The Roman Age of Kings: the first kings (ca. 753-616 BCE)

The intervention of the Sabine women, Jacques-Louis David (Louvre, Paris).

A Roman who lived at the time of the Late Republic or during the Imperial Age probably knew that his city had once been ruled by kings. The supreme pontiff or pontifex maximus made use of the Regia, a building in the Forum that once served as a residence for kings. There was also a priest called the rex sacrorum, the ‘king of sacrifices’. This was a rather obscure priesthood of even more obscure origins that may have been established as early as the Age of Kings or during the Early Republic. Moreover, the Romans knew the concept of an interregnum. Whenever the offices of consul, praetor or dictator were vacant, the patricians got together to elect an interrex (a king ‘in between’) or a series of interreges. An interrex held his office for just five days; he held imperium and the right to take the auspices (auspicia) and was responsible for transferring these powers to a correctly elected magistrate.[1] So to sum up, even centuries later there were still many clues that Rome had once been a monarchy. But who were these Roman kings?

The first four: more legend than reality

According to tradition the first four kings of Rome were Romulus (ca. 753-716 BCE), Numa Pompilius (ca. 715-672 BCE), Tullus Hostilius (ca. 672-640 BCE) and Ancus Marcius (640-616 BCE). Romulus was furthermore said to have shared the throne with the Sabine king Titus Tatius for a long time. It is difficult to establish whether these four or five kings can be seen as (fully) historical figures. An average reign of about 34 years per king seems rather long for the era discussed here. On the other hand, it is quite plausible that there was a system of a Roman king succeeding a Sabine king and vice versa. The real question is whether things really happened the way they are described in the classical sources.

The Sabines were a mountain people who lived in the Apennines north of Rome. The Roman historian Livius relates how, during a festival for Neptune, the Romans kidnapped the women of the cities of Caenina, Crustumeria and Antemnae, and also of the Sabines. The reason was that Rome suffered from a chronic shortage of women. The three cities were eager for revenge, but proved to be no match for Rome on the battlefield. The Sabines on the other hand managed to capture the Roman citadel on the Capitoline Hill, which was betrayed to them. There was fierce fighting on the plain between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, but in the end the kidnapped Sabine women succeeded in pacifying the two warring peoples. The Roman and Sabine nations merged and Romulus and Titus Tatius agreed on sharing the throne.[2]

Latium in the 8th and 7th century BCE (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

The story of the Rape of the Sabine women is deservedly famous, but it can be considered almost entirely unhistorical. A lack of women in the settlements from which Rome was born simply sounds very unlikely. It does seem possible that a rapidly expanding city such as Rome drew many immigrants from neighbouring communities, and that a staging point (asylum) for these newcomers was created between the two summits of the Capitoline Hill.[3] Part of the Sabines may have left their homes in the mountains and settled on the Capitoline Hill, as well as on the Quirinal Hill, a hill that many classical authors associated with the Sabines.[4] A number of deities from the early days of Rome seem to have had Sabine origins. Examples include Laverna, Semo Sancus and Strenia. Livius asserts that Roman citizens were called Quirites after the Sabine town of Cures.[5] Dionysius of Halicarnassus repeats this story, but adds that Cures itself may have taken its name from the war god Quirinus.[6] This Quirinus was later equated with the deified Romulus, but the deity may very well have originated in Sabine territory.[7]

Temples C (right) and D (left), dedicated to Feronia and the Lares Permarini. Area Sacra di Largo Argentina in the former Campus Martius.

The Sabine migration to Rome was not necessarily peaceful. There may therefore be a kernel of truth in the story of the Rape of the Sabine women and it is not inconceivable that, for whatever reason, a war was fought between the Romans and Sabines, as a result of which the invaders were allowed to settle and got their share of power. The casus belli may have been control of the salt route from the coast to the inland regions of Italy, a route that made use of and ran alongside the river Tiber, from the Tyrrhenian Sea to Sabine territory. The Sabines may have attempted to gain control of the salt route. This attempt may have been quite successful, if indeed they managed to take the Capitoline Hill by violence or betrayal. In the centuries that followed more Sabines moved to Rome. A famous case is that of Attius Clausus, who settled in Rome with his family and clients in 504 BCE.[8] He took the Latin name of Appius Claudius and became the progenitor of the illustrious gens Claudia. And so the Sabines ultimately became true Romans, but their kinsmen in the mountains remained enemies of the Romans until they were finally defeated by the consul Manius Curius Dentatus in 290 BCE. A temple in Rome dedicated to the Sabine fertility goddess Feronia is attributed to this Dentatus.

The early constitution

It would be wrong to see the Roman kings as absolute monarchs. Moreover, the concept of a hereditary kingship was wholly foreign to the Romans, as each king was elected by the people. As a consequence, there were occasionally multiple candidates for the throne and the first Etruscan king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (ca. 616-578 BCE) was even said to have been the first to stage an electoral campaign.[9] The people assembled as the comitia curiata, the assembly of the thirty curiae that were traditionally attributed to Romulus. Presumably there were ten curiae for each Roman tribe or tribus. Of these three tribus the names of the Ramnes, Titienses and Luceres have been preserved.[10] Varro claims these words had Etruscan roots. His source was the opinion of the Etruscan playwright Volnius, about whom we know next to nothing.[11] It is very difficult to establish whether Varro and Volnius were correct about the Etruscan origins of the names, but the attempts to connect the three names to Romulus, Titus Tatius and the Etruscan name or title Lucumo seem rather strained.[12] The Ramnes, Titienses and Luceres ultimately disappeared as separate tribus and this may have happened in the sixth century BCE, traditionally during the reign of Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE).

The Curia Julia, successor of the Curia Hostilia. On the left the church of Santi Luca e Martina, which occupies the spot where the Curia Hostilia once stood.

A Senate composed of representatives of the nobility served as an advisory body for the king. The senators were called patres or ‘fathers’, and the patricians claimed to be their descendants. The creation of the Senate was traditionally attributed to Romulus[13], but we do not need a (semi-)legendary king to accept that a Senate was active from the early days of the Age of Kings. It is possible that the election of a king by the people subsequently had to be ratified by the Senate. The king for his part served as commander of the army and had several religious responsibilities. The senators were his advisers, and both they themselves and members of their families held the most prestigious priesthoods. The people approved laws and decided on matters of war and peace. Around the middle of the seventh century BCE a square was laid out on the Forum Romanum, the Comitium. This was where the comitia curiata assembled.[14] Across the square was the Senate building, the Curia Hostilia. Tradition held that it was built by and named after king Tullus Hostilius (ca. 672-640 BCE).[15]

Warfare and territorial expansion

Archaeological finds allow us to make a modest reconstruction of the Roman army as it may have functioned since about the eighth century BCE.[16] Of course this army was incomparable to the highly professional conscript army of the Middle and Late Republic, and even less to the professional standing army of the Imperial Age. The tribus and curiae provided the army with foot soldiers and horsemen who participated in brief campaigns that allowed them to be home again in time for the harvest. Many wars were in effect raids that involved the burning of fields of neighbouring peoples and stealing their cattle. Rome could obviously expect much the same treatment if she found herself on the receiving end of a war. The king took charge of the Roman army and was presumably expected to personally take part in combat. The custom to seize the panoply of an enemy commander defeated in a duel and to dedicate these arms and armour as spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius on the Capitoline Hill probably dates from the early Age of Kings. After slaying king Acro of Caenina in single combat, Romulus was said to have been the first to dedicate his spoils to the god.[17]

The equipment of an Etruscan warrior (left) and of a hoplite (right).

Burial gifts allowed the Belgian archaeologist Bernard van Daele to conclude that the Roman soldiers of the Age of Kings were heavily influenced by the Etruscan civilisation, and more specifically by the so-called Villanovan culture, the first Iron Age culture of Italy that preceded it or can be considered the earliest Etruscan phase (ca. 900-720 BCE). Roman warriors fought with spears, javelins, swords, axes and daggers. Swords were usually of the antenna type, which means that they had long (around 70 cm), yet very narrow blades. Swords with a shorter blade (ca. 44 cm) have also been found. Wooden shields, both round and oval, were used, but the early Roman soldiers appear to have worn little armour. If they did, they usually donned bronze breastplates known as the pectorale or cardiophylax (“heart-protector”). The richest citizens could also afford round or pointed helmets (apex). Later, when Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings, the heavily armed and armoured hoplite would make his appearance in the Roman army, but I will save that important development for a later post.

Many of the early wars of the Romans must have been small-scale. However, our sources contain strong evidence that cities – or rather: fortified settlements – were in fact besieged and captured. The best-known example is probably the destruction of Alba Longa, Rome’s metropolis, during a war that is dated to the reign of Tullus Hostilius (ca. 672-640 BCE). Livius tells us the splendid, but unhistorical story of a duel fought between three Roman brothers, the Horatii, and three brothers from Alba, the Curiatii (see this post for a more extensive report).[18] The duel was said to have settled the conflict without too much bloodshed. The content of the story is congruent with the many bouts of single combat that must have been part of warfare in the age discussed here. When the Albans violated the agreement they made with Rome, the Romans marched on their city, sacked it and forcibly transferred the entire population to Rome. According to tradition, most of the Albans were settled on the Caelian Hill, and according to Livius the gentes of the Julii, Servilii, Quinctii, Geganii, Curiatii and Cloelii all had Alban roots.[19] Whether there is any truth in this claim or not, the first three families mentioned would certainly play a prominent part in Roman history.

The Horatii vs. the Curiatii by Giuseppe Cesari (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

In the sources we find more stories about the conquest of settlements and the forced transfer of populations to Rome. The Romans were said to have done the same after they took the Latin cities of Politorium, Tellenae, Ficana and Medullia. The inhabitants were settled on the Aventine Hill.[20] And while Rome increased in size by the addition of peoples like the Albans, the Romans themselves sent out colonists to set up outposts in conquered territories. We for instance read about a colony at Fidenae during the reign of king Tullus Hostilius. His successor Ancus Marcius (640-616 BCE), purportedly a grandson of Numa Pompilius, is traditionally considered the founder of the Roman port of Ostia.[21] The founding of Ostia gave the Romans definitive control of the salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber. As they also controlled Ficana – between Ostia and Rome – no one was able to threaten the transport of salt between the mouth of the river and the Tiber island any longer. It is quite likely that around this time the river port close to the Velabrum, the marshy piece of a land between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, was fully operational.

View of Rome from the Janiculan Hill.

King Ancus was furthermore said to have constructed the first bridge across the Tiber, the wooden Pons Sublicius. The first (nameless) aqueduct is also attributed to him.[22] Although such attributions are extremely questionable, the dating of the bridge and aqueduct may very well be correct. The Pons Sublicius allowed easy access to the high Janiculan Hill on the other side of the Tiber. In spite of it being only sparsely populated, the hill was of great strategic value. The Romans probably occupied and fortified the Janiculan Hill because they were wary of the activities of the Etruscan city of Veii, which lay about 15 kilometres northwest of Rome and also claimed the salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber. The Etruscans now enter our story. While the influence of the Villanovan culture (ca. 900-720 BCE) on Rome had already been large, the influence of the Etruscan culture during the so-called Orientalizing period (ca. 720-580 BCE) would be even larger.


[1] Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 28 and 164.

[2] Livius 1.9-13.

[3] Livius 1.8.

[4] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 449: “The Sabine origin of the first inhabitants of Quirinal Hill (fervently proclaimed by ancient authors) is the subject of much discussion.”

[5] Livius 1.13.

[6] Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.48.

[7] The theory that the name Quirinus derives from Co-virinus and has the same etymology as the word curia (co-viria; ‘gathering of men’) is not generally accepted. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Book 2.48) quotes Varro, who claims that the name Quirinus derives from the Sabine word for ‘spear’.

[8] Livius 2.16.

[9] Livius 1.35.

[10] For a reconstruction of the distribution of the tribus across the city, see The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. Ia.

[11] De lingua Latina V.55.

[12] Cf. Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 47-48. Lucumo was the title used by Etruscan kings.

[13] Livius 1.8; Velleius Paterculus I.8.

[14] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 153.

[15] The Curia Hostilia was destroyed by fire in 52 BCE during the cremation of the murdered people’s tribune Clodius (see this post). The building stood on the spot where we now find the church of Santi Luca e Martina. A different spot on the Forum was chosen for the construction of the new Senate building, the Curia Julia.

[16] See Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger, p. 16-18.

[17] Livius 1.10; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.33-34.

[18] Livius 1.24-25.

[19] Livius 1.29-30 and 33.

[20] Livius 1.33, The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 392.

[21] Polybius 6.11a.

[22] Philip Matyszak, Chronicle of the Roman Republic, p. 31. This cannot have been the Aqua Marcia, which was built in 144 BCE by the praetor urbanus Quintus Marcius. This Marcius may have seen himself as a distant descendant of the semi-legendary Ancus Marcius. The oldest known aqueducts in Rome were the Aqua Appia of 312 BCE and the Aqua Anio Vetus of 272 BCE. See The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 92.

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