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SOME men are renowned in history on account of the extraordinary powers and capacities which they exhibited in the course of their career, or the intrinsic greatness of the deeds which they performed. Others, without having really achieved any thing in itself very great or wonderful, have become widely known to mankind by reason of the vast consequences which, in the subsequent course of events, resulted from their doings. Men of this latter class are conspicuous rather than great. From among thousands of other men equally exalted in character with themselves, they are brought out prominently to the notice of mankind only in consequence of the strong light reflected, by great events subsequently occurring, back upon the position where they happened to stand.
The celebrity of Romulus seems to be of this latter kind. He founded a city. A thousand other men have founded cities; and in doing their work have evinced perhaps as much courage, sagacity, and mental power as Romulus displayed. The city of Romulus, however, became in the end the queen and mistress of the world. It rose to so exalted a position of influence and power, and retained its ascendency so long, that now for twenty centuries every civilized nation in the western world have felt a strong interest in every thing pertaining to its history, and have been accustomed to look back with special curiosity to the circumstances of its origin. In consequence of this it has happened that though Romulus, in his actual day, performed no very great exploits, and enjoyed no pre-eminence above the thousand other half-savage chieftains of his class, whose names have been long forgotten, and very probably while he lived never dreamed of any extended fame, yet so brilliant is the illumination which the subsequent events of history have shed upon his position and his doings, that his name and the incidents of his life have been brought out very conspicuously to view, and attract very strongly the attention of mankind.
The history of Rome is usually made to begin with the story of Æneas. In order that the reader may understand in what light that romantic tale is to be regarded, it is necessary to premise some statements in respect to the general condition of society in ancient days, and to the nature of the strange narrations, circulated in those early periods among mankind, out of which in later ages, when the art of writing came to be introduced, learned men compiled and recorded what they termed history.
The countries which formed the shores of the Mediterranean sea were as verdant and beautiful, in those ancient days, and perhaps as fruitful and as densely populated as in modern times. The same Italy and Greece were there then as now. There were the same blue and beautiful seas, the same mountains, the same picturesque and enchanting shores, the same smiling valleys, and the same serene and genial sky. The level lands were tilled industriously by a rural population corresponding in all essential points of character with the peasantry of modern times; and shepherds and herdsmen, then as now, hunted the wild beasts, and watched their flocks and herds, on the declivities of the mountains. In a word, the appearance of the face of nature, and the performance of the great function of the social state, namely, the procuring of food and clothing for man by the artificial cultivation of animal and vegetable life, were substantially the same on the shores of the Mediterranean two thousand years ago as now. Even the plants and the animals themselves which the ancient inhabitants reared, have undergone no essential change. Their sheep and oxen and horses were the same as ours. So were their grapes, their apples, and their corn.
If, however, we leave the humbler classes and occupations of society, and turn our attention to those which represent the refinement, the cultivation, and the power, of the two respective periods, we shall find that almost all analogy fails. There was an aristocracy then as now, ruling over the widely- extended communities of peaceful agriculturalists and herdsmen, but the members of it were entirely different in their character, their tastes, their ideas, and their occupations from the classes which exercise the prerogatives of government in Europe in modern times. The nobles then were military chieftains, living in camps or in walled cities, which they built for the accommodation of themselves and their followers. These chieftains were not barbarians. They were in a certain sense cultivated and refined. They gathered around them in their camps and in their courts orators, poets, statesmen, and officers of every grade, who seem to have possessed the same energy, genius, taste, and in some respects the same scientific skill, which have in all ages and in every clime characterized the upper classes of the Caucasian race. They carried all the arts which were necessary for their purposes and plans to high perfection, and in the invention of tales, ballads and poems, to be recited at their entertainments and feasts, they evinced the most admirable taste and skill;—a taste and skill which, as they resulted not from the operation and influence of artificial rules, but from the unerring instinct of genius, have never been surpassed. In fact, the poetical inventions of those early days, far from having been produced in conformity with rules, were entirely precedent to rules, in the order of time. Rules were formed from them; for they at length became established themselves in the estimation of mankind, as models, and on their authority as models, the whole theory of rhetorical and poetical beauty now mainly reposes.
The people of those days formed no idea of a spiritual world, or of a spiritual divinity. They however imagined, that heroes of former days still continued to live and to reign in certain semi-heavenly regions among the summits of their blue and beautiful mountains, and that they were invested there with attributes in some respects divine. In addition to these divinities, the fertile fancy of those ancient times filled the earth, the air, the sea, and the sky with imaginary beings, all most graceful and beautiful in their forms, and poetical in their functions,—and made them the subjects, too, of innumerable legends and tales, as graceful, poetical, and beautiful as themselves. Every grove, and fountain, and river,—every lofty summit among the mountains, and every rock and promontory along the shores of the sea,—every cave, every valley, every water-fall, had its imaginary occupant,—the genius of the spot; so that every natural object which attracted public notice at all, was the subject of some picturesque and romantic story. In a word, nature was not explored then as now, for the purpose of ascertaining and recording cold and scientific realities,—but to be admired, and embellished, and animated;—and to be peopled, everywhere, with exquisitely beautiful, though imaginary and supernatural, life and action.
What the genius of imagination and romance did thus in ancient times with the scenery of nature, it did also on the field of history. Men explored that field not at all to learn sober and actual realities, but to find something that they might embellish and adorn, and animate with supernatural and marvelous life. What the sober realities might have actually been, was of no interest or moment to them whatever. There were no scholars then as now, living in the midst of libraries, and finding constant employment, and a never-ending pleasure, in researches for the simple investigation of the truth. There was in fact no retirement, no seclusion, no study. Every thing except what related to the mere daily toil of tilling the ground bore direct relation to military expeditions, spectacles and parades; and the only field for the exercise of that kind of intellectual ability which is employed in modern times in investigating and recording historic truth, was the invention and recitation of poems, dramas and tales, to amuse great military audiences in camps or public gatherings, convened to witness shows or games, or to celebrate great religious festivals. Of course under such circumstances there would be no interest felt in truth as truth. Romance and fable would be far more serviceable for such ends than reality.
Still it is obvious that such tales as were invented to amuse for the purposes we have described, would have a deeper interest for those who listened to them, if founded in some measure upon fact, and connected in respect to the scene of their occurrence, with real localities. A prince and his court sitting at their tables in the palace or the tent, at the close of a feast, would listen with greater interest to a story that purported to be an account of the deeds and the marvelous adventures of their own ancestors, than to one that was wholly and avowedly imaginary. The inventors of these tales would of course generally choose such subjects, and their narrations would generally consist therefore rather of embellishments of actual transactions, than of inventions wholly original. Their heroes were consequently real men; the principal actions ascribed to them were real actions, and the places referred to were real localities. Thus there was a semblance of truth and reality in all these tales which added greatly to the interest of them; while there were no means of ascertaining the real truth, and thus spoiling the story by making the falsehood or improbability of it evident and glaring.
We cannot well have a better illustration of these principles than is afforded by the story of Cadmus, an adventurer who was said to have brought the knowledge of alphabetic writing into Greece from some countries farther eastward. In modern times there is a very strong interest felt in ascertaining the exact truth on this...