Young Folks' History of Rome HTML version

7. The Roman Government
So far as true history can guess, the Romans really did have kings and drove them out,
but there are signs that, though Porsena was a real king, the war was not so honorable to
the Romans as they said, for he took the city and made them give up all their weapons to
him, leaving them nothing but their tools for husbandry. But they liked to forget their
The older Roman families were called patricians, or fathers, and thought all rights to
govern belonged to them. Settlers who came in later were called plebeians, or the people,
and at first had no rights at all, for all the land belonged to the patricians, and the only
way for the plebeians to get anything done for them was to become hangers-on—or, as
they called it, clients—of some patrician who took care of their interests. There was a
council of patricians called the Senate, chosen among themselves, and also containing by
right all who had been chief magistrates. The whole assembly of the patricians was called
the Comitia. They, as has been said before, fought on horseback, while the plebeians
fought on foot; but out of the rich plebeians a body was formed called the knights, who
also used horses, and wore gold rings like the patricians.
But the plebeians were always trying not to be left out of everything. By and by, they said
under Servius Tullius, the city was divided into six quarters, and all the families living in
them into six tribes, each of which had a tribune to watch over it, bring up the number of
its men, and lead them to battle. Another division of the citizens, both patrician and
plebeian, was made every five years. They were all counted and numbered and divided
off into centuries according to their wealth. Then these centuries, or hundreds, had votes,
by the persons they chose, when it was a question of peace or war. Their meeting was
called the Comitia; but as there were more patrician centuries than plebeian ones, the
patricians still had much more power. Besides, the Senate and all the magistrates were in
those days always patricians. These magistrates were chosen every year. There were two
consuls, who were like kings for the time, only that they wore no crowns; they had purple
robes, and sat in chairs ornamented with ivory, and they were always attended by lictors,
who carried bundles of rods tied round an axe—the first for scourging, the second for
beheading. There were under them two prætors, or judges, who tried offences; two
quæstors, who attended to the public buildings; and two censors, who had to look after
the numbering and registering of the people in their tribes and centuries. The consuls in
general commanded the army, but sometimes, when there was a great need, one single
leader was chosen and was called dictator. Sometimes a dictator was chosen merely to
fulfil an omen, by driving a nail into the head of the great statue of Jupiter in the Capitol.
Besides these, all the priests had to be patricians; the chief of all was called Pontifex
Maximus. Some say this was because he was the fax (maker) of pontes (bridges), as he
blessed them and decided by omens where they should be; but others think the word was
Pompifex, and that he was the maker of pomps or ceremonies. There were many priests
as well as augurs, who had to draw omens from the flight of birds or the appearance of
sacrifices, and who kept the account of the calendar of lucky and unlucky days, and of
The Romans were a grave religious people in those days, and did not count their lives or
their affections dear in comparison with their duties to their altars and their hearths,
though their notions of duty do not always agree with ours. Their dress in the city was a
white woollen garment edged with purple—it must have been more like in shape to a
Scottish plaid than anything else—and was wrapped round so as to leave one arm free: