The early-mid Iron Age period circa 700 B.C saw radical changes in the structure of political systems around the Mediterranean. In Greece, for example, the collapse of the Mycenaean dynasty ushered in the Dark Age period which lasted until about 700 B.C. New monarchies sprung up but the kings were weak and had no hereditary authority so their weakness ultimately allowed the Polis to take hold. Monarchies on the Italian peninsula were subject to the same pressures as we see in the behavior of the Etruscans during the time they controlled Rome.
Where do we get our information about this period in Roman history? Livy, writing six centuries later is our most detailed source, but his story is a retelling of folklore and myth that was given to him. Let’s take a few moments and review what has been written about those early kings.
Romulus was the first of the named kings -- invented to create an origin for the Roman culture. After 38 years as king, he ascended into heaven during a thunderstorm creating the the link to the gods necessary for the myth to be complete.
The second king, named Numa Pompilius, was said to be of Sabine origin. He built the king’s palace in the Forum (Regia) and organized the religion of Rome including the Temple of Vesta and its servants, the Vestal Virgins. Numa also expanded the Roman calendar to twelve months. He reigned for forty three years and then passed from this life.
Next was Tullus Hostilus, a strong military leader whose most notable achievement was the defeat of the Albans which led to their annexation to Rome. Tullus also built the first Senate house and called it the Curia Hostilia. He died in 642 B.C. after a reign of thirty one years.
The fourth king was Ancus Marcius. He is credited with building the first bridge across the Tiber and with extending Roman influence to Ostia. He lost a popular election in 616 B.C. to L. Tarquinius Priscus.
Tarquinius was an Etruscan and owed his election to the influence of his Etruscan friends who had followed him to Rome. He reigned until 579 B.C. when he was murdered by the sons of Ancus Marcius who were unhappy with their exclusion from the affairs of state. In the melee that followed, his son, Servius Tullus, became king when his wife (Tarquinius’ daughter) convinced a crowd that Tarquinius was alive but injured and Rome needed Severus to temporarily serve in his place. Severus continued with the ruse until he had consolidated his power and was elected king.
Severus was the most noteworthy and remarkable of the Roman kings. He reorganized the assembly by creating the Comitia Centuriata as an assembly of economic classes which mapped to each class’s role in the army. For example, the Equites, or cavalry, were the most wealthy of the groups because they had to be wealthy enough to buy their own horses. Severus is credited with the creation of the Roman Timocracy – property ownership requirement for the privilege of voting in the assembly. He also advanced the cause of the middle class as a brake against the power of the patricians. After forty-three years on the throne, he was murdered by the grandson of Tarquinius, also named Tarquinius. After new monarch evolved into a tyrant, the Romans began calling him “Superbus”, a derogatory reference to his arrogance. After a reign of twenty-five years, the tyrant was exiled and the reign of Roman kings came to an end.
Historians have been skeptical of much of the history we have outlined here. It appears that the date of Rome’s origin and the number of kings were selected before dates were fitted to them. It seems unlikely that all these kings could have reigned for twenty four years or longer. In addition, the accomplishments of the kings appear to be equally alloted between them to appear as if each helped in the formation of the Republic. Still, the history of the Etruscan kings appears solid for two reasons: we know that the Etruscans were expanding south during this time so it makes sense that they would gain power in Rome. More importantly, the Romans would not have acknowledged their subservience to the Etruscans unless it was actually true.
Livy admitted his history lacked authenticity:
“My task, moreover, is an immensely laborious one. I shall have to go back more than seven hundred years, and trace my story from its small beginnings until these recent times…Events before Rome was born or thought of have come to us in old tales with more of the charm of poetry than of a sound historical record, and such traditions I propose neither to affirm or refute. There is no reason, I feel, to object when antiquity draws no hard line between the human and the supernatural: it adds dignity to the past, and, if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming a divine ancestry, that nation is our own…”
And then, interestingly, Livy turns philosopher:
“I invite the reader’s attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means in both politics and war by which Rome’s power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would then have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.”
These words from two thousand years past anticipate the postmodern world we live in today.