Ancient History & Civilisation


The three last kings, L. Tarquinius Priscus (616–579 BC), Servius Tullius (578–535) and L. Tarquinius Superbus (534–510), form a strong contrast to their Latin or Sabine predecessors. They emerge a little further from the twilight of legend: there can be no reasonable doubt concerning the historicity of at least two of them, and they represent a period during which Rome was either continuously or intermittently under the domination of Etruria. However much patriotic Roman tradition tries to disguise the fact, this domination was political as well as cultural; at least one Etruscan king reigned in Rome, even if an Etruscan dynasty did not establish itself. But despite the cultural influence of Etruria, Rome remained essentially a Latin city even when under direct political control. So far from being overwhelmed, she was soon able to shake off the foreign yoke and with it the monarchy.

The connection of the Tarquins with Rome is attested by Etruscan, as well as by Roman tradition. A wall painting from the François tomb at Vulci, dating from the fourth century or a little later, depicts the rescue by Macstrna (Mastarna) and Aule Vipinas (Aulus Vibenna) of Caile Vipinas (Caelius Vibenna) who had been captured by Cneve Tarchu Rumach (Cn. Tarquinius Romanus); and the killing of Tarchu himself by Marce Camitlnas. The assumption that these men were historical rather than fictitious characters is strengthened by the welcome discovery of a bucchero vase which was dedicated by a certain Aulus Vibenna at Veii in the mid-sixth century, whether or not this man was the same as Mastarna’s friend. Attempts have been made to discredit the elder Tarquin as the double of Superbus, since many details of their careers are similar; but then though many of the deeds of Elijah are also attributed to Elisha, it is not thought necessary for that reason to roll the two prophets into one. Since the first Roman annalists to record this period lived some three hundred or more years after it, and the fuller historians, Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, lived half a millennium after the fall of the Roman monarchy, it is not surprising that uncertainties may have arisen as to which of two similarly named men certain actions should be ascribed. (The fact that both also traditionally shared the name Lucius need not invalidate the evidence of the Vulci painting, since the name may be due to confusion with the Etruscan title lucumo.)

But if Tarquinius Priscus is to be retained because arguments against his existence are not strong, it must be admitted that little can be attributed to him with any certainty. If his end was violent, as depicted in the Vulci fresco or told in Roman tradition, which assigned his death to men suborned by the sons of Ancus Marcius, his beginnings were peaceful enough: coming from Caere or Tarquinii, he is said to have driven to Rome in a cart (Henry Tudor’s later triumphal entry into London in a coach of a type used by women instead of riding on a war-horse, caused the citizens great astonishment). This tradition, even if exaggerating his peaceful entry, suggests that the Etruscan element was at first small. With a few well-chosen armed retainers he may have seized a city already surrounded by his kinsfolk and have retained his position by the beneficent influence of Etruscan culture. He was traditionally the son of Demaratus who had emigrated from Corinth to Etruria, and no doubt followed his father’s interest by promoting the pottery industry (p. 21). He is said to have added a hundred members to the Senate, who were called minores gentes; this tradition, together with the occurrence of several Etruscan family names among the titles of the tribes established by his successor Servius (e.g. Papiria, Voltinia), suggests that Tarquin encouraged many Etruscan families to settle in Rome, where they would strengthen his power. Among other innovations attributed to him were the construction of the Cloaca Maxima to drain the Forum Valley, and the establishment of the Roman Games. Since both drainage works and games were typically Etruscan interests, he should not be denied these achievements, even though this first Cloaca was only an open drain.11

Servius Tullius, traditionally Tarquin’s son-in-law, secured the throne through the boldness of his wife Tanaquil. One line of tradition represents him as a Latin, another as an Etruscan whose name was Mastarna. As ‘Macstrna’ rescued Caeles Vibenna during the mêlée in which Tarchu was killed, according to the tradition depicted on the Vulci tomb, he might well have become Tarquin’s successor, as the antiquarian emperor Claudius later believed. Yet the great veneration in which Servius was held by later Romanssuggests a Latin origin rather than an equation with the Etruscan Mastarna, while his historicity is supported by his Latin name which was later used only by plebeians: a fictitious king would have been given a patrician name. But even if a Latin king was thus sandwiched in between two Etruscan Tarquins, Etruscan influence nevertheless continued in Rome throughout his reign, and he perhaps even encouraged the fusion of the two cultures.12

Servius’ reign was remarkable for many reforms, though some are falsely assigned to him. Some authorities would even rob him of his Etruscan wife, Tarquin’s daughter, arguing that she was invented to illustrate the hereditary nature of the monarchy; however, the importance of women in Etruscan society advises caution. Servius’ major reform was to institute new military units and property classes and thus to create a timocratic constitution. Details of this are discussed below (pp. 64ff.): it strengthened the monarchy against the nobles by advancing the middle class who supplied the legionary hoplites for the army, and it enfranchised many men whom increasing trade and industry had attracted to Etruscan Rome. He protected the city by constructing earthworks over the eastern hills, though probably not the continuous stone wall which was named after him (p. 53). He also asserted Rome’s political leadership in Latium, perhaps at the expense of Aricia, an older centre of the Latin League, by establishing on the Aventine hill (a plebeian quarter of Rome) a cult of Diana, as a common federal sanctuary to which some neighbouring Latin towns had agreed.13

Finally, the younger Tarquin, the son or more probably the grandson of Priscus, was instigated by his ambitious wife, Tullia, Servius’ own daughter, to murder Servius. He then usurped the throne, set aside the Ordinances of good king Servius and oppressed his people; he was represented in the literary tradition as a Greek tyrant dressed up in Roman regalia, but neither his historical existence as the last king of Rome nor his Etruscan nationality should be questioned. Further, his achievements were not all bad: his buildings in Rome included the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and the Cloaca Maxima (pp. 51, 52) which would provide employment for many at Rome besides any artists or workmen that he summoned from Etruria, while he extended Roman influence in Latium and made a treaty with Gabii (p. 55). The story of his son Sextus and the rape of Lucretia may have little historical value, but it should not be denied that Tarquinius Superbus was deposed by a revolution that established the Republic. Though the Roman festival of the Regifugium has no connection with the ejection of Tarquinius, yet the hatred which he engendered is demonstrated by the fact that the word rex continued to stink in the nostrils of the Romans until the end of the Republic. The story of his fall will find its place in the account of Rome’s relations with her neighbours (pp. 67ff.).

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!