The legacy of the Age of Kings (753-509 BCE)

Priests and a lictor with the fasces (Ara Pacis, Rome).

In about 509 BCE, the Romans replaced their monarchy with a republic. This change was not brought about by a revolution and it would be even more wrong to see it as an ethnic clash between the Etruscan ‘oppressors’ and the native Roman population who had enough of Etruscan ‘occupation’. As we have seen previously, it was probably one Etruscan king – Lars Porsenna of Clusium (Clesvin) – who was responsible for the expulsion of another Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, whose roots lay in Tarquinii (Tarchna). The flight of Superbus led to a power vacuum, which was filled by founding an aristocracy. This new form of government should not be seen as a radical break with the past. On the contrary, there was much continuity between the Age of Kings and the Early Republic. There was an Etruscan quarter near the Forum Romanum, which adjoined the Vicus Tuscus, and the consul of 487 BCE, Gaius Aquillius Tuscus, may have been of Etruscan stock, at least judging by his name. As regarded politics and religion, there was also much continuity, and this is the topic of this post.

Popular assembly, census and lustrum

We have previously seen that a Roman king was not an absolute monarch and that the kingship was not a hereditary institution. The king was chosen by the people, who met as the comitia curiata, the assembly of the thirty curiae that was traditionally created by Romulus. The comitia curiata did not just elect a king, it also decided on legislation, war and peace. At the time of the Etruscan kings of Rome, traditionally during the reign of Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE), the Roman people was divided into five property classes (called classes in Latin).[1] The census determined into which property class a Roman citizen was enrolled. The five classes met on the Field of Mars (Campus Martius) as the comitia centuriata, the assembly of the centuriae. The military nature of this assembly was evident and it was sometimes called the ‘army’ (exercitus). The property classes were intended to establish who would serve in the Roman army, and in what capacity. The importance of the comitia centuriata presumably already grew during the Age of Kings, while the older comitia curiata gradually became less important.

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

A discussion of the five property classes can for instance be found in the work of the Roman historian Livius.[2] Although the property qualifications he mentions must have been based on his own age, there is no reason to doubt his general description of the five classes. The elite of Roman society was represented by 18 centuriae of knights or equites, who were granted 10,000 asses by the state to purchase a horse, the acquisition of which was apparently quite pricey.[3] Citizens who possessed over 100,000 asses worth of property were enrolled in the first classis, which comprised 80 centuriae. The second classis was composed of 20 centuriae of citizens who possessed between 75,000 and 100,000 asses, the third of 20 centuriae of citizens with property worth between 50,000 and 75,000 asses. Citizens who possessed between 25,000 and 50,000 asses were enrolled in the fourth classis, again 20 centuriae strong, and finally there was a fifth class comprising 30 centuriae of those who possessed between 11,000 and 25,000 asses. Citizens who possessed less than 11,000 asses were exempt from military service and were lumped together in a single centuria. The military nature of the comitia centuriata was stressed by the presence of separate centuriae for carpenters (2 centuriae), horn blowers and trumpeters (again 2 centuriae). The carpenters were added to the first property class, the horn blowers and trumpeters to the fifth.

The total number of centuriae was 193. Half of these were junior centuries, into which citizens aged between 17 and 45 (the iuniores) were enrolled. The other half were senior centuries, controlled by citizens aged 46 and above (the seniores). The comitia centuriata was dominated by the equites and citizens of the first property class. These initially controlled the majority of the votes (18+80), as the results were determined per centuria (the concept of ‘one man, one vote’ was foreign to the Romans). If during an assembly a majority of 97 centuriae had voted for a certain candidate, the election was stopped, even if dozens of centuriae still had to vote. It must have rarely been the case that the single centuria of citizens that had not been enrolled in one of the property classes, the so-called capite censi, cast the decisive vote. The system of the comitia centuriata clearly favoured the wealthiest citizens and gave them disproportionate political power. Initially this may have been somewhat justified, as these citizens bore the heaviest military burdens and civil obligations. They fought as horsemen and heavily armed hoplites, while citizens who possessed less property served in a more supporting role as light infantry, skirmishers and slingers. Military service was compulsory, and soldiers were required to bring their own arms and armour. As was already mentioned, citizens who were not part of the propertied classes were exempt from service, although they could be drafted as rowers in the fleet, at least since the time that the Romans actually had a fleet (which does not seem to have been the case during the Age of Kings).

View of the Forum Romanum from the Capitoline Hill.

It is quite reasonable to assume that, during the Late Age of Kings and Early Republic, the wealthiest citizens indeed bore the largest civil and military burdens. However, things had changed profoundly by the Middle Republican period, when middle-class farmers were the backbone of the Roman army. The Late Republic saw that army develop into a professional fighting force that began to recruit more and more citizens from the capite censi or proletarii. The State or commanding general was now responsible for providing the soldiers with arms and armour. But in spite of these important changes, the comitia centuriata was always the assembly that elected the highest magistrates – the consuls, praetors and censors –, magistrates who had a clear connection to the army or the census. This meant that, right up until the end of the Republican era, the wealthiest citizens continued to exercise disproportionate influence on the outcome of the elections for the most important magistrates. What did happen was that, somewhere between 241 BCE and 218 BCE, the number of centuriae of the first property class was lowered from 80 to 70. The result was that this class and the equites together no longer controlled the majority of the votes in the comitia centuriata. Since the Age of Kings, the census was always concluded with the celebration of the lustrum, the ritual cleansing of the Roman people, which involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull (suovetaurilia).

Tribus, pomerium and city walls

During the reign of Romulus (ca. 753-716 BCE), the Roman people was said to have been divided into three tribus or ‘tribes’, the Ramnes, Titienses and Luceres. Each tribus comprised 10 curiae, making the total number of curiae 30. It is not impossible that the original tribus were based on ethnicity. This was, however, not the case with the four tribus that were created in the Late Age of Kings and that probably replaced the initial three. The introduction of the new tribus was again attributed to Servius Tullius (ca. 578-534 BCE).[4] His four urban tribus were linked to the four districts or sectors of the city: Esquilina, Palatina, Suburana and Collina.[5] As of 495 BCE there were four urban and seventeen rural tribus.[6] The last tribus were created in 241 BCE and the final number was set at four urban and 31 rural tribes. In later years new Roman citizens were simply enrolled in one of the existing tribus.[7]

View of the Forum Romanum.

Although ‘districts’ is a better translation of the term tribus than ‘tribes’, it should be noted that the geographical connection was eventually lost as well. People belonged to a certain tribus irrespective of where they lived, inside or outside Rome. A citizen’s tribus was determined in the census and here the hereditary principle was applied: sons were enrolled in their fathers’ tribus. It should therefore not come as a surprise that many of the older tribus had names that were connected to famous patrician gentes such as the tribus Aemilia, Claudia, Cornelia and Fabia. The tribus met as the comitia tributa. During the Early Republic this assembly was still somewhat overshadowed by the comitia centuriata, but it gradually grew in importance and came to decide on the election of the lower magistrates, the fate of legislation and the guilt of suspects in large criminal trials. The comitia centuriata could meet as an assembly of the whole Roman people (populus Romanus), but also – and ever more often – as an assembly of just the plebs, i.e. as the concilium plebis. The latter assembly was convened by the people’s tribunes, who had traditionally first been elected in 494 BCE.[8] When the Lex Hortensia of 287 BCE stipulated that decisions of the concilium plebis were binding for the entire populus Romanus, use of this assembly became increasingly more common.

Remains of the Servian Walls near the Termini railway station.

If he can indeed be considered fully historical, Servius Tullius must be counted among the most important Roman kings. While the Palatine Hill had already been surrounded by walls since the middle of the eighth century BCE, the first set of walls around the entire city was attributed to Servius. It has indeed been established that Rome got her city walls in the sixth century BCE. These had a total length of 11 kilometres and enclosed an area of approximately 426 hectares.[9] The construction of a second set of walls started shortly after the Celtic Senones of Brennus sacked Rome in 387 BCE. This set is called the Walls of Servius Tullius, although they have nothing to do with this king. The name can possibly be explained by the fact that the new walls largely followed the outline of the original walls from the sixth century BCE and were built on the foundations of these walls.

According to tradition, Servius Tullius also demarcated the pomerium, the sacred boundaries of city, following a custom that the Romans had copied from the Etruscans.[10] Once inside the pomerium citizens were not allowed to carry arms. This was presumably the reason that two parts of the city, although included within the walls, remained outside the pomerium. The first part was the Arx (citadel), the northern summit of the Capitoline Hill. It would obviously be rather inconvenient if weapons were banned there. The Aventine Hill was the second part of the city not included in the pomerium. This hill had only recently been added to the city and was mainly inhabited by Latin immigrants who had been settled here willy-nilly after their cities had been taken by the Romans.[11] One important reason not to include the Aventine Hill in the pomerium was that each October an annual purification ceremony of the army was held here, the Armilustrium.[12] It was not until the year 49 CE, during the reign of the emperor Claudius, that the Aventine Hill finally became part of the pomerium.

View of the Aventine Hill from the Janiculan Hill.

The religious legacy

Foundations of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.

And that brings us to the religious legacy of the Age of Kings. The Romans were a god-fearing people with a religious calendar that was filled to the brim. Performing the correct rituals and bringing the right sacrifices to placate the gods took up a central place in their lives. This was no different in the Age of Kings than in later periods.

The most visible religious legacy of the Age of Kings was the enormous temple of Jupiter Capitolinus on the southern summit of the Capitoline Hill, which according to tradition was consecrated in 509 BCE by Marcus Horatius Pulvillus.[13] On the same hill the spoils taken from a slain enemy commander – or spolia opima – were dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius. Jupiter Elicius had a temple on the Little Aventine (sometimes called the Mons Murcus), Jupiter Fagutalis a lucus or grove on the eponymous hill summit, which was part of the Esquiline, while Jupiter Viminus and Jupiter Fulgur or Fulgurator were worshipped as well. These names sometimes refer to a geographical location, for instance in the case of the Fagutalis and Viminal. In other cases they refer to certain capacities of deities, such as bringing rain (possibly in the case of Jupiter Elicius) or lightning (definitely in the case of Jupiter Fulgur).[14]

The temple of Portunus.

Other well-known gods also had temples dedicated to them as early as the Age of Kings. I can mention the temple of Janus on the Forum (attributed to Numa Pompilius) and that of Diana on the Aventine Hill, for which Servius Tullius was said to have been responsible. It was at this temple that, in 121 BCE, Gaius Gracchus entrenched himself with his supporters. Lesser-known deities such as Pallor, Pavor, Tellus and Vica Pota already had sanctuaries during the Age of Kings, as did gods that were possibly of Sabine stock, such as Laverna, Semo Sancus and Strenia. On the Quirinal Hill stood a sanctuary for Quirinus, who may have once been a Sabine war god, but was later considered the deified Romulus. The cult of Portunus, the god of ports, was presumably also introduced during the (Late) Age of Kings.[15] In modern Rome we can still admire the temple of Portunus, close to the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The temple we see today is, however, a version that dates from about 100 BCE. Below the aforementioned church we find the remains of the Ara Maxima, the large open-air altar dedicated to Hercules. The altar probably dates from the Age of Kings, but it was restored in the second century BCE.

Ever since their earliest days, the Romans were a people of farmers and shepherds. This is evident from their earliest gods and religious festivals. Already during the Age of Kings there was a sanctuary on the Field of Mars for Juno Caprotina, ‘Goatskin-Juno’, who had her own feast on 7 July (the Caprotinia). Part of the marshy Field of Mars was called the Palus Caprae, or goat swamp. The ancient festival of the Lupercalia was related to goats as well, and to their natural enemies: the wolves (lupi). The name of the festival derives from the Latin word for wolf, although later the Lupercal became the cave in the slope of the Palatine Hill where the she-wolf was said to have suckled Romulus and Remus. During the Lupercalia, which always took place on 15 February, young Roman men ran around naked and tried to beat bystanders with strips of goatskin. This ritual may have symbolised keeping wolves away from the herds. The festival of the Consualia was traditionally connected to Consus, an ancient Italian god of agriculture whose feast day was on 21 August. The name possibly derives from condere, a verb that refers to the underground storage of grain.[16] The Romans later linked Consus to the more famous Neptunus.[17]

Roman priests on a relief of the Ara Pacis in Rome. The priests in the middle are wearing the apex, a cap with a pointed piece of wood.

The religious infrastructure of the Roman state was also created during the Age of Kings. The creation of the ancient priesthoods of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus – flamen Dialis, flamen Martialis and flamen Quirinalis – was for instance attributed to king Numa.[18] The Romans actually assumed that Numa had been responsible for laying the foundations for the entire Roman religion, for he was also said to have brought the Vestal Virgins from Alba Longa to Rome and to have set up the priestly college of the twelve Salii of Mars Gradivus. These ‘jumping priests’ (from the verb salire) wore an embroidered tunic, a bronze cuirass and a pointed hat or helmet (the apex). During their annual procession in March (the month of Mars) they paraded the twelve ancilia or shields through the city and performed a ritual war dance. In October they participated in the Armilustrium, the purification ceremony already mentioned above. Already during the Age of Kings the Romans switched from a ten-month calendar to a twelve-month calendar, adding the months of January (named after Janus) and February (febrare = to purify). However, the year always started in March, when Spring arrived and the war season commenced. It was not until 153 BCE that the start of the (consular) year was moved to 1 January.[19]

The special priests for Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus were complemented by the ‘ordinary’ priests, the pontifices, who were created during the Age of Kings as well. The supreme pontiff, or pontifex maximus, was also a product of the monarchic period, and at the end of that period or the start of the Republic the first rex sacrorum or ‘king of sacrifices’ was appointed. At some point during the Age of Kings augures (augurs) started studying the flight of birds, using a curved staff or lituus to divide the sky into separate sectors. For one early augur – a certain Attus Navius – a statue was set up near the Senate building.[20] We know for certain that the augurs had an auguraculum on the Capitoline Hill, from where they could see the summit of Mons Albanus on the horizon. The remains of this auguraculum can nowadays be found behind the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Remains of the temple of Bellona.

During the reigns of the Etruscans kings the haruspices or soothsayers were introduced in Rome. The previous period already saw the introduction of the college of fetiales. In case of conflict these priests could demand satisfaction from neighbouring peoples. In cases of war or peace they performed the correct rituals to placate the gods. One of these rituals involved throwing a javelin into enemy territory as a declaration of war.[21] Much later, when Rome started fighting wars farther from home, it was considered sufficient to throw a javelin into a demarcated space, designated as enemy territory, at the temple of the war goddess Bellona.

For centuries the Romans celebrated the feast of the Parilia on 21 April. This was the festival that commemorated the founding of the city, although it was originally not related to this event. The Parilia had started as the festival of Pales, a deity that was worshipped on the Cermalus, one of the two summits of the Palatine Hill. The correct name of the festival is actually Palilia, with an ‘l’. The Parilia are the perfect example of how far the roots of the religious institutions of the Romans went back in time. In this case these roots even went back to before the founding of the city.


[1] See Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 55-61 for an extensive discussion.

[2] Livius 1.42-1.43.

[3] One might have assumed that these wealthiest citizens had no need for state subsidies to buy a horse, but apparently the Romans thought otherwise.

[4] Livius 1.43.

[5] For a possible distribution of the tribus, see The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. Ib.

[6] Livius 2.21.

[7] For a more extensive discussion, see The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 50-55.

[8] Livius 2.32-2.33.

[9] Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 81. Note that p. 451 mentions an area of 356 hectares. Dominique Briquel, De Etrusken, p. 44 gives an area of 427 hectares, of which at least 285 hectares were inhabited by the four urban tribus.

[10] Romulus was also said to have created a pomerium, but it only covered the Palatine Hill.

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

[12] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 392-393.

[13] Livius 2.8.

[14] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 309, 377, 450-451 and 497.

[15] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 426.

[16] The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 425.

[17] Livius 1.9.

[18] Livius 1.20.

[19] This explains why September, October, November and December are no longer the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month respectively. The month of July was previously called Quintilis (five), while August was called Sextilis (six).

[20] Livius 1.36.

[21] Livius 1.32.

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