The last King of Rome and the dawn of the Republic.
Lucius Tarquinus Superbus (Superbus meaning ‘the proud’) was the seventh and last king of Rome (reigned 335 BC-309 BC). It is not clear whether he is the son or grandson of the fifth king, also called Lucius Tarquinus, but with the epithet Priscus (‘the elder’). After six ‘good’ kings, Superbus was said to be unmitigated villain (by his enemies).
Background, Roman Government
The power in ancient Rome was always concentrated in a powerful executive with broad powers. During the ‘Monarchy’ this was the king. They were mainly appointed, and it was for life.
In Republican times consuls and magistrates were appointed
by the Senate and there were various curbs on their power.
During the Roman Empire, the Emperor was proclaimed by the army (and sometimes by ‘the mob in the street’) and this was then ratified by the Senate, sometimes with a degree of coercion. Some of the Emperors managed to successfully nominate their own successor, but succession could be and often was a bloody affair.
The Senate was the second most powerful institution in
Rome and reached the height of its power about mid-way through the Republic.
The Senate was a council of ‘patriarchs’(leaders) of the prominent tribes or main family groups. 'Senate’ comes from 'senex’ old man, or elder so the original term meant a council of Elders to advise the King, though it had its own customary powers and functions.
Later it included appointed magistrates (and war time leaders) still drawn (usually exclusively) from the Patrician class. During the time of the second last king, Servius, he expanded it to include less prominent families /tribes and he created a tribe for the commoners (the Plebeians).
As a result, the Senate was almost exclusively Patrician until late in the Republican with the rising power of the Plebs.
From the first, there were various people’s assemblies, presided over by a
magistrate (mostly a Patrician), and at first they were limited to tribes (families/ clans) and hence they were dominated by the
In general, the people’s assemblies had fairly limited power until late in the Republican era when the Plebeian assembly became a focus of power and anger at the ruling class and ‘the plebs’ began demanding the right to elect their own tribunes and magistrates, judge cases and pass laws (plebiscites).
In the army, that same anger fostered the rise of
military strong-men which eventually saw the end of the Republic (as discussed above).
The first few Roman Emperors had many titles, but were at pains to portray
themselves as 'Princeps Senatus', the leader of the Senate rather than the ‘king’(Latin, rex). For a long time they maintained an illusion that the Republic remained both alive and well.
Their absolute powers over government and the military
meant they were kings in everything but name, and they were informally referred
to as 'Basileus' (the Greek word for King). Basileus as a name for the Emperor didn't creep into official use until well into the time of the Greek -speaking Byzantine Empire.
A Tale of two
The story of the rise of the last three (‘Etruscan’) kings
of Rome begins with two clever but very different women.
The first is Tanaquil, the daughter of a powerful Etruscan family who was wife to Lucius Tarquinius Priscus.
She was regarded as the model of womanly virtue, skilled in the domestic arts, particularly spinning and weaving, and credited with the origin of various Roman wedding customs. After her death, she was deified as a Goddess of healing and womanly virtue.
Early Romans, like many others, venerated their ancestors who were considered immortal, so maybe deification might not have been such a big step as it sounds. Maybe it resembled the veneration of a saint in some respects. (After all , Vesta was the main Goddess of the hearth).
Anyway, in addition to the above qualities, Tanaquil was educated in healing and the Etruscan arts of augury and prophecy. Because her husband had a Greek father, he couldn’t gain office amongst the Etruscans, and she convinced him to move to Rome.
Legend has it that on his arrival, an eagle took his cap,
flew away and then returned it back upon his head which Tanaquil interpreted as
an omen of his future greatness.
The king himself noticed her husband and appointed him as
the guardian of his own sons. After the King’s death, Tarquin addressed the
people’s assembly and convinced them to elect him as king.
When he was assassinated (by the sons of the previous King
during a staged riot), Tanaquil pretended he was still alive and appointed Servius
Tullius, (another Etruscan) from her household, as regent. This allowed Servius
Tullius to become king.
Tanaquil backed this up with tales of previous omens that
she had ‘kept secret’, and she later allowed him to marry her daughter.
Now fast forward to a very different woman.
It was not uncommon in early Roman times for women to take
a feminised version of their father’s (or
husband’s) name. As a result, two of Servius Tullius’s daughters are only known as ‘Tullia major’ (the eldest, married to Lucius Tarquinius Superbus) and ‘Tullia Minor’ (married to his brother Arruns).
|Tulia driving over her father, by Chairi
The younger sister was fierce and ambitious and was said to have conspired
with Tarquin to murder Tullia Major and Arruns, so they could marry each other instead.
She then encouraged her new husband to usurp Servius’s (her father’s) throne. When
he had enough support, Superbus surrounded himself with armed men and sat on the
throne, summoning the senators.
Servius hurried to confront him but the younger man flung
him down the steps into the street and then had him set upon. As Tullia minor
was driving home, she saw her father dying in the street and seized the reins
from her chariot driver and spurred her horse and chariot over her father's
corpse, spattering her dress with his blood.
Tarquin refused to bury the Servius, and then put to death
a number of leading senators, whom he suspected of remaining loyal to the dead
king. He continued to rule without the senate, judging capital crimes himself which
lead men to fear opposing him.
Tarquinius Superbus as king
Superbus’s rule allegedly became known for arrogance and
treachery, sacking various neighbouring towns to fund the building of temples while demolishing
ancient Sabine shrines.
Some of his (other) more infamous deeds include:
swords in the house of one of his opponents and then accusing him at a meeting of Latin leaders of a plot
to kill him. The swords were found and the accused man was executed by placing
him in a deep well and putting a wooden frame on his head and throwing stones
on top of the frame until he drowned.
he couldn’t conquer a Latin town, Gabii,
he got his son, Sextus to submit to flogging and then go there complaining of
mistreatment by his father. Sextus was soon a leading citizen with command of the
army. He sent a messenger to his father to inquire how he should deliver the
city into his hands. The king, who was walking in his garden made no reply, but
kept striking off the heads of the tallest poppies with his stick. Sextus took
the hint, and put to death, or banished on false charges, all the leading men
of Gabii, after which he had no difficulty in compelling the city to submit.
Talk about the tall
Superbus sacked several cities , bringing the wealth back
to Rome to fund various building projects. It is said that when the populace
became disenchanted with the cost, he again turned to conquest, this time Ardea, 35 kilometres to the south of Rome.
During the siege, it is said, that the bored young noblemen began drinking and comparing their wives.
Secret visits found that it was Sextus’s cousin's
wife, Lucretia, who was the most beautiful and the most dutiful. Struck by her beauty,
Sextus returned to rape her with threats.
She later confessed what happened to her husband and then
suicided. The (patrician) people’s assembly was called, and for this and other
excesses, Tarquin’s ‘imperium’ was revoked. He was to be exiled and twin
consuls appointed to rule Rome (with an election each year to limit their power).
When word of the uprising reached the king, he abandoned
Ardea, and sought support from his Etruscan and Latin allies to march on Rome. Several
attempts by him to regain his throne resulted in desperate battles. The most
famous one was the assault by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena which led to the
heroic deeds of Publius Horatius Cocles defending the bridge across the Tiber,
allowing the Romans to retreat and the bridge be destroyed behind him.
Sextus was murdered by fellow Latins, and Superbus eventually
went into exile in the Greek colony, Cumae, south of Rome.
But is this really
what happened ?
will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused”.
an oft repeated adage, paraphrased
by Hermann Göring at his Nuremburg
As mentioned in the last blog, we have no written record of this time. For hundreds of years the only versions available were colourful tales often told by professional story tellers.
Adding to this, the victorious senators would have been keen to besmirch
the reputation of the last king, as far as they could. All those who later gained power in the new Republic would hardly be interested in rehabilitating his reputation. Despite all this, Superbus hardly seems pure and innocent.
At the very least, he suppressed the Senate. He likely murdered opponents. Of course this was the sharper edge of politics at the time. In a similar way, as soon as he was displaced, the rebels
began killing his supporters for 'treason'.
Were the previous kings so much better?
Priscus was assassinated, partly by a mob led by the sons
of the previous king.
And if Servius was such a great and popular king, how could he be so
easily displaced, to die in the streets, alone and friendless, abandoned even by
his own servants, and then driven over by his own daughter?
Some Patricians were involved in the plots to unseat the last
three kings. Ambition had to play a part in this. Perhaps Superbus bypassing the Senate challenged powerful Patrician factions.
Furthermore, while I am not an expert, I don't think it would be easy for Tulia to get her horses to trample a corpse lying in the streets. And if Lucius Tarquinus Superbus secretly hid swords in the house of an opponent to frame him, how do we find this out (if it was a secret)?
Tarquinus Superbus didn’t seem to lack friends in his attempts to retake his
throne, maybe he wasn’t as unpopular as we have been led to believe.
|Horatius (by Hendrick Golltzius)
There is also doubt as to whether the Etruscan king, Lars Porsena was acting for Superbus in his attack on Rome and maybe he wasn't beaten back. In one version he briefly occupied Rome.
Whatever really happened , this was a fight between the
king and the senate and in this case the senate won. It was the end of the Roman kings and affected politics
in Rome for many hundreds of years to come.
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