City of the Tarquins: the Etruscan city-state, c. 625–509 BC

No city existed on the banks of the Tiber when the Romans first emerged as a distinct people. Until the late 7th century BC, they were a tribal community ruled by chiefs, and their main settlement contained no masonry or monumental buildings. Though hundreds lived there, Rome was still a place of earth banks, timber palisades, and small houses of wood, clay and thatch. And such it might have remained had not the Romans been sucked into the vortex of Etruscan military imperialism. Ancient cities rarely just evolved; usually they were founded and built by political decision. This, almost certainly, was the case with Rome.

The region north of Latium was ruled by a powerful Etruscan-speaking elite who derived their wealth from rural estates worked by serfs. They had begun to construct stone-built cities on defensible hilltops, and at these sites a sophisticated civilization developed during the 6th century. Civil engineers built stone bridges, carefully graded paved roads suitable for carts, and whole networks of underground drains for land reclamation and water supply. Architects designed large stone-built temples with colonnaded porches, and artists decorated these with brightly painted terracotta slabs. Potters produced a range of fine bucchero tableware – delicately shaped, thin-walled vessels with a glossy black finish. Greek and Phoenician merchants brought in shiploads of oil, perfume, ostrich eggs, bronze vessels, and ceramics decorated with superb figured scenes in black silhouette, exchanging these for copper, iron and slaves. And such was the demand for eastern exotica that local artists were soon copying the ‘Oriental’ styles. Many of the most treasured objects accompanied their owners in death, for outside the cities of the living were cities of the dead, with streets of tombs in which, behind sealed entrances, the spirits of the departed reclined on couches, feasts laid out before them, the walls painted with frescoes of games, music and drinking. In wealth, power and culture, the Etruscans were well ahead of the Latins, and by the end of the 7th century they had already achieved that critical mass of elite-controlled surplus that made civilization – life in cities – possible.

The Etruscans had also adopted a new way of war. A military revolution begun in Greece had spread rapidly to the Greek colonies and Etruscan cities of Italy. The city-states of the time were, in essence, communities of citizens pledged to common defence of territory, property and families. Each free man was obliged to do military service, but his contribution was related to means, and, increasingly, the chief burden came to fall on the better-off citizens who could equip themselves with a full panoply – that is, as heavy infantrymen with helmet, body-armour, large round shield, thrusting spear, and sword: what the Greeks called ‘hoplites’. These men, perhaps a third of the total in a typical city-state militia, formed the essential core of Greek armies. The upper-class cavalry were generally too few to matter. The lower-class light infantry, though numerous, played only secondary roles in battle. It was hoplites that were decisive. They formed up as a phalanx, a block of close-packed men, eight or more ranks deep, ranged shoulder-to-shoulder, the front rank presenting a wall of overlapping shields with spears projecting above. Though slow and inflexible, the phalanx was an ideal formation for deploying large numbers of poorly trained, amateur soldiers. In head-on confrontation, provided it maintained order, the phalanx was virtually unbreakable in defence and unstoppable in attack. Levies of tribesmen – lacking armour and in loose formation – were easily defeated by the concentrated killing-power of dense masses of city-state heavy infantry. Generally, to fight a phalanx, you needed your own phalanx. So those with the resources to do so – like the Etruscans – remodelled their armies for hoplite warfare during the 6th century.

Rearmed, the Etruscans became conquerors. Umbria, much of the Po valley to the north, and substantial parts of Latium and Campania to the south fell to Etruscan warlords. They founded many cities – among them, probably, Pompeii – each a planned ‘new town’ with a regular street-grid laid out by Etruscan surveyors. Neither conquests nor colonies were under unified control, however. There was no ‘Etruscan Empire’ formally constituted. The homeland itself was divided into independent city-states – traditionally twelve – and interventions abroad were mainly the work of military freebooters seeking glory, plunder and land. Groups of nobles organized expeditions – with or without the backing of their respective cities – by calling up men who owed them allegiance and service, and attracting others by offering a share in the spoils. Nor were the adventurers and would-be colonists recruited necessarily Etruscan. In much of Italy, especially on the Hellenized west coast, the upper classes shared elements of a common culture – a koine(strictly a common language, but often used metaphorically about culture in general). Ties of kinship and hospitality linked men together – Etruscans, Latins, Sabines, Greeks, others – across ethnic barriers. In a limited sense only, therefore, could Rome be said to have ‘fallen to the Etruscans’ in the 6th century BC. Tarquinius Priscus, the Etruscan warlord who made himself king, was a more or less independent operator. The dynasty he founded – unstable and relatively short-lived – was only in the loosest sense part of a wider Etruscan imperium. Nonetheless, the impact was profound: the Etruscan kings founded Rome anew as a city, a city-state, and a true monarchy.

Rome was ripe for taking. The Latin community was divided into political factions. The patrician aristocracy of clan-chiefs owned the best land and controlled the royal council. The burden of war service fell mainly on the commoners, especially on the assidui, a ‘middling sort’ made up of small property-owners able to equip themselves as proto-hoplites. As the tribal state became more dependent on them, the middling sort’s resentment over such issues as debt, land shortage, aristocratic privilege, and over-long stints on campaign acquired greater urgency. With the balance of power at Rome tipping against the patrician retinues and in favour of a discontented hoplite class, the intervention of Tarquinius Priscus was the catalyst that collapsed the tribal state. He and his two sucessors, Servius Tullius (a Latin, but protégé of the Etruscans) and Tarquinius Superbus, were what a contemporary Greek would have called ‘tyrants’: populist strongmen who battered their way to power with mass support. And once in control, the Etruscans, like Greek tyrants, implemented a programme of domestic reform, monumental building, and imperial expansion.

Urbanization had in fact already begun at Rome when the Etruscans came to power. Around 650 BC, the marsh between the hills had been drained and an expanse of beaten earth laid out, creating a place of public assembly at the centre of the settlement: the Forum. Another low-lying area close to the river had also been drained, this to serve as a cattle market: the Forum Boarium. Shortly afterwards, the main forum had been paved in stone, and soon, before the end of the 7th century, the earliest stone buildings had been erected nearby. Whatever had already been done, however, it was probably Tarquinius Priscus who ‘founded’ Rome in a formal sense. He thereby started the process which turned a stronghold into a city, villagers into citizens, a tribal chiefdom into a royal city-state.

To found a city was a most holy act. Plutarch records the ceremony at Rome in his biography of Romulus. (Plutarch’s Lives were written around the end of the 1st century AD, and his account of the foundation ceremony at Rome is probably based on records of later rituals at other sites; something like it, however, may have happened at Rome in the time of Tarquinius Priscus.) First, Plutarch tells us, a circular trench was dug at the Comitium, the place of public assembly in the Forum, and into this were cast offerings of first-fruits and clods of earth taken from each citizen’s farm. This spot, thus sanctified with symbols of fertility and fraternity, was the centre around which the city was to be laid out. ‘Then the founder fitted to a plough a bronze ploughshare, and, yoking together a bull and a cow, drove himself a deep furrow round the bounds. The business of those that followed was to see that whatever earth was thrown up should be turned inwards to the city, and not to let any clod lie outside. With this line they described the wall, thepomerium, and where they designed to make a gate, there they took out the share, carried the plough over, and left a space. Because of this, they consider the whole wall as holy, except where the gates are, for had they judged them also sacred, they could not, without offence to religion, have given free ingress and egress for the necessaries of life, some of which are in themselves unclean.’(3) (Remus’ offence in the famous myth, for which his brother Romulus killed him, was, of course, to leap across the pomerium, violating – and by implication denying – its sacredness.)

Archaeology has revealed what may be a 6th century defensive wall associated with a new city boundary. It was constructed from well-cut, carefully laid blocks of cappellaccio, a soft volcanic tufa quarried in the Roman countryside and widely used at the time as a building stone. The boundary enclosed the Palatine, the Esquiline, and the Forum in between, amounting to some 285 hectares, which – assuming our estimates of dates for this and an earlier boundary around the Palatine alone are correct – would have made the new city more than three times the size of the 7th century chieftain’s stronghold.

A century of monumental building followed. The city’s main sewer became a huge stone-lined culvert, the Great Drain (Cloaca Maxima), large enough, as a Roman writer observed several centuries later, to allow the passage of a wagon loaded with hay. In the Forum, new buildings included the Regia, the house of the king; the Senate House, where meetings of the royal council were held; and the Black Stone, a subterranean sanctuary containing a large stone block inscribed with ritual injunctions. Nearby, the Palatine Hill began to emerge as Rome’s elite residential district, with large patrician houses (domus) of standardized design on the lower slopes. Entering one of these through a street-front passage, one came into a spacious cruciform courtyard (atrium), with a narrow opening to the sky that allowed rainwater to collect in a centrally placed basin (impluvium). Facing the courtyard were four symmetrically placed suites of rooms, together with a large reception-room (tablinum) directly opposite the entrance passage. (Several elements of this design were still being recommended by the Roman architect Vitruvius 500 years later. Examples can be seen at Pompeii.)

Most impressive among Etruscan buildings were the new temples. Of these, none could compare with the temple on the Capitoline Hill, the most ambitious project of all, and one that was still unfinished when the last king was overthrown in c. 509 BC. Dedicated by the consuls of the new Republic, it was, and would forever remain, Rome’s greatest monument: the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the three patron deities of Rome, the Roman people, and, ultimately, the Roman Empire. ‘Builders and engineers were brought from all over Etruria,’ Livy tells us, ‘and the project involved the use not only of public funds but also of a large number of labourers from the poorer classes. The work was hard in itself, and came as an addition to their regular military duties, but it was an honourable burden with a solemn and religious significance, and they were not, on the whole, unwilling to bear it.’(4) The Capitoline Temple was about 55 m wide and 60 m long, making it one of the largest in the world. It was approached frontally up a steep flight of steps giving access to the high podium. A deep porch of 18 columns arranged in three rows of six covered the front of the podium, and a line of columns ran down either side of the building to meet lateral extensions of the rear wall. The shrine itself was a solid-walled structure divided into three long cells, each with a monumental door at the front and a cult image at the back. A gabled, tiled roof extended over both porch and shrine. Exterior architraves, cornices and eaves were decorated with lines ofterracottas painted with floral and geometric patterns. Rows of gorgons and other mythic monsters glared down from the guttering. Life-sized gods perched on the roof, each wearing the same enigmatic ‘archaic’ smile. The temple and its cult symbolized the new order of the late 6th century: the monarchy, the city, the war-making state that Rome was becoming, and the growing dominance of the Roman imperium in Old Latium.

Etruscan Rome was a boom town for artisans and traders. Apart from great building projects, with their demand for quarrymen, surveyors, stone-cutters, architects, sculptors, tile-makers and general labourers, the city became a regional emporium. The Tiber was a funnel for people, goods and ideas, and Rome stood at the highest point navigable for ships of any size. It linked the Greek and Phoenician traders working the Mediterranean sea-lanes with the Italian aristocracy of the inland towns, whose growing wealth and ‘Orientalizing’ tastes made them eager to acquire luxury goods from the East. Moreover, this east-west funnel was crossed at Rome by an equally important north-south routeway. The city, 20 km from the sea, lay at the lowest convenient crossing-point on the river: the overland route down the west coast of Italy between Etruria and Campania ran through Rome. The late 6th century city was full of Greek and Etruscan pottery shops. New cult centres like the Temples of Mother Dawn and Fortune down near the docks served a growing merchant community. Great trading cities like Phoenician Carthage and Greek Marseille sought treaties with Rome’s kings. The patrician elite laid their tables with Athenian black-figure ceramics and mixed wine in Etruscan bronze cauldrons. ‘Hi, enjoy your drink!’ exclaimed the Greek inscription on a 6th century wine-cup found in Rome. The moralists of a later age were wrong, it seems: there had never been a golden age of sober living; Rome’s rich had always loved luxuria (a word which implied not only luxury, but the extravagant and conspicuous consumption of wealth as a mark of status). The city had ceased to be a farming settlement and become a centre of commerce, grandeur and ‘taste’. Most of the inhabitants were not now peasants but the artisans, traders, labourers and slaves who served the city elite. Rome had become a parasitic ‘consumer city’, a place which produced less than it consumed and was dependent on inflows of surplus wealth from outside.

Much of the surplus was raised in the ager Romanus (Roman farmland), where the elite had their estates. But part was also raised through war – through, that is, the forcible seizure of surplus in the form of booty. Rome remained at root a war-making state – and a turbulent one at that, one whose social conflicts had enabled the Tarquins to rise to power in the first place, and which afterwards prompted them to attempt a major remodelling of Roman society. Their aim in this was to break the power of the patricians and the clans they dominated, and to reform an outdated army composed of loosely organized tribal contingents. Instead, there was to be a constitutional monarchy based on popular consent, an empowering of the citizen-body as a whole, and a recasting of the army as a hoplite phalanx. These changes, involving as they did a decisive and permanent shift of power from clan-chiefs to citizen-yeomanry, were, in fact, of greater significance even than the building of the city: they were the very essence of the transition from tribal chiefdom to city-state engineered by the Etruscan kings.

Around 550 BC, in the aftermath of the violent convulsion that brought him to power, Servius Tullius, the second of the dynasty of usurper-kings, imposed a new property-based constitution on the state. All male citizens (except a minority who owned no property at all) were allocated to a military-service class (classis) according to the value of their estate as determined in a five-yearly census (census). The census, and the highly respected elected magistrates who conducted it (censores), were to be characteristic features of the Roman state throughout its history. Without the census, military service (militia) and war tax (tributum) could not have been administered fairly and efficiently. With the census, regularly updated, each man’s contribution could be related to his means. Nothing demonstrates more clearly than the Roman census the basic nature of the city-state as a community of men organized for war.

According to their rating, citizens equipped themselves as cavalry, heavy infantry or light infantry, and according to age they served as ‘juniors’ in the field army or ‘seniors’ in the home guard. The new classifications were grafted on to a reformed tribal system. In place of the three ‘Romulan’ tribes of the 7th century chiefdom (Luceres, Ramnes and Tities), there were now 21 ‘Servian’ tribes, four in the city corresponding to four urban areas, the rest in the countryside. Tribal membership was determined by place of residence and affirmed in a civil registration process. It was through the tribe that each man then exercised his rights and performed his duties. The tribe was required to supply four centuries of juniors and four of seniors. This yielded a field army of 8,400 men and a home guard of equal size. Each force was divided into two legions of 4,200 men, of whom 3,000 were ‘of the hoplite-shield rating’, and 1,200 were light infantry armed with javelins and slings. There were also six centuries of cavalry (later increased to 18), drawn from the wealthiest class, the knights (equites).

Rome’s new hoplite army was the basis of new political institutions. Servius Tullius aimed to underpin royal authority and marginalize the patrician clan-chiefs who controlled the Assembly of the Cantons (Comitia Curiata) by creating a new popular assembly. It was to be controlled by the hoplite class, by citizens of the middling sort, the main supporters of the dynasty. It was, moreover, to be a military assembly, representing the people organized as an army, for it was here that henceforward decisions would be made about peace and war. This Assembly of the Centuries (Comitia Centuriata) met just outside the city on the Field of Mars (Campus Martius), the army’s mustering ground, and it voted century by century. The higher classes – knights and hoplites – voted first, and their votes had greater weight. The whole mass of the propertyless poor, known as ‘proletarians’ (proletarii: those who had offspring but no property), men who were therefore ‘counted only by head’ (capite censi), were lumped together in a single ‘century’ to cast their votes. Property, military service and political power were thus intertwined: the Assembly of the Centuries was a stakeholders’ assembly. The old Assembly of the Cantons was not dissolved, and the clan-chiefs ensured that it continued to function; but it was eclipsed and never recovered its former prestige.

The new army saw frequent action. Rome was surrounded by actual and potential enemies. Border disputes flared up with neighbouring Etruscan and Latin city-states, and hostile tribesmen, Sabines, Aequi and Volsci, mounted regular raids on the western and southern edges of Latium. The price of security was high. War, though, could be profitable, and this – the inner secret of Rome’s whole history – was a discovery of the Etruscan kings. Given a superior army and troubled conditions, the temptation was to launch preventive wars: better to neutralize an enemy before he became a serious threat. Often, moreover, there was a victory dividend to be drawn: booty, slaves and land. In a world of peasant agriculture and primitive technology, where land and labour were the basis of wealth but the return from estates was more or less fixed, plundering enemies was the easiest source of new wealth – wealth to maintain armies, build cities, and reward supporters. So late 6th century Rome evolved in the hands of the Etruscan kings into something more than a military state seeking security through arms; she became an aggressive, predatory, imperial state, one that waged wars of plunder and conquest as deliberate policy. Militarism entered the soul of Rome.

Old legends recorded the destruction of ancient cities and the absorption of their people by the Roman state – Alba Longa, Tellenae, Politorium, Ficana: archaic settlements snuffed out in the shadowy era before historical records began. Once, in the mid 7thcentury, the ager Romanus had covered about 150 sq km and supported a population of no more than a few thousand. By the end of the 6th century, the ager Romanus was 20 km wide, covered some 800 sq km, and contained perhaps 35,000 people. The territory of Rome by then embraced a third of Old Latium. Moreover, as the most powerful of the Latin states, Rome controlled a league of independent cities, including Gabii, Tusculum, Aricia, Ardea and Lavinium, and these formed a defensive ring around her frontier. The Etruscan kings – conquering kings, mini-imperialists – had turned Rome into the Latin hegemon.

This was the new order that was so aptly symbolized by the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva rising on the Capitoline Hill. Paid for – as all the city’s future temples would be – by war booty, it honoured Jupiter, god of property and power, Juno, goddess of marriage and the family, and Minerva, goddess of wisdom and (without apparent irony) war. The 8th century fertility cults of farmers were now overshadowed, in the late 6th century, by the black-hearted gods of empire.

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