A Brief Survey of the History of Rome (III of X)
By NM '20
Our journey through the annals of Rome has re-commenced! We concluded last time with Romulus, Rome’s legendary founder and first king, dead. (A Brief Survey of the History of Rome, Part II of X)
The Priest, The Warrior, and The Builder: Through the Fourth King of Rome
Somewhat unusually, the Roman kingship was elective; the Senate nominated new kings during the interregna that followed monarchs’ deaths, and the Assembly confirmed or rejected the nominees. The arrangements surrounding Romulus’ succession were no exception; the lengthy, one-year interregnum that followed Romulus’ death saw ten Senators rule as interregnes, or “between-kings,” before Numa Pompilius was nominated and accepted as Rome’s second king.
Numa Pompilius: The Pacifist and the Priest (r. 716–673 BC)
Numa’s accession betokened a city exhausted from the constant conflict and rapid expansion of Romulus’ reign: more scholar than fighter, Numa was famed for his disciplined lifestyle, religious dedication, and wisdom. Numa’s selection marked a successful compromise between the Roman and Sabine factions of the population—though a Sabine himself, having been born in the town of Cures, his wide respect and uncontroversial status rendered him acceptable to each of the bickering factions.
Numa is chiefly remembered for his pacifism and his institution of the sacra, Rome’s religious traditions. Among his first decrees as monarch was the dissolution of the guard that had comprised Romulus’ personal entourage—an act both of peacemaking and self-preservation, as the guards’ loyalty was questionable. One of Numa’s most significant contributions was the establishment of several priestly orders, including pontifices and flamines (higher and lower classes, respectively, of standard priests), the Salii (the twelve so-called “leaping priests” of Mars), the fetiales (the priests who advised the Senate on treaties, foreign affairs, and official declarations of war), and the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome. Most significantly, he imported from Alba Longa the Vestal Virgins—the famed priestesses of Vesta (goddess of the hearth) who kept her sacred fire aflame as ceremonial stewards of all Rome. Numa also constructed several temples, including the famed Temple of Janus, whose doors were closed during peacetime and flung open during war. Tellingly, the doors remained closed for Numa’s entire reign. Another of his lasting contributions was the institution of a twelve-month calendar adjusted to the solar and lunar years, with provisions for “holy” and “unholy” days. Throughout his reign, Numa asserted his direct connection to the gods by means of his marriage to Egeria, a nymph who supposedly furnished him with divine directives upon his periodic visits to her. Numa died of old age in 673 BC, having presided over a long period of peace and productivity in the City on the Tiber.
Tullus Hostilius: The Warrior (r. 673–642 BC)
Where Numa was priest, Tullus was warrior. Scornful of the godly obsession that had settled over the city and believing Rome to have grown “soft” under Numa’s pacifism, Tullus Hostilius set about renewing the military prowess the city had enjoyed under Romulus and sought to expand its imperium, or “sphere of influence” (later “empire”). Tullus waged war on several neighboring peoples, including the Sabines (whom he defeated with a cavalry charge in a battle near Malitiosa Forest, inflicting heavy casualties), the confederated Veientes and Fidenates (whom he defeated even despite the treacherous retreat of Rome’s Alban “allies”), and the people of Alba Longa, the ancient birthplace of Romulus. It is this final conquest for which Tullus is best known today.
Cattle begat the strife. When a small herd of the beasts wandered into Alban territory, and the relevant landowners refused to return them to Rome, Tullus did what any reasonable leader might have done: He declared war against all Alba Longa. Undaunted, the Albans marshalled themselves under their king, Cluilius, and marched to the outskirts of Rome. Quickly, they dug a trench—the aptly-named Cluilian trench—around the entire city. Soon, though, Cluilius perished of unspecified causes—“Cluilius… moritur,” the Roman historian Livy helpfully elaborates: “Cluilius dies” (Ab Urbe Condita, 1.23.4). To replace Cluilius, the Albans appointed Mettius Fufetius as military dictator. The two leaders—Tullus and Fufetius—drew their armies up into battle and marched out to face each other. Neither side wanting to wage what would surely be a bloody and destructive war—for the neighboring Etruscans would have looked on with glee as their two main territorial rivals tore each other to shreds, ready to swoop in and conquer the weakened victor—Fufetius suggested a more efficient resolution: duel. Miraculously, each army had among its ranks a set of triplets: the Romans had the Horatii brothers, and the Albans had the Curiatii brothers. The teams of brothers would fight to the bloody death for their countries, and Tullus and Fufetius each entered into solemn vows, pledging that they would abide by the outcome of the fight. I borrow from Ragan to recount the conflict that ensued:
The contest was exciting: with two Horatians slain, but all three Curiatians wounded, the surviving Horatius began to flee! The Romans no doubt groaned, thinking their champion a coward. But there was method in this. For as he ran, he succeeded in separating the pursuing Curiatii whom he was able to fight individually and each of whom he killed. So, the Albans surrendered themselves and their town. The Romans, however, characteristic of these early wars, took the Albans as a whole into their citizen body; the town was destroyed—except for the temples—so that the Albans would become fully a part of their new community.
(W.B. Ragan III, Survey of Roman History: The Kings)
So, with that, Romulus’ hometown was no more, living on only in the memory of its now-Roman residents. One final bow to tie the Alban knot: the Alban dictator, Fufetius, soon proved a treacherous man. In the aforementioned war against the Fidenates, it was he who pulled the Albans back from the fight, intending to linger in the backdrop until a winner was evident, at which point he would march out in “victory,” pretending to have supported whoever won. Tullus, though, was no fool: perceiving Fufetius’ treachery, he bade his calvary raise their spears, shielding the retreating Alban “allies” from view of his infantry and thus keeping the Roman morale intact, preserving Rome’s chances of victory. After the battle, Tullus punished Mettius (or Metius) as he saw fit. I leave it to Virgil to recount the gory details of Metius’ death as he is ripped limb from limb by four horses:
Near this, the traitor Metius, stretch’d between
Four fiery steeds, is dragg’d along the green,
By Tullus’ doom: the brambles drink his blood,
And his torn limbs are left the vulture’s food.
(Aeneid [tr. John Dryden], Book VIII)
In addition to these military conquests, Tullus is notable for his construction of a new Senate building—the Curia Hostilia—which lasted for over 500 years after his death. Alas, in his military grandeur Tullus had neglected the gods, and soon the city was afflicted with plague and famine as recompense for his scanty religiosity. Desperate, Tullus turned to the writings of his predecessor Numa, the expert on all things divine, and wildly but inaccurately attempted to perform the rituals described therein. The gods, in no mood to tolerate such tomfoolery, struck Tullus with a thunderbolt, setting both him and his palace alight and bringing an end to his 31-year rule.
Ancus Marcius: The Builder (r. 640–616 BC)
Perhaps weary again of conflict and conquest, the Romans chose the more subdued Ancus Marcius—grandson of Numa—as their fourth king. Where Tullus had erred in the eyes of the gods, Ancus charted a safer course: his first act as king was to have the religious rites laid down by Numa copied down and displayed to the public, lest they ever again be ill-performed.
By Ancus’ time, Rome had become a profitable and well-positioned town controlling a respectable portion of Latium, the territorial region around the city. The city lay along the Via Salaria, or Salt Road, an ancient trading route that proved a welcome boon to the growing city. Taking advantage of the city’s strategic position, Ancus sent out a colonia of citizens to found Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, a crucial expedition that secured the surrounding salt flats (providing a reliable revenue stream for the fledgling city) and extended Roman territory to the sea. He constructed the first bridge across the Tiber, the Pons Sublicius (Sublician Bridge), in 642 BC. The continued arrival of Etruscans from the north, skilled engineers in “stone, road building, and swamp drainage,” further complemented Ancus’ infrastructure projects (Ragan). He built Rome’s first prison, the Mamertine Prison (which, in the following centuries, housed a number of high-profile prisoners, including Vercingetorix, Jugurtha, St. Peter, and Sejanus), atop the Capitoline Hill. He fortified the Janiculum Hill on the west bank of the Tiber, dug a ditch fortification (the Fossa Quiritium) on the city’s landward side, and constructed Rome’s first aqueduct.
Though more peaceful than his predecessor, Ancus shrank not from conflict; he fought against the Latins, conquering the town of Politorum (whose residents were relocated to the base of the Aventine Hill in Rome)—and later reconquering and destroying it when it was re-settled by more Latin peoples—along with Tellenae, Ficana, and Medullia, a conquest that brought loot to the coffers of Ancus and resettled Latins to the base of the Palatine Hill. These resettlements, along with a growing population and growing social stratification, helped form the early stages of the plebeian class at Rome. Furthermore, he expanded Roman territory into the Maesian Forest, seizing it from the Veientes.
After 24 years of successful rule, Ancus, the last of Rome’s Latin-Sabine kings, died, bringing to a close a period of economic and territorial expansion, infrastructure development, and social growth for the adolescent town on the banks of the Tiber.
Thus we conclude the third chapter of our brief history of Rome, with four successful kings etched into the people’s memory and new rulers from the north poised to take the throne.
Special thanks to Mr. Ragan.