That same year, whether owing to an earthquake or to some other violent force, it is said that the ground gave way, at about the middle of the Forum, and, sinking to an immeasurable depth, left a prodigious chasm.
This gulf could not be filled with the earth which everyone brought and cast into it, until admonished by the gods, they began to inquire what it was that constituted the chief strength of the Roman People;
for this the soothsayers declared that they must offer up, as a sacrifice to that spot, if they wished the Roman Republic to endure. Thereupon Marcus Curtius, a young soldier of great prowess, rebuked them, so the story runs, for questioning whether any blessing were more Roman than arms and valour.
A hush ensued, as he turned to the temples of the immortal gods which rise above the Forum, and to the Capitol, and stretching forth his hands, now to heaven, and now to the yawning chasm and to the gods below, devoted himself to death.
After which, mounted on a horse caparisoned with all possible splendour, he plunged fully armed into the gulf; and crowds of men and women threw offerings and fruits in after him. It was he, they say, and not Curtius Mettius, the soldier [p. 375]
of Titus Tatius in days of old, who gave his name to1
the Curtian Lake.2
Diligence would not be wanting, were there any path which could lead the inquirer to the truth; as it is, one must hold by the tradition, where antiquity will not allow us to be certain; and the name of the pool is better known from this more recent legend.
After the expiation of this great portent, the senate dealt in the same year with the question of the Hernici, and having dispatched fetials to demand reparations, without avail, resolved to submit to the people for their approval, at the earliest possible day, a declaration of war against that nation. In a crowded assembly the people voted for war, and the consul Lucius Genucius was by lot intrusted with the conduct of it.
The citizens were in a fever of suspense, since he would be the first plebeian consul to conduct a war under his own auspices, and they would judge by the sequel whether they had done well or ill to throw these honours open.
It so happened that Genucius, marching in great force against the enemy, plunged into an ambuscade. The legions, in a sudden panic, were put to flight, and the consul was surrounded and slain by men who knew not whom they had taken.
When the news reached Rome, the patricians, by no means so cast down by the general disaster as elated at the unlucky generalship of the plebeian consul, filled the City with their taunts. Let them go and choose consuls from the plebs! Let them transfer the auspices to those who might not have them without sin!
They had been able by a plebiscite to expel the patricians from their rightful honours: had their unsanctioned3
law prevailed also against the immortal gods? The gods [p. 377]
themselves had vindicated their divine authority and their4
auspices; for these had no sooner been touched by one who had no legal or religious warranty for so doing, than the army and its general had been annihilated, as a lesson never again to overturn the rights of the patrician families in conducting an election. Such words as these resounded through the Curia and the Forum.
Appius Claudius had urged the rejection of the law, and this now gave his words the greater weight, as he denounced the outcome of a policy which he himself had censured. Him, therefore, the consul Servilius, with the approval of the patricians, appointed dictator. An enrolment was proclaimed, and the courts were suspended.