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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE DEATH OF VERGINIA

[80] APPIUS CLAUDIUS did not go to the war. He stayed in Rome, and before long roused the temper of the people beyond control.

Verginius, a brave plebeian soldier, was with the army, and in his absence he had left his beautiful young daughter Verginia in the care of her nurse.

One day as the young girl was on her way to school in the Forum, Appius Claudius saw how beautiful she was, and he determined to take her away from her father and Icilius, to whom she was betrothed.

But although he did his utmost to persuade the maiden to go home with him, Verginia refused to leave her father's house.

Then Appius Claudius grew angry, and vowed to himself that he would take her away by foul means, since fair ones had failed.

So the tyrant ordered a man, named Marcus Claudius, to declare that Verginia was not a free Roman maiden, as Verginius had pretended, but was a slave belonging to himself.

This Marcus did, and then, seeing the girl one day in the Forum, he tried to lay hold of her. But her nurse cried aloud for help, so that a crowd quickly gathered, and hearing what had happened, it vowed to protect Verginia, until her father and her betrothed returned from the camp.

Then Marcius did as Appius Claudius had secretly bidden him. He said that he did not wish to harm the maiden, indeed, he was even willing to take the matter to law.

[81] So, followed by the crowd, he led Verginia before the judge, who was no other than Appius Claudius.

Here Marcus announced that he could prove to Verginius that the maiden was not really his child, but belonged to a slave who lived in his house. Meanwhile he demanded that the maiden should be given into his charge.

But the crowd did not believe what Marcus said, nor did they care to let the young girl leave her home in her father's absence.

"Send to the camp for Verginius," cried the people, heedless of the angry looks of the judge. "Verginia is a free maiden, and shall stay with her friends until she is proved a slave."

With an effort, Appius Claudius concealed his real feelings, and, speaking with the dignity of a judge, he said: "The maiden belongs either to Verginius or to Marcus. As Verginius is absent, Marcus shall take charge of her until her father returns, when the case shall again come before me."

But to such an unfair sentence the people refused to submit. So fierce was their temper that they would have forced Claudius to leave the city had he not reluctantly allowed Verginia to stay with her friends until the following day. If Verginius did not then appear at his tribunal Marcus should claim the maiden without delay, said Claudius.

Icilius had by this time returned to the city, and he at once sent to the camp, beseeching Verginius to let nothing keep him from at once coming to Rome.

But Claudius also sent a messenger to the camp, bidding his officers on no account to allow Verginius to leave his post.

Fortunately, the messenger sent by Icilius reached the camp first, and Verginius was already hastening to the city when his officer received the order sent by Claudius.

The next morning Claudius went to the Forum, sure that before the day was over he would have secured Verginia.

What was his surprise and anger to see that Verginius, whom he had believed to be safely detained at camp, was [82] already there by the side of his daughter, accompanied by many Roman matrons and a crowd of people.

The judge could hear the voice of Verginius as he drew near. He was speaking to the people, and Claudius knew too well how easily the passions of the mob could be roused.

"It is not only my daughter that is not safe," Verginius was saying; "who will dare henceforth to leave their children in Rome if I am robbed of my child?"

As the matrons listened they wept, thinking of the fate that might overtake their own dear daughters.

Claudius was now much too angry to try to humour the people.

Bidding Verginius be silent, he at once gave his verdict that the maiden should be given to Marcus, until her father had proved that she was free-born.

The people stood silent, stunned for the moment by the wickedness of the judge. But as Marcus drew near to lead Verginia away, her friends gathered around her, refusing to let the man come near her.

Then, in his rage, Claudius bade his lictors drive the people away, and they, raising their axes, soon scattered the crowd, for it was unarmed.

Verginius, turning quietly to Claudius, asked that he might at least speak apart for a moment to his daughter and her nurse. His request was granted. Then the poor father in his desperate sorrow knew that there was but one thing to be done. To trust his daughter to these wicked men was not to be thought of, so, drawing her into his arms, he snatched a knife from one of the stalls, and whispered in her ear: "My child, there is no other way to free thee." Swift and sure, even as he spoke, he plunged the knife into his daughter's heart.

Turning to the unjust judge, Verginius cursed him to his face; then breaking through the crowd, he sped to the city gates, and mounting a horse, rode in hot haste back to the camp.

[83] Meanwhile, Icilius lifted the dead body of the maiden, and bade the people see what the tyrant Claudius had done.

In fierce anger, the crowd rushed upon the lictors and a band of armed patricians and drove them from the Forum. Claudius, covering his face with his toga, fled, and for the time escaped with his life.

Verginius had no sooner reached the camp than he told his piteous tale to the army. Willingly the soldiers marched to Rome, led by the miserable father, and joined by another army, at the head of which was Icilius.

Together they entered Rome, and the soldiers deposed the decemvirs, while each army elected ten tribunes. They then marched out of the city, followed by the people, and encamped, as once before, on the Sacred Mount, leaving Rome to the patricians.

The Senate saw that it was time to act, for the decemvirs, it was plain, still hoped to keep the power they had grasped. So it forced them to resign, and then sent to the Sacred Mount to ask the plebeians what sentence they wished the tyrants to suffer.

Icilius demanded that the decemvirs should be put to death, the others were content that they should be banished from Rome. But Appius Claudius was not banished with the other decemvirs. He was sent to prison, where some say that he killed himself, but others assert that his enemies put him to death.

The people were now ready to return to the city, having obtained from the Senate a promise that they should have their tribunes as of old, and that the sacred laws should be again established.

In 445 B.C., about four years later, the plebeians succeeded in gaining new privileges. A law was passed allowing them to marry patricians, and this greatly pleased the people.

For many years the plebeians had wished to be allowed [84] to stand for the Consulship. Now it was arranged that, instead of Consuls, from three to six military tribunes should be appointed, and for this office plebeians might stand.

Two of the duties however that had belonged to the Consuls were not given to the military tribunes, but kept for two new officers, called censors. The censors were to be chosen from among the patricians.


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