From this point on, I shall write the history of a free Roman people, recording their deeds in peace and war, their annually elected officials, and the imperium of their laws, which thenceforth were more powerful than any one man. Indeed, the insolence of the last king made this liberty even sweeter.
Tarquin’s predecessors had all been praiseworthy rulers who expanded the city and added new homes for the population that they themselves had increased. Though Brutus won true glory by expelling Tarquin, he would have done the public a disservice had he seized power from any of Tarquin’s predecessors. In that case, liberty would have come too soon. What would have happened if the hordes of shepherds who made up the plebs would have been given liberty along with their sanctuary? Without the fear of a king, they would have fought with the patres, tearing the city in two before the bonds of kinship and love of the land had united the plebs and patres into one people. The rule of kings moderated this and brought tranquility. It nurtured Rome until it was ready for liberty, which at the beginning of the republic consisted mainly in the limited term of the consuls. For the consuls were as powerful as the kings, they ruled by the same oaths as the kings, and they carried the same insignia as the kings. The only difference was that they were elected for a year alone, and only one of them was allowed to bear the fasces, so as not to double the people’s terror. Collatinus allowed Brutus to have the fasces first, and Brutus was careful to guard the liberty that he had fought so hard to win.
Though the people supported the new constitution, Brutus compelled them to swear an oath that no Roman would ever let a king reign, lest they later be enticed by Tarquin’s bribery. He refilled the ranks of the depleted senate with Roman knights, calling the old senators patres and the new ones conscripti; this brought concord to the city, uniting the patricians and the plebs.
Then he turned his attention to religion. To forestall the need for the king in religious matters, he made a ‘little king’ to perform all the sacred rites that the Roman kings had previously done in person, but placed him under the power of the high priest, lest the name ‘king’ threaten Roman liberty.
Indeed, at this point the Romans got a little carried away. The citizens quickly grew jealous of Collatinus himself, who had committed no offense beyond bearing the name Tarquin, for the citizens thought the Tarquins had reigned too long. First there had been Priscus, but the Tarquin claim had not been forgotten during the reign of Servius Tullius, and Tarquin the Proud stole the hereditary kingship back by wickedness and force. Now that Tarquin had been overthrown, the imperium was in the hands of Collatinus Tarquin. Because the Romans knew that the Tarquins did not know how to live as private citizens, they considered Collatinus’ name itself a threat to their liberty.
The murmuring against Collatinus started gradually and then spread throughout the city. Eventually, Brutus had to call the plebs to a meeting. First, he made them recite the oath promising never to allow a king at Rome nor any man who was a threat to its liberty, to do all in their power to prevent it, and to condemn no action that might avert it.
He proclaimed, “For the love of the republic, I cannot remain silent. I cannot believe that having won your liberty from the Tarquins, you Romans not only let the family remain in the city, but give the imperium to one of their line. Does this not put our liberty in danger? Only you, Collatinus Tarquin, can free us from this fear. It is true. Let’s confess it. You have helped to throw out the kings. Now, banish their name, the name you yourself bear. Renounce your power. On my authority, you will be provided with whatever you need. Go away, my friend. Free your city from this fear, even though it be an empty one. For your fellow citizens are persuaded that the tyranny of the Tarquins will only depart when all the Tarquins are gone.”
The stunned Collatinus said nothing at first. Before he could speak, the nobles who were sitting next to him began to repeat Brutus’ demands, which at first did not persuade him. Collatinus was only finally convinced by the entreaties of his father-in-law, Lucretius, who was older and of greater dignity.
Lucretius said to him, “Do what they are asking of you. For it is the will of the people of Rome. You might be banished anyways at the end of your term as consul. If that happens, you will not only lose your homeland, you will lose your goods as well.”
So Collatinus abdicated and moved to Lavinium. The Assembly of the Centuries replaced him with Publius Valerius, who had helped to overthrow the king. On the advice of the senate, Brutus exiled all the Tarquins.
Everyone knew that war with the Tarquins was coming, though it did not come as fast as the Romans expected, and they did not foresee the treachery that almost cost them their liberty.
A few of the youths that had once surrounded the Tarquin princes still remained in Rome. These young men had grown accustomed to living licentiously, and now that the law had made everyone equal, they complained that the liberty of others meant slavery for them. A king might be swayed, they reasoned, but the law could not. A king might show mercy to his friends, but the law was deaf and inexorable. The law was more useful for the weak than the powerful. A man who broke it could expect no mercy. Given the errors of human judgment, trying to live by innocence alone was a dangerous proposition.
While this disease was eating away at their souls, the king’s ambassadors arrived. These ambassadors said nothing publically about the restoration of the monarchy; they only asked for the return of Tarquin’s goods. The senate heard them and consulted on the matter for several days, unsure whether to deny the request and give the Tarquins a cause for war or to grant it and give the Tarquins the means to make war. Meanwhile, the ambassadors were making other plans. While they were openly asking for the return of Tarquin’s goods, they were secretly conspiring to return him to power, visiting the city’s noble youths, giving them letters from Tarquin, and laying out a plan to admit the former king into the city at night.
Tarquin’s ambassadors first approached the Aquilii and Vitellii brothers, the latter of whose sister was married to Brutus and had two adolescent children by him: Titus and Tiberius. Along with a number of other noble youths, these two boys were brought into the conspiracy, under the influence of their uncles.
Meanwhile, the senate had decided to return Tarquin’s goods to him, so the ambassadors remained in the city to secure transport, all the while plotting their conspiracy. At last, they convinced the conspirators in Rome to give letters of good faith to Tarquin in order to convince him that their promises were not empty. These letters were a manifest crime, and it was these letters that gave the game away.
On the day before they were to leave, the ambassadors dined with the conspirators at the Vitellii house, and after having dismissed those who were not in on the conspiracy, they laid their final plans. One of the servants in the household was already suspicious but had been waiting to reveal his suspicions until he could prove them. Hearing that the letters had been signed, he immediately took the information to the consuls, who quietly marched to the house, seized the letters, and arrested the traitors. They were in a quandary about what to do with the king’s am-bassadors. It seemed as if they should be treated as enemies, yet the Romans decided to honor their diplomatic immunity.
The senate angrily decided to reverse its decision, and it distributed the king’s goods to the plebs, with the hope that having taken them, the plebs would forever lose any hope of reconciling with him…
Having disposed of Tarquin’s goods, they condemned the traitors and carried out their sentences. This was most remarkable because the duties of the consulship forced a father to carry out capital punishment on his own sons. Thus, it was Brutus’ fortune to preside over a spectacle that no father should even have to watch. Many of the city’s foremost youths stood bound to the stake, but they may as well have been common criminals, for everyone’s eyes were on the consul’s children. The Romans were not so much distressed by the penalty as by the crime. How could these boys betray their newly-liberated country, their father the liberator, and the consulship that was held by their own family? How could they hand over patres, plebs, and all things sacred to an arrogant, exiled, and hostile king?
The consuls sent the lictors to execute the punishment and then sat down in their seats. The boys were stripped nude, beaten with rods, and then decapitated with an axe. Brutus’ face betrayed his anguish, but his soul was intent on seeing the punishment carried out.