To get the new code of laws which they brought home put into working order, it was agreed for the time to have no consuls, praetors, nor tribunes, but ten governors, perhaps in imitation of the nine Athenian archons. They were called Decemvirs (decem, ten; vir, a man), and at their head was Lucius Appius Claudius, the grandson of him who had killed himself to avoid being condemned for his harshness. At first they governed well, and a very good set of laws was drawn up, which the Romans called the Laws of the Ten Tables; but Appius soon began to give way to the pride of his nature, and made himself hated. There was a war with the AEqui, in which the Romans were beaten. Old Sicinius Dentatus said it was owing to bad management, and, as he had been in one hundred and twenty battles, everybody believed him. Thereupon Appius Claudius sent for him, begged for his advice, and asked him to join the army that he might assist the commanders. They received him warmly, and, when he advised them to move their camp, asked him to go and choose a place, and sent a guard with him of one hundred men. But these were really wretches instructed to kill him, and as soon as he was in a narrow rocky pass they set upon him. The brave old warrior set his back against a rock and fought so fiercely that he killed many, and the rest durst not come near him, but climbed up the rock and crushed him with stones rolled down on his head. Then they went back with a story that they had been attacked by the enemy, which was believed, till a party went out to bury the dead, and found there were only Roman corpses all lying round the crushed body of Sicinius, and that none were stripped of their armor or clothes. Then the true history was found out, but the Decemvirs sheltered the commanders, and would believe nothing against them.
Appius Claudius soon after did what horrified all honest men even more than this treachery to the brave old soldier. The Forum was not only the place of public assembly for state affairs, but the regular market-place, where there were stalls and booths for all the wares that Romans dealt in—meat stalls, wool shops, stalls where wine was sold in earthenware jars or leathern bottles, and even booths where reading and writing was taught to boys and girls, who would learn by tracing letters in the sand, and then by writing them with an iron pen on a waxen table in a frame, or with a reed upon parchment. The children of each family came escorted by a slave—the girls by their nurse, the boys by one called a pedagogue.
[Illustration: DEATH OF VIRGINIA.]
Appius, when going to his judgment-seat across the Forum, saw at one of these schools a girl of fifteen reading her lesson. She was so lovely that he asked her nurse who she was, and heard that her name was Virginia, and that she was the daughter of an honorable plebeian and brave centurion named Virginius, who was absent with the army fighting with the AEqui, and that she was to marry a young man named Icilius as soon as the campaign was over. Appius would gladly have married her himself, but there was a patrician law against wedding plebeians, and he wickedly determined that if he could not have her for his wife he would have her for his slave.