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Tales of the Romans : The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould


 

 

THE GENERAL WHO ATE DRY BREAD

[69] "THE war in Africa is ended. The Roman eagles have again won great victories."

"Ah," said another Roman to him who had first spoken, "but though the southern foe is beaten, there is a worse foe on the north—beyond the white Alps."

"Who are they?"

"Men like giants, with blue eyes. There are two nations of them: the Cimbri and the Teutons."

"Have we a general who is strong enough to meet them?"

"Yes, we can trust the rough-handed and rough-voiced Marius. He is not a gentleman-soldier who loves to dwell in a tent with soft cushions. He shares with his men. When they have dry bread, he eats the same."

Marius was a man of the people. He lived 155&endash;86 B.C. As a lad he worked in the fields. In the army he acted as a brave fighter, and he rose to be a clever captain, then general. Instead of choosing his warriors from among the land-holders, he chose poor men—men who owned nothing—men who were unemployed. He drilled them; he taught them to bear hardships; they would go anywhere and do anything for Marius.

Near the Alps the Romans had fixed their [70] camp. Two vultures had flown over their heads, and as the birds flapped their wings the Romans shouted for joy. They said it was always a sign of coming victory when the vultures saluted them. The birds had been caught some time ago, and small brass rings had been fastened round their necks so that they might be known again.

A river ran near the camp. The servants of the army needed water both for themselves and the oxen. They saw some of the Teutons on the banks of the stream. Nevertheless, they went with pitchers to the waterside, taking also their weapons. A skirmish took place on the bank of the river. The enemy quickly gathered their forces. First marched thirty thousand men, all belonging to one tribe, clashing their spears one against the other, and keeping up a roar of voices. Through the river splashed the blue-eyed Teutons. The Romans charged them. The struggle went on till the sun set, and the stars gleamed out over the hills and plains and the two camps.

By night Marius sent a band of three thousand men to steal behind the position of the Teutons, ready to fall upon them by surprise.

At dawn the Roman army began to descend the hill on which they had been encamped. Very slowly they stepped, their front firm as a wall. The fierce giants of the northern forests rushed again and again toward the Roman van, but were [71] thrust back. A shout was heard in the woods behind the Teutons. The three thousand men in ambush issued forth in a rapid run. And now the Teutons broke at last. Thousands and thousands were the prisoners, and all the baggage fell into the hands of the victor Marius. This battle was fought in the year 102 B.C.

Next year (101 B.C.) Marius met the Cimbri in North Italy. Their horsemen were fifteen thousand, and they had helmets shaped like the heads of wild beasts, with nodding plumes; their breast-plates were of glittering iron, their shields of the same metal. From a distance they threw darts, and, when close, they fought with broad and heavy swords. These enemies, also, did the troops of Marius defeat. Strange was the sight which met the eyes of the Romans as they pursued the retreating Cimbri. The chariots at the rear of the host were filled with women and children. The women aimed arrows at the men that fled, thus slaying, perhaps, their own husbands, or sons, or fathers. They strangled their infants with their own hands; and, last of all, they killed themselves, sooner than fall into the power of the Romans. Such was the courage of the Cimbri women.

No wonder the people of Rome loved Marius, who saved them from the barbarians of the North. He was made consul five years running. And in [72] all his government he showed that he cared rather for the people than for the lordly classes—the rich patricians, or aristocrats. A shrewd man named Sulla formed a strong party of patricians against Marius, and Marius was obliged to fly for his life to the coast and embark in a friendly ship.

You will smile at the way in which his grandson escaped from Sulla. The young man was in a house at night, packing up things which he thought would be useful to Marius in his exile. Time passed; the day dawned; a band of Sulla's horsemen appeared. One of the farmers of the estate saw them coming, and hurriedly hid the young fellow in a cart, which was loaded with beans. The farmer drove his oxen as fast as he could past the horsemen, who saw only the beans in the cart, and not the young Roman, who lay, with a fast-beating heart, underneath!

The ship that carried Marius touched at a point of the coast, and the general, who had been sea-sick, was glad to land. Meeting some countrymen who herded cattle, he asked for refreshment; but they, knowing Marius, said they had nothing to give him, and begged him to leave the district at once, lest Sulla in his wrath should destroy them for sheltering Marius. The ship sailed on. Next day, stopping again, Marius took refuge in a thick wood, sitting with his few companions [73] among the trees, hungry and weary. But he never lost his spirit.

"Courage, my friends," he said. "When I was, but a child, an eagle's nest, with several young ones, fell into my lap. It was a sign that good-fortune would always come to me sooner or later."

A squadron of horsemen came in sight. Marius and his comrades ran to the beach and plunged into the sea, and it was as much as they could do to reach two ships which happened to be sailing close inshore. The pursuing horsemen shouted:

"You have Marius on board! In the name of Sulla we bid you yield him to us!"

The sailors first thought they would do so; then they thought otherwise. At length they said no. The cavalry departed, cursing as they went. But the sailors dreaded to keep the famous general in their charge. They said the wind was in the wrong quarter, and they must wait. Meanwhile Marius might rest at a grassy spot on shore. They landed him, and sailed away, leaving him all alone.

It was a dreary and desolate country. Marius scrambled over bogs and brooks, and saw a mean cottage in the midst of the fens. Throwing himself at the feet of the cottager, he asked for shelter, for he was trying to escape from foes.

"Come with me," said the good old peasant. Leading Marius to a cave by a riverside, he [74] placed on the ground a bed of dry reeds, and bade the tired general rest there in safety. Soon, however, the noise of pursuers was heard. Marius hastened from the cave, and waded through the muddy marsh, up to his neck in the mire. He was soon discovered; and, soiled and damp, he was carried prisoner to the magistrates of the nearest town.

They resolved he should be put to death, and a man, sword in hand, entered the room where Marius was shut up, intending to slay him. The chamber was dark. Through the dim shadows could just be seen the figure of Marius, his eyes flashing with scorn as he cried:

"Dost thou dare to kill Marius?"

And such was the majesty of his look and voice that the would-be slayer was terrified, and fled, exclaiming:

"I cannot kill Marius!"

By this time a number of the townspeople had gathered in the hope of saving the general. They swarmed round the prison door.

"Let Marius go," they shouted; "it was he who preserved Italy!"

And he was set free, and the people led him to the sea-shore, and saw him on board a ship that was provided for him by one of his faithful followers. After a time he landed on the coast of Africa, at the place where broken walls and ruined [75] towns showed that once the proud city of Carthage had stood. He hoped to receive help from the Roman governor of that region. But an officer from the governor came to say that Marius must at once leave the district, or else be treated as an enemy.

Marius sat thinking. He was sad at the idea that he should be driven from place to place like a wild beast. The officer asked what answer he should take.

"Tell your master," said the wanderer, "that you have seen the exile Marius sitting amid the ruins of Carthage."

I suppose he was reflecting how grand cities may fall, as Carthage did, and how powerful statesmen may also fall from their high estate, as he himself had done.

And so the unhappy general set out on his wanderings once more. Sulla had departed to the East to wage war against the enemies of Rome in Asia. Marius deemed that now his chance was come. He landed on the coast of Tuscany, in northern Italy.

"I proclaim freedom to all slaves who will help me," he said to the people who met him on landing.

Not only slaves, but freemen also, came to his aid—peasants, shepherds, and other working-men. They thought Marius was the friend of [76] the poor and humble. If he became master of Rome, the needy folk would enjoy good times. Marius soon had a great army. He marched toward Rome, posted his men on a hill overlooking the city, and prepared for the assault.

The senate (that is, the Council of Elders) sent a message to say the city should be surrendered.

And then followed a dreadful scene. A body of bloodthirsty men, specially chosen by Marius, went to and fro in the streets, killing all whom Marius marked out for death. If any man passed by and bowed to Marius, and the old general did not salute in return, it was taken as a signal of doom. The man was at once put to death.

Marius, however, could not forget his own deeds of horror. At night he lay tossing on his bed, thinking of the men he had slain, and thinking how Sulla would come back from Asia; and what then? And a voice seemed always to ring in his ears, saying over and over again the words: "Dread are the slumbers of the distant lion—Dread are the slumbers of the distant lion—Dread are the—"

And thus, feverish in his body and troubled in his mind, he lay sick, and died, aged seventy.

You see what disorder Rome was falling into when one party of the nation fought against the other.

It was a good thing for Rome that a strong will [77] was soon to give order to the land, and give peace to the republic. This strong will was the will of Julius Csar.


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