Although Servius had been the undisputed ruler for some time, he had heard that Lucius Tarquin was complaining that he did not rule by the consent of the people, so Servius secured his popularity with the plebs by dividing some seized lands amongst them. Then he dared to ask the people whether or not they commanded him to reign, and he was proclaimed king with as much support as any previous king had ever had.
Yet this did not diminish Tarquin’s hope of becoming king, rather he desired it all the more, for he sensed that the patricians were unhappy about the distribution of land, so he took every opportunity to criticize Servius in front of the patricians and increase his influence in the senate. In all of this, he was inflamed by the restless spirit of youth and prodded by his wife Tullia, who was herself a restless woman.
Indeed, his wicked seizure of power would make for a good tragic play, yet because of it, the Romans tired of kingship and won a more complete liberty, for Tarquin’s reign would be the last that might arise from such evil.
This Lucius Tarquin was either the grandson or, more likely, the son of King Priscus Tarquin. He had a brother named Arruns, who was a gentle youth. He and his brother were married to Servius’ daughters, both of whom also had very different characters. Fortune had given the wicked sister to Arruns, thereby preventing the vicious pair from joining in matrimony until the Roman people had grown accustomed to the changes Servius had made to the constitution. At least, that is what I believe.
The wicked daughter, Tullia, was annoyed that her husband neither acted boldly nor lusted for power, so she turned all her attentions on Lucius, whom she admired as a man worthy of his royal blood. Tullia despised her sister because though she had got herself a real man for a husband, she lacked the boldness to be a real woman.
Lucius Tarquin and Tullia thus found themselves drawn together by their common natures: Tullia made Lucius ready for any wickedness, but she alone was the cause of all the troubles.
She used to meet Lucius in secret and criticize their respective spouses. “Wouldn’t it be better,” she mused, “for me to be a widow and you a widower than to remain tied down to these lazy spouses and thereby lose our own youthful vigor? If the gods had given me a real man for a husband, I would see to it that he would soon wield my father’s power.”
In this way, she filled the young man with her own boldness, and they soon conspired to kill their respective spouses and marry each other. Servius did not exactly approve of this union, but he did not explicitly forbid it either.
Thus, Servius found himself beset by problems in his old age, as his daughter flitted from one crime to the next. At each step she egged her husband on, spurring him to the next crime by arguing that if they did not carry it through, their previous crimes would have been in vain.
“I was not looking for a mere husband or a partner in servitude,” she claimed, “I need a man who thinks himself worthy of a kingdom. Who remembers that he is the son of Priscus Tarquin and who wants to actually have a throne, not just dream about it.”
“If you are the man I think I married, I shall call you both husband and king. If you are less than that, I made a poor trade, for my current husband is a criminal as well as a coward. What will you do, then? You are not from Corinth, nor from Tarquin like your father. You do not need to struggle for a foreign kingdom. The Tarquin name makes you king. Your ancestral gods proclaim it. The image of your father impressed upon your face affirms it. Will you disappoint your city? Why do you allow the young nobles to consider you their king, if you are not going to do anything about it? Return, in that case, to Tarquin or Corinth and to the house of your ancestors, for you are a coward like your brother, not a king like your father.”
Chiding him with complaints like this, she incited Tarquin to wicked deeds, for she herself was greedy for power.
Roused by his wife’s womanly frenzies, Tarquin went around to various senators, mainly those of the lesser houses. He reminded them of the benefits his father had bestowed on them and asked for their favor in return, binding the youths to him with gifts. Thus, he mainly increased his support by bribing senators and criticizing the king.
At last, seeing that the time for action was at hand, he came into the forum with a body of armed men. As everyone was shaking with fear, he sat on the royal throne in front of the senate house and announced that the senators were to gather in the presence of King Tarquin. A group quickly assembled, some of whom had been prepared for the coup beforehand, others who feared harm if they did not come, thinking that Servius’ power would soon be at an end.
Tarquin began by criticizing Servius. “Your so-called king,” he proclaimed, “is a slave who was born of slaves. He received the throne as a gift from his wife after the disgraceful death of his father-in-law. He did not observe the customary interregnum and has neither been elected by the assembly nor by the people, nor has he been confirmed by the authority of the senate. This slave has won his throne illegally, and held onto it by exploiting the divisions of the patricians and by bribing the mob. He has placed all the republic’s burdens on the backs of the wealthy, burdens that heretofore have been jointly born by all of the republic. The census that he has instituted is a sham, meant to stir up the resentment of the poor against the wealthy, whose fortunes he will one day give over to the rabble to secure his power.”
When a breathless messenger finally got word to Servius, he immediately went to the entrance of the senate and called out in a loud voice, “What are you doing here, Tarquin? With what audacity have you dared to assemble the senate and sit on my throne while I still live?”
Tarquin responded fiercely, “I am sitting on the throne of my father, for the son of a king is a much fitter ruler than the child of slaves, and I have tolerated your fraud long enough.”
A great clamor arose from supporters of both sides, and a mass of people rushed to the senate, as it was now clear that whoever won this fight would win the throne. For Tarquin, there was no going back.
The younger and stronger Tarquin seized Servius around the waist, dragged him out of the senate house, and threw him down the steps; then he went back into the senate to bring the senators to obedience. The king’s companions fled, and without his royal escort, the wounded Servius was caught and killed by Tarquin’s henchmen. It is believed that this was done on the advice of Tullia, for this wickedness would be entirely in keeping with her character.
It is also agreed that Tullia rode a chariot to the forum, ignored the assembly of patricians who were there, called her husband out of the senate house, and was the first to salute him as king. Tarquin ordered her to get off the streets, so she departed by chariot. When she came to the top of Cyprus Street, where the temple of Diana used to stand, and the chariot was turning right to go up the Esquiline Hill, her terrified charioteer stopped the horses abruptly and pointed to the dead body of Servius lying in the street.
Tradition has it that the ghosts of her murdered relatives stirred Tullia into a frenzy. “Drive over it,” she ordered, and her driver did, splattering blood all over the chariot and on Tullia herself, who shamelessly carried it back to her house and to her household gods. The anger of these gods, however, would one day avenge her crimes. The spot where this outrage occurred is now called the Street of the Crime.
Servius Tullius had reigned forty-four years, and even a wise and moderate successor would have had a hard time bettering him. Indeed, Servius carries a particular glory in Roman history as the last just and legitimate king. Though he exercised a moderate and mild imperium, some authorities claim he planned to lay his power down completely because he did not approve of monarchy in principle, but Tarquin committed his wicked insurrection before Servius could do so.
Lucius Tarquin thus began his reign. He was called Tarquin the Proud, a nickname which he surely deserved. He began his reign by forbidding Servius burial, pointing out that Romulus, the father of all Romans, had not been buried.1 He killed all of Servius’ supporters and surrounded himself with an armed guard, so as to prevent anyone from taking the throne from himself in the same way he had taken it from Servius. Neither the people nor the senate ever elected him, and therefore having no right to rule, he ruled by force. Since he could not hope to safeguard his reign by winning the city’s love (caritas), he ruled by fear. To inspire fear, he judged capital crimes by himself and used this power to kill and exile his opponents and seize the goods of both enemies and neutral parties alike.
He greatly diminished the number of senators, thinking a smaller senate would be less esteemed and less able to restrict his own power. He was the first king in Roman history who did not consult the senate on important matters; rather, he only asked advice from his own circle of advisors. He made war, peace, treaties, and alliances by himself and with whomever he wanted, never on the orders of the people or the senate. He made friends and marriage alliances with the other Latin peoples so that they might protect him from his own citizens. He gave his daughter to Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum. By this marriage, Tarquin won over many of Mamilius’ relatives and friends.
Tarquin held great authority among the Latin nobles, so one day he ordered them to an assembly at the Grove of Ferentina, telling them that he wanted to discuss some matters of common interest. The group met at dawn on the appointed day, but Tarquin did not arrive until just before dusk. While they were waiting for Tarquin, a Latin king named Turnus criticised him in a speech.
“Little wonder that the Romans call him Tarquin the Proud, even though they only whisper it secretly. What could be more prideful than to play these games with the whole of the Latin nation? He was the one who called this meeting and asked us to travel far from our homes, yet he himself has not come. This is clearly a ruse to test our patience, so that if we accept this outrage, he might know that he can oppress us all. Do you not see that he wants to extend his imperium over the Latins? I won’t say whether his own citizens were wise to give him imperium. Indeed, I will not say whether they gave it to him at all or whether he seized it by murder. In any case, the Latins should not let this foreigner have imperium over us. His own people are sick of him; for he kills, exiles, and robs one after another. Should we Latins expect any better treatment from this man? Listen to me. Let us go back to our homes. Let’s not give this assembly any more of our time than Tarquin has.”
While all these words were being uttered by a man who had himself won power in his own land through sedition and crime, Tarquin arrived. This put a stop to Turnus’ speech. Everyone turned away from Turnus and saluted Tarquin. With the assembly quiet, the men standing near Tarquin asked him to explain the reason for his delay. “I apologize for my lateness,” he said, “I have been mediating a dispute between father and son. We will attend to the business at hand tomorrow.”
Turnus did not take this news quietly. He left the meeting with a parting shot, saying “Nothing should be quicker than settling a dispute between father and son. It can be done with a few words. Tell the son to obey his father or suffer the consequences.”
Tarquin pretended to be unfazed by Turnus’ remark, but he immediately began thinking about how to kill Turnus and thereby terrorize the Latins in the same way he had terrorized his own people. However, Tarquin could not put Turnus to death on his own public authority, so he destroyed his innocent opponent with false accusations, for that night, he bribed one of Turnus’ slaves to let a number of swords and arms be secretly smuggled into Turnus’ lodging.
The next day, Tarquin rose a little before dawn and summoned the Latin princes. Acting as if he had just discovered something disturbing, he claimed, “The gods themselves must have delayed me yesterday to keep us all safe. I have been informed that Turnus plans to kill us all and take the imperium for himself. He would have done it yesterday at the assembly had I arrived earlier. That is why he was so bothered by my absence; it prevented him from carrying out his plan. There is no doubt, if my informants speak the truth, that Turnus will come to the assembly today with armed men, for he has amassed a great number of swords. Let’s go together to Turnus’ lodgings; there, we can quickly determine whether these reports are true.”
Several things made the story plausible: the plot was the sort of thing that might be expected of the ferocious Turnus, he had made that speech the previous day, and Tarquin’s late arrival could account for the delay of the massacre. The Latin princes were inclined to trust Tarquin, but prepared to disbelieve him if the swords were not discovered.
Having come to the place, the guards surrounded Turnus and awoke him from his slumber. They also seized his servants, who were preparing to put up a fight. They found swords in every corner of the lodgings, which was enough to convince the Latins of Turnus’ guilt. They put him in chains, called the assembly, and brought forth the evidence. The Latin princes were furious, and they condemned Turnus to death without even giving him a trial, subjecting him to a novel form of capital punishment: he was laid on a raft, weighted with stones, and then thrown headlong into the water. This punishment was carried out on the suggestion of Tarquin himself.
At the assembly, Tarquin praised the Latins, “You have done right in executing this man. Now, I want to speak of a different matter. It is in my power to exercise an ancient right. Because all the Latins come from Alba, Alba once had the power to make a federation of all the Latin peoples. However, Alba’s powers were transferred to Rome under Tullus Hostilius, so this power now resides in Rome. It is in all of our interests that this alliance be renewed, for then you Latins will share in the fortunes of the Roman people rather than be afraid that we Romans will devastate your lands as we did during the reign of Ancus and my own father.”
The Latins were easily persuaded by this, even though Rome was to be the preeminent state in the alliance, for the Latin princes were all in agreement with Tarquin, who had just given a fresh warning of the dangers of opposing him. In accordance with the renewal of the treaty, Latins of military age assembled at the Ferentina Grove. In order to prevent the Latins from retaining their own commanders and insignia, he mixed the Roman and Latin ranks into new legions, doubled their size, and placed a centurion in charge of each.
Though Tarquin was an unjust king, he was not a bad military commander, and his military prowess would have rivalled other kings if the same degeneracy he showed in other things had not overshadowed his military glory. He started a war with the Volscians that ended up lasting two hundred years. During this war, the Romans seized the town of Suessa Pometia. Tarquin’s share of the booty came to forty silver talents, 2 and he decided to use it to build a bigger temple to Jupiter, one that might be worthy of the king of gods and men, worthy of the Roman imperium, and worthy of Rome itself.
His next war went more slowly than he hoped, for his opponents, the Gabii, repelled his first attempt to besiege their town, so he withdrew from the walls. Disappointed by this defeat, he proceeded to conquer the Gabii in a most un-Roman way: by fraud and deceit. First, he pretended that he was done with the war, acting as if he was only concerned with laying the foundations of Jupiter’s temple and with other works in the city. Then, he had his youngest son Sextus pretend to defect to the Gabii, fooling them with fake complaints about his father’s intolerable cruelty.
“My father,” Sextus complained, “has begun to tyrannize his own family now. He is tired of his many children and freedmen, so he is preparing to kill us all just as he has killed all the senators, lest he leave behind descendants or heirs to the throne. I myself just barely slipped past the man’s swords and spears. Now, I am only safe amongst you, my father’s enemies.”
“Do not be deceived,” he continued, “his war with you is not over. He is simply waiting for you to drop your guard, so that he can invade your lands. But if a refugee like myself is not welcome here, I will go to beg at the doors of all the Latin nations until I find a people who know how to protect a child from the cruelty of his father. Perhaps, I will even find a people ready to wage war against such a tyrant.”
The Gabii were worried that he would leave in anger, so they welcomed him, assuring him with conciliatory words. “Do not be amazed that your father would do such things. After committing so many crimes against the city and his allies, he has finally done the same to his family. If he ran out of victims, he would probably have to turn his blade on himself, so wild a man is he. We are grateful that you have come. With your help, our armies will be at the gates of Rome in no time.”
Sextus was admitted to the public meetings, where he won favor by agreeing with the things that the older and more knowledgeable Gabii said. However, on many occasions, he said something like the following, “You ought to listen to me, Gabii. I know the strength of both yourselves and the Romans. The Roman people hate their king; indeed, even his own family hates him. It would be smart to make war on them now.”
When he had thus incited the Gabii, he began going on little military expeditions into Roman territory. Everything he said and did was calculated to deceive the Gabii and increase their empty faith in him until at last, the Gabii chose him as their commander.
The multitude was completely unaware of Sextus’ bad faith, and when he won a number of little skirmishes, the Gabii grew convinced that he was a gift from the gods themselves. He endured the same rigors as other soldiers and distributed the booty so generously and with such charity that he became just as powerful amongst the Gabii as his father was in Rome.
When he perceived that his men were ready to follow him anywhere and that the Gabii would agree to anything he suggested, he sent a messenger to his father for orders. Tarquin did not trust his son, so he said nothing in response to the messenger. Acting as though he were deliberating, Tarquin silently walked into his garden and struck the heads off the tallest poppies with his walking stick.
The messenger followed but soon grew weary of awaiting a response, so he returned to Sextus, reporting, “Your father did not say a word, though whether out of anger or his usual arrogance, I do not know. All he did was to walk in the garden and strike the heads of the tallest poppies with his stick.”
Sextus immediately understood his father’s silent commands and obeyed them by inciting the Gabii to kill some of the foremost men of their city. Many were killed by legal means; those who could not be found guilty of even trumped-up charges were killed secretly. Some were allowed to flee; others were ordered into exile. The goods of both the exiled and the executed were seized and divided amongst the people. Sextus doled out these private benefits to sweeten the bitter pill of public calamity, but once the Gabii had lost most of their foremost citizens, he betrayed them to the Roman king without any fight at all.
Having conquered the Gabii, Tarquin made peace with the Aequians and renewed the treaty with the Tuscans. Then he turned his attention to domestic affairs. The most important of these projects concerned completing the temple that his father had vowed to Jupiter, for he wanted to leave behind a monument to his reign and his name…The king’s plans for the temple grew ever more elaborate, and the cost quickly became more than he could afford on his own; in fact, he could not even pay for the foundations by himself…
Nevertheless, Tarquin was intent on finishing the temple, so he summoned workers from everywhere in Tuscany. To complete the work, he used money from the public treasury and even conscripted the plebs to work on it, this in addition to their military service. This labor, however, was not as big a burden to the plebs as Tarquin’s later projects: namely, constructing the seats of the circus3 and digging out the sewer system (cloaca maxima). Yet, no modern work can equal either of these in scale and magnificence. After the plebs were finished with these labors, he sent them out to establish colonies, both to expand his empire and to avoid the burden of an idle multitude in the city. He sent colonists to Signia and Circeii to serve as buffer states.
Around this time, the court was terrified by the appearance of a bad omen: a snake slithering out from a wooden column at the palace. The king was not afraid of the snake, but the omen filled him with worry and anxiety. He could not use the Tuscan soothsayers (who were only summoned for public omens) to interpret his own private portent, so he sent two of his sons to journey through unknown lands to visit the famous Oracle at Delphi.
Titus and Arruns undertook the journey, taking their cousin Lucius Junius Brutus as their companion. Now, Brutus was a man who was much cleverer than he let on. When he had heard that his uncle Tarquin was murdering noble Romans (even Brutus’s own brother), he feigned stupidity so that the king might have nothing to fear from him. He also refrained from amassing a fortune which the king might covet. He knew that there was no safety in the laws, so he let Tarquin do whatever he wanted with his property and defended himself from his uncle by allowing others to disrespect him; he even let people call him Brutus (a name that means stupid). However, the name was like his cloak; in reality, he was simply waiting for his chance to show his courage and liberate the Roman people.
Thus, the Tarquins took him to Delphi more as their jester than as their companion. It is said that he brought a gift for Apollo, a gold staff enclosed in a wooden one, which was meant to symbolize his own character. After the brothers had carried out their father’s request, they were overwhelmed by a desire to know which brother would inherit the throne. Out of the deep abyss came a voice that said the imperium of Rome would go to the one who kissed his mother first. As Sextus had remained at Rome, the Tarquin brothers commanded everyone to keep silent about the prophecy. As for themselves, they cast lots to decide which of them would go to Rome to kiss their mother first.
Brutus, however, thought the prophecy meant something else, and falling to the ground as if he had stumbled, he touched his lips to Mother Earth. Then they returned to Rome, which was preparing for war with the Rutuli.
- According to Livy, the people of Rome believed that Romulus had ascended into heaven on a whirlwind; thus, he had not had a burial. Livy means his audience to understand that Tarquin was making a particularly tasteless joke here.
- It is impossible to give a modern equivalent to this amount, but inasmuch as a talent was equivalent to about 70 pounds, forty talents of silver would have represented a substantial amount.
- In ancient Rome, a circus was a stadium designed for chariot races. It was in the shape of a circle (actually more like an oval); hence the name circus.