The existence of kings in early Rome can only be questioned by a baseless scepticism. Their presence is attested by the analogy of the political development of other Indo-European peoples, by the institution of the interregnum, by the existence of the rex sacrorumand of the Regia, and by the word regei on the inscription found in the Forum beneath the Lapis Niger near the traditional tomb of Romulus. The attempt to dismiss them as gods is discredited, since no cult of kings existed and there is no sure indication of their divine origin either in their names or legends. Equally unsuccessful has been the attempt to regard the seven kings as personifications of the seven hills. On the other hand much of the Roman tradition about them is obviously false, and even their personal existence is open to question. After Romulus, it is said, there reigned Titus Tatius, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. This canonical list was fixed by the fifth century; as these names differ from those of the great men of that century, they can scarcely have been invented in order to link later heroes with the kings of old; bearers of their gentile names only appear later in Republican history. Though a very long reign would have to be allotted to each king to fill the time between the traditional founding of Rome and of the Republic (753 and 510), yet it is not impossible that they represent the last seven kings of Rome. Indeed, the monarchy of Rome, contrasted with the leadership of a village, can hardly have existed earlier than the establishment of Rome of the Four Regions in the seventh century; this is confirmed by the central position of the palace (Regia) at the foot of the Velia.9
Romulus and Titus Tatius must remain as legendary as the stories told about them. Romulus is said to have increased the number of his people by two methods: he established an asylum or sanctuary on the Capitol where all outlaws could take refuge, and he planned the famous rape of the Sabine women. By holding a splendid festival in honour of Consus, the god of the granary or storehouse, he attracted to Rome many Sabines and other neighbours; his men then seized the women for themselves. Titus Tatius, king of the Sabine town of Cures, replied by leading the Sabines against Rome, and captured the Capitol through the treachery of Tarpeia (coveting what they carried on their left arms, she betrayed the citadel, only to receive as her reward the crushing weight of their shields instead of the gold armlets which she had intended). In the battle that followed, the Sabine women intervened so that peace was made and the Romans and Sabines became one people, Romulus ruling on the Palatine, Tatius on the Capitoline. Until the death of Tatius the two kings used to take counsel with the elders and people in the valley of the Forum where they had fought; thereafter Romulus ruled alone until he was translated to heaven in a chariot by Mars.
Such legends have little historical basis, but they create many problems. The dual monarchy of Romulus and Tatius may be an attempt to explain the origin of the collegiate magistracy of the Roman Republic. The story of the asylum, which was a right used in Greek cities, might have been invented to reflect Rome’s later generosity in extending her citizenship, or else to explain the origin of a ‘holy’ spot on the Capitol, for instance a place struck by lightning. Some historians would dismiss the rape of the Sabine women either as an attempt to find an historical explanation for certain features of Roman marriage customs or for some other reason. Others believe that the tradition of a Sabine settlement on some of the hills of Rome and its union with a Palatine settlement, together with all the related legends, should be completely rejected. But there was a Sabine element in Rome which seems to have been very early: not only was there a small infusion of Sabine words into the vocabulary of the Romans, but the latter also received a few specifically Sabine deities among their state cults. One of these was the mysterious Quirinus who was identified by the Romans with both Mars and the deified Romulus; the word may be connected with the Quirinal and also the Quirites, a name by which the Romans sometimes called themselves. Since the archaeological evidence points to the appearance of an inhuming people who occupied the Quirinal and Esquiline in early times, it seems reasonable to equate this new element with the people the Romans knew as Sabines. The word Tatius is more probably the latinized form of a Sabine rather than of an Etruscan name, but he is such a shadowy figure even in the legend that he must surely be consigned to limbo, and his name explained as designed to account for the ‘Romulean’ tribe Tities and the priesthood of sodales Titii. But nevertheless his legend may reflect a general historical truth.10
The figures of the next three kings stride dimly through the mists of legend: mighty priests, warriors and law-givers – but men? Naturally many institutions and deeds were wrongly attached to these heroic figures, but when they have been stripped of all their trappings by modern critics there still remains the possibility, or even the probability, that they were in some form historical persons.
Numa Pompilius was said to have been a Sabine who settled on the Quirinal. Though the name Numa may be Etruscan, Pompilius is Sabine, the Roman form being Quinctilius, and he bears witness in all probability to the existence of those people who buried their dead on the outer hills of Rome. Moving later to a new home near the Forum, he built a palace (the Regia) and reigned in peace for forty-three years. He is the priest-king who according to Roman tradition organized the religious life of the community by establishing regular cults and priests (flamines, pontifices, Salii and the Vestal Virgins) and by reforming the calendar: he correlated the lunar and solar year by introducing a twelve-month in place of the ‘Romulean’ ten-month year. All this cannot be taken quite at its face value, since some of the changes may have been earlier, some later. Thus the Salian priests had armour of the Bronze Age type which points to an earlier institution, while the reform of the calendar seems more likely to have been the work of the later Etruscan kings. However, as few would deny the existence of Moses, though not attributing all the Mosaic legislation to the lawgiver, so some of the religious organization that took place during the regal period at Rome may well have been the work of one man who was strong enough to impose reform on the people. Thus Numa Pompilius may well have had a more material existence than his legendary counsellor, the nymph Egeria.
To the peaceful Numa succeeded the warrior Tullus Hostilius, who reigned traditionally for thirty-two years (673–642), repulsed an Alban invasion, destroyed Alba itself and transferred its population to Rome. Although there is no archaeological evidence for a catastrophic sacking of Alba in the mid-seventh century, the Iron Age settlement there gradually disappeared at about this time, and thus may have provided a basis for the story of Hostilius’ action. Further, the name of the Alban Mettius Fufetius, who succeeded the dead king as commander, may be historical (Mettius is the Latin form of an Oscan magistrate called meddix). Tullus Hostilius has one monument in favour of his existence, the Curia Hostilia, where the Senate met; as the Hostilii did not reach the consulship or become prominent until the second century, long after the establishment of the Curia and the enrolment of Tullus in the regal canon, there is here some ground for the king to stand on.
Like Hostilius, his predecessor, Ancus Marcius belonged to a family whose later members did not reach the consulship until long after his name had been incorporated in the list of kings: the Marcii first gained the consulship in 357 BC, and they were plebeians. Thus there are two good reasons to suggest the historical reality of Ancus. He was the king wise in peace and strong in war, and although some of his exploits were invented to please the later Marcian family, he may be credited with extending Roman influence to Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. He did not found a colony there, as asserted by tradition, but he probably gained control of the salt-pans south of the river, in rivalry with the Etruscans who held those on the north bank as well as controlling the crossing of the Tiber at Fidenae above Rome. This salt could be traded with the tribes of the interior to the east, but as it first had to be brought over the Tiber, the tradition that Ancus built the first bridge at Rome is reasonable: the fact that this Pons Sublicius was made entirely of wood (sublica means a ‘pile’) indicates its antiquity, and its construction may be linked with the pontifices, whose name means ‘bridge-builders’. Though Ancus probably did not incorporate the Janiculum hill into Rome, as tradition tells, he may well have established a bridge-head on it to protect the salt route and his new bridge. Finally it was during his reign that Tarquinius came to Rome.