In the Forum of the ancient city of Rome, a shallow pool could be found that was known by the name, Lacus Curtius. This aesthetic feature, translated as Curtius’ Pool or Lake, had at least two legendary origin stories that explained how the prominent feature had come to exist. One tale harkened all the way back to the mythical and legendary days of Romulus, while the other was set centuries later, at a time not too long after the famous Gallic sack of Rome.
In the origin tale set during Romulus’ reign, the shallow pool was named after a Sabine military officer named Mettius Curtius, who served under the more prominent Sabine leader, Titus Tatius. According to the story, Mettius Curtius and his personal band of warriors fought Romulus near the Roman Forum. As Romulus was allegedly a superhuman demigod, Mettius Curtius was unsurprisingly defeated and had to flee for his life on horseback through a swamp. His escape route, in this particular legend, led to the naming of the Forum’s water feature. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), wrote, “In memory of the battle the stretch of shallow water where Curtius and his horse first struggled from the deep swamps into safety, was named Curtius’ Lake” (History of Rome, 1.13).
Hundreds of pages later, when the aforementioned historian was describing events that occurred centuries after the times of Romulus, Livy proposed an alternative theory for the origin of the Lacus Curtius. This later tale was set at about 362 BCE, a time when Rome was ravaged by plague, political strife, dictatorships, and war. To add to Rome’s troubles—so the legend claims—a great and ominous chasm opened up on the grounds of Rome’s Forum. The depth of this sinkhole allegedly could not be calculated by the Romans, and no matter how much dirt they tossed into the abyss, the depth of the chasm always seemed to remain the same. As the story goes, the bottomless pit in the Forum was seen by the Romans to be a divinely-inspired event, and they believed that the void would not be able to be filled until some sort of sacrifice was offered. While the Romans were discussing these fears and solutions, a man named Marcus Curtius allegedly volunteered to sacrifice himself in order to appease the gods. Rome accepted the man’s offer, and the leaders of the city dressed him in the best gear available to wear during his sacrificial plunge. Livy recorded the scene:
“Marcus Curtius, a young man of great military distinction…mounted a horse caparisoned with all possible splendour, and plunged fully armed into the chasm. A crowd of men and women then threw piles of offerings and fruits of the earth in after him. Curtius’ Pool was named after him, it is said, and not after the Mettius Curtius who was a soldier of Titus Tatius in former times” (Livy, History of Rome, 6.6).
Even to the Roman historian, Livy, the two origin stories mentioned above were ancient and legendary tales, describing events that occurred centuries before Livy’s own life. He, personally, could not say definitively which Curtius—Mettius or Marcus—the Lacus Curtius was named after. Livy did, however, report that the tale of Marcus Curtius’ sacrifice was much more common and widespread than the story of the Sabine Mettius Curtius’ escape route away from Romulus. Whatever the case, the Lacus Curtius was apparently named after a horseman named Curtius.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Color print of the Roman legend of Marcus Curtius, created in the 16th century by Antoni van Leest, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.