HAVING DISPOSED OF THE TARQUINS, BRUTUS AND his fellow conspirators had to decide what to do next. In principle, each of them could very well have presented himself to the People as a successor king. That they did not do so, but instead established a republic, is a sign that this was not a revolt from “below” but a plot by resentful aristocrats, who wanted government by the élite.
We have already noticed that the last three kings were not patricians but outsiders, even foreigners; their power flowed from the People. According to the literary record, Superbus bullied the nobles mercilessly, and it looks very much as if they now took their revenge. That members of his family, Brutus and Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, headed the coup, shows that even his core support broke with him—quite possibly because of a sex scandal rather than because of political disagreement. The Lucretia story reads rather like the plot of a stage play, but, as we have surmised, there may have been more than a germ of truth in it.
Traditionally minded as they were, Romans disliked abolishing constitutional institutions, and although the monarchy had to go, they replaced it with something similar but cut up into different pieces. The object was not to remove royal power but to tame it. The king’s religious duties were passed to a priest, the rex sacrorum, or king of sacred things. His executive power, his imperium, which gave him command of the army and authority to interpret and execute the law, went to two officials called consuls. Rather like the president of the United States, the consuls were not accountable to a representative assembly. These “magistrates,” as they were called, were elected, as the kings had been; they wore similar state robes, sat on the sella curulis, and were also attended by lictors. The first consuls took office in 509.
The nobility wanted to eliminate the risk that one ambitious man could restore the monarchy—hence the division of power between two officeholders. This has the appearance of being an eccentric decision, and one likely to foster inertia. But power-sharing of this kind was not unknown in the ancient world. Sparta, for example, the celebrated Greek city-state whose citizens had a well-justified name for self-discipline, boasted two kings, each from a different royal family.
Two other restraints were placed on the consuls. Their term of office lasted for only twelve months, and each could place a veto (intercessio) on the other’s decisions. In Rome “No” always trumped “Yes.” In alternating months, one consul took the lead. The lictors walked in front of him in single file, with their rods (and, when outside Rome, axes), while his colleague stepped back into second place. The designers of these new arrangements recognized that domestic or external crises might arise from time to time which demanded forceful emergency action. So they invented the post of dictator. He was to be appointed by the consuls and entrusted with supreme authority on his own. His term of office was limited to six months.
Under the monarchy, the Senate was probably only an ad hoc collection of patricians and other leading personalities. Members were selected by the king and, under the early Republic, by the consuls. This state of affairs may have lasted until the fourth century,after which the Senate became a permanent, standing committee. Senators were expected to behave with probity; they were not allowed to engage in banking or foreign trade and were excluded from public contracts. They were unpaid. Not surprisingly, ways and means were found of bending the rules.
Although its function was to advise the consuls, the Senate possessed that weighty thing, auctoritas. A difficult word to translate, it referred to the influence that came with experience and high position. Theodor Mommsen writes that the force of auctoritas “was more than advice and less than a command, an advice which one may not safely ignore.” The Senate came to represent continuity, and its collective experience and expertise meant that its influence would only grow with the passage of time. There were no political parties and programs, but shifting networks of personal and collective alliances, often acting in the interest of aristocratic clans.
As we have seen, there existed a People’s Assembly, supposedly shaped by King Servius Tullius, the comitia centuriata. During the early Republic, the Assembly held supreme authority in the sense that it was the only body entitled to elect officials and pass laws. In practice, though, its democratic impact was limited, because its structure was skewed in a way that gave the “centuries” of the well-to-do more voting power than was allocated to the poor.
A system of patrons and dependents, the clientela, also cut across the democratic process. Freemen became the “clients” (through circumstance or choice) of wealthier people who were higher up on the social, economic, and political scale. They did everything they could to advance their patrons’ interests, and in return they received protection. When things went wrong, they could apply for assistance, usually financial or legal, in the sure knowledge that they would receive it. A patron’s son could expect to inherit his father’s list of clients. Like a feudal pyramid, the clientela brought signal benefits to the poor and financially insecure.
This web of interlocking obligations was tightly woven and made change difficult. It was one of the reasons that Rome became a conservative society and, in its constitutional arrangements, fought shy of revolutionary upheavals.
BRUTUS, WHO WAS one of the first-ever pair of consuls, persuaded an Assembly to swear an oath never again to allow any man to be king in Rome. An early law of the Republic made it a capital offense for anyone to become a leading official without being elected. Forever after, until the days of Cicero and beyond, Rome’s ruling élite were obsessed with a fear that one of their number would aim for royal power, regnum, and ruthlessly eliminate anyone suspected of meditating a coup. They liked to compete among themselves for a turn at the top, and although great families came and went through the centuries, a nobleman of any ability felt that public office was his birthright.
Brutus and his friends could not count on the People to support them, even if the Tarquins had lost popularity through high-handedness. If the fledgling Republic was to have a chance of surviving, they knew that something had to be done to reconcile them to the new order of things. When addressing the People, an early consul took the nervous precaution of ordering his lictors to lower their rods, as a gesture of submission, and had a law passed allowing the comitia centuriata to be the final court of appeal against a sentence of execution or whipping (if ordered inside the city’s pomerium). It was uncertain that this concession would be enough, for in the long run ordinary citizens would notice that, as Cicero remarked, “though the People were free, few political acts were performed by them.”
The crucial point to be made about this new constitution is that it would work only if there was give-and-take. To avert despotism, the forces in the state were almost too evenly balanced one against the other. A spirit of compromise and a refusal to resort to violence were essential to its success.
TARQUIN WAS NOT nicknamed Superbus for nothing. Pride had played a part in his and his sons’ fall, but pride also goaded him to resist and regain his power. Three stories are told about this desperate period during which the fate of the new Republic was in doubt; they are (surely) fictions, but they express, in their sensational way, what Romans viewed as good and bad behavior.
Superbus sent an embassy to the city, which announced his abdication and promised not to use military force to stage a comeback. In a tone of sweet reasonableness, he merely asked for the return of his and his family’s money and effects. His true purpose had nothing to do with his wealth but was meant to test public opinion and to identify supporters. At an assembly Collatinus, Lucretia’s widower and Brutus’s fellow consul, spoke in favor of granting Tarquin’s request, but Brutus, uncompromising as ever, argued vehemently against this. However, the plea was allowed, evidence (it may be) of a degree of continuing affection for Tarquin among the lower classes.
The envoys, under cover of cataloguing, selling, or dispatching the former monarch’s property, suborned some highly placed young men, nephews of Collatinus and, even more appallingly, two sons of Brutus. Treachery ate at the heart of the new state. The conspirators decided they should swear together a fearful oath and, after killing a man, pour a libation of his blood and lay hands on his entrails.
A slave happened to be in the room where the ceremony was to take place one night. He hid behind a chest in the dark when the young men entered and listened to their conversation. They agreed that they would kill the consuls and prepare letters, outlining their plan, for the envoys to take away with them when they went back to Tarquin. The slave reported what had been said and done to the authorities. After a struggle, the conspirators were arrested and the damning correspondence was discovered.
The question now was what to do with the culprits, coming as they did from such high and mighty families. At an Assembly, most people were embarrassed and silent, although a few, wanting to do Brutus a favor, suggested banishment as the most appropriate punishment.
The consul was having none of it. Having considered the evidence, he called each of his sons by name. “Come, Titus, come Tiberius, why don’t you defend yourselves against the charges?” he asked. They did not answer, so he asked them the same question two more times. When they still held their tongues, Brutus turned to the lictors and said, “It is now for you to do the rest.” They stripped the boys on the spot, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them with their rods. Brutus watched the scene with a fixed, unflinching gaze, even when his sons were then flung to the ground and had their heads chopped off.
The case against the other conspirators was heard, and Collatinus, fearful for his nephews, called for a moderate punishment. When Brutus objected, he shouted sarcastically, “I have the same authority as you, and since you are so boorish and cruel, I order the lads to be released.” Uproar followed, and it looked as though Collatinus would be unceremoniously removed from office then and there. To take the sting out of this constitutional crisis, he agreed to resign peaceably and went into exile.
This belief in the rule of law coupled with an almost inhuman severity were typically Roman qualities. Self-esteem was the gloomy reward for this kind of self-sacrifice. The pragmatic and puzzled Greeks found Brutus’s behavior “cruel and incredible.” Plutarch, whose biographies of Greek and Roman generals and politicians explore the ethics of public life, was taken aback, although he was too polite to moralize. Brutus, he wrote, had “performed an act which is difficult for one to praise or to blame too highly … [it] was either god-like or brutish.”
SUPERBUS WAS DISMAYED by the turn of events. Halfheartedly, he led an army against Rome, fought an indecisive battle, and abandoned the enterprise. He took refuge at the court of Lars Porsenna, king, or lauchme, of the powerful Etruscan city of Clusium. Porsenna disapproved, as a matter of principle, of the expulsion of monarchs, felt solidarity with Tarquin, and feared a domino effect, for what had happened to Tarquin might one day happen to him. So in 507 he agreed to lead an expeditionary force against the new Republic.
When the enemy appeared on the far side of the Tiber, Romans in the fields withdrew into the city, which was soon surrounded. The river had been deemed a strong enough barrier in itself and no defenses had been built along its bank, so the Pons Sublicius, still Rome’s only bridge, was a weak point. If Porsenna’s men could cross it, the war would be lost and Superbus would be back in office.
The officer on guard at the bridge was a patrician, one Publius Horatius Cocles. He had lost an eye in battle—hence his last name, Cocles, which is Latin for “one-eyed.” The enemy suddenly captured the Janiculum Hill and ran down toward the bridge. All the guards panicked and fled except for Horatius and two companions, Spurius Larcius and Titus Herminius, both of Etruscan extraction. They strode to the head of the bridge on the Janiculum bank of the river and prepared to mount a defense. Their aim was to buy time for the men behind them to dismantle the bridge. The bridge was far too narrow for more than a few of Porsenna’s soldiers to advance across it at once, so the three men hoped they would be able to hold them up.
They had pluck and luck, and fought at close quarters, killing many Etruscans. Horatius ordered his companions to save themselves, and struggled on alone despite a spear having passed through one of his buttocks. At last, he heard the crash of the falling bridge behind him, and with a prayer to the god of the river he dived into the water and swam back to the Roman shore. The city was saved, at least for the time being.
In this second, less controversial instance of selflessness, Horatius’s conspicuous courage summed up everything that Romans understood by virtus—a word whose nest of interrelated meanings embraced manliness, strength, capacity, moral excellence, and military talent (from it our softer term virtue is derived). A statue of Horatius was erected in the Comitium. Once, it was struck by lightning, a bad omen, and moved to a lower, sunless spot on the dishonest recommendation of some nationalistic Etruscan soothsayers. When this was discovered, the men were put to death (an overly severe punishment, one may judge, but it illustrates the sacredness of Horatius’s memory). The statue was then moved up to the Volcanal; this terrace on the slope of the Capitol Hill, with an altar of the blacksmith god, Vulcan, was a prestige location where the consuls of the day conducted public business. It stood there for many years and its presence is attested to by the encyclopedia writer Pliny the Elder as late as the first century A.D.
Porsenna settled down to a long siege. Time passed. Food supplies were running low in the city, and the Etruscan king supposed that he would soon gain his objective by doing nothing. A young nobleman, Gaius Mucius, decided to take the initiative. Having obtained the Senate’s permission to attempt to assassinate Porsenna, he slipped into the enemy camp, wearing Etruscan clothes and speaking Etruscan fluently. A sword was concealed on his person. Unfortunately, he did not know the king by sight and dared not risk his cover by asking someone to point him out. But he saw the royal dais and joined a large crowd surrounding it.
It was payday and a well-dressed man on the dais, sitting beside the king, was busy handing out money. This was because he was the treasurer. As most people addressed themselves to him, Mucius could not be certain which was the man and which the master. He made the wrong choice. He jumped up onto the platform and stabbed the treasurer. He tried to make his escape through the crowd, but was caught and brought back before a furious Porsenna.
Mucius betrayed no hint of fear. “I am a Roman,” he said. “My name is Gaius Mucius. I can die as resolutely as I can kill. It is our Roman way to do and to suffer bravely.” He then hinted that there were many other would-be assassins who would follow in his footsteps.
In rage and alarm, Porsenna ordered the prisoner to be burned alive unless he revealed full details of the plot to which he had alluded. Mucius cried out, “See how cheap men hold their bodies who fix their eyes on honor and glory!” He then put his right hand into a fire that had been lit for a sacrifice, and let it burn there as if he felt no pain. The king was deeply impressed and had his guards pull Mucius from the altar. He then set him free, as an honorable enemy.
But Mucius had no intention of letting Porsenna off the hook. Lying with conviction, he said, “I will tell you in gratitude what you could not extract from me with threats. There are three hundred young Romans in your camp, disguised as Etruscans, all of whom have sworn to attempt your life. I happened to draw the shortest straw!” The shaken king decided to abandon Tarquin, negotiate a peace, and go home. Mucius was given the additional name, or cognomen, of Scaevola, meaning “left-handed”—an indirect reference to the fact that his right hand was now unusable.
Like its predecessors, this third heroic anecdote promoted self-sacrifice, but with a curious twist. In principle, Romans disparaged trickery in war—ambushes and similar underhanded behavior. They were realists, though, and regularly practiced deceit without always acknowledging it. Here Mucius, although in agony from his charred hand, still had the presence of mind to lie about the number of Roman assassins lurking in the Etruscan camp—an unchivalrous response, one might think, to Porsenna’s generosity in freeing him.
Scholars are unsure of the historicity of this tale. Perhaps it originated in a trial for perjury, for a hand placed in a fire was the established penalty for breaking an oath or a pledge. Entry into an enemy camp in disguise recalls a Greek legend about an Athenian king who dressed as a peasant in order to reach the camp of an invading army. Part or all of the incident may well be a fabrication. However, its melodramatic quality does not disqualify its moral from being taken seriously.
That said, the idea that Mucius’s valor was enough to persuade Porsenna to give up the war is inherently improbable. In fact, a few clues suggest a completely different sequence of events. In a passing reference, a great Roman historian, probably using old Etruscan sources, reveals that the king did not abandon his siege but actually captured Rome. Reporting the destruction by fire of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol during a civil war six hundred years later, he notes that even “Porsenna, when the city gave itself up to him,” did not harm the building. Also, Pliny the Elder, who has something to say about everything, informs us: “In a treaty granted by Porsenna to the Roman People after the expulsion of the Kings, we find it specifically stated that iron shall be used only for agriculture.” This was a humiliating condition, for it meant that the Romans had to disarm. Another report claims that the Romans gave Porsenna a throne of ivory, a scepter, a crown of gold, and a triumphal robe—in sum, the insignia of kingship. An act of homage, if ever there was one. This is all we are told, but it is a reasonable deduction that, far from seeking to restore Superbus, Porsenna was the agent of his expulsion.
It was Rome’s great good fortune that soon afterward the king of Clusium, continuing his aggression against neighbors, suffered a decisive (and historical) defeat near the Latin town of Aricia at the hands of the Latin League, a federation of Latin city-states, with help from the powerful Greek foundation of Cumae, then under the eccentric but highly effective rule of an effeminate despot who first made his name as a male prostitute, Aristodemus the Queen. Porsenna was killed in the battle, and any threat he posed vanished with him.
Two echoes of these events can be detected in the city. Once the fighting was over, the Romans tended the Etruscan wounded and, in a rare gesture of altruism, brought them back to Rome, where they settled. They were given permission to build houses along a street that led from the Forum around the Palatine to the Circus Maximus; according to the common belief, it was named after them, vicus Tuscus, or Etruscan Street. Second, an old custom at public sales of captured booty survived into the first century B.C.; the auctioneer always included in a sale, as a formality, “the goods of king Porsenna.” This must refer to property the captor of Rome left behind in his new base, before he marched out to meet his unexpected doom.
One way or another, though, the Roman Republic now no longer faced any challenge to its constitutional authority.