A Brief Survey of the History of Rome (Part IV of X)
By NM '20
Welcome back to our journey through the annals of Rome. We concluded last with Rome’s fourth king, Ancus Marcius (known for his building), dead, and with him the reign of the Latin-Sabine kings. Before him ruled Tullus Hostilius (the warrior), Numa Pompilius (the pacifist and priest), and, of course, Romulus (the founder). Next came the Etruscans.
An Engineer, a Slave, a Tyrant: The Final Kings of Rome
During the reign of Ancus Marcius (640–616 BC), a talented man named Lucomo arrived from Etruria, a civilization to the north of Rome, with his wife, Tanaquil. Lucomo brought his peoples’ skill in engineering, stonework, and logistics; Tanaquil, their prowess in omen interpretation. According to tradition, this power couple was destined for greatness from the moment of their arrival at Rome: As they approached the city, an eagle swooped down, stole Lucomo’s hat, and quickly replaced it. Tanaquil, the “impartial” wife and observer, deemed this an omen of his future greatness.
Biased as it was, Tanaquil’s observation soon came to fruition. At Rome, Lucomo took the name “Lucius Tarquinius” (“Priscus,” meaning “Elder,” was later added—we shall soon see why), gained access to the city’s high society through favor and courtesy, and, eventually, became a friend of the aging Ancus. So close an associate of Ancus’ was he that the king named him guardian of his two sons, both mere youths. But this was a decision that would prove fatal for the line of poor Ancus.
With old Ancus on his deathbed in 616 BC, crafty Tarquin (or, more likely, the ambitious Tanaquil) sent the two sons on a lengthy hunting expedition. When Ancus died shortly thereafter, Tarquin leapt into action, making a case for his own election to the kingship before the Curiate Assembly (the thirty-tribe popular assembly presided over by the king), a case he bolstered with bribery. Needless to say, he succeeded: The two sons, away on their jolly hunt, were exiled, and Lucius Tarquinius Priscus—Tarquin the Elder—became Rome’s fifth king.
L. Tarquinius Priscus: The Engineer (r. 616–579 BC)
Scurrilous accession aside, Tarquin oversaw a period of necessary construction, military success, and effective reform in the Eternal City. Though often overtowered by the whirlwind of reforms wrought by Servius Tullius, his successor, Tarquinius Priscus’ successful and productive reign ought not be overlooked.
Many of his engineering projects became the defining monuments of Rome. He built the Circus Maximus (a chariot-racing arena) at the base of the Palatine hill; he laid the foundation for the Temple of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (the High God of the Roman pantheon) on the Capitoline Hill, to be completed by his son; and he constructed a massive sewer, the cloaca maxima, to drain the swamp between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, which would later become the site of the famous Roman Forum. He also continued the construction of walled defenses around the entire city.
On the military front, Tarquin initiated a war against the neighboring Latins, seizing the town of Apiolae and a great deal of booty, instituting annual games as celebration. (He would go on to take and assimilate additional Latin cities in subsequent offensives.) He then weathered an Etruscan-supported Sabine assault with exceptional difficulty—fighting spilled into the streets of Rome, and the Sabines were only barely repelled. Following an initial surprise attack that inflicted heavy losses, the Sabines withdrew to prepare for another offensive. Livy recounts the dramatic second skirmish:
Hostilities with the Sabines were now resumed. The striking-power of Rome had been increased by the expansion of the cavalry [which Tarquin had completed during the Sabine respite], but in what followed it was a strategy that played the decisive part. A stack of dry timber which had been lying on the bank of the Anio was set alight and the blazing logs thrown into the water. A good wind kept them burning, and many were carried down by the stream and became lodged amongst the piles of the bridge, which they set on fire. This was alarming enough for the Sabines while they were fighting, but worse when their resistance broke; for the burning bridge prevented their retreat, and large numbers of them escaped the enemy only to perish in the river. Their equipment floated down the Tiber to Rome, where it was recognized for what it was and brought the news of victory almost before a messenger could get through. (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita tr. Aubrey de Sélincourt, I.37—an edition from the Heritage Club that I heartily recommend)
As terms of the parlay that followed, Rome received the Sabine town of Collatia, in which Tarquin placed his nephew Egerius as commander of the Roman garrison. Following the victory over the Sabines, Tarquin celebrated a triumph, or general’s victory parade, on September 13, 585 BC. However, this conflict poked the Etruscan bear, for they had supported the Sabine effort; twelve Etruscan cities banded together and seized a Roman outpost at Fidenae, a town to the north of the city. This seizure kicked off a bloody conflict that saw Tarquin lead the Romans against his native civilization. Rome was victorious, subjugating the truculent Etruscan cities and gaining great wealth.
Tarquin’s remarkable successes carried over into the social and political realms. To stave off the Sabines (see above), he expanded the number of cavalry centuries from three to six—thus doubling the size of the equites, or knight class. He increased the Senate by one hundred members—importantly, among whom was a man from the gens Octavii, the family of Rome’s first emperor 600 years later. He introduced many Etruscan military, political, and religious rites that later became hallmarks of Roman rule.
Tarquin went as he came, surrounded by divine phenomena and urged on by his ambitious wife. I leave it to Ragan to report the strange story:
A very unusual event occurred one night in the royal nursery. The woman watching the sleeping children (both royal and household children were there) screamed when the hair of one of the children, a slave-woman’s [Ocrisia’s] son, seemed to be on fire. This brought Queen Tanaquil who, when she saw that the fire was not harming the child, took this as a sign of destiny for the child. She convinced her husband that the child, Servius Tullius, was thus designated by the gods to succeed to the throne. Some years later, Tarquin’s earlier treachery against Ancus’ sons caught up with him. One day, as the king was giving audience to citizens, a foreigner asked to speak to the king in private, on a matter of great importance. The king agreed and, when alone, the man (hired by Ancus’ exiled sons) took an ax to the king’s head and escaped. Tanaquil, wanting to secure the succession for Servius, carefully managed the situation as the king lay dying. She would give out daily reports about this recovery—knowing full well he was dead—all the while securing the support she would need to gain the kingship for Servius. This done, the death of Tarquin was divulged, and Servius Tullius, formerly the son of a slave, became the sixth king of the Romans. (W.B. Ragan III, Survey of Roman History: The Kings)
And so Servius Tullius, once a slave boy, took power at Rome.
Servius Tullius: The Slave (r. 578–535 BC)
Servius was a king who knew his origins—his allegiances lay with the Plebs, the people, rather than with the aristocratic Patricians and noble families of the old order, to whom he seemed a mere “populist demagogue” (Ragan). Indeed, throughout the reigns of Servius and his successor, Tarquin the Proud, the Roman citizenry came into its own, earning participation in government and power in administration. Perhaps, though, the collapse of the old order brought the state down with it—the excesses and exiguities, triumphs and trivialities, virtues and vices of the Roman Kingdom crumbled under Tarquin the Proud. But all that is to come.
Servius’ great triumphs were social. In a reform known today as the Servian Constitution, he organized the Roman citizenry into five classes according to wealth, rather than to birth. The specific mechanism of this system—divided according to the armor each man could afford in wartime—relieved the poorest of their military duties. To accomplish this feat, he instituted the first census, or counting of Rome’s citizens and property. This division resulted in the Comitia Centuriata (the Centuriate Assembly), a body consisting of 193 “centuries” into which all Romans were sorted. However, while theoretically granting the Plebeians a voice in governance and law, the Comitia Centuriata did little to ease the Patrician [the moneyed elite] chokehold on Roman administration—180 of the 193 centuries consisted of the wealthiest estates, granting 5% of the Roman populace deciding power in all matters of state. (This unbalanced representation was accomplished by a crafty grouping of the classes: While the lowest estates had hundreds or even thousands of members, the highest ones had very few—think of a radical version of the electoral college.) Though seemingly unbalanced, this division aptly reflected the contribution each class made to the Roman military: The highest classes were expected to contribute vast funds and troops to the city’s military endeavors, while the lowest ones contributed nothing at all. A democracy? No. But an accurate reflection of the relative weight and import of military matters in ancient societies? Yes. Before we leer at this classist system with a modern eye, perhaps we ought to recall Burke: “A true natural aristocracy is not a separate interest in the state, or separable from it. It is an essential integrant part of any large body rightly constituted. It is formed out of a class of legitimate presumptions, which taken as generalities, must be admitted for actual truths.” Nonetheless, Servius’ reforms laid the political, legal, social, and ideological bases for the Roman Republic.
The Servian Wall and the Seven Hills
Class questions aside, the developments under Servius extended beyond his Constitution. Legend has it—though archaeologists, perhaps, don’t—that he constructed the Servian Wall, enclosing 608 acres and all Seven of the famous Hills of Rome (Servius had expanded the city onto the Quirinal, Viminal, and Equiline). For the pauper, he was a prince: He eliminated debt imprisonment and eased the tax burden on the lowest classes, albeit in exchange for a paucity of political representation (see above). Furthermore, he entrusted the precariat to its land, labor, and liberty, dividing public land and letting the poor farm and tend to themselves. He divided the people of Rome into four tribes and the country into 31. He founded a massively important shrine to Diana on the Aventine Hill, a shrine that became the administrative center of a critical alliance between Rome and the Latin League (an alliance of neighboring tribes and communities aligned against Roman expansion). For the first time, Servius energetically delineated the bounds of citizenship: His Constitutional ukase placed freedmen within his classes, thus enfranchising former slaves and bolstering the citizen base. Additionally, Servius established several religious festivals, most notably the Compitalia (celebrated in early January each year).
Before we recount the pitiable end of old Servius, let us recap Rome’s status at the end of his reign. Rome had expanded territorially, occupying all Seven of the famous Hills. Her citizenry was divided by wealth, not birth. The Servian Constitution had laid the basis for the Republic that was soon to come. Rome’s geopolitical situation was strong, with alliances secured with the Latin League and the Etruscans. Freedman and poor alike were newly protected and empowered.
Alas, Servius’ humble origins returned to haunt him. I once again defer to Ragan to recount the death of Servius and the ascendency of his successor, Tarquin the Proud:
Servius’ origin, however, continued to plague him as the Roman aristocracy felt demeaned, being ruled by a former slave. Thus, Servius Tullius married his two daughters, both named Tullia, to two sons (or grandsons) of the former King Tarquin [Tarquinius Priscus], Tarquin (called Superbus, “the proud, arrogant”) and the younger Arruns. That Servius knew the characters of his daughters and his sons-in-law is shown by his matching. Tullia the Younger, married to Arruns, was as ambitious and conniving as her true love, the man she most admired, Arruns’ younger brother; Tullia the Elder, a devoted, if simple, wife was utterly unlike her conniving, ambitious husband. [i.e The ambitious and conniving Tullia the Younger was married to the simple and devoted Arruns; the simple and devoted Tullia the Elder was married to the ambitious and conniving Tarquinius Superbus. Tullia the Elder pined for Tarquinius Superbus (and vice versa), and was bound to get her way, a marriage from Dante’s Hell; trouble stewed in each couple’s nuptial hours.] Livy puts it rather succinctly: “Two deaths soon followed,” and the surviving Tullia and Tarquin joined in marriage and conspiracy. Working long behind the scenes, when Tarquin decided it was time to act, he boldly went into the Forum to the Curia (Senate House), sat on the royal throne, and proclaimed himself king before the shocked populace. Tullia shamelessly appeared in public and, from her carriage, heralded her husband’s usurpation. Hearing the clamor, old Servius came into the Forum (the Regia, or royal palace, was nearby) and attempted to resist Tarquin. The younger man hurled his father-in-law down the steps and, as he was led home, wounded, sent assassins to finish him off! Livy adds a gruesome touch: As she was coming home in her carriage, Tullia saw the body of her father deserted in the street. She ordered her driver to drive over the body, splattering the carriage with blood, and taking the curse home. The street where this happened was called thereafter Via Scelerata, Street of Crime. (W.B. Ragan III, Survey of Roman History: The Kings)
Scandal, shock, scurrility—these were the accoutrements of Tarquinius Superbus’ accession. Where Tarquinius Priscus had pomp and pageantry, Superbus had profligacy and perfidy; where old Numa had decorum and decency, Superbus had depravity and debasedness; and where Romulus had valor and vigor, Superbus had vanity and villainy. The blood splattered on the wheels of Tullia’s cabriolet betokened more than the death of a helpless elder; it presaged the end of a mighty chapter in Rome’s history. The tale of Tarquin the Proud is one of crime for all ages.
Tarquinius Superbus: The Tyrant (r. 535–509 BC)
And so we come to Tarquin the Proud, as all histories of the Roman Kingdom must. His cognomen, “Superbus,” (translated as “proud” or “arrogant”) tells all. Ragan aptly characterizes his rule: “That bloody and inauspicious act was only the beginning to what became a despot’s reign of terror. As is the case with all tyrants, no class or individual was spared from Tarquin’s jealousy or cruelty.” It is little surprise that Tarquinius Superbus was the last of the “Great House of Tarquin”—the triad of rulers defined by cupido regni, or “kingdom of lust.” Indeed, so wretched was the rule of Tarquin that he made the title of rex, or king, forever hateful to the Romans, inscribing his name with blood on the tapestry of Roman descent. As Cicero questioned in his Republica, “Are you not aware that it was the insolence and pride of one man, Tarquinius, that made the title of king odious to our people?”
Ambition, wealth, and disregard make a vile combination. Tarquin began his reign with a murderous romp. He refused to entomb old Servius, and executed any senator whom he deemed a “loyalist” supporter of Servius, seizing their property for his own and reducing the Senate. He mustered a bodyguard to facilitate his haughty uninhibitedness. Livy captures his philosophy on governance: “Without hope of his subjects’ affection, he could rule only by fear; and to make himself feared as widely as possible he began the practice of trying capital causes without consultation and by his own sole authority.” He ruled as a tyrant rather than as a king, refusing to consult the Senate on any matters of military or state. His proto-Machiavellian foreign policy was just as brutal, as when he summoned a meeting of local leaders and proceeded to execute one (by drowning him to death, no less) under a manufactured charge, a blatant violation of Rome’s notions of justified foreign aggression. He used mercenaries for matters of war, a massive faux-pas. One particular event recalls his military cruelty, the famous skirmish with Gabii:
Unable to defeat the town of Gabii in battle, Tarquin contrived to have his son pretend that he was fleeing his cruel father—something easily believed. Established in Gabii, Sextus secretly sent to his father asking what to do next. While the messenger awaited, Tarquin silently went into his garden and with his walking stick lopped off the heads of flowers that towered above others. This “object lesson” was not lost on the son; many noble heads were lopped off, and Sextus gained power in Gabii only to hand it over to his father. (W.B. Ragan III, Survey of Roman History: The Kings)
In religious matters, Tarquin the Proud was equally inept. When the Cumaean Sibyl, a priestess of Apollo, came to Tarquin to offer him nine books of prophecy about the future of Rome (albeit for a hefty sum), he declined. The Sibyl, a crafty saleswoman (who knew!), burned three of the scrolls, and offered the six left for the original price. Tarquin yet again refused—and yet again the Sibyl set three alight, leaving only three from the original nine. Finally, Tarquin paid 6,000 talents of silver—an exorbitant sum (about $99 million in today’s prices!) for a third of the original offering. These books, which came to be known as the Sibylline Books, were housed in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and were consulted by the Roman Senate during national emergencies.
Despite its many disasters, the reign of Tarquin the Proud had one area of success: infrastructure. Tarquin, though deranged, understood the mind of the Roman populace; when kept busy, the people had little time to foment discontent. Accordingly, he imported Etruscan engineers and began several massive and lavish construction projects: the Temple of Jupiter and the excavation of the Cloaca Maxima, in particular. Ironically, however, it was the very area in which Tarquin found limited success that effected his downfall: His incredible infrastructure expenditure left the Roman coffers depleted and himself in need of more funds. And so he laid siege to the rich town of Ardea. I once again turn to Ragan for the downfall that followed:
The end of the Tarquins, and of monarchy at Rome, occurred with a tragic element. Away at a local siege [at Ardea], some young officers, including the king’s son, Sextus, his cousin Tarquinius Collatinus, and a friend, the (supposed) fool Lucius Junius Brutus (his name means “dull”), were one night discussing their wives. Whereas the other men bragged about their wives’ beauty and love of luxury, Collatinus spoke of his wife Lucretia’s great beauty, faithfulness, and diligence in keeping the house—at all hours. Finding this claim hard to imagine, the young men headed back to Rome late at night to find the situation exactly as Collatinus had asserted. Sextus was deeply struck with lust for the beautiful and noble woman. He later returned secretly with a sword to force her to lie with him. When at first she refused, preferring death to dishonor, he threatened further to kill her and leave a dead slave in bed with her. Rather than face public disgrace on herself and her family, the noble woman submitted to her shame. Some time later, overcome with remorse, she confessed the crime to her husband, Brutus, and others [including her father, Spurius Lucius Tricipitinus—a question in the St. Albans Certamen last year!]. The horror related, she committed suicide in their presence. Aroused to mutiny by such an outrage, Brutus threw off the mask of foolishness he had cultivated to survive under a tyrant, and with many nobles, roused the senate and people against the Tarquins. The king was with the army; when he returned, demanding to be admitted to Rome, the gates were shut in his face, his property was confiscated, and the Tarquins were banished forever. Curiously, Sextus sought refuge in Gabii, where he met a just fate by the people he had betrayed. The exiled Tarquin sought the help of the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna to restore his throne. Failing in his attempt, Tarquin died in exile some ten years later. (W.B. Ragan III, Survey of Roman History: The Kings)
And so the Roman Kingdom began and ended with rape: It initiated 241 years prior with the Rape of the Sabine Women, the famous snatching that furnished the hooligan hillpeople known as Romans with women, and it concluded with the famous Rape of Lucretia. Rome was now to be a Republic, ruled by two annually elected magistrates known as consuls.
Thus we conclude our fourth chapter of Roman history. The year is 509 BC, 244 years after her founding in 753, and Rome has entered a new era, with two emergent leaders at her helm.
Special thanks, as always, to Mr. Ragan.