NORTH OF ROME LIVED A MYSTERIOUS AND HIGHLY cultivated race. These were the Etruscans and their homeland, Etruria, occupied, roughly speaking, modern Tuscany. They first appeared on the scene between 900 and 800 B.C. Their language used a form of Greek script, but it was not an Indo-European tongue, as in most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies, and has not yet been fully deciphered. To this day, its origin is unknown.
In fact, it is still not altogether clear whence the Etruscans themselves originated. Some said they came from Lydia, a kingdom on the Turkish coast (where later, in the sixth century, Croesus ruled, a byword for enormous wealth), and were led by the king’s son, Tyrrhenus. The Greek for Etruscan is Tyrrhenian. This account is perfectly plausible; for hundreds of years, the Italian peninsula was an archaic America, a new world open to successive waves of colonists. Enterprising Phoenician and Greek traders patrolled the seas looking for business. Aristocrats saw themselves as an international class and networked with one another across state borders. There is no particular reason that a force of Lydians (or, more generally, Asiatics) should not have invaded Italy—in much the same way that Duke William and his handful of Norman knights expropriated Anglo-Saxon England.
It is tempting to envisage a melting pot in which the native population was enriched by Greek and Phoenician aesthetic styles, new techniques in metalworking, and a sophisticated knowledge of town planning. However, modern scholars have been more skeptical, supposing the slow indigenous development of a community of villages into a loose federation of small city-states. Others have thrown up their hands and walked away from the debate, seeing the question as being on a par with the name of Hecuba’s mother—“neither capable of being known nor worth knowing.”
One way or another, by the eighth century the Etruscans had graduated from being simple farmers into an urban society of merchants and craftspeople. They were organized as a federation and each of their city-states was ruled by a king, or lauchme, who governed with much pomp, donning a purple robe and a gold crown. He was attended by servants, who carried fasces, bundles of rods tied around a one-headed ax. The Etruscans were militarily active and built up a sizable empire in central and northern Italy that reached Bononia (today’s Bologna) in the north and parts of Campania in the south. Rome seems to have retained its independence, however, although much influenced by Etruscan art and architecture, and, above all, by its religious practices.
According to Livy, Etruscans, “deeply learned as they were in sacred lore of all kinds, were more concerned than any other nation with religious matters.” Their doctrines were set out in a series of books much used by their disciples at Rome, called Etrusca disciplina (The Etruscan System); these covered such topics as the scrutiny of the entrails of animals, the interpretation of thunder and lightning, and “rules concerning the founding of cities, the consecration of altars and temples, the inviolability of ramparts, the laws relating to city gates, the division into tribes, curiae and centuriae, and all other things of this nature concerning war and peace.”
Inside every ordinary object or event lay a secret and sacred meaning. It followed that the world was a forest of symbols. The most innocent animals or plants concealed unexpected threats or promises. So, for instance, some kinds of tree were ill-wishing and flourished under the protection of the underworld powers. The eglantine, the fern, the wild pear, the black fig, and any bush that produced black fruits or berries had to be rooted out and destroyed as soon as they were seen to sprout. By contrast, the laurel brought good fortune. The dreams of pregnant women could foretell triumph or disaster, as could eccentricities in the internal organs of sacrificed animals. A model bronze liver has been found divided into forty-four areas, marked with the names of the gods, showing the place allotted to each god in the Etruscan cosmos. Celestial phenomena required particular attention. Storms, rain (especially if of an unusual color or consistency), comets, and the flights of birds and bees all called for careful study and required expert interpretation. Etruscan nobles were trained as haruspices, or diviners, and were much in demand in Rome throughout most of its history.
The Etruscans laid out their cemeteries as well as their towns in orderly grids. In their heyday, the tombs of the rich were reconstructions of the houses they lived in when alive, containing corridors and rooms. All kinds of household objects were stored in them. In the burial chamber of one great lady, archaeologists found
gold ornaments, little toilet vases for oil and perfumes, pyxides [round boxes with separate lids] imitating wooden coffers for keeping small objects in: all things which could only have been dedicated to a woman for a life beyond the tomb. But together with these objects were indispensable kitchen utensils: andirons [metal supports for fire logs] and spits, a cauldron with a tripod to support it; finally a whole dinner service, the very one which had been used for the funeral feast in honor of the deceased: jugs, amphorae [two-handled jars for storing wine or oil], vases for drawing water or for mixing liquids, drinking cups and dinner plates.
Bright-colored frescoes on tomb walls illustrate the daily life of the Etruscans. Although these sometimes depict frightening demons of the underworld, they mostly evoke with beguiling joie de vivre all manner of humane fun—banquets, young men dancing and making music, horse racing, fishing, wrestling, and other athletics.
One of the most widely read and influential historians of the ancient world, Theopompus, has left a frank, if overly graphic, description of sexual intercourse Etruscan style. Apparently, women took gymnastic exercise naked. They were very good-looking, he wrote, but drank too much wine. Children were brought up by a woman’s family, whoever their father was. Men waxed and shaved themselves at establishments that were as common as barbershops.
And they are so far from regarding sex as shameful that when the master of the house is engaged in making love and someone asks for him, they say: “He is fucking so-and-so,” referring to the act by its name without any embarrassment. When family or friends hold a party, this is how they carry on: first of all, when they have finished drinking and are ready for bed and while the torches are still alight, the servants bring in call-girls, handsome boys, or their own wives. When they have taken their pleasure of the women or the men, they make strapping young fellows sleep with the latter. They make love and pursue their pleasures in full view of everyone, but usually surround their couches with small frames of woven branches over which they drape their cloaks. They often have sex with women, but they always enjoy themselves better with boys and young men.
There is evidence that women were respected members of Etruscan society. They were given personal as well as family names, unlike their Roman counterparts. Tomb frescoes show wives attending dinner parties, something that would shock a Greek, and depict apparently happy marriages. This is not necessarily inconsistent with general licentiousness and, in its way, Theopompus’s X-rated account does tend to confirm women’s relative independence.
IT WAS FROM this sophisticated, culturally somewhat overwhelming society that a complete stranger arrived in Rome and won the throne. The surprising thing was that he was not even of Etruscan descent but the son of an aristocratic Greek exile from Corinth, a powerful and famous city in Greece.
Greece was a snake pit of tiny, fiercely competitive states, of which Corinth was the wealthiest at the time. Standing on the narrow isthmus connecting mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, it was ideally situated as an international entrepôt and its merchants traded eastward with Asia Minor and westward with Italy. Corinthian pottery and perfumes were famous throughout the Mediterranean and much sought after among the Etruscan upper classes.
The city was governed by a ruling clan, the Bacchiads, but between about 620 and 610 they were overthrown by a dissident member. This was Cypselus, who set himself up as a popular leader: he was a tyrant, or turannos, who opposed the aristocracy and ruled in the interest of the lower classes, especially small farmers. He confiscated the wealth of his opponents and extended the civil rights of the masses.
The Bacchiads bitterly resisted their expulsion, and many of them were executed. One of those who escaped the bloodbath was Demaratus, a rich merchant-noble who had sailed to Etruria, where he had commercial contacts. He arrived with a treasure chest and a large entourage, including a famous painter and some ceramic artists. He began producing fine pottery in the Corinthian manner and established himself in the major Etruscan city of Tarquinii (today’s Tarquinia), or possibly neighboring Caere. He received a warm welcome, and the geographer Strabo even claims that he became the city’s ruler.
This international career was not as astonishing as might be imagined. Inscriptions have revealed the presence in Etruria of high-ranking individuals of Greek, Latin, and Italic origin. A man’s wealth and family tree were more important than loyalty to a particular community, city, or homeland.
Demaratus married a local woman, of noble birth but poor, with whom he had two sons, Aruns and Lucumo (this latter name may be a mistake, for it is close to Lauchme, or “king”). He taught his boys all the arts according to the Greek system. When he grew up, Lucumo decided to emigrate to Rome, where he fancied that a man of energy, like himself, might find more opportunities to better himself than were possible in his hometown. He changed his name to Lucius Tarquinius (or, in English, Tarquin); he was later given the additional title of Priscus, or the Elder, to distinguish him from the next king but one, another Tarquinius. For Cicero, his arrival was a historic turning point, for it introduced Hellenic ideas and artifacts into a provincial backwater—everything from an inexhaustible curiosity about the world to political theory, from beautiful pottery to the poetry of Homer, whose epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were regarded as authoritative guides to the good and courageous life. Above all, they glowed with what seemed to Romans the glamour of a higher civilization. Cicero remarked, “It was indeed no little rivulet that flowed from Greece into our city, but a mighty river of culture and learning.”
Lucius’s move to Rome met with the warm approval of his highborn Etruscan wife, Tanaquil. She resented snobbish disdain of her marriage to an exile and a foreigner. She felt that in Rome, a new foundation where there were no old families, she would receive the respect she deserved.
Her optimism received a boost when the couple, en route from Tarquinii, were traveling in a covered wagon on the Janiculum Hill on the far side of the Tiber from Rome, not far from the new bridge. An eagle hovered above them, then dived down and plucked off Lucius’s cap. The bird soared into the sky, then swooped again and deftly replaced the cap on its owner’s head. Tanaquil, who, like most Etruscans, was an expert interpreter of portents and prodigies, saw this as a sign of imminent greatness.
She did not have to wait long to be proved right. The arrival in town of a man as wealthy as Lucius attracted attention, and he was presented to the king. Genial, well-informed, and with great personal charm, he soon became a trusted friend and counselor, and helped finance Ancus Marcius’s military campaigns.
The king had two sons, who were approaching manhood and expected to inherit the throne. Tarquin had other ideas. On Ancus Marcius’s death, according to the king’s will, he was appointed the boys’ guardian. He immediately arranged for them to be sent off on a hunting expedition. Having got them out of the way, he persuaded an assembly of the People to elect him as the new king.
Like his predecessors, Tarquin fought wars with his neighbors, and defeated an alliance of Etruscan cities. Plucky and aggressive, Rome was becoming a force to be reckoned with. Its rising wealth relied on military victories over its neighbors, the enlargement of its territory, and the expansion of its citizen base. Plunder enriched the city, and a number of important construction projects were begun. These included Rome’s great racetrack, the Circus Maximus, in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, and work began on draining the valley between Rome’s hills. The king had made a vow during a battle to build a temple to Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill, and now he could discharge it. Where there were gaps in the city’s fortifications, walls were erected, laid with huge, carefully squared blocks of stone.
Tarquin was the first Roman commander to hold a triumph, a military procession to celebrate a victory. He entered the city, riding a four-horse chariot at the head of his troops. He wore magnificent clothes and insignia, consisting of a toga and tunic, purple all over and shot through with gold, a crown of precious stones set in gold, and an ivory scepter and chair. His face was daubed with cinnabar (red lead, poisonous if a regular cosmetic), reddening his features like those of the statue of Jupiter on the Capitol. Like an Etruscan king, he was attended by twelve lictors, men who carried the fasces, symbols of punishment and execution.
All these emblems of power were the natural marks of self-assertion by an autocrat who relied on the People’s support. Splendor awes and attracts. As an Italian version of the Greek turannos, we may wonder whether Roman patricians—“old blood” from the time of Romulus—were any more enthusiastic about their king than the Bacchiads of Corinth had been when confronted with Cypselus. Tarquin was surely trying to weaken their position when he recruited an additional hundred senators from outside the patriciate.
He also enlarged the number of cavalrymen, or equites, in the army; these citizens were wealthy enough to pay for their own horses and represented another nonpatrician power center. He tried to bolster their position further by enrolling them into three new “tribes” or voting groups, in the Assembly. A leading patrician, Nevius, opposed the reform. The king was infuriated and decided to take his revenge.
Nevius was an augur, a priest responsible for the interpretation of the flight of birds. Tarquin wanted to show him up as a charlatan who did not speak a word of truth. He summoned Nevius into his presence and said, “I have a project in mind and would like to know if it is feasible or not. Please take the auspices and come back quickly. I will sit here and wait for you.”
The augur did as he was told and reported that he had obtained favorable omens and that the undertaking was possible. “You have convicted yourself of openly lying about the will of the gods,” crowed the king. “I wanted to know whether if I strike this whetstone with a razor I will be able to cut it in half.” This feat was obviously out of the question, and a watching crowd laughed.
Unabashed, Nevius replied, “Go ahead, strike it and you will cut it in half. If not I will submit to any punishment you choose.” Tarquin did so, and the steel sliced so easily through the stone that it nicked the hand of the man holding it.
Wisely, the king acknowledged defeat. He canceled his planned reform and had a bronze statue of Nevius erected in the Forum as recognition of his accomplishments. Dionysius of Halicarnassus recalled: “This statue remained down to my time. It stands in front of the Senate House near the sacred fig tree. It is less than life-size and the head is covered with a mantle [like a priest at a sacrifice]. A little way off, the whetstone and the razor are said to be buried under an altar.”
LUCIUS TARQUINIUS HAD not touched Ancus Marcius’s sons. Over the years, their sense of grievance grew and from time to time they plotted unsuccessfully against him. Loyal to their father’s memory, he always pardoned the offense. Now, when Nevius unexpectedly disappeared from the city, the sons drew the obvious conclusion that there had been foul play and the king was to blame. They financed bands of partisans who accused Tarquin of murder. Such a man, they said, should not be allowed to pollute the religious rituals over which he presided as king. It only made matters worse that he was “not a Roman, but some newcomer and a man without a country.”
Tarquin, now an old man in his eighties, went to the Forum and defended himself vigorously against the charge. The public supported him, viewing the accusation as self-interested slander. Ancus Marcius’s sons apologized to the king, who, as usual, forgave them. Three years passed without incident, and then they entered into a new conspiracy.
They dressed up two of their most fearless accomplices as shepherds, armed uncontroversially with billhooks, and gave them instructions on what to do and say. Then they sent them to the palace at midday. As the men approached the building, they apparently fell into an argument and came to blows. A crowd, ostensibly of people from the countryside, gathered and cheered on the quarrelers.
Eventually, Tarquin had the two men brought before him. They pretended that their dispute was about some goats, and bawled at each other, saying nothing to the point. Amid much laughter at the horseplay, they suddenly attacked the king and one of them hit him on the head with his billhook, a mortal blow. Leaving the weapon in the wound, the assassins ran out of doors but were caught by the lictors. Under torture, they revealed the authors of the plot, who fled into exile, and were then executed.
The king was dead, but the regime was more than capable of handling the crisis. Tanaquil, the queen, closed the palace doors and ejected all witnesses. She then sent out for medical supplies, as if Tarquin were still alive, and hastily summoned her son-in-law for an urgent consultation.
This was Servius Tullius, about whose origins there are various traditions. According to most acccounts, he was the son of a slave woman who belonged to the queen; his father was unknown or quickly forgotten. Cicero writes:
Though he was brought up as a slave, and served at the king’s table, yet the spark of genius, which shone even then in the boy, did not remain unnoticed, so capable was he in every duty and in every word he spoke. On this account Tarquin, whose children were still very young, became so fond of Servius that the latter was popularly regarded as his son; and the king took the greatest care to have him educated in all the branches which he himself had studied, in accordance with the most careful practice of the Greeks.
Portents added to the favorable impression that the boy made on the king and queen. Some report that Servius’s mother had a very surprising experience when sacrificing at the palace’s hearth. A phallus rose up from the hearth and inserted itself inside her. She told Tanaquil what had happened. The queen realized at once that a god must have been responsible. She watched over the woman’s pregnancy and tried to ensure that her baby’s divine parentage was kept a secret. This was no easy task, for portents continued to intervene. Once, when the child was asleep, his head burst into flames without his being harmed in any way, and from time to time people noticed a nimbus around his head. It was generally understood that his father must have been the fire god, Vulcan.
Tanaquil advised her husband that young Servius obviously had great promise (greater than that of their own children, incidentally). The boy was brought up as their son, and in due course the adult Servius married the king’s daughter.
In the wake of Tarquin’s murder, his widow advised Servius Tullius to seize the throne. Outside the palace, a crowd was shouting and pushing, so she went to a first-floor window and gave a short speech. “The king has been stunned by a sudden blow, but the steel has not sunk deep into his body,” she announced. “He has already recovered consciousness, the blood has been wiped off and the head examined. I assure you that you will soon be able to see him. In the meantime everyone should obey Tullius, who will dispense justice and perform the other duties of the king.”
For the next few days, Servius acted as regent. This gave him time to strengthen his political position and appoint a strong guard. When everything was ready, lamentations were heard from inside the palace, signaling Tarquin’s death. Although he had not yet been endorsed at an assembly of the People, Servius’s claim to the throne was backed by the Senate and from then onward he acted as king both in name and in deed. He later took care to win popular endorsement and astutely married his two daughters to the dead king’s sons, Lucius and Aruns, hoping by this precaution to avoid his predecessor’s fate.
Servius Tullius, like great men later in Rome’s history, believed devoutly in his luck. He claimed a special relationship with Fortuna, the goddess of chance, to whom he dedicated numerous shrines throughout the city. An ancient temple has been discovered in the Forum Boarium, or Ox Forum (a traffic hub where various streets met, it was so named after the statue of a bronze ox, not because it was a cattle market), and may be one of the king’s foundations. The goddess was said to visit him at night, climbing through a window to enter his bedroom. He may have conducted a ritual called “sacred marriage,” whereby a ruler had sex with a divinity in her temple, legitimizing his authority and ensuring the fertility and well-being of his realm. (Naturally, a female slave or temple prostitute would stand in for the goddess.)
IT IS WRONG to suppose that Rome at this early stage in its history was a primitive society. City-states like Rome could not develop without widespread literacy, at any rate among the élites. Servius Tullius is known mainly for his bold reforms of the state. These were absolutely dependent on the information technology of the time—not simply writing (both alphabet and numerals) but a technical capacity to store data in an archive and to access and manipulate it for many different purposes. Otherwise, the central management of military and political activity would have been next to impossible. Nor would it have been easy to establish the complicated institutions of government for which Rome became famous.
The king abolished the three tribes and thirty curiae of Romulus and replaced them with territorial tribes—four for the city and an additional number in the surrounding countryside. Managed by a senior official, or “commander,” these individuals were responsible for organizing local defense, the payment of taxes, and army recruitment.
Tribes also conducted a regular census. An ingenious method was found for counting the population. The commander of each tribe held a sacrifice and festival, and everyone was asked to contribute to its cost. Men gave a small coin of a certain value, women one of another, and children of a third. In this painless way, when the coins were added up, the number of tribe members, by age and gender, was ascertained.
Also, all Romans were obliged to register their name and that of their father, their age, and the names of their wives and children. On oath, they had to assign a monetary value to their property. Anyone found to have made a false declaration forfeited all his goods and was sold into slavery.
With even greater ingenuity, Servius Tullius devised a system that simultaneously controlled voting at popular assemblies and decided citizens’ military responsibilities. The idea was, while maintaining the democratic vote, to give more voting power to the rich—and also to require a substantial financial outlay when the rich served in the army.
How was this achieved? We begin with the word centuria, or “century”—literally, a group of one hundred men (although, in practice, not necessarily so many). This was the smallest unit of the army’s main military force, the legion; sixty centuries, or up to six thousand men, made one legion. (This number fell over the years to between four thousand two hundred to five thousand men in the second century.) It was also the name given to the voting units of the Assembly. There were eighteen centuries of horsemen and a hundred and seventy of foot soldiers (pedites). The foot soldiers were divided into five classes, according to their wealth and ability to pay for armor and weapons. The first and richest class was allocated eighty centuries, the second, third, and fourth twenty each, and the fifth class thirty. (Noncombatants such as trumpeters and carpenters were allocated to one or another of the five classes.) In each class one half of the centuries were made up of older men between forty-seven and sixty, and the other half of younger menbetween seventeen and forty-six: The age range was much smaller in the first group than in the second—an arrangement that privileged years and experience. Anyone with property below a minimum level was listed separately and was not allowed to serve in the army.
When it came to voting at the Assembly, each century balloted its members and then cast a single vote for or against the motion. The count began with the first class, and so on down. As soon as a majority had been reached, the voting stopped. The arrangement meant that the rich controlled more centuries than the poor. Indeed, centuries in the lower classes found that they seldom had a chance to cast a vote at all.
But if the wealthy won more power in the assembly than was equitable, they had more duties on the battlefield. They were subject to frequent conscription and, serving as heavily armed troops, had to buy their own expensive equipment (bronze helmets, greaves, breastplates, and spears and swords). The lower classes fought as light-armed skirmishers. The principle underlying the Servian reforms was timocratic—that is, they were a property owner’s charter. The idea was that only those with much to lose would make careful and well-considered decisions. It goes without saying that the patricians were not pleased with these reforms, for their ascendancy rested on birth, not money; they claimed the exclusive right to compete for power.
For Cicero and moderate conservatives hundreds of years later, Servius Tullius was a second founder (conditor) of Rome, for he had discovered a way of taming the revolutionary forces of democracy. “[The king] put into effect the principle which ought always to be adhered to in the commonwealth, that the greatest number should not have the greatest power,” he noted approvingly. “While no one was deprived of the suffrage, the majority of votes was in the hands of those to whom the highest welfare of the State was the most important.”
ACCORDING TO LIVY, Servius’s census revealed about 80,000 citizens—that is, adult men capable of bearing arms. This was a substantial number, and the king extended Rome’s boundary and the pomerium, the sacred space behind the city walls, or ramparts, to accommodate a growing population and the seven hills now contained in Rome with a continuous wall. These great Servian fortifications survive in part to this day. (The dating is a mistake; in fact, the walls were constructed in the late fourth century, and before then Rome had little in the way of adequate defenses. Servius Tullius probably merely erected some form of rough-and-ready rampart).
The census number is problematic, too, and modern scholars propose a population of about 35,000 at the end of the sixth century B.C. Nevertheless, this would allow a force to take the field of more than 9,000 men of military age—in other words, one legion of 6,000 plus 2,400 light-armed troops and 600 cavalry. By the standards of the time, this was no mean army. So Rome had become a substantial power to deal with, and Servius is even reported as having conducted a war against the powerful Etruscans, including Veii, the richest city of the Etruscan federation.
ONCE AGAIN, THE offspring of a previous king stirred up trouble for the current ruler. As we have seen, Servius tried to ensure the loyalty of the sons of Tarquinius Priscus by marrying them to his two daughters. Both unions were unhappy. The eldest boy, Lucius, was a hothead, eager for the throne; his wife loved her father and did her best to calm her husband. By contrast, the second daughter despised her consort, Aruns, who was a peace-loving youth, and bitterly regretted that she had not been allotted Lucius.
A prototype of Lady Macbeth, this second daughter arranged secret meetings with Lucius at which she upbraided him for his lack of ambition and encouraged him to plot against her father. Their first step was to arrange their own affairs; the two did away with their respective spouses and, without any pretense of mourning and with the aged Servius’s reluctant consent, they married.
The couple then proceeded to the main action. Lucius was in and out of the houses of the patrician families, reminding them of favors his father had done them and insinuating that now was the time to show their gratitude. Young men he swung to his side with money.
When he felt that the moment had come, he forced his way into the Forum with an armed guard, marched into the Senate House, sat himself down on the throne (this was the curule chair, or sella curulis, a sort of grand stool, ivory-veneered and with curved legs forming a wide X, with low arms and no back), and ordered a crier to summon the Senate to meet King Tarquin. He then delivered a tirade against Servius Tullius. The main charge, according to Livy, was that
base-born himself, and basely crowned, he had made friends with the riff-raff of the gutter, where he belonged; hating the nobility to which he could not aspire, he had robbed the rich of their property and given it to vagabonds.
In other words, like Priscus, Servius was a Greek-style turannos and an enemy of the patricians. Just as he himself had every intention of becoming, he might have admitted to himself.
Tarquin was still in mid-flow when a report reached the king of what was afoot. Angry and alarmed, Servius hurried to the Forum and, standing in the antechamber of the Senate House, interrupted the speaker.
“What is the meaning of this, Tarquin? How dare you, while I am alive, to summon the Senate and sit in my chair?”
“It is my father’s chair. A king’s son is a better heir to the throne than a slave.”
Confusion. Opposing cheers. A riotous mob rushed the Senate House. Tarquin had gone too far to pull back now. A strongly built man, he lifted up the old king by his middle and flung him down the entrance steps into the Forum before turning back to the meeting. Meanwhile, Servius’s retinue had fled, leaving him alone and unattended. Stunned, he was making his way back to the palace when some of Tarquin’s men caught and killed him.
It was said that the murder was committed on his daughter Tullia’s suggestion. She drove into the Forum in a carriage, called her husband out from the Senate House, and was the first to hail him as king. Tarquin advised her to go home, as the crowd might be dangerous. So she started off and, Livy writes:
At the top of Cypress Street [vicus Cuprius], where the shrine of Diana stood until recently, her driver was turning to the right to climb Orbius Rise [clivus Orbius] on the way to the Esquiline, when he pulled up short in sudden terror and pointed to Servius’s body lying mutilated on the road. There followed an act of bestial inhumanity—history preserves the memory of it in the name of the street, the Street of Crime [vicus Sceleratus]. The story goes that the crazed woman … drove the carriage over her father’s body. Blood from the corpse stained her clothes and spattered the carriage.
MANY YEARS IN the mythical past, Apollo, beautiful god of the sun, music, and archery, was trying to persuade a young woman to have sex with him. He promised to grant her a wish. She grasped a handful of sand and asked to live for as many years as the grains in her hand. The wish was granted, but, like so many other mortals who attracted the lecherous attention of classical divinities, she forgot to include undying youthfulness in her request. As time passed, she gradually withered away. A prophetess, or Sibyl, she lived in a cave at Cumae. She predicted the future by writing on oak leaves, which she arranged at the entrance. According to the novelist Gaius Petronius Arbiter in the first century A.D., the Sibyl used to sit in a bottle suspended from the roof, and when someone asked what she wanted she replied, “I want to die.” (The actual cave was discovered by a modern archaeologist, and in Cicero and Varro’s day was used as a shrine tended by a priestess.)
The Sibyl was somewhat more mobile when Rome was young. One day she presented herself at court, looking like an old woman. She brought with her nine books filled with prophecies, and offered to sell them to King Tarquin for a certain sum. He refused, and the Sibyl went away and burned three of the books. Shortly afterward, she returned and offered Tarquin the six remaining books for the same price. Laughter greeted the offer. So off she went again, burned three more books, and came back, offering the final three—for the same price.
By now, the Sibyl had won the king’s full attention. He asked the augurs to advise him. They warned him that his failure to purchase the complete set of books spelled disaster for Rome, and that he should at least secure those that were left. He paid up and stored the books in a cellar under the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, the construction of which he was superintending at the time. There they stayed, consulted during state emergencies, until the first century B.C., when the temple burned down and the books with it.
The story reveals contrasting dimensions of Tarquin’s character—hastiness and arrogance, but also a realistic response to a check. Not surprisingly, he won the nickname of Superbus, the Proud. Cicero once remarked that the foundation of political wisdom is tounderstand “the regular curving path through which governments travel.” In Superbus’s case, the curve led inexorably from assassination to despotism. Cicero went on: “[He] did not begin his reign with a clear conscience and, as he feared suffering the death penalty for his crime, he wished to make himself feared by others.”
Tarquin was no delegator, and he kept public business either in his hands or in those of his three sons, Titus, Aruns, and Sextus. Access to his presence was strictly controlled, and he behaved with great haughtiness and brutality to all and sundry. He once, arbitrarily and against convention, had a number of Roman citizens stripped and bound to stakes in the Forum, where they were then beaten to death with rods.
In spite of his violent personality, Tarquin’s reign was in many ways a successful one. Like previous kings, he conducted an expansionist foreign policy, deploying a combination of military force and guile. His main object was to establish Rome as the leader of the confederacy of the tribes of Latium, and he also moved farther down the peninsula to attack the Volsci, a tribe to the south of Latium. The city’s territory now stretched to the sea, where the port of Ostia enhanced trade and, thanks to Superbus, was encroaching southward into the lands of its Latin neighbors. Here we see the beginnings of Rome’s imperial career.
On one occasion Tarquin was besieging the town of Gabii, which refused to join the confederacy. Making little progress, he devised an ingenious stratagem. His son Sextus, pretending that he had been badly treated by his father, fled to Gabii, bearing on his back the marks of a heavy beating. He soon won the confidence of the inhabitants and was appointed the town’s commander. He then sent for his father asking what he should do next. Tarquin, suspicious of the messenger’s loyalty, said nothing but, seeing some poppies, simply walked up and down striking off the tallest heads.
The bemused messenger returned to Gabii and reported the king’s curious behavior. Sextus immediately got the point. He was to rid himself of the town’s leading citizens. Some were openly executed; others, who could not plausibly be charged with any offense, were put to death in secret. Still others were allowed to go into exile, forfeiting their property. Sextus distributed the profits of this exercise in liquidation. Livy neatly observes: “In the sweetness of private gain public calamity was forgotten.” Without complaint or resistance, Gabii let itself be handed over to the Romans.
The king was a busy builder. He installed tiers of seating for the Circus Maximus and completed the vast Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the lower crest of the Capitol. (Priscus had, at most, laid only the foundations.) Standing on a massive platform fifty-three meters wide and sixty-two long, it was a proud assertion of the magnificence of the Rome of the Tarquins. Probably made from mud brick faced with stucco, it contained three cellae (inner chambers) dedicated, respectively, to Jupiter, his wife, Juno, and Minerva. (Here the goddesses were on their best behavior, the scandalous judgment of Paris a distant memory.) The cult image of Jupiter was made of terra-cotta and showed him brandishing a thunderbolt. He wore a tunic and a purple toga (as we have seen, the costume worn by generals celebrating a triumph, when they processed through the city to the Capitol). The roof was wooden, with bright, multicolored terra-cotta decorations, and on the peak of the triangular façade stood another terra-cotta statue of Jupiter riding a four-horsed chariot.
Before building began, the augurs investigated the opinions of deities who already had holy places on the site. They all agreed to be resettled elsewhere—except for Terminus, the god of boundaries, so a special shrine in his honor was incorporated into the temple. His lack of cooperation was regarded as a good omen, for it signified the permanence of Rome’s borders.
The temple quickly became the center of Rome’s religious life. It was the repository of treasures donated by victorious generals, dedications, and military trophies. The rooms got so cluttered that in 179 B.C. numerous statues and commemorative shields fastened to the columns were cleared out.
A development of more practical value was the transformation of the brook that crossed the Forum into the city’s main drain, the Cloaca Maxima. Various smaller streams debouched into it. In Tarquin’s day, it was an open sewer, crossed by a bridge that doubled as a shrine to Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings and endings. As a result, the Forum finally lost its marshiness, and large-scale building became possible.
A TERRIBLE PORTENT appeared. A snake was observed to glide out of a crack in a wooden pillar in the palace. Everyone ran away in a panic. Even Tarquin was alarmed, although in his case the emotion was not so much fright as foreboding. He decided to consult the oracle at Delphi, and ask for an authoritative explanation.
Delphi was a town in central Greece, occupying a series of terraces along the slopes of Mount Parnassus. In this precipitous location stood a shrine to Apollo. It was the home of an oracle, one of the sacred places scattered throughout the Mediterranean where a god would respond to inquiries about the future. The oracle at Delphi was world-famous and was consulted by states as well as individuals.
The king did not dare to entrust the oracle’s reply to anyone but his closest relatives, so he commissioned two of his sons, Titus and Aruns, to journey to Greece, in Livy’s words, “through country which Roman feet had seldom trod and over seas which Roman ships had never sailed.” They were accompanied by the king’s nephew, Lucius Junius Brutus, a descendant of one of Aeneas’s companions. He was a strange young man, who deliberately assumed a “mask” to conceal his real personality. His family’s great wealth had attracted the unwelcome interest of the king, who had had his elder brother killed. Brutus was well aware that Tarquin had no hesitation in putting aristocrats to death, and feared that his turn would be next. So he pretended to be a simpleton and allowed the king to seize his estate without protest. He even accepted the additional cognomen of Brutus, the Latin for “stupid.”
Delphi was a spectacular destination. As the party neared the end of its journey, the road dwindled to a steep path and, according to Pausanias, the author of a celebrated guidebook to ancient Greece, became “difficult even for an active man.” Once arrived in the town, the visitors walked up a processional avenue, the Sacred Way, to the Precinct of Apollo, a walled enclosure at the top of the city filled with monuments and dedications, gifts in return for favors received. There were twenty Treasuries, small buildings that resembled miniature Greek temples and contained splendid offerings to Apollo, often works of art, including the Bronze Charioteer, one of the greatest masterpieces of Greek sculpture to have survived to the present day, and a bronze version of the wooden horse of Troy. Everywhere were nude statues of victorious athletes.
The Tarquin boys made their way to the Temple of Apollo, which stood at the center of the Precinct. Carved on the temple’s exterior were three famous maxims, epitomizing the Greek idea of the good life: “Know yourself” (); “Nothing in excess” (); and, somewhat mean-spiritedly, “Offer a guarantee and disaster threatens” (). Here they paid a consultation fee and made a sacrificial offering. All having gone well, and the animal having behaved as it should when sprinkled with water, they went inside the temple and sacrificed again, placing the victim, or parts of it, on an offertory table. Hieratic spokesmen (the Greek word is , from which we have our prophet) then ushered the Romans into a space where they could hear but not see the Pythia, a priestess who delivered her prophecies in an inner sanctum.
The Pythia was a local woman of a certain age, who served for life and was sworn to chastity. Before a séance, she purified herself by washing in the nearby Castalian Spring, and burned some laurel leaves (the laurel was Apollo’s plant) and barley meal at a symbolic hearth inside the temple. She then sat on a tripod and, crowned with laurel and holding a dish of sacred spring water, became possessed by the god. In this probably self-induced trance, she “raved”—that is, spoke in some form of fragmentary and ecstatic speech.
The spokesmen translated the ravings into elegant hexameters. These oracular messages were often fork-tongued, and those who consulted the god needed to consider their meaning with great care before taking any consequential action. It does not follow that thePythia was hedging her bets. If she wished, she could speak clearly and authoritatively; she and the temple personnel were well-informed on international politics and, when it came to personal consultations, they doubtless built up experience of human psychology. However, the Greeks believed that divine messages were in the nature of things ambiguous. There was a limit to human beings’ access to sure knowledge of the future.
Brutus knew how to get on the right side of the Pythia. He produced a wooden stick as an offering; Titus and Aruns had a good laugh at his expense for having made such a paltry gift. They did not realize that the stick had been hollowed out and that inside it Brutus had hidden a rod of gold. After the Tarquins had received an answer from the oracle (we are not told what it was), they decided to ask another question: Which of them would be the next king of Rome? The oracle’s typically equivocal answer was “He who shall be first to kiss his mother shall have supreme authority in Rome.”
Titus and Aruns made the obvious, literal interpretation. They decided that the prophecy should be kept a secret, so that at least their brother Sextus would be out of the running; they themselves would decide by lot which one would kiss his mother when they got back to Rome. But Brutus guessed that Apollo was being tricky. He pretended to stumble, and fell flat on his face, his lips touching the earth, the mother of all things.
This would by no means be the last time that senior Romans made their way up the steep path to the shrine of the god, in urgent need of his guidance.
IT WAS A sex scandal, not a political or military crisis, that brought the dynasty down. A long siege of the town of Ardea, the capital of a Latin tribe, the Rutuli, was loosening discipline in the Roman camp. Applications for leave from the front were rather easily granted, especially to officers. The young princes staged lavish entertainments in their tents. On one occasion, everyone was drinking heavily in the quarters of Sextus Tarquinius. Someone happened to raise the subject of wives, and each man praised his own in extravagant terms. A member of the royal family, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, broke in: “Stop! Why do we need words, when in a few hours we can prove beyond any doubt the superiority of my own Lucretia?”
He proposed that they all ride off to Rome, arrive at their houses without warning, and see what their wives were doing. They drunkenly agreed and galloped to the city, where they found the princes’ wives thoroughly enjoying themselves with a group of young friends at an extravagant dinner party. They then journeyed on to Collatinus’s house in his hometown some miles north of the city, Collatia. A very different sight greeted them. Although it was late at night, they found Lucretia, surrounded by busy maidservants, at work spinning. It was conceded by one and all that she had won the contest for female virtue hands down.
Collatinus asked the party to have supper with him. Nothing further occurred, and the men rode back to camp. It was at the meal, though, that Sextus was struck both by Lucretia’s beauty and by the challenge of her chastity. He decided that he would bed her.
His plan was a simple one. A few days later, he rode back to Collatia with one attendant, without mentioning the expedition to Collatinus. Lucretia welcomed him and gave him supper. Afterward, Sextus was assigned a bedchamber and the household retired for the night. He waited eagerly till quiet had fallen and, as far as he could judge, everyone was fast asleep. Drawing his sword, he let himself into Lucretia’s room. Holding her down with his left hand on her chest, he whispered, “Don’t make a sound. I am Sextus Tarquinius. I have a weapon and if you say a word you will be dead.”
Lucretia woke up with a start. Sextus did his best to persuade the terrified woman to consent to sex. She refused, even when threatened with death. Sextus then played his ace. If she would not let him sleep with her, he said, he would kill her and then his slave,whose naked body he would lay in her bed. He would then claim that he had caught her having sex with a servant, and put both of them to death. (An adulteress could be slain on the spot, without much danger of her killer’s being convicted in a court of law.)
The thought of a posthumous reputation as a slut was too much for Lucretia, and she gave in. Sextus enjoyed her, and then rode exultantly back to camp. Meanwhile, the abused woman sent messages to her father in Rome and to her husband at Ardea, telling them that something terrible had happened and they must come to her at once, each bringing with him a trustworthy friend. Brutus happened to be with Collatinus when the messenger arrived, and agreed to be his companion on this mysterious mission.
Lucretia was found sitting sadly in her room. She burst into tears when Collatinus and Lucretius entered and told them all that had happened. She said, “My body only has been violated. My heart is innocent and death will be my witness. Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer shall be punished. He is Sextus Tarquinius.”
They all gave their word, and then did what they could to comfort Lucretia. She replied, “I am free of guilt, but must take my punishment.” She drew a knife that she had concealed in her dress, drove it into her heart and, bending forward over the wound, died as she fell.
A sudden and extraordinary transformation took place. Brutus withdrew the knife from Lucretia’s body and, dropping his disguise of stupidity, spoke with intelligence, force, and feeling. His listeners were shocked.
Swearing a great oath on Lucretia’s blood, he cried, “I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, his wicked wife and all his children, and never again will they or any other man be king in Rome.”
Lucretia’s body was carried into the public square, where a crowd swiftly gathered. Brutus stirred them up to anger against the Tarquins and headed a march on Rome. He addressed the People’s Assembly in a packed Forum. He painted in vivid colors Sextus’s crime and from there went on to attack the king’s tyrannical behavior. He recalled the undeserved murder of the good king, Servius Tullius, and the cruelty of his daughter, Tarquin’s wife, Tullia, who had ridden over Servius’s corpse. The Assembly demanded the king’s deposition and the exile of him and his family.
News of these events soon reached Tarquin, who immediately left camp at Ardea for the city to restore order. At the same time Brutus, with a force of armed volunteers, made for Ardea to incite the army to revolt. Learning of the king’s whereabouts, he made a detour to avoid meeting him and arrived at the camp at about the same time that Tarquin reached Rome. They received very different welcomes. The troops greeted Brutus with great enthusiasm, while the authorities at Rome closed the city gates against the former despot. The king withdrew to Etruria with two of his sons; Sextus made for the town of Gabii, where he was quickly put to death by relatives of those he had massacred.
The year was 509 B.C., the kings were gone, history was about to take over from legend, and Rome was ready to embark on its great adventure.