Before it was an empire, before it was a republic—Rome was a kingdom. Its legendary founder Romulus, was the first rex, or king. According to tradition, his reign began in 753 B.C. Rome is believed to have had seven kings in all, and the monarchy lasted for more than 240 years. Unlike the other rexes, the last three kings—Tarquin the Elder, Servius Tullius, and Tarquin the Proud—all shared Etruscan ancestry, tracing it back to a civilization that flourished in central Italy between the eighth and third centuries B.C. Of all Rome’s royalty, they perhaps made the biggest impact on the Eternal City.
Their notable deeds, questionable reputations, and bloody deaths would end Rome’s time as a monarchy and drive it into the dawn of the Republic.
Accurate records of these times, however, are scant. Some sources are conflicting, and many of the most popular ones, such as the first-century B.C. historian Titus Livius (Livy), were compiled centuries after the events they describe, making it difficult to take their accounts at face value. Many of these accounts also blend the fantastic with the everyday.
Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus had origin stories steeped in myth. Sons of the god Mars, the twin infants were abandoned by a local king who feared his sons would overthrow him. A river god rescued the pair, who were then raised by a she-wolf, a motif that became a symbol for the city of Rome.
Accounts surrounding the last three kings of Rome are no less fantastical. The origin story of the first, Tarquin the Elder, is rich with omens and portents. As it was told by Livy, the story begins around 625 B.C., when a wealthy immigrant named Lucius Tarquinius Priscus arrived in Rome from Etruria. He belonged to the Tarquini clan from the city of Tarquinia, about 45 miles to the northwest.
As his chariot was about to cross the Tiber River, an eagle swooped down from above, snatched his cap, circled overheard, and then placed it gently back on his head. Lucomo’s wife, Tanaquil, was a soothsayer and interpreted the encounter as auspicious. The eagle was a symbol of royalty, she pointed out, and so surely the interaction indicated that her husband would achieve the highest honors in Rome.
Tarquin the Elder
Lucius Priscus Tarquinius quickly rose to prominence, securing the position of advisor to Roman king Ancus Marcius. After Marcius’s death in 616 B.C., the throne did not pass to his children. Tarquin had leveraged his influence with Marcius and was appointed to the position himself. He was the first king of what became known as the Etruscan monarchy, a period that lasted just over a century.
As king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, better known as Tarquin the Elder, is said to have increased the number of persons of senatorial and equestrian rank. He also is thought to have instituted the Roman games and to have begun the construction of a wall around the city. Tarquin is credited with ordering the foundations of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (also known as the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus), the most important temple in ancient Rome, to be laid on the Capitoline Hill. He chose the location for the Circus Maximus, a stadium more than 650 yards long, where sports competitions and chariot and horse races were held.
He initiated the construction of the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s oldest drainage systems, that ran a mile long from the Esquiline Hill via the Forum and emptied into the Tiber. Initially, it acted as an open-air channel for low-lying parts of the city, which in the rainy months turned to swamp and harbored malaria. Later, it would be enclosed and transformed into a network of sewers.
Son of a slave
Tarquin the Elder’s reign came to an end when he was assassinated in 578 B.C. His murderers were the sons of Marcius, who sought revenge against Tarquin. They allegedly hired two shepherds to fake a dispute before the king. When Tarquin turned toward one of them to listen to his version, the other struck him with an axe and fled.
Marcius’s sons had hoped to seize the throne for themselves, but that was not to be thanks to some quick thinking on the part of Tanquil, his wife. After Tarquin was wounded, the queen quickly had him taken into the palace while he was still breathing. From a palace window, she later addressed an assembled crowd to say that before Tarquin had died, he named someone else to serve as king. It was Servius Tullius, who Livy states was in “the highest esteem, not only with the king, but also with the senate and people.” As his first act, Tullius had the assassins arrested, dashing their hopes for power.
Servius Tullius was also Etruscan by blood but not related to Tarquin; he had been adopted as his protégé and grew up in the palace. Upon reaching manhood, he became a trusted royal advisor. He even married the king’s daughter, despite having a humble background.
The name Servius suggests that Tullius was the son of a slave (servus in Latin). For a king of Rome to have such base origins would be unusual to say the least. Historian T. J. Cornell wrote that Tullius’ ancestry would be “shameful and embarrassing” to Romans. Perhaps to add legitimacy to his reign, stories emerged that aligned Tullius with the divine.
Like Romulus, Tullius was the son of a god in some versions. In one, his mother, Ocrisia, had been a handmaid to Tanaquil. While placing offerings at the hearth, Ocrisia was impregnated by a flame from the fire. Tanaquil claimed that the child must be the son of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Livy reports that a crown of flames appeared over the child’s head to convey divine blessings. Convinced that the child was destined for greatness, the queen encouraged Tarquin to take in the boy.
Another version of Tullius’s heritage is more prosaic and plausible, although it was recorded centuries later by the scholar-emperor Claudius. Studying the Etruscan sources, Claudius suggests that Tullius was actually an Etruscan mercenary named Mastarna who brought his soldiers to Rome. He named the place where he settled the Caelian Hill in homage to his deceased master, the chieftain Caelius Vibenna.
As rex, Tullius is credited with many reforms. He’s thought to have decreed the first census in order to register all Roman citizens and their wealth. Some claim that he also carried out major social engineering policies, abandoning the three traditional tribes to establish 21 new tribes based not on kinship but on place of residence. Others, however, see such a radical overhaul as anachronistic and trace only the four urban tribes to the time of Tullius with the other 17 “rural” tribes being added later.
Another achievement that Livy attributed to Tullius (but other sources say happened later) is there structuring of the army into centuriae (100-man units) according to a precise hierarchical scale based on income. In reality, as the Roman economy was not monetized at that point, it would have been difficult to calculate financial worth as precisely as Livy suggested. The army at that time still consisted of a single legio (legion), a term that meant “selection” and would have numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 men, a considerable size by the standards of the local cities during that period.
Tullius is also believed to have built the Servian Wall, an early fortification around the city of Rome. The original wall was replaced in the fourth century B.C. The new wall was built with better quality stone extracted from the Grotta Oscura quarry near Veii. The few vestiges of the wall attributed to Tullius that remain suggest that it measured less than seven miles long and followed the same path as the one that replaced it later.
After reigning for four and a half decades, Tullius was beloved by the people, but that did not keep treachery at bay. He fell to an assassination plot hatched, in part, by his own daughter, Tullia Minor. Married to Lucius Tarquinius, a son (or grandson) of Tarquin the Elder, she encouraged her husband to kill her father and take power for himself.
Livy records the assassination as a carefully choreographed affair. Tarquinius went to the senate house, sat on the king’s throne, and then delivered a tirade against his father-in-law, calling him “a slave born of a slave.” When Tullius arrived to answer these charges, Tarquinius grabbed him and dragged him out into the street, where the assassins killed him. After he was dead, Tullia allegedly drove her chariot over her father’s body, leaving a trail of blood through the streets.
Death of a king
Over his dead body
Rome's last rex
The last king of Rome would be remembered by the name Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud. Once on the throne, one of his first acts was to put several senators to death for being loyal to Tullius. He did not replace them, thereby reducing the senate’s size and influence. Tarquin appointed himself judge and jury in capital cases in order to cement fear of his judgments among Roman citizens. Livy reports: “[C]onscious that the precedent of obtaining the crown by evil means might be adopted from him against himself, he surrounded his person with armed men, for he had no claim to the kingdom except force, in as much as he reigned without either the order of the people or the sanction of the senate.”
Tarquin never tried to win the hearts of the Roman people and ruled through fear and intimidation. His approach to diplomacy was much the same, as he bullied and tricked rival kingdoms. In 509 B.C., the Roman army was laying siege to the city of Ardea. Soldiers and commanders camped outside the city walls, and the events that unfolded there would lead to the end of Tarquin’s reign and the downfall of the Roman kingdom.
The king and the sibyl
Rape and revolt
In the camp, Sextus, son of Tarquin the Proud, and his cousin Collatinus were arguing over who had the most virtuous wife. To settle the dispute, the two men decided to travel undercover to Rome and spy on the irrespective wives. While Sextus’s wife was enjoying a banquet with friends, Collatinus’s wife, Lucretia, was quietly weaving, an activity proper for a chaste Roman woman.
Driven by spite, Sextus vowed to sully Lucretia’s virtue. A few days later he traveled to her home, where she welcomed him as a guest. Sextus drew his sword and demanded that Lucretia have sex with him. Lucretia resisted, but Sextus threatened to slit her throat and then murder a male slave, lay him naked on the bed next to her, and announce that he had killed the couple after catching them in bed together.
Lucretia understood that if she were dead, she could not bear witness to the crime against her and her honor would be gone forever. She gave in, and Sextus raped her. According to Livy, a few days later she could bear it no longer and told her father, her husband, and his friend Lucius Junius Brutus what had happened.
Lucretia urged them to exact revenge: “Yet my body only has been violated; my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness. But pledge your right hands and your words that the adulterer shall not go unpunished.” On saying this, she stabbed herself in the chest and collapsed lifeless before them.
Dawn of the Republic
Brutus was appalled by her account and death. According to Livy, he made a solemn promise: “By this blood, most chaste until a prince wronged it, I swear, and I take you, gods, to witness, that I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his wicked wife and all his children, with sword, with fire, aye with whatsoever violence I may; and that I will suffer neither them nor any other to be rex in Rome!”
Then he took the body of Lucretia to the market square in Collatia and told the people what had happened, which caused a riot that soon spread to Rome.
Tarquin the Proud received the news in Ardea, where the siege was still going on. He hurried back to the city with his sons, but he found the gates locked and an order that he was banished in perpetuity. Although on several occasions he tried to regain the throne with the help of Etruscan allies and their supporters within the city, Tarquin the Proud never entered Rome again.
According to Livy, the population, led by Brutus and Collatinus, who became the first consuls of the new regime, swore that they would never allow themselves to be governed by a king again. This beginning marked the start of a long period of Roman history—almost five centuries—known as the Roman Republic. When Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome, established what would be a monarchical government, he was very careful to avoid calling himself rex, a term that had become utterly tarnished by the actions of Tarquin the Proud, the last rex of Rome.