Icilius, the tribune who had carried the law for allotting the Aventine hill to the plebeians. Appius Claudius, the decemvir, saw her and lusted to make her his own. And with this intent he ordered one of his clients, M. Claudius by name, to lay hands upon her as she was going to her school in the Forum, and to claim her as his slave. The man did so; and when the cries of her nurse brought a crowd round them, M. Claudius insisted on taking her before the decemvir, in order, as he said, to have the case fairly tried. Her friends consented; and no sooner had Appius heard the matter than he gave judgment that the maiden should be delivered up to the claimant, who should be bound to produce her in case her alleged father appeared to gainsay the claim. Now this judgment was directly against one of the laws of the twelve tables, which Appius himself had framed; for therein it was provided that any person being at freedom should continue free till it was proved that such person was a slave. Icilius, therefore, with Numitorius, the uncle of the maiden, boldly argued against the legality of the judgment, and at length Appius, fearing a tumult, agreed to leave the girl in their hands-on condition of their giving bail to bring her before him next morning; and then, if Virginius did not appear, he would at once, he said, give her up to her pretended master. To this Icilius consented, but he delayed giving bail, pretending that he could not procure it readily; and in the meantime he sent off a secret message to the camp on Algidus, to inform Virginius of what had happened. As soon as the bail was given, Appius also sent a message to the decemvirs in command of that army, ordering them to refuse leave of absence to Virginius. But when this last message arrived, Virginius was already halfway on his road to Rome; for the distance was not more than twenty miles, and he had started at nightfall.
By the end of the year the decemvirs had added two more tables to the code, so that there were now twelve tables. But these two last were of a most oppressive and arbitrary kind, devoted chiefly to restore the ancient privileges of the patrician caste. Of these tables, it should be observed that they were made laws not by the vote of the people, but by the simple edict of the decemvirs.
It was, no doubt, expected that the second decemvirs also would have held comitia for the election of successors. But Appius and his colleagues showed no such intention, and when the year came to a close they continued to hold office as if they had been reelected. So firmly did their power seem to be established that we hear of no endeavor being made to induce them to resign.
In the course of this next year (B.C. 449), the border wars were renewed. On the north the Sabines, and the Aequians on the northeast, invaded the Roman country at the same time. The latter penetrated as far as Mount Algidus, as in B.C. 458, when they were routed by old Cincinnatus. The decemvirs probably, like the patrician burgesses in former times, regarded these inroads not without satisfaction; for they turned away the mind of the people from their sufferings at home. Yet from these very wars sprung the events which overturned their power and destroyed themselves.
Two armies were levied, one to check the Sabines, the other to oppose the Aequians, and these were commanded by the six military decemvirs. Appius and Oppius remained to administer affairs at home. But there was no spirit in the armies. Both were defeated; and that which was opposed to the Aequians was compelled to take refuge within the walls of Tusculum.
Then followed two events which were preserved in well-known legends, and which give the popular narrative of the manner in which the power of the decemvirs was at last overthrown.
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