The Roman Age of Kings: the Etruscan kings (ca. 616-509 BCE)

Replica of an Etruscan temple (Villa Giulia, Rome).

It is a historical fact that Rome was ruled by Etruscan kings for more than a century. These men left their mark on the city by building drainage works, temples and city walls. The Etruscan kings furthermore introduced the census and the division of the Roman people into five property classes. Finally, these monarchs massively expanded the Roman territory in Latium and made Rome the most powerful city in the region. At the end of the Age of Kings, Rome was even able to conclude a treaty with her future archenemy Carthage in present-day Tunisia. It is much easier to see the Etruscan kings who ruled the city between ca. 616 and 509 BCE as historical figures than the Roman-Sabine kings of the period before them.[1] Nevertheless, it would be most unwise to consider all the stories about Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (ca. 616-578 BCE), Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE) and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (ca. 534-509 BCE) to be true. In this post I will therefore first present the classical account and then contrast it with a modern interpretation.

The classical story

According to the Roman historian Livius, Tarquinius Priscus was originally called Lucumo.[2] He was a native of the Etruscan city of Tarquinii (Tarchna). Lucumo had a Greek father and an Etruscan mother. His father Demaratos was originally from Corinth, but political unrest had forced him to flee that city. Lucumo had married a woman named Tanaquil. His status as a foreigner made it impossible for him to have a career in Tarquinii, so he and Tanaquil had packed their belongings and moved to Rome. There he had presented himself as a candidate for the kingship and had reportedly been to first to actively canvas to be elected. His campaign was successful and the people chose Lucumo as their new king. After a reign of no less than 38 year, Tarquinius Priscus – as he now styled himself – was murdered by two shepherds. These assassins had been hired by the sons of Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome and Tarquinius’ predecessor. The slain king was succeeded by his son-in-law Servius Tullius, who would be on the throne for 44 years.

Lucius Junius Brutus, the legendary founder of the Roman Republic (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

Servius Tullius’ lineage was slightly doubtful. He had been raised in the royal palace, but it was rumoured that he was in fact the son of a slave woman. On the orders of his mother-in-law Tanaquil and supported by a strong bodyguard, Servius basically staged a coup after his father-in-law was murdered. The Senate, enlarged by his father-in-law, who had nominated 100 new members from lesser families (gentes minores), chose Servius’ side. Nevertheless, he was the first Roman king to rule without a popular mandate, although the people would later acknowledge him as king by acclamation. The sons of Ancus Marcius realised that they were no match for Servius Tullius and went into exile. After more than four decades on the throne Servius Tullius was also assassinated. The assassination was masterminded by his own daughter Tullia, who was married to Lucius Tarquinius Superbus[3], the son or grandson of the first Tarquinius.

Servius Tullius was reportedly manhandled from the Senate building by his son-in-law. He subsequently fled to his house on the Esquiline Hill, but was killed before he got there. Tullia was said to have then driven her carriage over her dead father’s body. Her husband was nicknamed ‘Superbus’, i.e. ‘the proud’. He was a talented general, but heavily reliant on support of the army. After all, Tarquinius Superbus had been elected neither by the people nor the Senate. The king was ultimately deposed after a crime committed by his son Sextus. Sextus had raped the chaste Lucretia (Lucrece), the wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. After informing her husband of the crime, Lucretia had committed suicide to protect her honour. Collatinus subsequently swore revenge, together with his father-in-law Spurius Lucretius and the noblemen Publius Valerius and Lucius Junius Brutus. With a rousing speech in the Forum Brutus convinced the Roman people to abolish the monarchy and send the Tarquinii into exile.

The real story?

Greek hoplites on a vase (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

What is interesting about the classical story is that it is nowhere claimed that the first Etruscan king won his throne by force. We may therefore safely rule out that there ever was an Etruscan ‘conquest’ of Rome. Historians are currently inclined to assume that the Romans made an Etruscan warlord their king because of his military talents. In this context, the Etruscan kings of Rome are often compared to the condottieri or mercenary captains of the Italian Renaissance.[4] This theory may very well be correct. Around 600 BCE the Etruscans had copied the heavily armed hoplite from the Greeks and introduced it in their armies. This undoubtedly gave them a military edge over the inhabitants of neighbouring Latium. The Romans may have been very interested in Etruscan military knowledge and a few decades later the hoplite made his appearance in their armies as well.[5]

The claim that Tarquinius Priscus was originally called Lucumo may very well be based on a misunderstanding. Lucumo was the title used by Etruscan kings[6], so Tarquinius was in fact the lucumo of Rome. He purportedly sat on the throne for 38 years, which is rather long, though not impossible. Before we get to his successor and presumed son-in-law Servius Tullius, a small detour is in order. We first need to look at an Etruscan man named Caeles or Caelius Vibenna, after whom the Caelian Hill in Rome was said to have been named. The Roman scholar Varro believed that this Caeles was an Etruscan dux (‘warlord’) who came to the aid of Romulus when the latter was attacked by the Sabine king Titus Tatius.[7] The famed historian Tacitus was not sure which Roman king received help from Caeles, but he thought it was possible that it was in fact Tarquinius Priscus. If it was Priscus, then Caeles came to Rome much, much later.[8] In his army of hired soldiers there was a certain Mastarna, who later changed his name to Servius Tullius and became Tarquinius Priscus’ successor. It was the Roman emperor Claudius who gave this Etruscan version of the events discussed here in a speech delivered in 48 CE in Lugdunum (modern Lyon in France).[9]

Terracotta statue of Latona with the child Apollo (Aplu in Etruscan). Late 6th century BCE (Villa Giulia, Rome).

The so-called François Tomb in the Etruscan city of Vulci has a mural painted in ca. 330 BCE that features, among others, Caeles Vibenna, his brother Aule (Aulus) Vibenna and Mastarna. The mural shows Mastarna liberating Caeles, who has been tied up. A certain Cnaeve Tarchunies Rumach (Gnaeus Tarquinius the Roman) is murdered by Marce Camitlnas (Marcus Camillus). A possible, but obviously tentative, interpretation of the scene is that Gnaeus Tarquinius was the son of Tarquinius Priscus. That would make Tarquinius Superbus his grandson, which in any case makes more sense chronologically. Gnaeus may have succeeded his father upon the latter’s death and subsequently have detained the Etruscan mercenaries on the Caelian Hill because they were perceived as a threat. Mastarna then freed them again. After Gnaeus was murdered, Mastarna became the new king and took the name Servius Tullius. The grateful mercenaries allowed Servius to stay in power and protected his throne. If all of this is correct, then it was not Tarquinius Priscus who was assassinated, but his son. The sons of Ancus Marcius were probably not involved at all.

It is quite conceivable that Servius Tullius wanted to continue the dynasty that had been founded by the Tarquinii. Given the location of the François Tomb, the new king could have been a native of Vulci, although we simply cannot be certain. To give his coup an air of legitimacy, Servius Tullius may have married a daughter of Tarquinius Priscus, or a daughter of his somewhat hypothetical son Gnaeus. As only daughters were born from this marriage, Servius may have been forced to marry these off to grandsons of the first Tarquinius. That is how Tullia ended up in a marriage with Tarquinius Superbus. Together the couple made plans for murdering the king, and so the male line of the dynasty of the Tarquinii was restored. In the end the Tarquinii were expelled, but the story of the rape of Lucretia is more likely a moralistic tale about the virtues of a mulier lanifica, the spinning matron who dutifully does her chores while the other noblewomen waste their time partying.[10]

Aristonothos Krater, found in Cerveteri (Caere). Naval battle between a pirate ship and a merchantman, and between Greeks and Etruscans (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The classical story about the abolition of the monarchy is unconvincing for multiple reasons. The people may indeed have been angry about Sextus Tarquinius’ crime, but the act of a depraved individual was no reason to eliminate the monarchy as a system. A more natural reaction would have simply been the election of a new king. The men who swore revenge after Collatinus’ wife’s rape and suicide almost all had close ties to the Tarquinii. Collatinus was himself a Tarquinius. He was a son of Egerius Tarquinius, who in his turn was a son of Arruns Tarquinius, Tarquinius Priscus’ brother. Brutus was the son of Tarquinius Superbus’ sister Tarquinia and therefore the king’s nephew. He was said to have later ordered the execution of all his sons for trying to restore the monarchy[11], but during the Late Republic the Junii Bruti proudly claimed to be descendants of the first Brutus. It also seems a bit too coincidental that the Roman Republic was founded in 510 or 509 BCE, as simultaneously the tyrant Hippias was expelled from Athens.

I find it much more likely that something else happened in Rome, and that the expulsion of the Tarquinii was related to the actions of another Etruscan king: Lars Porsenna, lord of Clusium (Clevsin in Etruscan).[12] In the last decade of the sixth century BCE this Porsenna advanced on Rome with his army.[13] His intention was not to restore the Tarquinii to the throne, but rather to depose them. The king took the Janiculan Hill on the other side of the Tiber and threatened Rome from this strategic position. Notwithstanding the wonderful stories about the heroism demonstrated by Horatius Cocles, Mucius Scaevola and the girl Cloelia, the king probably succeeded in capturing the city. At the very least he managed to force it to surrender. The Tarquinii then fled to the tyrant Aristodemos of Cumae. Porsenna for his part sent his son Arruns with an army to penetrate deeper into Latium and conquer more territory. The Latins received aid from the aforementioned Aristodemos and together they defeated Arruns at Aricia.[14] After the defeat of his son, Porsenna withdrew to Clusium. Tarquinius Superbus passed away around 495 BCE[15], and as Rome no longer had a king, the monarchy was replaced with an aristocracy. The replacement of monarchies by aristocracies was a development also seen in the Etruscan city states.

The Etruscan heartland with the cities of Tarquinii (Tarchna), Vulci (Velch) and Clusium (Clevsin) (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Rome at the end of the Age of Kings

I already mentioned that the Etruscan kings of Rome greatly expanded the Roman territory in Latium. They fought wars against the Etruscan city of Veii, the Latins and Sabines, while Tarquinius Superbus also had to deal with the Volsci, who in the last quarter of the sixth century BCE left the mountains and tried to settle on the fertile plains of Latium. Together with the Aequi they would give the Romans a hard time for centuries. Among the conquests of the Etruscan kings were several cities that may arouse interest. Tarquinius Priscus reportedly took Collatia from the Sabines and Corniculum from the Latins. Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus took his name from Collatia and the rape of Lucretia took place there. In the Roman (not the Etruscan) version of events the members of Servius Tullius’ family were natives of Corniculum.[16] Tarquinius Superbus was said to have united all the Latin peoples under his authority in the forest of Ferentina and to have taken the city of Gabii. He furthermore founded colonies at Signia and Circei.[17] The tragedy involving Lucretia supposedly took place during the siege of Ardea. See the map below for all the places mentioned in this paragraph.

Latium at the time of the Etruscan kings of Rome (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Under Etruscan rule, Rome had become the dominant power in Latium. This is confirmed by the treaty that was concluded between the city and Carthage in 509 BCE, shortly after the Tarquinii had been expelled. The Greek historian Polybius (ca. 203-120 BCE) was still able to consult this treaty, which had been written in Archaic Latin. To quote from the document:

Oedipus and the sphinx on a kylix from Vulci, ca. 470-460 BCE (Vatican Museums).

“The Carthaginians shall do no wrong to the peoples of Ardea, Antium, Laurentium, Circeii, Terracina, or any other city of the Latins who are subject to Rome. Touching the Latins who are not subjects, they shall keep their hands off their cities, and if they take any city shall deliver it up to the Romans undamaged. They shall build no fort in the Latin territory. If they enter the land in arms, they shall not pass a night therein.”[18]

Other passages in the treaty make clear that Carthage mainly wanted to protect her trade interests. Rome, on the other hand, sought recognition of her authority over Latium, even as regarded cities that were not formally subjects of the Romans. For the moment the Romans had little to fear from the Carthaginians. Carthage was far away, while the Volsci and Aequi were close to home. Soon these peoples would seriously challenge Roman power in Latium.


[1] E.Chr.L. van der Vliet, Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 120.

[2] For the next paragraphs, see Livius 1.34-60.

[3] She was previously married to Arruns Tarquinius, Lucius’ brother. Livius suggests she also had a hand in Arruns’ death and that of her own sister, Lucius’ first wife (Livius 1.46).

[4] Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 65; Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 31.

[5] Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger, p. 18-19.

[6] De Etrusken, p. 47; Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 119.

[7] De lingua Latina V.46.

[8] Annales 4.65.

[9] See here for a translation of the speech. Cf. De Etrusken, p. 65 and The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 31.

[10] De Etrusken, p. 21.

[11] Livius 2.5.

[12] See De Etrusken, p. 64; Een geschiedenis van de klassieke Oudheid, p. 121-122.

[13] Livius 2.9.

[14] Livius 2.14.

[15] Livius 2.21.

[16] Livius 1.39.

[17] Livius 1.56.

[18] Polybius 3.22 (translation here).


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