sacrifice epilogue: the Lacus Curtius

Rome is not a happy place. But it is the talk of all the big-wigs and the kings these days, is it not? That strange city of upstarts from the hills – of Latium, of all places! – has grown to take the lead in our world. Who has grown so quickly in strength like they have? That’s the talk of the town among those who study, these days.

Now I know Rome is as ravenous a beast as there ever was, but I reckon it all came from somewhere. Those who are given to poecy say it’s the milk of that she-wolf that gave them such hunger. But there’s that old saying, isn’t there? The laws and oaths are hungry. It’s the laws and oaths that these Romans follow so strictly, these laws and oaths train them for austerity, make them as brutal to others as they are to themselves. Or have you not heard some of the blood-spattered tales from their early days? Most of it is nonsense, I reckon. But one of their more fantastic tales has always struck me. It’s romantic in a way that few of their stories are.

They say that in one year of particular hardship, a gaping chasm opened up in the centre of the City. Time and again the people tried to fill it with earth, but nothing did the trick. And so they began to panic, in their small-minded way, until some of them consulted an oracle and asked heaven for a solution. The oracle replied with the question “What is the best of the Romans?” – because this alone when sacrificed, would close the chasm. But the people of that hungry, greedy city could not name what it was.

But then the young soldier Marcus Curtius came forward. He shamed his fellow citizens and cried “Is it not the arms and bravery of the Roman people that is the best of them?” So he looked at all the City he loved. And raising one hand to the gods above, one to the gods below, he devoted himself as a sacrifice. He mounted his horse – both of them now dressed for battle – and rode straight into the chasm. Immediately it closed around him, and so he saved his City.

You can see the site today too – it’s a closed-over pit surrounded by hacks and mystics telling fortunes and peddling charms. The story itself is probably just as nonsensical. But if laws and oaths are hungry – and even heaven itself, it seems – is it not comforting to know that it is the best of us who can willingly, lovingly, ride forward to feed them? My best could not possibly feed these hungry things, but someone else could offer it for me. A good comfort for all of us, I reckon.

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