Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Kings of Rome: What is real?

Most people who read ancient history are familiar with the kings of Rome, but the republic and empire get the lion’s share of the attention and the kings are usually relegated to mere anecdotes. Still, it’s interesting to discuss the kings and their part in founding the republic.

Why did Rome have kings, and why did they lose power in favor of the republic? We’ll discuss these questions later, but only peripherally, because the goal of this article is to talk about the kings and what we really know about them.

The Roman kings are shrouded in myth and invention: myth because Rome wanted to create a mythology like the Greeks; invention because much of the history was embellished to support the image of Rome. Here we will discuss what is known and toss the rest.

Our main source for information about the Roman kings is Livy Book I-V, the History of Rome. Livy’s dates were 59 BCE – 17CE, so he was writing about events up to 700 years before his time.

Livy was the first professional historian in Rome; historians who preceded him were wealthy people who studied history as a recreational activity. Livy read Thucydides and adopted his methods of relating history as stories about people. Those stories were made interesting to hold the attention of the reader. Livy believed Thucydides’ theory that history was a series of repeatable events displaying human behavior. For example, a tyrant in 500 BCE would act the same as a tyrant in 100 BCE. That idea made it easy to transfer current facts into the past. If the current tyrant stole money from the treasury, then the tyrant, from 400 years before, must have stolen money from the treasury.

There were certainly events that made an impression on the Roman people, who wrote them down and carried them through history, so Livy has some true facts to use. One example was the barbarian sack of Rome in 390 BCE. That story was well-known to all Romans. A treaty between Rome and Carthage dated 507 BCE was also verified, as was a solar eclipse in 404 BCE.

We know that Rome was originally settled by two separate groups who tended goat and cattle herds, because of the differences in their pottery. They lived in huts on the top of two of the famous Roman hills: the Palatine and the Esquiline and lived a pastoral life, which continued for a century or more until the Etruscans appeared. More on that later.

Let us review the history of the kings in chronological order. Those stories that are bolded appear to be true.

1. Romulus (753-716), the founder of Rome, did not exist, but he was an important character in Roman mythology. The story of Romulus and Remus, with different names, was a Greek legend. There is no factual evidence about the existence of Romulus and the traditional founding date of the city, 753 BCE, was arbitrary.

2. Numa Pompilius (715-672) established Rome’s religious traditions, built temples, and set down rules for worshiping the gods. All Romans knew him as the king who created the cult of the Vestal Virgins. Numa introduced a legal system that governed some aspects of Roman life, such as marriage and contracts. The story of the Vestal Virgin story is the only plausible one.

3. Tullus Hostilius (672-640), the third king of Rome, was known for his focus on the military, and his expansion of Rome's territory through conquests. Tullus is also credited with the transformation of Rome into a city-state. History records that he built the first Senate House (the curia), naming it Curia Hostilia. The remaining details of his reign have not been verified.

4. Ancus Marcius (640-616). Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, prioritized infrastructure development. He expanded the size of the city, built its first walls, and constructed the first bridge over the Tiber River. There is no verification for this information.

Etruscan influence

The Etruscan civilization arose north and west of Rome in about 900 BCE. It developed into an advanced society and the Etruscans became international traders. They engaged in trade all along the west coast of Italy, using a road that crossed the Tiber near the Roman settlements, because the river was shallow there. They often traveled to the mouth of the Tiber to gather salt for their cities. The Etruscans were on good terms with the Romans until an Etruscan, Tarquinius Priscus, took the Roman kingship by force.

5. Tarquinius Priscus (616-578), the fifth king of Rome, was born in Etruria, and he introduced Etruscan customs and influences to Rome. Around this time, Roman pottery began to change under Etruscan influence and inscriptions exist in Rome that refer to the Tarquin family. We know that the Forum was drained in around 620 BCE, probably by Tarquinius. A new sewer was constructed to keep the Forum dry, and the contractors used Etruscan construction methods. Tarquinius is credited with creating the first Roman assembly (Curate). He may also have constructed the Temple of Vesta and the royal palace. Tarquinius introduced the Etruscan traditions of divination and augury (predicting the future). Lastly, he is credited with creating the three tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, who later became the patrician class.

6. Servius Tullius (578-535), was the sixth king of Rome, and apparently enjoyed a reputation as a regal and progressive king. Servius married his daughter of Tarquinius Priscus, and following his death, became the guardian of the kingdom before ascending to the throne. Servius Tullius is best known for social and political reforms. He is said to have established the Servian Constitution, which introduced a new system of government and social structure. The Servian Constitution divided the population into classes based on wealth, and assigned them to positions in the republican assembly, by rank. This was the first attempt, by the Senate, to distribute power more equitably and decrease the influence of the aristocracy.

Additionally, Servius implemented several infrastructure projects, including the construction of the Servian Walls, which fortified the city of Rome and marked a significant expansion of its boundaries. We know that during his reign, the Roman army was converted to the Greek model (Hoplite) and started utilizing the Phalanx formation. Servius established the Cult of Diana, presumably to make Rome they head of an alliance with other Latin districts. Servius was assassinated by his daughter, and her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who then assumed the throne. The Servian Constitution story is plausible, the date for the hoplite conversion accurate, and the Cult of Diana story reasonable.

7. Tarquinius Superbus (535-510), also known as Tarquin the Proud, was the seventh king of Rome, and son of Tarquinius Priscus. Tarquinius Superbus is notorious for his despotic rule. He disregarded the rights of the Roman people and governed as a tyrant. Superbus consolidated power by suppressing political dissent and implemented a system of brutal repression. In 510 BCE, a revolt against the tyrant resulted in the overthrow of the king and the entire monarchy, marking the establishment of the Roman Republic.

The republic replaced the king with a new magistrate called the consul. Two consul positions were created, with veto power over each other, so neither could try and take control of the republic. Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.

After the republic was in operation, the former king tried to regain the throne, using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic. Two of Brutus’ sons were part of the conspiracy and Brutus had them executed along with other conspirators, to demonstrate his loyalty to the republic. Superbus then sent an army to attack Rome, but he was repulsed at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BCE. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic, but was killed in battle. It is likely that Brutus was a real person and likely that the former king fought to regain the throne, but details of these events have not been verified.

After the kings

The Republic was launched in 509 BCE with a new political system, which included the Senate, people’s assembly, and two consuls. This was 250 years after the founding of the city, but few details from this period can be confirmed. We know that in 494 BCE, the Plebeians revolted, forcing the government to create a new magistrate position, the tribune, who would represent the plebeians. Later, in about 450 BCE, the plebeians forced the government to write down the laws of Rome (The Twelve Tables) and display them in the Forum for all to see.

The Romans went to war with the Etruscans in 405 BCE and it took them 10 years to capture the city of Veii. After many wars over many decades, the Romans defeated the Etruscans for the final time in 280 BCE, and absorbed Etruria into the republic.

At the beginning of this article I asked, why Rome had kings and how did they lose power?

Monarchy was the default political system in the ancient world. Greece was an exception to the rule, although Sparta had kings. In Rome, as the society developed, economic classes formed, with the wealthy at the top. Perhaps it was an oligarchy or aristocracy that became established. Then, at some point, a leader emerged and became king. This story was common place in antiquity.

What is surprising, though, is the overthrow of the kings and the establishment of the republic. The Latin people who occupied the geography in and around the city of Rome, were a unique people, who believed in themselves and were dedicated to building a political system that involved the people. Rome was one of few republics in history and probably unique in the ancient world.

Its people were hardworking, with an uncommon engineering sense, that drove them to build bridges, aqueducts, roads, and buildings, unlike any other civilization in ancient times. The Romans were not thinkers like the Greeks. They were doers. Of all the tribes and societies in Italy, or for that matter all of Europe, only the Romans possessed the skills and motivation to organize their world and set an example for all time.

No comments: