Old Father Tiber has one more story to tell.
After the heady days of struggle against the tyrants, Rome grew fat. Our people had loved truth and freedom, now we lusted for coin, power and prestige. And so the ten decemvirs took power in our city. They were once good men who loved justice, but the taste of power poisoned the lot of them. The best and worst of them was the decemvir Appius Claudius.
After dread Porsena left us in peace, our men turned to giving laws to our Republic. Laws that would make us an example for all the kingdoms and tribes. Our Roman goodness would guide all others. And so the ten decemvirs were chosen for their wisdom to do just this. They would write a code of laws – ten tablets to guide our people, and we would guide all others. There would be no limits to our goodness, our laws would reach all, teach all, we would give our laws to all.
But the laws are hungry. Now the decemvir Claudius had always been first to stand up for the common citizen against the claims of the noble. He had poured all his wisdom into the ten laws. But all was not well. The decemvirs claimed more and more that their word on any matter was final – not the City Fathers’, not the judges. Their axe-bearing bodyguards swaggered about the streets looking for trouble. And as the decemvirs’ task neared its end, they suddenly claimed – look! – that they needed time for two more tablets beside the existing ten.
The citizens were worried. And so the wisest among us asked Claudius, “Who then will sit as the next ten decemvirs?” And to this Claudius replied that he would be among the next. “Who would otherwise carry out the justice of the Twelve Tablets? I must bring justice to the City, you must allow me to carry out the justice of the laws.” With this he dismissed the citizens to their homes. We knew then and there, Claudius was a poisoned man. His justice was twisted. The laws were no longer good, for they were now his laws. They would devour all of us.
A year passed. Claudius still sat on the curule chair, with nine others – their word was final, their bodyguards roamed the streets. The two new tablets, they told us again and again, were not yet ready. “Let those who know justice sit on the curule chair to dispense it,” they told us.
But Claudius was hungry, as hungry as his laws. While preparing his laws he eyed the young girl Verginia, a flower among the quiet despair of the streets. He saw her goodness, and he wanted it for himself. He saw her beauty, and he wanted to take it. He tried to woo her with bribes and promises, but she refused him again and again.
And so he arranged for a friend, the wretch Marcus, to declare before all the people that Verginia was in fact a runaway slave of his – nevermind that her father was the old warrior Verginius, and she herself was betrothed to the worthy Icilius – so that he could take her and bring her back to Claudius. For, you see, in our Roman laws the word of a wretch is still worth more than the word of a slave.
This worthless Marcus, then, did just that. As Verginia made her way to school, he stood in her way and grabbed her. “You wretched slave,” he cried, loud enough for passersby to hear, “you thought you could escape my house? Now come back with me. You know the laws of our people – if you resist I will take you back by force.” Curious onlookers came forward, and, recognising the girl and respecting the name of her father, they stood about Verginia, shielding her. With loud shouts the wretch insisted she was his, but the people would have none of it. They demanded he appear in court of law, before the justice of the decemvirs, to settle the matter.
Marcus, then, went to court to insist on his claim. But on the curule chair sat none other than Claudius – he would carry out justice for this case. Marcus knew what to say: this girl was indeed his slave, stolen from him at birth and raised in the house of Verginius. But Verginia’s defenders would have none of it – let the case be settled later, they cried, at least until her father could be recalled from the army camp to vouch for his daughter.
Claudius, fearing the people, but wanting to satisfy his lust, said “What you say is good. But since the girl’s father is not here, none can claim that she is not a slave. Let old Verginius be called to court, but in the meantime, Marcus’ word cannot be challenged. She must remain in his care until her father arrives.”
This sentence produced murmurs, the kind that passed around when the axe-bearing bodyguards swaggered on the streets. But now – look! – the girl’s betrothed, worthy Icilius, arrived at the court. He protested with loud shouts at Claudius’ judgement. And as the axe-bearing bodyguards made for him he cried “We know what you want! You would have me put out from this court for the sake of your lust! But as for me, I will marry this girl, you will not have her. Now send her back to her father’s house! Your laws have taken everything from us, but now you would would feed on our wives and children? Beat us all you want, but do not touch the honour of our women. If indeed the girl’s father listens to this wretch’s claim, let him find her another husband. In the meantime I would sacrifice my life for her freedom, I will not sacrifice my honour to bow to the likes of you.”
Claudius, fearing a riot, gave in. The girl would remain with her friends until the next day – and if her father did not appear then, he would carry out justice without him. Claudius then came up with another wretched plan: he wrote to the army commanders where Verginius was stationed, ordering them to arrest him and keep him from leaving. But as his messengers arrived at the camp they found the girl’s father gone – Icilius and his friends had already secured his leave.
And so the next day Verginius arrived, dressed in mourning black. Claudius sat on the curule chair, and worthless Marcus began his claim that Verginia was his slave. Claudius’ eyes, they say, wandered back and forth the room as Marcus gestured here and there, here pointing viciously at old Verginius, then calling on heaven to vouch for him. His eyes kept settling on the girl Verginia, however – but it was not love or even lust in his eyes, they say, but poison.
“Enough!” Claudius cried. “I have heard enough. I now make my decision with full force of law – the girl is indeed the slave of Marcus.” There were no murmurs now, just quiet shock. And as Marcus reached to grab the girl, her old father cried out to Claudius “this girl is betrothed to Icilius, not you! Or are you so determined to satisfy your lusts like a wild beast?” And he roused his friends with oaths to fight for Verginia’s freedom.
“Enough!” Claudius cried again. “You will not carry out violence in this court. You know the laws of our people – all violent rebellion will be punished. And is that not a fitting name for this crowd of pushing, shouting people?” With that he called for his axe-bearing bodyguard. “Go now in peace. My men will clear the way for Marcus to reclaim his slave.” And hearing this, Verginius’ friends fell away.
Old Verginius, dressed in mourning black, now spoke respectfully. He asked to take the girl aside and question her one last time where she’d come from. Claudius allowed him, and so Verginius took his daughter to a side booth. He looked at her, a flower among the quiet despair, and spoke softly to her “O my daughter, these are evil times that fate has brought to you. But the laws of the curule chair cannot be broken. The decemvir Claudius will give the name of justice to his deeds today. But your honour is more than all this, daughter. It must not be eaten by the likes of Claudius. And so this is the sacrifice for your freedom.” And with that, old Verginius drew a butcher’s knife and plunged it into his daughter’s breast.
So my story ends here. The father fought his way out of the courthouse, and took the body to the betrothed. Of course Icilius wailed and wept bitterly at the sight, and all the people wept seeing the flower trampled so. And shortly afterward, the decemvirs were driven out. The laws they’d crafted stayed behind though, those twelve tablets with their power to kill. But young Verginia, beautiful Verginia, was done to death, sacrificed to honour and freedom.